Vonnegut's letter to a book-burner


47 Responses to “Vonnegut's letter to a book-burner”

  1. suburbanhick says:

    whew! now THAT is an ass-chewing.

  2. CG says:

    That was a good read.  How did the letter come to light?

  3. Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae. -KV

    • vinegartom23 says:

      How about if they express their stupidity instead: http://www.yourhoustonnews.com/greater_houston/entertainment/nothing-inspiring-worthwhile-about-joyce-s-portrait-of-the-artist/article_dbe953c0-2470-57b7-8607-66ecd1da8e9f.html

    • DeargDoom says:

      I can only assume that quote predates the existance of The Da Vinci Code.

  4. Enki says:

    I don’t know if the America Vonnegut describes ever really existed, but that’s the one I want to live in.

  5. Moriarty says:

    It can’t be repurposed for any censor, because the letter is not against “censorship,” inasmuch as deciding a book shouldn’t be assigned in school is censorship. The last paragraph says this explicitly.

    What he’s objecting to is much more specific than that, namely censorship of Kurt Vonnegut. (Or perhaps, automatic censorship of “bad language.”)

    For the record, I agree with him on all counts.

  6. It did…I grew up in it,  and it still does exist in the hearts and minds of like minded people.  You’ll sometimes even find them here on BB.(cue the stirring music)

  7. Burn.

    (pun intended.)

  8. Ewanglee says:

    I agree that this letter can be repurposed for any literary censorship. But I think it can be repurposed for any prejudice as well.

  9. Ambiguity says:

    Vonnegut= American hero, on all levels.

  10. ChicagoD says:

    That. Was. A. Great. Letter.

  11. Paula says:

    It’s so interesting that Vonnegut chose to address the angry reader and talk to him in a comprehensive way. I imagine many authors would simply call him names or ignore him. Great letter, thanks for sharing!

    • Nagurski says:

       I don’t imagine McCarthy was much of a reader, or had read the book. He most likely was just responding to parental freakout over dirty words in a wrongheaded, cowardly fashion.

  12. John NA Brown says:

    How truly wonderful. Thank you for sharing the story, the letter and the site.

    FWIW, I’ll be sending it to anyone who takes strong, ignorant action on behalf of others. If this catches on, I expect I’ll be seeing it in my inbox, too.

  13. Christopher says:

    It’s a little sad, but this very real letter makes me doubt a story someone I once knew told me. The guy I knew claimed to have met Vonnegut in a bar and asked him what he thought of his books being burned. Vonnegut’s reply was, “I think it shows how civilized we’ve become. Five hundred years ago they would have burned me.”

    Of course it’s entirely possible that Vonnegut was kidding, or wanted to mess with a fan’s mind, or both. And I still get a kick out of that story even though the letter suggests that book burning isn’t something Vonnegut ever took lightly.

    • Terry Border says:

      A person can have different responses to the same question at different times. Especially after a few beers.

    • GertaLives says:

      I don’t think Vonnegut ever failed to take anything lightly. Neither did he fail to take anything seriously.

      Accordingly, I’m inclined to believe both the bar story and the letter.

    • raki says:

       I don’t think the letter and his comment about how civilized we’ve become are contradictory.  Burning books instead of people, step in the right direction.  Not burning books, the next step. 

    • bluest_one says:

       It’s entirely consistent: Vonnegut is just looking on the bright side – “Could be worse! At least things are moving in the right direction.”

      • Christopher says:

        I really appreciate all the above replies. If I’d stopped to think about it I would have realized that both the letter and the remark in the bar both seem very much like things Vonnegut would say.

        The only difference is that the letter is from Vonnegut, whereas the bar remark may or may not be true. But I’ll continue telling the bar story as I always have, prefacing it with, “I like to think this is true…”

    • tracemcjoy says:

      That’s a misattribution of a quote from Freud. The original: “What progress we are making. In the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Now they are content with burning my books.”

