A paper for American Literature II
The Introduction: Kurt and Me
Allow me to indulge myself. Kurt does. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. the pride of Indianapolis, author of over a dozen novels, a symphony, a Broadway play, a slew of short stories, and bucketfulls of essays and speeches he always takes time to indulge his thoughts. He leads you into his works, and you can feel him there with you the whole time.
This is a problem for some people.
Not for me.
I've long believed that one of the best, most valuable aspects of reading multiple works by the same author is getting to know the author as a person. People don't identify with Gregor Samsa; they identify with Kafka. Witness the love exhibited by the many fans of Hemingway, a love for both the texts and the drama of the man. It's like that for me with Kurt Vonnegut, but it strikes me that he pulls it off in an entirely different way.
Kafka's work is a reaction to his mental anguish, which is kind of like Vonnegut, who has dealt with the bulk of his personal hardships throughout his career, but those hardships are not his sole motivation. And, while he's lead an interesting life, it doesn't seem nearly as dramatic or romantic as Hemingway's. Plus, Vonnegut is much more overt than either of the two about his authorial involvement in his work.
But what really forces Vonnegut to impose his presence on the text is his complete inability to remove himself at all from the act of communication at the core of any work of literature. He revels in that involvement. He has mentioned his desire, what he implies is a universal need of all human beings, for some "soul-deep fun." He uses this term as a synonym for greatness.
I tend to agree with him.
And this has lead to some nasty comments in fiction workshops about stories that I've written: complaints of flat characters, cartoonish plotlines, non-directed criticism, overall pessimism and over-sentimentality for all things lowbrow. Needless to say, sometimes I feel, to varying degrees of pretension, like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
So it goes.
"Being alive is a crock of shit."
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was born on November 11, 1922, in Indianapolis, Indiana to Kurt Vonnegut, Sr. and Edith Lieber Vonnegut. He had an older brother named Bernard and an older sister named Alice. Kurt, Sr. was a well-known architect in the city and Edith was the daughter of a wealthy local family. The Vonneguts had been in Indianapolis for several generations, and were well-off, respected members of the community. Unlike the characters in most of his books, Vonnegut's early childhood was extremely privileged. It wasn't until the stock market crash of 1929 that he experienced the type of life that he would go on to write about in the future: the middle Middle Class.
This was devastating to his family.
According to Understanding Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. the depression moved in and made itself at home in the Vonnegut household. Kurt, Sr. "virtually gave up on life," and Junior has mentioned himself that he "learned a bone-deep sadness" from his parents (Allen, 3). Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. sheds a little more light on the serious repercussions of the stock market crash and the way it tore apart his father in Fates Worse Than Death:
This tells us a lot about Kurt, Jr.'s motivations for writing and striving to get his writing read, and the quest for "soul-deep fun" is a central motivator for both Vonnegut and his readers.
Throughout his childhood, Vonnegut was also influenced by his Uncle Alex, who taught him to enjoy the finer, simpler things in life. Alex introduced him to socialist ideas, and the work of Eugene Debs and Upton Sinclair among other politically oriented authors. He taught Kurt to appreciate life: "Uncle Alex urged me to say this out loud during such epiphanies: 'If this isn't nice, what is?'" (Timequake, 12). He goes on to explain that Uncle Alex wasn't concerned with luxuries, but that his trademark phrase should be applied to a sunny day, a cold drink, a good conversation. Alex was a valuable counterbalance to the sadness and depression Vonnegut would be exposed to all of his life.
He began attending Shortridge High School in 1936. There, he would become an editor on the school newspaper, and he would begin his love for writing. Writing the fact that he could write and work through so many ideas or hardships has been an important release for Vonnegut. Throughout his life, he has turned to writing to ease the pain.
In 1940 he started a three year stint at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. His father encourages him to study "something useful" so he pursued a double major in chemistry and biology in preparation to become a biochemist (Klinkowitz, ix). During his time at Cornell, he is also a columnist and managing editor for the school daily, The Cornell Sun. His scholastic career is pretty much normal until his Junior year, when he is hospitalized with pneumonia. This lapse in school attendance causes him to lose his draft deferrment and he enlists in the US Army.
In 1943 his Army training at Carnegie Institute of Technology began, studying mechanical engineering. In 1944 he returned home to Indianapolis to visit his family on Mother's Day before heading out to England. That Mother's Day, in 1944, his mother overdosed on sleeping pills, committing suicide. Then Kurt went off to war. He joined the 106th Infantry Division in England.
