Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 595

The first critical responses to "Harrison Bergeron'' did not appear until 1968, when the story was reprinted in Vonnegut's collection Welcome to the Monkey House. Many reviewers, like Larry L. King in New York Times Book Review, who called the collection ‘‘old soup,’’ were decidedly unenthusiastic. Some of the stories had already been published in an earlier collection titled Canary in a Cat House (1961), and others had been first published in commercial, "slick" magazines, thus bringing into question their literary value. Criticizing "Harrison Bergeron,’’ King claimed, ‘‘I know nothing of Mr. Vonnegut's personal politics, but extant Goldwaterites or Dixiecrats might read into this the ultimate horrors of any further extension of civil-rights or equal-opportunity laws.’’ The term Goldwaterites refers to admirers of former Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican candidate for President, who was known as ‘‘Mr. Conservative.’’ The term Dixiecrats refers to white Southerners who stood strongly (and sometimes violently) against extending civil rights to African Americans throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, by the time of King's review, political conservatives who stood against federal government civil rights laws had already appropriated the story for William F. Buckley's National Review magazine (November 16, 1965). King's early review identified what has become one of the most controversial aspects of the story: how the story can easily be read as a criticism of measures advocated by minorities and women to ensure equality. Vonnegut pokes fun at the absurd and extreme steps taken to ensure equality in the futuristic society, with cumbersome low-technology handicaps forced on above-average citizens upon pain of severe punishment. "Harrison Bergeron'' has been used more recently to illustrate the conflict between the American political ideology of equality and the practice of discrimination based on superficial traits such as race and gender. In 1982 political conservatives again used "Harrison Bergeron'' to oppose affirmative action and other social programs: a book published by Canada's Fraser Institute in 1982, Discrimination, Affirmative Action, and Equal Opportunity: An Economic and Social Perspective, used the story as the title for its last chapter.

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Some early reviewers of Welcome to the Monkey House, such as Charles Nicol in the Atlantic Monthly and Michael Levitas in the New York Times, ignored ‘‘Harrison Bergeron.’’ Other critics, such as Gerard Reedy in America, focused on the title character as an ‘‘all-American boy,’’ and compared Vonnegut's character to similar characters created by other contemporary authors such as John Updike and Philip Roth. Reedy found that Vonnegut, in contrast to the other authors, was ‘‘not as serious’’ in his ‘‘satire of American types,’’ and ‘‘[a] social critic only by indirection.’’ Levitas's review, like King's, focused on the recycled nature of the commercial stories. Quoting Vonnegut's own introduction, in which he commented, "Here one finds the fruits of Free Enterprise,’’ Levitas paraphrased Lamont Cranston (the original title character of the radio show The Shadow) by claiming "the seeds of Free Enterprise bear bitter fruit.’’ Charles Nicol at least mentioned ‘‘Vonnegut's special enemies,’’ some of which surface as themes in ‘‘Harrison Bergeron": "science, morality, free enterprise, socialism, fascism, Communism, any force in our lives which regards human beings as ciphers.’’

The story's outward focus on the idea of equality forced by law has made it a popular choice for high school and college literature anthologies, even though the story itself has received little scholarly attention. Vonnegut's literary reputation rests more on his novels than on his short fiction, and Vonnegut himself has said he wrote stories to earn money so could work on his novels. Many reviewers of Welcome to the Monkey House agree with Vonnegut's apparent devaluation of the stories.

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