Sunshine Recorder

Link: Kurt Vonnegut: Ladies & Gentlemen of A.D. 2088

Back in 1988, as part of an ad campaign to be printed in Time magazine, Volkswagen approached a number of notable thinkers and asked them to write a letter to the future—some words of advice to those living in 2088, to be precise. Many agreed, including novelist Kurt Vonnegut; his letter can be read below.

Ladies & Gentlemen of A.D. 2088:

It has been suggested that you might welcome words of wisdom from the past, and that several of us in the twentieth century should send you some. Do you know this advice from Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: ‘This above all: to thine own self be true’? Or what about these instructions from St. John the Divine: ‘Fear God, and give glory to Him; for the hour of His judgment has come’? The best advice from my own era for you or for just about anybody anytime, I guess, is a prayer first used by alcoholics who hoped to never take a drink again: ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.’

Our century hasn’t been as free with words of wisdom as some others, I think, because we were the first to get reliable information about the human situation: how many of us there were, how much food we could raise or gather, how fast we were reproducing, what made us sick, what made us die, how much damage we were doing to the air and water and topsoil on which most life forms depended, how violent and heartless nature can be, and on and on. Who could wax wise with so much bad news pouring in?

For me, the most paralyzing news was that Nature was no conservationist. It needed no help from us in taking the planet apart and putting it back together some different way, not necessarily improving it from the viewpoint of living things. It set fire to forests with lightning bolts. It paved vast tracts of arable land with lava, which could no more support life than big-city parking lots. It had in the past sent glaciers down from the North Pole to grind up major portions of Asia, Europe, and North America. Nor was there any reason to think that it wouldn’t do that again someday. At this very moment it is turning African farms to deserts, and can be expected to heave up tidal waves or shower down white-hot boulders from outer space at any time. It has not only exterminated exquisitely evolved species in a twinkling, but drained oceans and drowned continents as well. If people think Nature is their friend, then they sure don’t need an enemy.

Yes, and as you people a hundred years from now must know full well, and as your grandchildren will know even better: Nature is ruthless when it comes to matching the quantity of life in any given place at any given time to the quantity of nourishment available. So what have you and Nature done about overpopulation? Back here in 1988, we were seeing ourselves as a new sort of glacier, warm-blooded and clever, unstoppable, about to gobble up everything and then make love—and then double in size again.

On second thought, I am not sure I could bear to hear what you and Nature may have done about too many people for too small a food supply.

And here is a crazy idea I would like to try on you: Is it possible that we aimed rockets with hydrogen bomb warheads at each other, all set to go, in order to take our minds off the deeper problem—how cruelly Nature can be expected to treat us, Nature being Nature, in the by-and-by?

Now that we can discuss the mess we are in with some precision, I hope you have stopped choosing abysmally ignorant optimists for positions of leadership. They were useful only so long as nobody had a clue as to what was really going on—during the past seven million years or so. In my time they have been catastrophic as heads of sophisticated institutions with real work to do.

The sort of leaders we need now are not those who promise ultimate victory over Nature through perseverance in living as we do right now, but those with the courage and intelligence to present to the world what appears to be Nature’s stern but reasonable surrender terms:
  1. Reduce and stabilize your population.
  2. Stop poisoning the air, the water, and the topsoil.
  3. Stop preparing for war and start dealing with your real problems.
  4. Teach your kids, and yourselves, too, while you’re at it, how to inhabit a small planet without helping to kill it.
  5. Stop thinking science can fix anything if you give it a trillion dollars.
  6. Stop thinking your grandchildren will be OK no matter how wasteful or destructive you may be, since they can go to a nice new planet on a spaceship. That is really mean, and stupid.
  7. And so on. Or else.
Am I too pessimistic about life a hundred years from now? Maybe I have spent too much time with scientists and not enough time with speechwriters for politicians. For all I know, even bag ladies and bag gentlemen will have their own personal helicopters or rocket belts in A.D. 2088. Nobody will have to leave home to go to work or school, or even stop watching television. Everybody will sit around all day punching the keys of computer terminals connected to everything there is, and sip orange drink through straws like the astronauts.

Cheers,

Kurt Vonnegut

Link: Laughing in the Face of Death: A Vonnegut Roundtable

On the eve of the anniversary of Vonnegut’s death, I asked Ben Greenman, David Holub, Rick Moody, Josip Novakovich, and Avi Steinberg about their own memories of Vonnegut’s work and about why everyone else should remember it, too.

How has Vonnegut influenced or informed your own work?

Ben Greenman: Through moral rigor, though not in any of the predictable ways. As a younger reader, which is when I had my strongest connection to Vonnegut—maybe not my most meaningful, but my strongest, in the fashion of first love—I took a preteen tour through Mother Night and Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle. The things that I dimly and germinally felt about war and technology and religion and the different—but similar—risks to humanity inherent in all of them were laid out quite clearly. As time has moved along, the sources of the risks have shifted slightly, for purposes of camouflage, but the risks remain. In my own work, I have moved between experimental fiction and straightforward fiction, between “funny” writing and “serious” writing—I put those words in quotes in Vonnegut’s honor, to show how absurd the division can be—but all along the way I have continued to feel that there’s something wrong, and that it needs to be addressed. Priorities are skewed. Power is misused. Attention is misdirected. Vonnegut’s influence works at the depths but also on the surface. Whenever I feel a piece of my own writing becoming too complacent as an entertainment, whenever it feels like a sugared pill going down too easy, I remind myself to disrupt the operation of the text a little to recall readers to themselves. That remains, for me, the best thing about reading Vonnegut. You know you’re having a good time, but you also know you’re not.

Rick Moody: I was, as a young reader, really moved by Vonnegut’s disregard for story structure in the usual sense. The long, genre-free introductions, the reliance on “subliterary forms”—science fiction, e.g., and the general absurdity of the action, these are all alien to the mainstream of literary fiction, and, to me, excellent, surprising, and singular. I think he was sort of an experimental writer avant le lettre, in the same way that the later Cheever appears to be an experimental writer, though never identified as such. Another way of saying it—he was kind of a gateway drug for me. He led straight to Pynchon and Brautigan and even Coover and Elkin.

