Benedict Cumberbatch Reads Kurt Vonnegut’s Incensed Letter to the High School That Burned Slaughterhouse-Five

If you’ve kept up with Open Cul­ture for a while, you know that Kurt Von­negut could write a good let­ter, whether home from World War II, to high school stu­dents, to oth­er writ­ers, to John F. Kennedy, or to the future. You also know that Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch can give a good read­ing, whether of lit­er­a­ture like The Meta­mor­pho­sis and Moby Dick or more direct­ly per­son­al words from Alan Tur­ing or a Guan­tá­namo pris­on­er. It must have seemed like only a mat­ter of time, then, before this mas­ter read­er of let­ters (in the broad sense) took on the work of a mas­ter let­ter-writer, and here we have a clip of Cum­ber­batch at the Hay Fes­ti­val 2014 read­ing a Von­negut let­ter — and a par­tic­u­lar­ly impas­sioned Von­negut let­ter at that.

“I am among those Amer­i­can writ­ers whose books have been destroyed in the now famous fur­nace of your school,” Von­negut writes to Charles McCarthy, head of the school board at North Dako­ta’s Drake High School, who in 1973 ordered its copies of Von­negut’s Slaugh­ter­house-Five and oth­er nov­els burned for their “obscene lan­guage.” “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.”

After assur­ing McCarthy that “my pub­lish­er and I have done absolute­ly noth­ing to exploit the dis­gust­ing news,” Von­negut goes on to describe him­self not as one of the “rat­like peo­ple who enjoy mak­ing mon­ey from poi­son­ing the minds of young peo­ple” that McCarthy may imag­ine, but as 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.”

And as for the prod­ucts of that labor, “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.” Von­negut acknowl­edges the school’s right to decide what books its stu­dents should read, “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.”

More that forty years have passed, and hard­ly any­where does Slaugh­ter­house-Five now count as con­tro­ver­sial read­ing mate­r­i­al. But Von­negut’s words to McCarthy, which you can read in full at Let­ters of Note web site (or in the Let­ters of Note book), still bear not just repeat­ing but breath­ing new life into by a per­former like Cum­ber­batch, one of the most respect­ed of his gen­er­a­tion. At the Let­ters Live Youtube chan­nel, you can see his inter­pre­ta­tion of more let­ters orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten by Sol LeWitt, William Safire, and oth­er peo­ple known pri­mar­i­ly for their work, but the read­ing of whose let­ters make them, in Von­negut’s words, “very real.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

In 1988, Kurt Von­negut Writes a Let­ter to Peo­ple Liv­ing in 2088, Giv­ing 7 Pieces of Advice

22-Year-Old P.O.W. Kurt Von­negut Writes Home from World War II: “I’ll Be Damned If It Was Worth It”

Kurt Von­negut Urges Young Peo­ple to Make Art and “Make Your Soul Grow”

Kurt Vonnegut’s Tips for Teach­ing at the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop (1967)

Kurt Von­negut to John F. Kennedy: ‘On Occa­sion, I Write Pret­ty Well’

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Reads a Let­ter Alan Tur­ing Wrote in “Dis­tress” Before His Con­vic­tion For “Gross Inde­cen­cy”


Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (10)
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  • Erica says:

    His semi-Amer­i­can accent is dis­tract­ing. I wish he’d used his own voice.

  • Kathleen says:

    I thought the accent was spot on. Made it sound more authen­tic.

  • Margaret Ratterman says:

    Listen.listen. lis­ten to the words and intent. Your dis­trac­tion is your dis­trac­tion. Read the text below the video instead.

  • smee says:

    There’s a spelling mis­take.

  • Amber says:

    FYI, this record­ing is from 31st May 2014.

  • Trolius Maximus says:

    Is that what it is — a ‘fake’ accent? If so, why put it on…?

    It does grate a bit… What does his nor­mal dic­tion sound like — U.K. (“prop­er”) Eng­lish?

  • Kyle says:

    Whew, that accent is all over the place!

  • Ewa says:

    I just thought today is the day when I tell you I love you, Open Cul­ture peo­ple, and this won­der­ful web­site.

  • mae says:

    Von­negut was a remark­able writer with an inter­est­ing sense of decen­cy. I wish he were still with us!

  • Mike Grant says:

    With great cer­tain­ty the words of Von­negut ring truer today than ever, not­ing the recent efforts to either ban or burn books because of some per­ceived slight, a feal­ty to author­i­tar­i­an state rule by the creep­ing fas­cism that per­vades our body politic or by some sort of reli­gious fer­vor for pro­tec­tion against thought not in accor­dance with the cur­rent direc­tion of the far right. Book ban­ning or burn­ing is the most atro­cious crime that pre­dicts the future of the more atro­cious acts against the indi­vid­u­als who dare stand up against that fas­cist wave. It’s a final warn­ing to awak­en to the threats to all free peo­ple who love lib­er­ty and libraries, espe­cial­ly the free­doms of speech and thought. Read a banned book today. It’ll do your soul some real good.

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