A few months later, on December 19, 1944, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was captured by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge. He is sent as a POW to Dresden, and believes that his role in his war is over. Dresden was not a military target; as Jerome Klinkowitz, a noted Vonnegut critic, pointed out, the city was considered "an architectural and artistic treasure" (x).
But on the night of February 13 and 14, 1945, Dresden was destroyed by Allied fire-bombing. German casualties numbered 135,000 to 200,000, the vast majority of which were civilians: women, children and the elderly. This is more people killed than at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. As Vonnegut said, "I was present in the greatest massacre of European history, which was the destruction of Dresden by fire-bombing" (Allen, 3). Vonnegut and the other POWs, along with most of their German stewards the only real military personnel in the city survived the fire-bombing by remaining in the underground meat locker they were being held in, which was protected from the heat and smoke above: Slaughterhouse-Five. He and his fellow POWs were pressed into serving as "corpse-miners" after the bombing. They dug through rubble to collect and cremate bodies of dead Germans. This whole experience seriously affected Vonnegut, and provided the center for Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), which is considered his magnum opus.
In late April of 1945, the Russians had overtaken Dresden, and after a confusing period immediately preceding the armistice, he was repatriated to the American forces in Europe. Following rehabilitation in France and America, he was married on September 1, 1945 to his childhood sweetheart, Jane Cox.
The two of them move to Chicago, where Vonnegut enrolled in the Anthropology MA program at the University of Chicago. From 1946 to 1947 he studies anthropology and works at the Chicago City News Bureau. Then, as Klinkowitz puts it he:
The Vonneguts move to Schenectady, New York, and Kurt takes a job as a publicist at a General Electric research lab, where his brother, Bernard, is a scientist. But he has a serious moral conflict with the weapons development that GE was involved in, and begins publishing stories in order to get out of that job. In October, 1949, after having his first story, "Report on the Barnhouse Effect," accepted by Colliers, he wrote the following to his father in a letter:
Of course, he has since been forced to take less preferable jobs, but perhaps none that so disturbed him on a moral level. After witnessing the violence of Dresden and World War II, which he refers to again and again as his war, he could not stomach the idea of being even tangentially involved in the creation of future violence.
In 1950 his story appears in Colliers along with several other stories that appear again in Colliers, but also in The Saturday Evening Post and The New Yorker. During the 1950s the short story market was booming. In Timequake (1997) Vonnegut notes:
The family moved to Cape Cod, where Vonnegut wrote full-time. In 1952 Player Piano was published, and overall things were going well for Kurt and Jane. For a short period of time he managed a SAAB dealership in Cape Cod, and he occasionally taught at high schools for disabled or disturbed children. During this time he became the father of three sons. Until 1957 everything was swimming right along for Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Then, in 1957, Kurt, Sr. died. He had moved after his wife's suicide to live alone in an isolated spot of Indiana, and for all intents and purposes he hadn't really lived in a long time. This event impacted Kurt, Jr., but the extent to which it troubled him isn't really shown for another dozen years. What really impacted him immediately was the death of his sister, Alice, in 1958. She died from cancer, and her husband, Kurt's brother-in-law, died in a train wreck just days before her. Kurt and Jane adopted three of their four sons, increasing their family to eight. The death of his sister made a huge impression on Vonnegut. William Allen, a Vonnegut critic, notes that the event made clear to Kurt "the randomness inherent in human existence" (5).
In 1959 Sirens of Titan was published, but the future of the short story began looking grim. The market dried up as magazines disappeared and the public at large began looking more and more to novels. Vonnegut decided that he had better switch to writing novels if he wanted to keep himself afloat. His experiences of the past few years helped mold his writing, and he followed up Canary in a Cat House (1961), a collection of his short stories, with Mother Night (1962).
The 1960s were the golden age of Vonnegut. He was right at home in the climate of political and social upheaval, indeed, he was a leader of political and social upheaval. He revamped his direction, leaving behind science fiction for the most part. Mother Night is a study of personal responsibility, guilt and pretense in Nazi Germany. Cat's Cradle (1963) is an anthropological study of religion. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1964) is a critique of class division in the United States. These books were received extremely well by reviewers and, for the first time in his life, Vonnegut begins to garner some critical attention.
Vonnegut began his two-year residency at the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop in 1965. He was gaining a passionate fan base in 1960s counterculture movements, and re-issues of Player Piano and Mother Night began to get some serious critical attention. At the Writer's Workshop he taught Gail Godwin and John Irving, and was regarded as an eccentric. He posted butcher paper over the walls of his office and graphed out the non-linear plotline of Slaughterhouse-Five in crayons all lines pointed to Dresden.
