Vonnegut’s Letter: Slaughterhouse Five

A few days ago, in a comment to my post about Bertrand Russell and morality without religion, Marc Schuster wrote that his process of moving away from his religious upbringing was triggered by Kurt Vonnegut. His words rang quite true as I read them, and as I gave it some further thought I realized that Vonnegut was in heavy reading rotation at the same time that I began to really question the world, people, and belief systems around me. Although I tend to credit the scientists and philosophers for fundamentally changing my perceptions, writers such as Vonnegut certainly played an equal, if more subtle, role in affecting the way that saw and questioned the world.

I think like many others, my introduction to Vonnegut was in my high school literature class. We were assigned Slaughterhouse Five, and to this day it still ranks among my favorite books. After reading Marc’s comment, I remembered having coming across a letter from Vonnegut to his family, written shortly after his release from a German POW camp. The letter dealt with his experiences that he would later turn into his novel. As the narrator of Slaughterhouse Five states at one point in the story,

That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book.

In the letter Vonnegut, then a Private, describes how he had been captured by Wehrmacht troops and imprisoned at a Dresden work camp in December of 1944; an underground slaughterhouse that was called Schlachthof Fünf (Slaughterhouse Five). In February of 1945, the very underground nature of the camp would prove life-saving during the nightmarish bombing of Dresden, and Vonnegut’s description of having to clear away the corpses after the bombing is not easily forgotten.

Letter from Letters of Note, originally from Internet Archive.

If you have trouble reading the letter, Letters of Note has a full transcript here.

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10 thoughts on “Vonnegut’s Letter: Slaughterhouse Five

  1. I’m glad you wrote this post as I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue lately. I grew up in a very religious family, but I wouldn’t call myself an active believer. I’m one of those theists who probably drive Richard Dawkins crazy, as I’m highly-educated, well-read, and culturally-open. I should know better! But I think one has a tendency to carry on a lot of what you’re brought up with if only for comfort purposes. Most of what I get in terms of my morality and enlightenment comes from my world-view and books – as you can probably relate to. I’ve read the bible a few times, but nothing has moved me more about matters spiritual than a well-written book around what I call The Big Idea. The author can be atheist, agnostic, or whatever but if he/she can synthesize a thought into a close approximation of Theory of Life, I’m in! One of my favorite books is Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulisch (I’ll blog on it myself) – it combines the best of philosophy, history, science, religion and just a great story. Words are powerful, indeed, in shaping beliefs and they don’t have to come from traditional spiritual sources.

  2. Thanks for sharing this letter! My favorite passage from Vonnegut about religion and society comes from Palm Sunday:
    What troubles me most about my lovely country is that its children are seldom taught that American freedom will vanish, if, when they grow up, and in the exercise of their duties as citizens, they insist that our courts and policemen and prisons be guided by divine or natural law.
    Most teachers and parents and guardians do not teach this vital lesson because they themselves never learned it, or because they dare not. Why dare they not? People can get into a lot of trouble in this country, and often have to be defended by the American Civil Liberties Union, for laying the groundwork for the lesson, which is this: That no one really understands nature or God.

  3. Somehow, I missed reading this, although I saw it on my sister’s shelf for years. Different high schools….anyway, what I like best about this post is the use of primary source material! Perhaps an idea for a future post…

  4. I went through a Vonnegut phase in my high school and college days. Of all of his books, Slaughterhouse Five was the book that touched me the most, the one where Vonnegut really bares his soul…and the one that made me anti-war for life, to be honest. This and Catch-22 (of course).
    Curiously, I never made the connection between Slaughterhouse Five and religion, though I have eventually reached the same conclusions as Marc Schuster (via a different route)…

  5. Pingback: The Poverty of Equality – John Malcolm

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