The Unopened Letter
“The Unopened Letter”
Jon Parrish Peede
Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities
2018 National Humanities Conference
New Orleans, LA
November 8, 2018
Last year, on the occasion of this annual conference, I spoke about the importance of being “in relationship.”[i] Since joining NEH, I have traveled to 23 states—and have trips to numerous states planned—so that I can learn from you and your colleagues.
From the Athenӕum in Providence, Rhode Island, to Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency, Montana; from the Eastern Shore of Maryland to Corpus Christi, Texas; from Nashville to Detroit to here, the Crescent City, you have shared the rich cultures of your communities with me and my colleagues, and we are grateful and humbled.
A year ago, I began my speech with a reference to Walt Whitman. I might as well do so again. Here is the lyrical opening of his poem “I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing”:[ii]
I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,
All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches,
Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous leaves of dark green,
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself,
And the ending of the poem:
though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana solitary in a wide flat space,
Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend a lover near,
I know very well I could not.
Whitman is saying, essentially: “I could not be that isolated tree. I must be in relationship.”
I feel the same, especially about people, about books, about places—such as this place, this city.
As I wrote in an op-ed in the Times-Picayune, some forty years ago in the fall of 1977, my three brothers and I stood in a hot line, with other well-dressed kids and endlessly patient parents, waiting for hours to enter the King Tut exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art.[iii]
The delay did not bother me, as I had no particular desire to be attacked by a mummy. My older brothers had assured me that such misfortunes often happened.
The six-city King Tut exhibition led to the start of the blockbuster shows now common in our nation. As a boy, I didn’t know that the National Endowment for the Humanities supported the exhibition—indeed, was vital to its success.
Now that I have the honor of leading the agency, I know firsthand how vital NEH is to underwriting historic preservation and heritage projects, driving cultural tourism and economic development, and advancing civic engagement and public education.
Rather than touching briefly on each NEH grant category, I want to discuss the vital importance of civics education and its alarming condition across our high schools and universities and among the general public.
You are on the front lines, so you know all too well that we live in a time of cultural amnesia. We must take concrete steps to address this issue. It is a global epidemic with clear, harmful societal implications. Think, for example, about the consequences of a world that has forgotten the horror of the Holocaust.
As the United State approaches the year 2026, which marks the 250th anniversary of our nation’s founding, NEH particularly encourages projects that promote a deeper understanding of American history and culture and that advance civics education and knowledge of our core principles of government.
In making this special encouragement of our grant applicants, NEH follows the words of the very legislation that brought our agency into being in 1965.
That legislation reads:
Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens. It must therefore foster
and support a form of education, and access to the arts and the humanities,
designed to make people of all backgrounds and wherever located masters of their
technology and not its unthinking servants.
The arts and the humanities reflect the high place accorded by the American
people to the nation’s rich cultural heritage and to the fostering of mutual respect
for the diverse beliefs and values of all persons and groups.[iv]
We take these words to heart at the agency. “Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens”—not merely in our government leaders, but wisdom and vision from all citizens. The importance of civic responsibility cannot be overstated.
As NEH Chairman, I am also driven by the words of Thomas Jefferson, who, like all of us, was a flawed vessel for delivering wisdom. And yet how many of us in this room can recite entire passages of The Declaration of Independence? Today, I want to linger on a mere sentence from a single letter that he wrote some two hundred years ago: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”[v]
He understood that the future prosperity of any nation is inseparable from having an informed populace.
Addressing this matter is, as much as anything, what I believe our state humanities partners are about—and what those who you serve expect of you. And you do a remarkable job of making sure that we have a more informed citizenry. But our higher education leaders have made some curriculum decisions that I question.
According to American Council of Trustees and Alumni reports, only 18% of U.S. colleges and universities require even one foundational course in American history or government to graduate.[vi]
Some of the consequences of such educational decisions:
- 59% of college graduates stated that Jefferson, not Madison, was the father of The Constitution.
- Fewer than half knew Washington was the American general at Yorktown.
- 40% of college graduates didn’t know that the House of Representatives has the power to declare war.[vii]
I will not go on, except to say that the need for civics education cannot be overstated. For more than 50 years, NEH has been steadfastly committed to addressing this need.
NEH supports projects that promote and enable civics education and an understanding of the evolution of our country’s laws and ideals.
- We fund documentaries and exhibitions on American history and government.
- We fund the preservation of our nation’s founding documents, keeping our historical record intact for new generations of Americans.