Josip Novakovich: Vonnegut has influenced me but it’s hard for me to distinguish his influence from those of other war tragi-comedians—Jaroslav Hasek, Céline, and Joseph Heller, whose works have preceded Vonnegut’s. Vonnegut took the line duty dance with death from Céline to use as a subtitle to Slaughterhouse-Five. On a purely technical level, Vonnegut has influenced me. Unlike his predecessors, who after brilliant passages seem to get lost in their asides, Vonnegut, no matter how digressive, always arrives to his points of departure, with a light touch. Though yes, I think Catch-22 could have been edited to attain greater power and clarity, but it’s a fantastic and hilarious work nevertheless. Vonnegut’s sentences are graceful, sometimes minimalistic, and so are his asides, biographies, forays into science fiction, autobiography, and so on. What Elie Wiesel says, that there is a difference between a book which was 800 pages and is now 200 and a book which was 200 pages to begin with. In the first, the cut 600 pages are still there, exerting their influence, only you don’t see them. I am paraphrasing. Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse, on which he worked on and off for twenty years, was at least 5,000 pages of effort, which he distilled into a single malt of 200 pages. That took an amazing amount of self-restraint and self-sacrifice. It helped that he wrote at least twenty more books, so he didn’t need to jam all his brilliance into one, although it feels he has. Yet his novel reads like a 5,000 page novel in terms of content—it’s a total novel, against totalitarianism. I heard Fuentes talk about Don Quixote as a total novel—historical, romance, satire, humor, a novel of ideas, and so on. Another novel like that is Brothers Karamazov—a murder mystery, a novel of ideas, a theological novel, a historical novel, a topographic novel—Dostoyevsky’s geography is always accurate and amazing—a romance, a comedy upon second reading, a psychoanalytic novel before psychoanalysis, et cetera. And Vonnegut’s novel is a whole world unto itself and unto us—fiction and nonfiction, novel and memoir, philosophical meditation, satire, comedic novel, psychoanalytic novel—sci-fi as an expression of post traumatic stress and brain damage—and, above all, antiwar protest novel. I have not written a total novel myself—and my philosophical passages from April Fool’s Day and the just completed novel about Russia have irked my potential editor, so they have been mostly gutted out for the sake of the aerodynamism of the narrative. I still have much to learn from Vonnegut—how to compress things and yet not compromise them, how to digress into history, quote from various historical accounts, and not stifle the narrative. The ease with which he writes is sheerly masterly, Mozartian.

One of the most interesting facets of Vonnegut’s humor—perhaps the most interesting facet—is its ability to make the reader laugh while informing a very serious commentary. Can you share your thoughts on this?

Ben Greenman: Well, think of Bokonon. Think of how the idea of Bokononism—the fictional religion Vonnegut invented for Cat’s Cradle and returned to occasionally—both lampoons the idea of religion and also, gently, justifies it. Bokononism is a religion that suggests that religion has no essential truth, except for the fact that believing in harmless untruths may make you a better person. This is a wonderful idea, humorous in the best sense, playful—silly, even, at times—but also deadly serious. With so much cant encircling contemporary culture, with so many malicious lies whizzing by at the speed of media, the notion that faith should be a kind of self-improving fancy is a godsend. I should say that it is hard for me to talk about Vonnegut without beginning to sound a bit preachy. It’s not hard to read him and resist that temptation, but when I start to discuss the books, I quickly find myself infuriated at the way that satire, gentle and not-so-gentle, and clear thinking, both positive and negative, and the toppling of terrible things in our culture and our media are all out of step with the times. There is a strain of Look at Me, and another strain of Beat the Competition of the Story or Nonstory, and another strain of Subtlety Is Everyone’s Enemy, and another strain of Toxic Self-Importance. See—the preachiness is happening again. It’s not his fault. It’s mine.

Avi Steinberg: Vonnegut once told an interviewer that the UFO rides in Slaughterhouse-Fivewere intended to simply lighten the mood, to give us a break. That may have been his intention but it isn’t quite the effect. Those comic jaunts through time-space end up being a dramatization of the author’s conflict with and ultimately of his inability to face the horror of the Dresden bombing. On the page, we witness Vonnegut deploying all of his comic skills to escape the trauma of that place—and the fact that he doesn’t succeed, and that his escapism fails even as it reaches the edges of the universe, is what makes the story work. The humor doesn’t dare to fully enter the scene of massacre but exerts a powerful enough force that the reader can orbit around it. The seriousness of that book isn’t to be found in its ethical poses or in its reportage but in the brave and risky ways in which it uses humor to let the questions remain unanswered.

David Holub: Imagine a bird, something exotic and frightening, blackish purple from afar and oily iridescent up close. The bird is deviant and mercurial and elusive. You might see it, but never for long. Sometimes you’ll happen upon it by accident, you on a dumb stroll, the bird caught by surprise in a bush. The bird flutters away, its wings maniacally percussive. You were so close but the look you got was not good. It never is. Which is why we need our Vonneguts, their humor in particular. There are these things we create, these exotic birds difficult to get close to in understanding—war, racism, religion, sex, inequality, taboos, and sacred cows galore—until a Vonnegut comes around. Through irreverence, guts, hijinks, and charm, Vonnegut’s humor disarms and debilitates the bird long enough for us to come close, to pick up the bird, hold it in the air and examine it, ridicule it without anxiety, grief or fear, starving it, if only for a moment, of its power.

