The Letters of Kurt Vonnegut
This article is excerpted from Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, edited and with an introduction by Dan Wakefield. Copyright © 2012 by the Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Trust. Published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House. Permission to publish excerpt from Alex Vonnegut’s letter granted by the copyright owner, Mark Vonnegut.
Kurt Vonnegut was for a number of years a valued contributor to this magazine. This month Delacorte Press publishes a collection of his letters, ably edited by the novelist and essayist Dan Wakefield, a friend of Vonnegut and, like him, from Indianapolis. Wakefield comments that Vonnegut’s writing “is disarming because it is done with such seemingly simple language and style that it sometimes seems shocking, and it is the shock of self-recognition.” The letters from the book we publish here express Vonnegut’s moral and political convictions. The first letter, from Kurt’s uncle Alex Vonnegut to his cousin Ella Vonnegut Stewart, is included because it describes his arrival home after World War II and suggests the lasting impact on him of the bombing of Dresden, which he experienced while held as a POW in that city. His ordeal formed a lifelong loathing of war and became the subject of his greatest novel, Slaughterhouse Five.
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July 4, 1945
[…] Nothing that I can write here will give an adequate impression of what we heard. Mind you, he was driving and talking, and it’s only some forty-odd miles from Atterbury to Louise Adams’ house where Jimbo had been parked for the afternoon. As a result of his experiences after being taken prisoner on that ghastly day when the 106th Division was suddenly and quite unexpectedly overwhelmed, he lost fortyfive pounds. “I had never been really hungry before. I did not know what it means to be thirsty. To be really hungry is a strange sensation. You go nuts! But you mustn’t give up. If you give up—if you don’t care, if you lie down and don’t care, your kidneys go bad and you piss blood, and then you can’t get up again and you just wilt away.”
“What do they say over here about the bombing of Dresden?” Yes, we told him that we knew that Dresden had been bombed. He saw Dresden before it all happened—in 24 hours! He was in the midst of it—confined with 150 Prisoners in the Municipal Slaughter House, which was not bombed. “As one guy said, ‘Well, there were one hundred and fifty pigs here, and now 150 Infantry Prisoners.’ Now you lie down in any part of Dresden and see all over the area that once was that beautiful, beautiful city. Hardly fifty houses standing in the vast area. And don’t think it was not an outrage to destroy that city! You can’t imagine what it means. And who was killed? Two hundred fifty thousand men—mostly older men, of course—and all the women and all the children. You cannot describe what it means to be bombed. And think of it! The people of Saxony never had any use for Hitler and that whole gang of S.O.B.s! Hitler came to Dresden only twice. He never got a welcome. And Dresden had practically no air raid shelters. It was assumed that Dresden would not be bombed. Everything is gone. All the Art Galleries—everything!” […] And then the tale about their fellow prisoner who stole a can of beans and was tried and had to sign a document acknowledging that he had committed some heinous crime— he didn’t even know what he was signing. And he didn’t know that on the next morning when four of us were taken out with shovels (and we didn’t know) that we would have to dig his grave. And in front of it, he was shot—with his back to the firing squad! (And then the driver of the Dodge car burst into tears.) “The sons of bitches! The sons of bitches!”
The Russians? “Believe it or not, I was kissed by a Russian Major! He asked me how we were treated by the Russians. I told him just fine! He said they were having quite a bit of trouble with some of their own men who were not aware of the fact that the Americans were fighting on our side.” “You ought to see the hordes of Russians that are now swarming in to Saxony. When the advance troops first came, all the Germans were scared pink and hid in cellars. But they came in fine order, and they threw loaves of bread to the people, and they drove in fine American Lend-Lease cars, and they were spic and span. But then after a few days came the hordes of Russians. Talk about your Southern American negroes! Jesus! Those Russian masses are terrifying. They looted everything in sight. There was not a herd of cattle left in all Saxony. And do you really know what Vodka is like? Jesus! It’s just straight alcohol, and they drink it by the tumbler full. Really, some scientists should investigate how it is possible for man to drink such stuff in such huge quantities. They are men! Oh, Christ, it was terrible—the rapings and everything that went on.” […]
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April 27, 1947
To Don Matchan
Valley City Times-Record, Valley City, N.D.
Dear Mr. Matchan:
This morning’s Chicago Sun carried a UP dispatch, telling of your “inflammatory” editorial policy, and of the ultimatum with which you have been presented for your failure to “reflect the thinking of the people in the community.” I gather that you intend to reject the ultimatum and give local reaction a first-rate fight. Like thousands of others who have seen the same story, I find your vigorous struggle exciting, inspiring, and absolutely crucial. Through your front page ballots you demonstrated that you are endorsed by an overwhelming majority of your readers; your opposition seeks to demonstrate that a wealthy minority can coerce the press whenever it wishes to do so, without regard to the community’s will. Your predicament is one of a thousand faced by progressive editors all over America. Such editors usually lose. To speak in terms of humanity, in terms of change engendered by compassion and yearning for a better life on earth for the human species, is to incur the fury of those fortunate few who are wonderfully well off in Valley Cities over the face of creation under the system as it now stands.
