Vonnegut's letter to a book-burner

In 1973, Kurt Vonnegut learned that Charles McCarthy, head of the school board that governed Drake High School in North Dakota, had burned 32 copies of Slaughterhouse-Five in the school furnace, offended by the book's "obscene language." Vonnegut wrote a private letter to McCarthy, a heartfelt, low-key, scathing recrimination that could be repurposed for any literary censor. The letter is reprinted in Vonnegut's Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage, I found it on Letters of Note.

I gather from what I read in the papers and hear on television that you imagine me, and some other writers, too, as being sort of ratlike people who enjoy making money from poisoning the minds of young people. I am in fact a large, strong person, fifty-one years old, who did a lot of farm work as a boy, who is good with tools. I have raised six children, three my own and three adopted. They have all turned out well. Two of them are farmers. I am a combat infantry veteran from World War II, and hold a Purple Heart. I have earned whatever I own by hard work. I have never been arrested or sued for anything. I am so much trusted with young people and by young people that I have served on the faculties of the University of Iowa, Harvard, and the City College of New York. Every year I receive at least a dozen invitations to be commencement speaker at colleges and high schools. My books are probably more widely used in schools than those of any other living American fiction writer.

If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.

After I have said all this, I am sure you are still ready to respond, in effect, “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. But it is also true that if you exercise that right and fulfill that responsibility in an ignorant, harsh, un-American manner, then people are entitled to call you bad citizens and fools. Even your own children are entitled to call you that.

Letters of Note: I am very real (via Kottke)

(Image: Book burning, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from ender's photostream)


    1. 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

      1. Heaven help me, I work at that newspaper company. I /knew/ this was going to bite us in the ass the moment I saw it…

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

  2. 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.

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

  4. 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!

    1.  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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

    1. 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.

    2.  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. 

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

      1. 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…”

    4. 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.”

  7. 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

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

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

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

    2.  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.

  8. 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.


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

  10. 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.  

    1.  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.

      1.  A set of values, invented by the author or someone else, such as the ones embodied in the U.S. constitution, with it’s protections for speech, free expression, and other freedoms, perhaps?

  11. 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!)

  12. 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…

    1.  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

      1. 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.

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

  14.  “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.

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