Josip Novakovich: Vonnegut’s humor made it possible to analyze publicly and frankly the American role in World War II, which was sanctified and glorified as heroic and pristine, to examine the way wars are fought, lives are neglected, and so on. And so on, and so it goes—his favorite phrases—give us a sense of no particular blame but a nature of things, of the universe, of evil, which comes everywhere. So his dark naturalistic metaphysics permeate his humor, and without his humor they would sound too dismal and alienating, but with his humor, which is like a Trojan horse, we enter the realms of patriotic absurdities and see how amidst of good-doing we resort through stupidity and evil into evildoing. Hiroshima was a well-known historical event, but until the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five, the firebombing of Dresden and mass murder of old people and children in it, Hiroshima seemed unknown and classified, strictly military information. Of course, it helped that America was waging a dirty war in Vietnam to realize that perhaps in other wars too we were dirty. Just as Heller used World War I as a groundwork for critiquing American involvement in later wars, just so Vonnegut in some way, although not talking much about Vietnam, used Slaughterhouse-Five as a platform for cautioning us about what we were doing in Vietnam. Vonnegut has liberated many of us to write in a nonpartisan way, to read through patriotism and nationalism, to find the core of military stupidity, “collateral” damage, as not collateral but essential. The fact that wars are fought by mostly children—for eighteen-year-olds are but children—that lingers on in my head after my reading of Slaughterhouse. Wars may be designed by old men but they are done by innocents abroad. Innocence of eighteen-year-olds is a dangerous phenomenon, and reading books like this one might be the best education for the kids. But how much is such an influential book still being read? Anyway, I have assigned it to many people in my classes, and even the ones who don’t like to read seem to be lit up after reading the novel. I don’t have that luck with Catch-22, although I love it as much, and I must conclude that it has to do with the craft. Vonnegut has gemmed the dirty rocks of our past. The merciless sense of absurdity is the cutting knife for the stone, and you can see just from this quick quote how Vonnegut can strike all notes at once—absurdity, sadness, humor, despair. “Children’s Crusade started in 1213, when two monks got the idea of raising armies of children in Germany and France and selling them in North Africa as slaves. Thirty thousand children volunteered, thinking they were going to Palestine … Most of the children were shipped out of Marseilles, and about half of them drowned in shipwrecks. The other half got to North Africa were they were sold.” Actually, that’s not funny when I think about it, but at first, the absurdity of it made me laugh and then gasp as though I was drowning in a shipwreck. Vonnegut points out that it took two million lives to hold on to Palestine for a hundred years in the Middle Ages. The main character, hero/anti-hero of the novel, is Billy Pilgrim, one of those kids drifting through Dresden and to Vietnam-era America. I am reading the book in Jerusalem, 100 yards away from the Eastern Wall, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the book resonates as I listen to the call to prayer from a couple of nearby minarets. Maybe we should all pray, or pray and joke in resignation at the same time, as Vonnegut seems to have done. And amazingly, what he has not done, he has not passed judgment, and it has to do with this kind of wisdom, which he has absurdly and humorously summarized as what he basically learned at the University of Chicago—“I was a student in the Department of Anthropology. At that time they were teaching that there was absolutely no difference between anybody. They may be teaching that still. Another thing they taught me was that nobody was ridiculous or bad or disgusting.”

Rick Moody: As he said himself, there’s a relationship between his humor and Twain. The humor punctures the sanctimony of American culture, and that’s perhaps why Vonnegut was so controversial after a time. The guardians of “high art” found Vonnegut’s satire and absurdism hard to take. But I find them rather genuine, especially when rendered in his world-weary voice. Moreover, he was writing about very serious topics—war, death, sexuality, depression, mental illness, et cetera. These things are hard to address head on. An oblique approach, which is what humor allows for, is more graceful. More compelling.

The use of humor to treat such serious issues is fraught with complexities though, isn’t it?

David Holub: If fiction makes the familiar unfamiliar, so does much of Vonnegut’s humor, especially in the most outwardly funny attempt of Vonnegut’s I’ve read, Breakfast of Champions. Vonnegut’s approach is rather straightforward, easily tallied in the “Oh, why couldn’t I have thought of that first” category. Vonnegut’s chief humor device in Breakfast is where he describes everything from the humdrummity of humanity to the oddities of our creations, as if we were encountering them for the first time—“Girls concealed their underpants at all costs, and boys tried to see their underpants at all costs. Female underpants looked like this …” Or introducing an electric chair—“The purpose of it was to kill people by jazzing them with more electricity than their bodies could stand.”

Treating the familiar as unfamiliar draws out the absurdity in the world we have created, allowing us to see our existence anew. It makes our objects and actions seem silly in some cases and ridiculous in others. What has been hidden in normality is exposed. This fresh context brings surprise, and surprise mixed with the absurd usually results in humor.

Avi Steinberg: There are complications inherent in approaching mass murder, mass extinction, through humor. A scene in Cat’s Cradle spells it out. “I found my apartment wrecked by a nihilistic debauch,” our narrator tells us. “Krebbs was gone; but, before leaving, he had run up three-hundred-dollars’ worth of long-distance calls, set my couch on fire in five places, killed my cat and my avocado tree, and torn the door off my medicine cabinet … There was a sign around my dead cat’s neck. It said, ‘Meow.’ ” There are times when Vonnegut’s humor feels exactly like that, wrecked by its own raging nihilism, leaving us a mere crime scene. In these brutal turns, we see evidence of the author’s anger, his unreformed pessimism run amok. His humor doesn’t always work but it always boldly strives to best its demons. It’s an occupational hazard for a writer who’s trying to make us laugh in a world run by savages.


Slaughterhouse Five
In December of 1944, whilst behind enemy lines during the Rhineland Campaign, 22-year-old Private Kurt Vonnegut was captured by Wehrmacht troops and subsequently became a prisoner of war. A month later, Vonnegut and his fellow PoWs reached a Dresden work camp where they were imprisoned in an underground slaughterhouse known by German soldiers as “Schlachthof Fünf” (Slaughterhouse Five). The next month — February — the subterranean nature of the prison saved their lives during the highly controversial and devastating bombing of Dresden, the aftermath of which Vonnegut and the remaining survivors helped to clear up.
Below is an incredible letter he wrote to his family that May from a repatriation camp, in which he informs them of his capture and survival. 25 years later, in 1969, Vonnegut’s stunning book, Slaughterhouse-Five, was released.
Transcript follows.