That is not to say that those who plan to put the Times-Record out of business are evil. Presumably among those citizens of Valley City who now favor pro-labor attitudes, who back cooperatives and other institutions which give low income individuals a measure of security in a basically insecure dog-eat-dog economy, there will be a few who will come to be rich. They will then find such collective movements detrimental to their incomes, and will strive to thwart them. What must be realized is that the main trouble with free enterprise, with rugged individualism which gives every man the right to make as wide a margin of profit as he has the wit to wheedle, is that there is simply not enough wealth to go around. If there is to be no ceiling on the amount of money a man can take out of our economy, then concomitantly there can be no firm foundation below which a human being cannot sink. What capitalists must realize is that you are fighting to make capitalism survive, not to destroy it; you are fighting to eliminate the seeds of destruction inherent in the status quo. Thank heaven for your struggle to give succor to that proportion of our society which must remain in moderate circumstances…
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October 18, 1961
West Barnstable, Mass.
Dear Mr. [Harvey] Kurtzman [editor of the satirical magazine Help!]:
I have been a queasy fan of yours for a good while now. I would be enormously pleased if something of mine got into Help. Would the idea of shelter-hopping kits interest you? Families too big or too lazy or too poor to build adequate fallout shelters could buy from our company quite cheap kits guaranteed to open any shelter yet recommended by Civil Defense.
The cheapest kit, selling for $14.95, say, would consist of a World War Two surplus cylinder of Cyklon B, guaranteed by I.G. Farben, and a shaped charge for blowing the lock on any shelter door. More luxurious kits might include C.D. uniforms, all-clear signals; tape recordings of beloved family pets scratching to be let in, tape recordings of old A.B.C. speeches on the harmlessness of fallout; grenades, bazookas, flamethrowers, etc. We recommend that no informed person go anywhere without the basic kit, since the necessity of getting into a shelter is likely to arise at any time. We therefore package the kits to look like attache cases, lunchpails, hatboxes, shopping bags, copies of Dr. Zhivago, etc.
As a rule of thumb, we recommend that, for minimum safety during nuclear war, each person be equipped to take over three shelters. We say this, because there are bound to be disappointments—meagerly equipped shelters, shelters furnished in bad taste, septic tanks mistaken for shelters, etc. One town figured the appalling cost of building community shelters, decided instead to buy enough kits to take over the shelters of an adjoining town, thereby saving enough money to send the high school band to the next Orange Bowl game. With every order goes a subscription to our news letter, which tells who is building shelters where, what they are putting into them, and how the owners intend to defend them.
Etc. More details on request.
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November 28, 1967
To Draft Board #1, Selective Service, Hyannis, Mass.
My son Mark Vonnegut is registered with you. He is now in the process of requesting classification as a conscientious objector. I thoroughly approve of what he is doing. It is in keeping with the way I have raised him. All his life he has learned hatred for killing from me.
I was a volunteer in the Second World War. I was an infantry scout, saw plenty of action, was finally captured and served about six months as a prisoner of war in Germany. I have a Purple Heart. I was honorably discharged. I am entitled, it seems to me, to pass on to my son my opinion of killing. I don’t even hunt or fish any more. I have some guns which I inherited, but they are covered with rust.
This attitude toward killing is a matter between my God and me. I do not participate much in organized religion. I have read the Bible a lot. I preach, after a fashion. I write books which express my disgust for people who find it easy and reasonable to kill.
We say grace at meals, taking turns. Every member of my large family has been called upon often to thank God for blessings which have been ours. What Mark is doing now is in the service of God, Whose Son was exceedingly un-warlike. There isn’t a grain of cowardice in this. Mark is a strong, courageous young man. What he is doing requires more guts than I ever had—and more decency.
My family has been in this country for five generations now. My ancestors came here to escape the militaristic madness and tyranny of Europe, and to gain the freedom to answer the dictates of their own consciences. They and their descendents have been good citizens and proud to be Americans. Mark is proud to be an American, and, in his father’s opinion, he is being an absolutely first-rate citizen now.
He will not hate.
He will not kill.
There’s hope in that. There’s no hope in war.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
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November 19, 1983
New York City
To Peter Reed
[…] It is my agnosticism which gets me into trouble with the censors, I am sure. They honestly believe that we have under law an established religion and that it is Christianity. They also believe that the Constitution has no more to do with law than a Hallmark Greeting Card.
