Today sees the long-awaited publication of Dan Wakefield’s Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, a book that I’ve been anticipating for what seems like decades, and which, despite having only been in my possession for a few days, I can safely say is quite easily one of the best collections of correspondence I’ve come across. It really is a triumph, and wonderfully edited.
Below are just two letters from the book — both of which feature Kurt Vonnegut the proud father. The first was written in 1967, and sees Vonnegut backing his son’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. The second letter was written to a Canadian teacher in 1988, in response to a censorship row that had erupted over his collection of short stories, Welcome to the Monkey House.
(Source: Kurt Vonnegut: Letters; Image: Kurt Vonnegut, via Guardian.)
November 28, 1967
To Draft Board #1,
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 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 no hope in that. There’s no hope in war.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
William G. Kennedy,
Fenelon Falls Secondary School,
November 16, 1988
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 their 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.