FROM:
Pfc. K. Vonnegut, Jr.,  12102964 U. S. Army.
TO:
Kurt Vonnegut, Williams Creek,  Indianapolis, Indiana.
Dear people:
I’m told that you were probably never informed that I was anything other than “missing in action.” Chances are that you also failed to receive any of the letters I wrote from Germany. That leaves me a lot of explaining to do — in precis:
I’ve been a prisoner of war since December 19th, 1944, when our division was cut to ribbons by Hitler’s last desperate thrust through Luxemburg and Belgium. Seven Fanatical Panzer Divisions hit us and cut us off from the rest of Hodges’ First Army. The other American Divisions on our flanks managed to pull out: We were obliged to stay and fight. Bayonets aren’t much good against tanks: Our ammunition, food and medical supplies gave out and our casualties out-numbered those who could still fight - so we gave up. The 106th got a Presidential Citation and some British Decoration from Montgomery for it, I’m told, but I’ll be damned if it was worth it. I was one of the few who weren’t wounded. For that much thank God.
Well, the supermen marched us, without food, water or sleep to Limberg, a distance of about sixty miles, I think, where we were loaded and locked up, sixty men to each small, unventilated, unheated box car. There were no sanitary accommodations — the floors were covered with fresh cow dung. There wasn’t room for all of us to lie down. Half slept while the other half stood. We spent several days, including Christmas, on that Limberg siding. On Christmas eve the Royal Air Force bombed and strafed our unmarked train. They killed about one-hundred-and-fifty of us. We got a little water Christmas Day and moved slowly across Germany to a large P.O.W. Camp in Muhlburg, South of Berlin. We were released from the box cars on New Year’s Day. The Germans herded us through scalding delousing showers. Many men died from shock in the showers after ten days of starvation, thirst and exposure. But I didn’t.
Under the Geneva Convention, Officers and Non-commissioned Officers are not obliged to work when taken prisoner. I am, as you know, a Private. One-hundred-and-fifty such minor beings were shipped to a Dresden work camp on January 10th. I was their leader by virtue of the little German I spoke. It was our misfortune to have sadistic and fanatical guards. We were refused medical attention and clothing: We were given long hours at extremely hard labor. Our food ration was two-hundred-and-fifty grams of black bread and one pint of unseasoned potato soup each day. After desperately trying to improve our situation for two months and having been met with bland smiles I told the guards just what I was going to do to them when the Russians came. They beat me up a little. I was fired as group leader. Beatings were very small time: — one boy starved to death and the SS Troops shot two for stealing food.
On about February 14th the Americans came over, followed by the R.A.F. their combined labors killed 250,000 people in twenty-four hours and destroyed all of Dresden — possibly the world’s most beautiful city. But not me.
After that we were put to work carrying corpses from Air-Raid shelters; women, children, old men; dead from concussion, fire or suffocation. Civilians cursed us and threw rocks as we carried bodies to huge funeral pyres in the city.
When General Patton took Leipzig we were evacuated on foot to (‘the Saxony-Czechoslovakian border’?). There we remained until the war ended. Our guards deserted us. On that happy day the Russians were intent on mopping up isolated outlaw resistance in our sector. Their planes (P-39’s) strafed and bombed us, killing fourteen, but not me.
Eight of us stole a team and wagon. We traveled and looted our way through Sudetenland and Saxony for eight days, living like kings. The Russians are crazy about Americans. The Russians picked us up in Dresden. We rode from there to the American lines at Halle in Lend-Lease Ford trucks. We’ve since been flown to Le Havre.
I’m writing from a Red Cross Club in the Le Havre P.O.W. Repatriation Camp. I’m being wonderfully well feed and entertained. The state-bound ships are jammed, naturally, so I’ll have to be patient. I hope to be home in a month. Once home I’ll be given twenty-one days recuperation at Atterbury, about $600 back pay and — get this — sixty (60) days furlough.
I’ve too damned much to say, the rest will have to wait, I can’t receive mail here so don’t write.
May 29, 1945
Love,  Kurt - Jr.

Slaughterhouse Five

In December of 1944, whilst behind enemy lines during the Rhineland Campaign, 22-year-old Private Kurt Vonnegut was captured by Wehrmacht troops and subsequently became a prisoner of war. A month later, Vonnegut and his fellow PoWs reached a Dresden work camp where they were imprisoned in an underground slaughterhouse known by German soldiers as “Schlachthof Fünf” (Slaughterhouse Five). The next month — February — the subterranean nature of the prison saved their lives during the highly controversial and devastating bombing of Dresden, the aftermath of which Vonnegut and the remaining survivors helped to clear up.

Below is an incredible letter he wrote to his family that May from a repatriation camp, in which he informs them of his capture and survival. 25 years later, in 1969, Vonnegut’s stunning book, Slaughterhouse-Five, was released.

Transcript follows.

FROM:

Pfc. K. Vonnegut, Jr.,
12102964 U. S. Army.

TO:

Kurt Vonnegut,
Williams Creek,
Indianapolis, Indiana.

Dear people:

I’m told that you were probably never informed that I was anything other than “missing in action.” Chances are that you also failed to receive any of the letters I wrote from Germany. That leaves me a lot of explaining to do — in precis:

I’ve been a prisoner of war since December 19th, 1944, when our division was cut to ribbons by Hitler’s last desperate thrust through Luxemburg and Belgium. Seven Fanatical Panzer Divisions hit us and cut us off from the rest of Hodges’ First Army. The other American Divisions on our flanks managed to pull out: We were obliged to stay and fight. Bayonets aren’t much good against tanks: Our ammunition, food and medical supplies gave out and our casualties out-numbered those who could still fight - so we gave up. The 106th got a Presidential Citation and some British Decoration from Montgomery for it, I’m told, but I’ll be damned if it was worth it. I was one of the few who weren’t wounded. For that much thank God.

Well, the supermen marched us, without food, water or sleep to Limberg, a distance of about sixty miles, I think, where we were loaded and locked up, sixty men to each small, unventilated, unheated box car. There were no sanitary accommodations — the floors were covered with fresh cow dung. There wasn’t room for all of us to lie down. Half slept while the other half stood. We spent several days, including Christmas, on that Limberg siding. On Christmas eve the Royal Air Force bombed and strafed our unmarked train. They killed about one-hundred-and-fifty of us. We got a little water Christmas Day and moved slowly across Germany to a large P.O.W. Camp in Muhlburg, South of Berlin. We were released from the box cars on New Year’s Day. The Germans herded us through scalding delousing showers. Many men died from shock in the showers after ten days of starvation, thirst and exposure. But I didn’t.