They also believe that Anglo-Saxons really own this country, and that the rest of us shouldn’t forget for a moment that we are merely guests here. The proper salutations in letters to censors and Frank Sinatra are identical: “Dear Blue Eyes—”
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April 26, 1987
New York City
To Jerome Klinkowitz
[…] I have just read Bill Keough’s thesis about violence in American humor, which deals with Twain, Bierce, Lardner and me. It’s a beauty, although I am quite an anti-climax. But he says that all of us have found ourselves trapped in box canyons with our jokes, with no notions of how the human condition might be improved. And several critics of my work have said that I give the illusion of knowing how things might be revised without being able to describe such revisions. In short, I am, like many failed pieces of serious music, all gestures, all unkept promises, with no stirring resolutions to come. Conventional resolutions in humorless books, incidentally, consist of the acceptance of some option which the society has offered for quite some time: a meaningful death, the kicking of an addiction, the uncritical acceptance of some religion, becoming a hermit, returning to a person one has loved all along, and so on. Or tending the sick, or helping the poor, or shooting the person who seems most responsible for all the misery.
When I thought I was going to become a biologist of some kind, and in fact studied bacteriology, I wanted to cure diseases, and my heroes were Pasteur and the like. I was going to find out what made people sick. I had no gift for real science, however, and after the Second World War went into pseudo-science, all talk and few measurements, which is to say anthropology. And one enchantingly suggestive thing I learned (attitude I assumed), was that culture was as separate from the brain as a Model T Ford, and could be tinkered with. It was an easy jump from there to believing, as I do, that a culture can contain fatal poisons which can be identified: respect for firearms, for example, or the belief that no male is really a man until he has had a physical showdown of some kind, or that women can’t possibly understand the really important things which are going on, and so on. What could be simpler, or, perhaps, more simple minded?
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November 16, 1988
New York City
To William G. Kennedy, Fanelon Falls Secondary School, Fanelon Falls, Ontario
Dear Mr. Kennedy—
My publisher, Dell, has just sent me a copy of your letter of October 19 regarding the attempted censorship of my book Welcome to the Monkey House. You and R.A. Baxendale have my sympathy, and I am honored by your inclusion of some of my short stories in your curriculum. Your laws differ from ours in many respects, so I can offer no legal wisdom. I can only say that efforts by groups of parents to get certain works of literature withheld from an entire school community are common in this country, and have in every case been thwarted by decisions of higher courts.
Some primitive facts which may be of some slight use to you when talking about me to primitive people: I have seven children, four of them adopted. The six who are full grown are monogamous, sober members of their communities—a cabinetmaker, a television writer, a pediatrician, an airline captain, a successful painter, and a successful printmaker. They would have heard the word fuck by the time they were six, whether they had had me for a father or not. As for shit and piss: they spoke of almost nothing else when they were only three, which was surely their idea as much as mine. One man wrote me that he could learn more about sex from talking to a ten-year-old than he could from reading my collected works, which is true. Nowhere have I celebrated the use of any sort of drug, nor sexual promiscuity, nor bad citizenship.
I express dismay at violence and humorlessness in everything I write, and in my ordinary life as well. I celebrate compassion and tenderness, and parents of every persuasion should be happy to have me do that, and especially those who are enthusiastic about the Beatitudes. Speaking, as the censors do, of giving “a five year old a hand-grenade”: do the censors allow lethal weapons in their homes, or tell war stories within the hearing of children, or allow children to watch TV cartoons where the mouse blows up the cat, or drops a great weight on it from on high, or digs a pit for it lined with spikes! Do they shoot animals, and then show the bullet-riddled corpses as though they were something to be proud of? I never did. As I have already said, six of my children are full grown now, and are admittedly sexy with their legal mates, and are also toilet trained, thanks to all the talk early on about shit and piss. But they surely are not violent.
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March 6, 1999
New York City
To Stephen Jay Gould
What a stroke of luck, running in to you last night! I am always happy to see you, or even think about you, but I have been ruminating extra-hard about natural selection recently—almost, one might say, like Einstein on an elevator, pondering, every time the thing started or stopped, what the fuck was really going on. I myself wonder about rattlesnakes and lightning bugs. Only a completely humorless person could believe that such preposterously elaborate Dr. Seuss creatures could be the result of judicious shopping in the marriage market, so to speak. I have the same problem with the Big Bang Theory. Anybody with a sense of humor has to laugh.
Anyway, as the poor man’s Einstein, I have factored into the Darwinian persuasion the fact that, only a few blocks north of here, at Rockefeller University, nerds and dweebs are playing and winning ever fancier games with genetic materials. That such games have been played elsewhere in the Universe, even in our own Milky Way, is statistically a sure thing, wouldn’t you say? We can’t be the only biologically CREATIVE animals. Give me a break! So: Eons ago, and I expect the fossil record to confirm it (You read it here first!), CREATORS like us in space ships or the fifth dimension or whatever played some games with animals which had already EVOLVED here. Like Dr. Seuss, they had some FUN, introducing lizards, like the Wright Brothers, to the joys and heartbreaks of aviation, and making snakes with hypodermic syringes in their mouths and doorbells on their tails, and so on. And lightning bugs. […]
In our June 4 issue, Anton Thier reviewed the latest collection of the letters of Samuel Beckett.