  14. Devon Dodd says:

    well put mate – this sorry attempt to nurture kids into virtue through keeping them away from “social contaminants” deprives them of developing any functionally “good” moral conscience. Bull pucky I say to those who would think by erasing violence, sexism (heterosexism) racism etc. from our books, images and yes consciousness, we might erase them from society. This is full and complete complicity in the “cycle of violence” that keeps us entrench is this mess we so affectionately call American society

    • digi_owl says:

      I a sense, keeping kids away from various experiences have much the same effect as overly cleanliness has on the development of allergies.

      • noah django says:

         awesome analogy!  i’ll probably steal it at the first opportunity, consider this post proof that you get credit.

        • digi_owl says:

          Thanks, it helps that i recently read about a rat study showing that increased use of antibioitics resulted in increased allergic response.

    • 666beast1 says:

       Don’t have children, do you?  You will see them enact the story of Cain & Abel and the seven deadly sins with no examples and no book to learn it from.

  15. SamSam says:

    Here are the original Times articles about the event (links to previews, pdfs only if you’re an online member, I think):

    NOVEL IS BURNED BY SCHOOL BOARD; Panel in Dakota Says Book by Vonnegut Is Obscene

    Dakota Town Dumfounded at Criticism of Book Burning by Order of the School Board; ‘Mindless. Primitive Act’ A Perennial Question Philosophy on Teaching Petition for Return

    Drake at large is dumfounded and vaguely upset by the noteriety. “What did we do?” the town seems to be asking. “People are still sort of shaking their heads, like ‘what happened?’” Galen Strand, pastor of the Drake Lutheran Church, said yesterday.


  16. edgarhjelte says:

    He was doing so well until the “un-American manner” phrase. It’s definitely on my top 10 list of stupid things to say.

  17. Ryan Lenethen says:

    The first use of the term “un-American” I have seen in sometime that doesn’t seem a joke and seems to have a largely positive connotation, contrary to the use which is largely pretty negative and usually exclusionary based on some right wing ideology.  

    • edgarhjelte says:

       Using the term “un-American” implies that there is a set of values, invented by the author or someone else, that are “American values”, and it encourages the reader or listener to rush to the defense of these values, simply by invoking the magic word “American”. The true (American) patriot blindly follows, supposedly. The rest of us kindly asks the author to rely on proper arguments and stop waving flags around.

  18. Jorpho says:

    But Slaughterhouse Five has that giant drawing of boobies in it!  (You can’t even pretend it’s something else, like that illustration in Breakfast of Champions!)

  19. AlexG55 says:

    I wonder how the text of that letter got into the anthology given that McCarthy apparently received “the only copy”. McCarthy must have kept it- did he give it to the publishers of the anthology? Did one of his descendants (by the time the book was published a quarter of a century after the book burning McCarthy might well have died)? Or did Vonnegut also keep a copy for his own records?

    Actually, this applies to a lot of the letters in Letters of Note…

    • noah django says:

       I had assumed Vonnegut made the ol’ paper and carbon sandwich for his typewriter, which was pretty standard for many folk’s correspondence back then.  It wasn’t considered sneaky if it was just for your personal file, I don’t think.
      Off-topic, but if you go the Monticello (and all happy mutants should,) Jefferson built an awesome device to copy his pen-written correspondence in real-time.  pic related.  http://scitechantiques.com/resume/Jim_Jefferson_copier.jpg

      • Stephen Rice says:

        Yeah, it’s nothing to do with being sneaky. It’s the pre-email version of keeping a copy of emails you write in the Sent box.

        It’s particularly important for postal mail because you might get a reply 6 months later and you’ll need a copy of your letter to understand what’s going on.

  20. hypersomniac says:

    Rick Santorum will burn the internet down! For our children! For women’s reproductive non-rights!

  21. Patrick Tolle says:

     “Yes, yes–but it still remains our right and our responsibility to decide what books our children are going to be made to read in our community.” This is surely so. ”

    What fucking bullshit! Vonnegut was no hero! What a typical American liberal pussy.

  22. Lodewijk Gonggrijp says:

    This world is so much poorer without Kurt in it.

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