Under the Geneva Convention, Officers and Non-commissioned Officers are not obliged to work when taken prisoner. I am, as you know, a Private. One-hundred-and-fifty such minor beings were shipped to a Dresden work camp on January 10th. I was their leader by virtue of the little German I spoke. It was our misfortune to have sadistic and fanatical guards. We were refused medical attention and clothing: We were given long hours at extremely hard labor. Our food ration was two-hundred-and-fifty grams of black bread and one pint of unseasoned potato soup each day. After desperately trying to improve our situation for two months and having been met with bland smiles I told the guards just what I was going to do to them when the Russians came. They beat me up a little. I was fired as group leader. Beatings were very small time: — one boy starved to death and the SS Troops shot two for stealing food.

On about February 14th the Americans came over, followed by the R.A.F. their combined labors killed 250,000 people in twenty-four hours and destroyed all of Dresden — possibly the world’s most beautiful city. But not me.

After that we were put to work carrying corpses from Air-Raid shelters; women, children, old men; dead from concussion, fire or suffocation. Civilians cursed us and threw rocks as we carried bodies to huge funeral pyres in the city.

When General Patton took Leipzig we were evacuated on foot to (‘the Saxony-Czechoslovakian border’?). There we remained until the war ended. Our guards deserted us. On that happy day the Russians were intent on mopping up isolated outlaw resistance in our sector. Their planes (P-39’s) strafed and bombed us, killing fourteen, but not me.

Eight of us stole a team and wagon. We traveled and looted our way through Sudetenland and Saxony for eight days, living like kings. The Russians are crazy about Americans. The Russians picked us up in Dresden. We rode from there to the American lines at Halle in Lend-Lease Ford trucks. We’ve since been flown to Le Havre.

I’m writing from a Red Cross Club in the Le Havre P.O.W. Repatriation Camp. I’m being wonderfully well feed and entertained. The state-bound ships are jammed, naturally, so I’ll have to be patient. I hope to be home in a month. Once home I’ll be given twenty-one days recuperation at Atterbury, about $600 back pay and — get this — sixty (60) days furlough.

I’ve too damned much to say, the rest will have to wait, I can’t receive mail here so don’t write.

May 29, 1945

Love,
Kurt - Jr.

Link: Biafra: A People Betrayed

Kurt Vonnegut’s essay about his visit to the republic of Biafra at the tail-end of its three-year existence.

There is a “Kingdom of Biafra” on some old maps which were made by early white explorers of the west coast of Africa. Nobody is now sure what that kingdom was, what its laws and arts and tools were like. No tales survive of the kings and queens.

As for the “Republic of Biafra” we know a great deal. It was a nation with more citizens than Ireland and Norway combined. It proclaimed itself an independent republic on May 30, 1967. On January 17 of 1970, it surrendered unconditionally to Nigeria, the nation from which it had tried to secede. It had few friends in this world, and among its active enemies were Russia and Great Britain. Its enemies were pleased to call it a “tribe.”

Some tribe.

The Biafrans were mainly Christians and they spoke English melodiously, and their economy was this one: small-town free enterprise. The worthless Biafran currency was gravely honored to the end.

The tune of Biafra’s national anthem was Finlandia, by Jan Sibelius. The equatorial Biafrans admired the arctic Finns because the Finns won and kept their freedom in spite of ghastly odds.

Biafra lost its freedom, of course, and I was in the middle of it as all its fronts were collapsing. I flew in from Gabon on the night of January 3, with bags of corn, beans, and powdered milk, aboard a blacked out DC6 chartered by Caritas, the Roman Catholic relief organization. I flew out six nights later on an empty DC4 chartered by the French Red Cross. It was the last plane to leave Biafra that was not fired upon.

While in Biafra, I saw a play which expressed the spiritual condition of the Biafrans at the end. It was set in ancient times, in the home of a medicine man. The moon had not been seen for many months, and the crops had failed. There was nothing to eat anymore. A sacrifice was made to a goddess of fertility, and the sacrifice was refused. The goddess gave the reason: The people were not sufficiently unselfish and brave.

Before the drama began, the national anthem was played on an ancient marimba. It seems likely that similar marimbas were heard in the court of the Kingdom of Biafra. The black man who played the marimba was naked to the waist. He squatted on the stage. He was a composer. He also held a doctor’s degree from the London School of Economics.

Some tribe.

I went to Biafra with another novelist, my old friend Vance Bourjaily, and with Miss Miriam Reik, who would be our guide. She was head of a pro-Biafran committee that had already flown several American writers into Biafra. She would pay our way.

I met her for the first time at Kennedy Airport. We were about to take off for Paris together. It was New Year’s Day. I bought her a drink, though she protested that her committee should pay, and I learned that she had a doctor’s degree in English literature. She was also a pianist and a daughter of Theodor Reik, the famous psychoanalyst.

Her father had died three days before.

I told Miriam how sorry I was about her father, said how much I’d liked the one book of his I had read, which was Listening with the Third Ear.

He was a gentle Jew, who got out of Austria while the getting was good. Another well-known book of his was Masochism in Modern Man.

And I asked her to tell me more about her committee, whose beneficiary I was, and she confessed that she was it: It was a committee of one. She is a tall, good-looking woman, by the way, thirty-two years old. She said she founded her own committee because she grew sick of other American organizations that were helping Biafra. Those organizations teemed with people ‘who were kinky with guilt’, she said. They were trying to dump some of that guilt by being maudlinly charitable. As for herself; she said, it was the greatness of the Biafran people, not their pitifulness that turned her on.

She hoped the Biafrans would get more weapons from somebody, the very latest in killing machines. She was going into Biafra for the third time in a year. She wasn’t afraid of anything. Some committee.

I admire Miriam, though I am not grateful for the trip she gave me. It was like a free trip to Auschwitz when the ovens were still going full blast. I now feel lousy all the time.

I will follow Miriam’s example as best I can. My main aim will not be to move readers to voluptuous tears with tales about innocent black children dying like flies, about rape and looting and murder and all that. I will tell instead about an admirable nation that lived for less than three years.

De mortuis nil nisi bonum. Say nothing but good of the dead.

I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.
— Kurt Vonnegut
Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue…Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times.
— Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

(Source: pipeschapman, via its-london-calling)

Link: Kurt Vonnegut: Knowing What's Nice

It must be kind of spooky to be a student or teacher in a university as great as this one, with its libraries and laboratories and lecture halls, while knowing it is within the borders of a nation where wisdom, reason, knowledge and truth no longer apply.