Robert Scholes, a colleague of Vonnegut's in Iowa, published The Fabulators (1967) which featured an entire chapter of criticism on Vonnegut. This really sparked some critical interest in his works, further prodded along by the printing of Welcome to the Monkey House (1968), which is a collection of all the stories from Canary in a Cat House plus twelve later stories the bulk of his short story output.
Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade, a Duty Dance With Death was published in 1969, and it changed the world. In particular, it changed Vonnegut's world. He was now a full-fledged cult hero, but Slaughterhouse-Five made him a public spokesman against war and human cruelty. The novel was a best-seller, and critical arguments raged back and forth. This book made Vonnegut a household name.
The sixties were ending, and the 1970s weren't much good to anyone. Except me; I was born in 1975. But for Vonnegut, the 70s were a difficult time. He had returned home to Cape Cod in 1968, but in 1970 he left to live alone in New York City. His marriage was faltering, and he attended rehearsals for his Broadway play, Happy Birthday Wanda June. On the up-side during this time, the University of Chicago recognized Cat's Cradle "as a valid contribution to the field of anthropology" (Klinkowitz, xii), and Vonnegut was awarded his MA. In 1972 Between Time and Timbuktu is produced for public television, and Slaughterhouse-Five is released as a major motion picture. Much like the book, the film experienced much critical debate.
1973 saw the release of Breakfast of Champions, in which he reunited many of his characters from his 60s novels. Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons (1974) is a collection of essays by Vonnegut. His son, Mark, published The Eden Express: a Personal Account of Schizophrenia in 1975. It's a book about his mental difficulties and how he overcame them. He is now a physician who graduated from Harvard Medical School. In 1976 Slapstick came out, and was completely panned by the literary community, causing many people to write off Vonnegut. Basically, Vonnegut's novels between 1973 and 1976 are documents of his progress to come to terms with the massive familial catastrophes he's faced throughout his life. He drops the "Jr." from his name in publishing Slapstick, and this is indicative of the ambivalent feelings he has towards his father. In addition, at their core, these novels "are essentially stories about the disintegration of families" (Allen, 6).
And Vonnegut's immediate family was going through a disintegration as well. After a prolonged separation, he divorced his wife, Jane, in 1979 and married Jill Krementz, a photographer with whom he'd been living in New York for a while. He published Jailbird that same year, and thus begins the 1980s.
During this decade, Kurt Vonnegut began his comeback. In 1980 he published Sun Moon Star, a children's book illustrated by Ivan Chermayeff. Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage (1981) came out, and provides Vonnegut fans, who by the 80s were mostly mellow and had children, with new insights and interest in his writing. Palm Sunday is a revealing and personal work, but retains the trademark innovation and prose style of his novels. Deadeye Dick (1982) is a Vonnegutian western, Galapagos (1985) is Vonnegut's take on Darwin, and Bluebeard appears in 1987. These books rejuvenated Vonnegut criticism and, coupled with a series of Welcome to the Monkeyhouse on television, he reappears in a big way on the entertainment scene. Also, during this time he was a popular speaker and lecturer, teaching at Harvard for a time and speaking at commencements all over the country. In 1988 his symphony, Requiem, was performed by the Buffalo Symphony. Also, in 1982, he adopted his daughter, Lily.
The 80s were also a time during which Vonnegut reaffirms his commitment to being an activist writer. His novels of the 60s dealt largely with issues of citizenship, and he returns to this in his works of the 80s, and bolsters his commitment by becoming active in the American Civil Liberties Union and PEN, an international writer's coalition. As Allen notes in Understanding Kurt Vonnegut, he "has lived up to his ideal of making 'a sincere effort to be a responsible elder in society'" (7).
But throughout the nineties he has been plagued by another worry: Not being remembered. Hocus Pocus came out in 1990, and Fates Worse Than Death: an Autobiography of the Eighties came out in 1991. Both novels are "literarily interesting", but neither were extremely popular. He made a cameo in Back to School in the late 80s, and a Discover card commercial in the mid-90s. Mother Night was finally realized as a movie in 1996, and met with vast critical acclaim, but failed miserably in the marketplace. This is mostly due to the still sensitive and controversial topics inherent to a WWII-era film about an American Nazi living in Germany, and the theaters' and studios' hesitation to show it or back it.