- We fund essential scholarly research that sheds light on the events and individuals that have shaped our country, society, and system of government.
- We fund educational programs, from summer workshops for teachers to National History Day, that encourage understanding of America’s history and government.
At NEH, we are focusing on civics education across all seven funding categories, including cultural infrastructure.
By infrastructure, we do not mean only bricks-and-mortar projects. We do not mean only preserving artifacts related to the Revolutionary War. Or only the Civil War. Or only presidential papers.
We mean land records of forgotten towns and photography archives of closed mills and countless other projects nationwide. We also mean born-digital immersive cultural experiences that will play an increasingly significant role in educating the next generation of Americans.
Our nation’s cultural infrastructure is as vast as the Library of Congress, and it is as small as an unopened letter.
When I contemplate awarding nearly a thousand grants per year, more than $125 million annually, it is easy to get lost. It is easy to remember the big grants—the multi-night documentaries watched by millions, the Pulitzer Prize winners.
So, I try, often, to go small.
This year, one of our program officers helped me to do just that by highlighting our Preservation & Access grant to the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library in Indianapolis, Indiana.[viii]
She mentioned, in passing, an unopened letter in the Vonnegut archive.
Here is the history of that letter. Or a bit of it.
Having dropped out of college to fight in World War II, the 22-year-old Kurt Vonnegut was captured at the Battle of the Bulge. As a prisoner of war, he was taken to the German city of Dresden.[ix]
Around this time, his father wrote him a letter from Indiana. It was returned to the family with “missing in action” informally written across the address in ink. The word “missing” is in all-caps. Imagine the anguish of that family.
If you recall the city of Dresden in that war, it is likely because you know that the Allies fire-bombed it in 1945. Bombed on the day before Valentine’s Day, Valentine’s Day itself, and the day after. To give you the scale of the air raid: nearly 1,300 bombers participated.
The estimate of those killed has varied widely from 10,000 to 250,000. The most accurate estimate seems to be 25,000. Vonnegut survived in a meat locker of a subterranean slaughterhouse. That’s where many POWs lived, when they weren’t on the work crews.
In a wartime letter to his family, Vonnegut described what happened:
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.[x]
(It bears noting that I could also read letters from citizens liberated by the Allied forces from death camps. Numerous NEH-funded projects provide a comprehensive perspective.)
After the war, Vonnegut found his natural gift: writing. His autobiographical anti-war classic, Slaughterhouse-Five, came out in 1969, during the height of the Vietnam War.
When the novel reaches the bombing of Dresden, Vonnegut writes that the narrator gets “unstuck in time.” The order of events is flipped: The bombs aren’t dropped, they rise from the ground. He describes the aerial attack in a reverse sequence:
The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The
bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which
shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the
containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in
racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long
steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and
planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the
bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again,
made everything and everybody as good as new.
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the
racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were
operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous
contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The
minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to
put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody
ever again. [xi]
This is what Emily Dickinson called telling all the truth, but telling it slant.[xii] There are some stories too difficult to go at directly. And Vonnegut the soldier and Vonnegut the writer knew this.
Considering all the anguish in this and other passages, even decades after his military service, it is not surprising that Kurt Vonnegut could not open his father’s letter when he returned from war. He couldn’t open it the first week. Or the next week. Or the next one. Or the one after.
He could not open it after his father died. He could not after his own children were born. He could not after his novel was published.
Kurt Vonnegut died at age 84. He never opened the letter from his father. His family never opened it either.
So, with NEH funding, the unopened letter sits behind a glass case in Indianapolis, Indiana. And now high school students write about what they think might be in the letter.
Yes, as historian Jim Grossman likes to say, everything has a history. Someone printed that envelope. And someone designed that stamp for the U.S. government. And someone flew that stamped letter to Europe, and someone else carried it across the killing fields. Someone else brought it to a stopping point, wrote down the news “missing in action,” and sent it in the other direction: a reversal akin to Vonnegut’s literary reversal.
Friends, teaching history and civics and ethics is essential. It is not hard, nor is it easy. It is mostly about researching the facts, finding a through-line, shaping a narrative, and staying with it—even when it seems like no one is on the other side of the room listening.
Having gone across the country over the past year, having seen the value of your work constantly, I can attest that someone is always listening.
The humanities are not a luxury; are not frivolous; are not divisive. Rather, the humanities are what bind us together in our common journey, especially in those times when our “better angels” seem so far away.
So, what about the unopened letters in your community? In your time and place? Maybe, indeed, in your own life?