I realize that some of you may have come in hopes of hearing tips on how to become a professional writer. I say to you, “If you really want to hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be a homosexual, the least you can do is go into the arts. But do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites, standing for absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

But actually, to practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. So do it. Dance on your way out of here. Sing on your way out of here. Write a love poem when you get home. Draw a picture of your bed or roommate.

And hey, listen: A sappy woman sent me a letter a few years back. She knew I was sappy, too, which is to say a lifelong northern Democrat in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt mode, a friend of the working stiffs. She was about to have a baby, not mine, and wished to know if it was a bad thing to bring such a sweet and innocent creature into a world as bad as this one is. I replied that what made being alive almost worthwhile for me, besides music, was all the saints I met, who could be anywhere. By saints I meant people who behaved decently in a strikingly indecent society. Perhaps some of you are or will become saints for her child to meet.

And now I want to tell you about my late Uncle Alex. He was my father’s kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

That’s one favor I’ve asked of you.

Now I’ve got another one, a show of hands. How many of you have had a teacher at any point in your entire education who made you happier to be alive, prouder to be alive than you had previously believed possible? Now please say the name of that teacher out loud to someone sitting or standing near you.

OK? All done? “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

Many people need desperately to receive this message: ‘I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.
— Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake

(via subtle-body-deactivated20121021)

Link: Semicolons: A Love Story

When I was a teenager, newly fixated on becoming a writer, I came across a piece of advice from Kurt Vonnegut that affected me like an ice cube down the back of my shirt.

“Do not use semicolons,” he said. “They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

At the time I was less struck by the cranky, casual bigotry of the statement (a great deal of Vonnegut’s advice sounds as if it was rasped between grandfatherly coughing fits) than by the thrilling starkness of the prohibition. A writer was simply not to use semicolons. Ever.

At that point I’d written a number of not very good short stories over which I’d sprinkled semicolons (along with inapt adjectives and “symbolic” character names) like the wishful seasonings of an amateur cook. Now I would have, if it had been physically possible, scrubbed the accursed symbol from my keyboard and never thought about semicolons again, except to harrumph cruelly when I witnessed other, lesser writers succumbing to this particular form of misguidedness.

Advice from Vonnegut was not, to me, just any advice. To say that he was my literary hero doesn’t quite capture the intensity of the worship and obsession I heaped upon him. I wrote him letters that I can only pray he never saw. I read all of his books and then, once I’d finished, I started collecting editions of “Slaughterhouse Five” in other languages (none of which, it goes without saying, I could read a word of). I even began narrating my life to myself in his weary, gravelly voice. (Ben sat down to finish his history homework. What this meant, mostly, was learning how one group of apes butchered another group of apes. So it goes.)

Vonnegut’s dismissal of semicolons therefore struck me as more than a mere matter of style. This was, like his refusal to describe his war experience in heroic terms, a demonstration of virtue. To abjure semicolons was to declare oneself pure of heart, steely-eyed, sadly disillusioned. I pictured Vonnegut and Hemingway sitting together on a porch, squinting grimly out at the road, shaking their heads at what the literary world had come to. I wanted nothing more in life than to climb onto one of the empty rockers beside them.

My disdain for semicolons outlasted my devotion to Vonnegut. Well into college I avoided them, trusting in the keyboard’s adjacent, unpretentious comma and period to divvy up my thoughts. I imagined that, decades hence, if some bright-eyed teenager were to ask me for advice, I’d pass Vonnegut’s prohibition right along, minus the troublesome bit about transvestites and hermaphrodites. By now I’d come across Isaac Babel’s famous description of periods as irons capable of stabbing the heart. And I knew, of course, that commas were indispensable. The semicolon sat there in my literary utensil drawer like a cherry pitter, theoretically functional, but fussy and unloved and probably destined for the yard-sale table.

So it’s been with considerable surprise, these past few years, that I’ve found myself becoming something of a cherry-pitting maniac. This may just, as Vonnegut says, reflect the fact that I’ve now been to college, though honestly I can’t remember anyone’s expressing a single semicolon-related sentiment while I was there. Regardless, I’ve come to love the awkward things, and to depend on them for easing me through a complex thought.

I blame my grammatical fall on an unlikely corrupter: William James. For the past year or two I’ve had on my nightstand a fat Library of America collection of his writing, and it took me a while to realize that one of the things I was loving about it — one of the things that made me feel as if I was sitting beside a particularly intelligent, humane and excitable friend on a long trip in a horse-drawn carriage — was his use of semicolons. James’s paragraphs, as lucid and unpretentious as can be, are divided and subdivided, as intricately structured as the anatomical diagrams he includes in “Psychology: Briefer Course.” Semicolons, along with exclamation points and dashes and whole sackfuls of commas, are, for him, vital tools in keeping what he called the “stream of thought” from appearing to the reader as a wild torrent.


"If I’m not a writer then I’m nothing"
In October of 1949, while working in public relations at General Electric, 27-year-old aspiring writer Kurt Vonnegut sold his first story to Collier’s; just over a year later, he quit said job and began life as a freelance writer. The following two letters, both from Vonnegut, offer an intriguing glimpse into his mind during that period — the earliest sent to his father immediately after that first story was bought; the next to his friend, Miller Harris, not long after escaping General Electric in 1951, at which point he was avoiding writing for publications such as The Atlantic and The New Yorker and instead collecting “fat checks” from the “slicks” (glossy, well-paying magazines, e.g. Collier’s, Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan).

