Kurt Vonnegut’s Letter to the Man Who Burnt His Books

by Betsy Gomez

On occasion, the victims of censorship take the opportunity to face their censors directly. However, few artists respond with the humor and aplomb exhibited in a letter written in 1973 to Charles McCarthy, the head of the school board at Drake High School in North Dakota. The author of this letter? Kurt Vonnegut.

Vonnegut is no stranger to censorship. His work, in particular his classic novel Slaughterhouse Five, is frequently challenged in schools and libraries. McCarthy is one of the many people who called for the removal of the book from classrooms, but he took things a step further in 1973 by having the book burned in the school’s furnace. McCarthy cited “obscene language” in his opposition to Slaughterhouse Five, but the book has also faced opposition for “explicit sex scenes,” “depicting a picture of an act of bestiality,” and promoting “deviant sexual behavior” (source: ALA). Slaughterhouse Five wasn’t McCarthy’s only target; other books that he found objectionable soon followed it into the furnace.

Letters of Note recently resurrected Vonnegut’s letter to McCarthy. In his letter, Vonnegut addresses McCarthy’s concern over obscene language:

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.

Vonnegut further addressed McCarthy’s poor behavior as an American citizen and educator:

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.

You can read the entirely of Vonnegut’s letter to McCarthy here. It’s definitely worth a look!

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Betsy Gomez is the Web Editor for CBLDF.