Some letters, as we have seen, draw their power from remaining unopened.
But, by and large, the humanities are about writing and opening and reading and preserving and presenting and interpreting such letters.
For more than two centuries, we have as a people and a government done such—as with the Thomas Jefferson letter that I quoted earlier.
But we have not—as a people or a nation—done enough to embody its message.
In April of this year, I had the great honor of being unanimously confirmed by the United States Senate as the 11th Chairman of NEH. The next morning, I delivered the annual luncheon address for the American Council of Learned Societies. There, I spoke about optimism. I want to close the year on the same subject, as my belief in the importance of optimism has only grown in the months since.
Of course, I read the same higher education articles that you do. I see the same Humanities Indicators research. I know that the trend lines can be depressing.
And yet I am an optimist.
I worry about what has been lost, deemphasized, or ignored on our campuses and in our culture—such as civility itself—and I worry about our capacity to bring it back.
And yet I am an optimist.
With eyes wide open, with a sense of realism, with historical understanding, I still believe that we must do everything we can to commit ourselves to optimism—not merely for ourselves, but for those who come next so that they too can live meaningful, impactful, fulfilling lives.
I have long been in awe of Reinhold Niebuhr as a theologian, as a witness, and as a citizen of the highest order.
In rereading his work, I came across this passage in his essay “Optimism, Pessimism and Religious Faith—I.” Niebuhr discusses what he calls the “self-destruction of modern optimism.” He writes:
History does not move forward without catastrophe, happiness is not guaranteed
by the multiplication of physical comforts, social harmony is not easily created by
more intelligence, and human nature is not as good or as harmless as had been
I believe he hits the mark here. And yet how many of us in this room have optimism precisely because of humanists such as Niebuhr, because of citizens such as Niebuhr, because of books such as his books?
Reviewing the Library of America’s collection of Niebuhr, the scholar Ronald Stone said that this specific essay represented “penultimate pessimism and ultimate optimism.”[xiv]
I like that phrasing.
May we always restrict our pessimism to the penultimate position.
Think again, for a moment, upon the letters that generations of Americans cast into the abyss of war.
Every writer of letters, every reader of letters, every preserver of letters is an optimist—every one of these acts is a statement that there is a future which you want to inform and enlighten and educate in some way small or large.
It is all of that—and so much more.
It is an act of love, of longing, of fear, of anger, sorrow, even rage sometimes, but above all it is an act of faith and of hope.
So, friends, as I have said, I am an optimist. Have always been an optimist. Will always be one.
Every grantmaker is, at heart, an ultimate optimist.
And because you are here in this room, on this day, for this reason, I cannot help but think that—in spite of all the barriers—you are an optimist, too.
[i]Jon Parrish Peede, “The Humanities in Relationship,” November 15, 2017.
[ii]Walt Whitman, The Works of Walt Whitman (Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1995), 118.
[iii]Jon Parrish Peede, “From King Tut to Madame John’s Legacy, NEH leaves its mark on Louisiana,” Times-Picayune (November 7, 2018). https://www.nola.com/opinions/2018/11/from-king-tut-to-madame-johns-legacy-neh-leaves-its-mark-on-louisiana.html
[iv]National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965, (Public Law 89–209) September 29, 1965.
[vi] American Council of Trustees and Alumni, What Will They Learn? 2015–16: A Survey of Core Requirements at Our Nation’s Colleges and Universities, (Washington, D.C.: American Council of Trustees and Alumni, 2015), 19.
[vii]American Council of Trustees and Alumni, A Crisis in Civic Education, , (Washington, D.C.: American Council of Trustees and Alumni, 2016), 4-5, 20, 22.
[viii]Adriana Cutler, “50 States of Preservation: Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library, Indianapolis, IN,” June 8, 2017. https://www.neh.gov/divisions/preservation/featured-project/50-states-preservation-kurt-vonnegut-museum-and-library-indianapolis-in
[ix]For in-depth biographical information, please see: Charles J. Shields, And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, a Life (New York: Henry Holt, 2011).
[x]Shaun Usher, ed.,Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2014), 340-343.
[xi]Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five ((New York: Dial Press, 2009), 94.
[xii]Emily Dickinson, The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), 494.
[xiii]Reinhold Niebuhr, Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics(New York: Library of America, 2015), 709.
[xiv]Political Theology Network, “Optimism, Pessimism, and Religious Faith,” October 21, 2015, Ronald Stone, Political Theology. https://politicaltheology.com/optimism-pessimism-and-religious-faith-ronald-stone/