October 28, 1949
Dear Pop:
I sold my first story to Collier’s. Received my check ($750 minus a 10% agent’s commission) yesterday noon. It now appears that two more of my works have a good chance of being sold in the near future. I think I’m on my way.
I’ve deposited my first check in a savings account and, as and if I sell more, will continue to do so until I have the equivalent of one year’s pay at GE. Four more stories will do it nicely, with cash to spare (something we never had before). I will then quit this goddamn nightmare job, and never take another one so long as I live, so help me God. I’m happier than I’ve been in a good many years.
Love. K.——————————————-
February 11, 1951
Dear Miller:
Thought, rather fuzzily, about something I want to add to my recent letter to you. It’s this business about the school: school of painting, school of poetry, school of music, school of writing. For a couple of years after the War I was a graduate student in the Anthropology Department at the University of Chicago. At the instigation of a bright and neurotic instructor named Slotkin, I got interested in the notion of the school (I’m going to explain what I mean in a minute), and decided to do a thesis on the subject. I did about 40 pages of the thing, based on the Cubist School in Paris, and then got told by the faculty that I’d better pick something more strictly anthropological. They suggested rather firmly (with Slotkin abstaining) that I interest myself in the Indian Ghost Dance of 1894. Shortly thereafter I ran out of money and signed on with G-E, and I never did get past the note-taking stage on the Ghost Dance business (albeit damn interesting).
But Slotkin’s notion of the importance of the school stuck with me, and it now seems pertinent to you, me, Knox, McQuade, and anybody else whose literary fortunes we take a personal interest in. What Slotkin said was this: no man who achieved greatness in the arts operated by himself; he was top man in a group of like-minded individuals. This works out fine for the cubists, and Slotkin had plenty of good evidence for its applying to Goethe, Thoreau, Hemingway, and just about anybody you care to name.
If this isn’t 100% true, it’s true enough to be interesting—and maybe helpful.
The school gives a man, Slotkin said, the fantastic amount of guts it takes to add to culture. It gives him morale, esprit de corps, the resources of many brains, and—maybe most important—one-sidedness with assurance. (My reporting what Slotkin said four years ago is pretty subjective—so let’s say Vonnegut, a Slotkin derivative, is saying this.) About this one-sidedness: I’m convinced that no one can amount to a damn in the arts if he becomes sweetly reasonable, seeing all sides of a picture, forgiving all sins.
Slotkin also said a person in the arts can’t help but belong to some school—good or bad. I don’t know what school you belong to. My school is presently comprised of Littauer & Wilkenson (my agents), and Burger, and nobody else. For want of support from any other quarter, I write for them—high grade, slick bombast.
I’ve been on my own for five weeks now. I’ve rewritten a novelette, and turned out a short-short and a couple of 5,000-worders. Some of them will sell, probably. This is Sunday, and the question arises, what’ll I start tomorrow? I already know what the answer is. I also know it’s the wrong answer. I’ll start something to please L&W, Inc., and Burger, and, please, God, MGM.
The obvious alternative is, of course, something to please the Atlantic, Harpers, or the New Yorker. To do this would be to turn out something after the fashion of somebody-or-other, and I might be able to do it. I say might. It amounts to signing on with any of a dozen schools born ten, twenty, thirty years ago. The kicks are based largely on having passed off a creditable counterfeit. And, of course, if you appear in the Atlantic or Harpers or the New Yorker, by God you must be a writer, because everybody says so. This is poor competition for the fat checks from the slicks. For want of anything more tempting, I’ll stick with money.
So, having said that much, where am I? In Alplaus, New York, I guess, wishing I could pick up some fire and confidence and originality and fresh prejudices from somewhere. As Slotkin said, these things are group products. It isn’t a question of finding a Messiah, but of a group’s creating one—and it’s hard work, and takes a while.
If this sort of thing is going on somewhere (not in Paris, says Tennessee Williams), I’d love to get in on it. I’d give my right arm to be enthusiastic. God knows there’s plenty to write about—more now than ever before, certainly. You’re defaulting, I’m defaulting, everyone’s defaulting, seems to me.
If Slotkin’s right, maybe the death of the institution of friendship is the death of innovation in the arts.
This letter is sententious crap, shot full of self-pity. But it’s the kind of letter writers seem to write; and since I quit G-E, if I’m not a writer then I’m nothing.
Yours truly,  Kurt

"If I’m not a writer then I’m nothing"

In October of 1949, while working in public relations at General Electric, 27-year-old aspiring writer Kurt Vonnegut sold his first story to Collier’s; just over a year later, he quit said job and began life as a freelance writer. The following two letters, both from Vonnegut, offer an intriguing glimpse into his mind during that period — the earliest sent to his father immediately after that first story was bought; the next to his friend, Miller Harris, not long after escaping General Electric in 1951, at which point he was avoiding writing for publications such as The Atlantic and The New Yorker and instead collecting “fat checks” from the “slicks” (glossy, well-paying magazines, e.g. Collier’s, Saturday Evening PostCosmopolitan).

October 28, 1949

Dear Pop:

I sold my first story to Collier’s. Received my check ($750 minus a 10% agent’s commission) yesterday noon. It now appears that two more of my works have a good chance of being sold in the near future. I think I’m on my way.

I’ve deposited my first check in a savings account and, as and if I sell more, will continue to do so until I have the equivalent of one year’s pay at GE. Four more stories will do it nicely, with cash to spare (something we never had before). I will then quit this goddamn nightmare job, and never take another one so long as I live, so help me God. I’m happier than I’ve been in a good many years.

Love.
K.

——————————————-

February 11, 1951

Dear Miller:

Thought, rather fuzzily, about something I want to add to my recent letter to you. It’s this business about the school: school of painting, school of poetry, school of music, school of writing. For a couple of years after the War I was a graduate student in the Anthropology Department at the University of Chicago. At the instigation of a bright and neurotic instructor named Slotkin, I got interested in the notion of the school (I’m going to explain what I mean in a minute), and decided to do a thesis on the subject. I did about 40 pages of the thing, based on the Cubist School in Paris, and then got told by the faculty that I’d better pick something more strictly anthropological. They suggested rather firmly (with Slotkin abstaining) that I interest myself in the Indian Ghost Dance of 1894. Shortly thereafter I ran out of money and signed on with G-E, and I never did get past the note-taking stage on the Ghost Dance business (albeit damn interesting).

But Slotkin’s notion of the importance of the school stuck with me, and it now seems pertinent to you, me, Knox, McQuade, and anybody else whose literary fortunes we take a personal interest in. What Slotkin said was this: no man who achieved greatness in the arts operated by himself; he was top man in a group of like-minded individuals. This works out fine for the cubists, and Slotkin had plenty of good evidence for its applying to Goethe, Thoreau, Hemingway, and just about anybody you care to name.

