Ethics Flashback: A Letter From Kurt Vonnegut

Mr. Vonnegut

[From the lovely website Letters of Note comes the memory  of this, a letter sent on November 16, 1973 to the Chairman of the Drake, North Dakota, School Board by the late author Kurt Vonnegut. The Chairman, Charles McCarthy, (a name evoking, appropriately, both the rights-flattening Senator of “Have you no decency?”  fame and the dummy) had been outraged that a teacher at the high school had used Vonnegut’s classic novel, “Slaughter-House Five,” in class, and with the support of his board, saw that all the copies of the book purchased were burned in the school’s furnace, followed by others that he deemed “obscene.” Vonnegut, whose novels teem with ethical themes, especially the importance of kindness, learned about the book-burning from news reports, and wrote the following correspondence.

Apparently he received no reply.]

“Dear Mr. McCarthy:

I am writing to you in your capacity as chairman of the Drake School Board. I am among those American writers whose books have been destroyed in the now famous furnace of your school.

Certain members of your community have suggested that my work is evil. This is extraordinarily insulting to me. The news from Drake indicates to me that books and writers are very unreal to you people. I am writing this letter to let you know how real I am.

I want you to know, too, that my publisher and I have done absolutely nothing to exploit the disgusting news from Drake. We are not clapping each other on the back, crowing about all the books we will sell because of the news. We have declined to go on television, have written no fiery letters to editorial pages, have granted no lengthy interviews. We are angered and sickened and saddened. And no copies of this letter have been sent to anybody else. You now hold the only copy in your hands. It is a strictly private letter from me to the people of Drake, who have done so much to damage my reputation in the eyes of their children and then in the eyes of the world. Do you have the courage and ordinary decency to show this letter to the people, or will it, too, be consigned to the fires of your furnace?

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.

I read in the newspaper that your community is mystified by the outcry from all over the country about what you have done. Well, you have discovered that Drake is a part of American civilization, and your fellow Americans can’t stand it that you have behaved in such an uncivilized way. Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.

If you and your board are now determined to show that you in fact have wisdom and maturity when you exercise your powers over the eduction of your young, then you should acknowledge that it was a rotten lesson you taught young people in a free society when you denounced and then burned books–books you hadn’t even read. You should also resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and to survive.”

“Again: you have insulted me, and I am a good citizen, and I am very real.”

Kurt Vonnegut

7 thoughts on “Ethics Flashback: A Letter From Kurt Vonnegut

  1. I’m not Vonnegut’s biggest fan, to be honest, but this letter is worth preserving for all eternity, and should be a part of any exhibit about American values.

  2. Good letter and good message. When I was in high school (I graduated in 1970) there was a group in our city named “Parents and Residents for Decent Education” which espoused similar views although without the book burning. They sought to ban the books instead and hounded teachers who used them and encouraged the school board to discipline and even fire them. One of the teachers was fired for including book entitled “Giles Goat Boy” in his classes which was in large part a satirical work based on Greek mythology. Many teachers were pressured to teach only from the books approved by this group. Needless to say Kurt Vonnegut’s works were not on the approved list.

    This was a difficult time in many communities across America and messages about tolerance and kindness were considered subversive.

    It reminds me of the song “Bad Moon Rising” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, which was not on the approved list of songs.

    I appreciate that you have shared this story and letter as it is profound and timeless.

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