If this isn’t 100% true, it’s true enough to be interesting—and maybe helpful.

The school gives a man, Slotkin said, the fantastic amount of guts it takes to add to culture. It gives him morale, esprit de corps, the resources of many brains, and—maybe most important—one-sidedness with assurance. (My reporting what Slotkin said four years ago is pretty subjective—so let’s say Vonnegut, a Slotkin derivative, is saying this.) About this one-sidedness: I’m convinced that no one can amount to a damn in the arts if he becomes sweetly reasonable, seeing all sides of a picture, forgiving all sins.

Slotkin also said a person in the arts can’t help but belong to some school—good or bad. I don’t know what school you belong to. My school is presently comprised of Littauer & Wilkenson (my agents), and Burger, and nobody else. For want of support from any other quarter, I write for them—high grade, slick bombast.

I’ve been on my own for five weeks now. I’ve rewritten a novelette, and turned out a short-short and a couple of 5,000-worders. Some of them will sell, probably. This is Sunday, and the question arises, what’ll I start tomorrow? I already know what the answer is. I also know it’s the wrong answer. I’ll start something to please L&W, Inc., and Burger, and, please, God, MGM.

The obvious alternative is, of course, something to please the Atlantic, Harpers, or the New Yorker. To do this would be to turn out something after the fashion of somebody-or-other, and I might be able to do it. I say might. It amounts to signing on with any of a dozen schools born ten, twenty, thirty years ago. The kicks are based largely on having passed off a creditable counterfeit. And, of course, if you appear in the Atlantic or Harpers or the New Yorker, by God you must be a writer, because everybody says so. This is poor competition for the fat checks from the slicks. For want of anything more tempting, I’ll stick with money.

So, having said that much, where am I? In Alplaus, New York, I guess, wishing I could pick up some fire and confidence and originality and fresh prejudices from somewhere. As Slotkin said, these things are group products. It isn’t a question of finding a Messiah, but of a group’s creating one—and it’s hard work, and takes a while.

If this sort of thing is going on somewhere (not in Paris, says Tennessee Williams), I’d love to get in on it. I’d give my right arm to be enthusiastic. God knows there’s plenty to write about—more now than ever before, certainly. You’re defaulting, I’m defaulting, everyone’s defaulting, seems to me.

If Slotkin’s right, maybe the death of the institution of friendship is the death of innovation in the arts.

This letter is sententious crap, shot full of self-pity. But it’s the kind of letter writers seem to write; and since I quit G-E, if I’m not a writer then I’m nothing.

Yours truly,
Kurt

The world is full of people who are very clever at seeming much smarter than they actually are. They dazzle us with facts and quotations and foreign words and so on, whereas the truth is that they know almost nothing of use in life as it is really lived.
— Kurt Vonnegut, Slapstick

(Source: honeyforthehomeless, via watchingcbeams)


Kurt Vonnegut: I am very real.
In October of 1973, Bruce Severy—a 26-year-old English teacher at Drake High School, North Dakota—decided to use Kurt Vonnegut's novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, as a teaching aid in his classroom. The next month, on November 7th, the head of the school board, Charles McCarthy, demanded that all 32 copies be burned in the school’s furnace as a result of its “obscene language.” Other books soon met with the same fate. On the 16th of November, Kurt Vonnegut sent McCarthy the following letter. He didn’t receive a reply.

November 16, 1973
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

Kurt Vonnegut: I am very real.

In October of 1973, Bruce Severy—a 26-year-old English teacher at Drake High School, North Dakota—decided to use Kurt Vonnegut's novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, as a teaching aid in his classroom. The next month, on November 7th, the head of the school board, Charles McCarthy, demanded that all 32 copies be burned in the school’s furnace as a result of its “obscene language.” Other books soon met with the same fate. On the 16th of November, Kurt Vonnegut sent McCarthy the following letter. He didn’t receive a reply.

November 16, 1973

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

Kurt Vonnegut: The bombing of Dresden and the creation of “Slaughterhouse 5”

It took Kurt Vonnegut more than twenty years to turn his experience of surviving the allied bombing of Dresden during World War II, into his novel Slaughterhouse Five. In this short interview with James Naughtie, Vonnegut recalls the horror of Dresden and how it shaped his vision of the world and led to the creation of his most famous work.

“A writer is lucky to be able to treat his or her neuroses everyday. We’re here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is. And teh Arts are one way to help people get through this thing. the function of any work of Art, successful work of Art is to say to a certain segment of the population, ‘You are not alone. Others feel as you do.’ We must have kids now, you know, saying the world is crazy - and indeed, it is.”

The video was recorded for the BBC’s This Week series in 2005, to mark the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden.

When the newspapers were full of alarms about Iran possibly developing a nuclear bomb, Kurt sent me a copy of a very short letter he wrote to The New York Times: ‘I know of only one nation that has dropped nuclear bombs on innocent people.’
— Howard Zinn on Kurt Vonnegut

(Source: weareoneearth, via mdrnist-deactivated20140129)

Link: Revisiting Vonnegut’s Cradle

A writer rereads the novel that began his interest in literature.

James Wood, writing in the New Republic, once called Vonnegut “unclassifiable” in the same breath that he grouped him alongside fellow “avant-gardists” turned “mainstreamists”: Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme, and William Gass. He has a point. Cat’s Cradle is at once science fiction and realist first-person narrative, political thriller and cranky litany against consumer culture, most of all a scathing comedy that is sadder than most Greek tragedies. In those contradictions lie its strength and the reason why, perhaps, the only canon it has been included in is 10th grade English class. Cat’s Cradle is out of place in postmodernism because, rather than just suggesting the end of the world — take the beautiful dance around the issue that Don Delillo performed in White Noise — Vonnegut makes the apocalypse tangible. It does not quite fit in the typical American literature since WWII survey — in which Bellow and Roth’s first-person novels of decline and impotence are the dominant literary forms — in part, because of its campy humor (the frozen dead dog, the fact that the closest the novel comes to approaching sex is the rubbing together of bare feet). Cat’s Cradle holds up not just as the book that makes people start reading, but also as serious fiction. It may continue to languish in high school hell, if only for the difficulty of placing it.