The film, Mother Night, was adapted by Robert Weide, a documentary filmmaker and long-time fan of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. He has been working for over a decade on a documentary about Vonnegut, which he expects to be completed in 2000 (Weide, 11). Vonnegut was disappointed because the worst reaction to the film came from the PEN members who were given a special advance showing. Many of the writers present thought the film was a racist endorsement of fascism. Vonnegut has said that the moral to Mother Night is, "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." (1).
Almost a year after Mother Night's release, the editor of The Realist, Paul Krassner, perpetrated the latest in a long line of hoaxes. The most recent one, which occurred in the fall of 1997, had to do with Kurt Vonnegut. Krassner had gotten the idea, through a conversation with Vonnegut, that Kurt was worried about young people not reading his work (Krassner, 4). He decided that an email hoax would be a good way to get Vonnegut's name bandied around again. Krassner had a friend email to a huge list of people a column written by Mary Smich and originally published in the Chicago Tribune. Two of the people on the list were Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and Mary Smich.
Krassner considered the hoax a rousing success because it was discovered as soon as it had been committed and the news of the truth reached print and broadcast media, thereby spreading the truth to more people than had known about the lie (Krassner, 4). This news hit just after Vonnegut had published Timequake (1997).
Timequake, a truly interesting novel at the least, created a major press flurry because it was the bold statement by Vonnegut that he would write no more novels:
So what now? Robert Weide is writing a screen adaptation of Sirens of Titan, and his documentary promises to be a goldmine of Vonnegutian insight. Kurt is still speaking, touring, and doing his visual art. I suspect we haven't heard the last from Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Not by a long shot.
So it goes.
A Career, With Criticism
Vonnegut's career is his life. He is a quintessential writer, and has only strayed from that vocation in order to facilitate its continuation. Because his work is incredibly self-reflexive, it is useful to look at his career in the context of his life. The events that have shaped his life have also shaped his written development.
Vonnegut's early life shapes much of his writing today. One aspect of his writing that has been criticized by literary types is his pessimistic outlook. This is apparent, especially in the first two decades of his professional career, and restated time and time again by Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut's fictional alter ego, who's maxim is: "Being alive is a crock of shit." This is influenced greatly by the general air of despondency in the Vonnegut household throughout much of his childhood. After the Great Depression began, his father became withdrawn and somber. He basically lost all vigor for life. His mother, too, was deeply affected by their sudden change in lifestyle. Vonnegut comments, in Timequake, that his "mother was addicted to being rich" (28). Indeed, her depression grew until 1944 when she committed suicide, and Vonnegut has noted in several places that a parent's suicide has some grave ramifications for the children. In many ways, his continual self-deprecation (he's the only author I've heard of who signs his name with an asshole) and dire outlook can be attributed to these two events.
But Vonnegut is not just about sadness. His Uncle Alex was a major influence on him, and one of the things he taught Kurt was to appreciate the little happy things in life. Vonnegut says that Alex used to tell him to take time out to recognize the things people usually take for granted and say, "If this isn't nice, what is?" and then goes on to say that Uncle Alex "said that when things were really going well we should be sure to notice it" (Timequake, 12).
Alex also exposed Kurt to many of the politically and socially oriented writers of the early 20th Century such as Eugene Debs, George Bernard Shaw and Upton Sinclair. These writers had a major influence on Vonnegut. He still calls Shaw his "hero" and still quotes Eugene Debs in every speech: "While there is a lower class I am in it, while there is a criminal element I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free" (Timequake, 122-3). These ideas are evident throughout Vonnegut's writing. Jerome Klinkowitz has observed that "the key to Vonnegut's genius is his unique ability to fashion a work of art out of ordinary middle class life" (Allen, 2). Over the course of his career, he has worked to instruct and change perceptions as much as to entertain, and on his agenda is a rebellion against the American class system.
Having done a lot of advance reading by the time he entered High School, at the recommendation of his Uncle Alex, he was naturally drawn to writing for the school newspaper. This experience was valuable to his writing career in that he learned to write daily and meet deadlines. These are lessons he would continue to learn on the Cornell newspaper (Reed, 9).
His journalistic education significantly impacted his prose style. As William Allen points out: "Like Hemingway before him, Vonnegut would be influenced all his life by the simple rules of journalism: get the facts right; compose straightforward, declarative sentences; know your audience" (3). This style has often been cited as a weakness in Vonnegut's work. Kurt addresses critics of his prose: "I'm not inclined to play Henry Jamesian games because they'll exclude too many people from reading the book I have made my books easy to read, punctuated carefully, with lots of white space" (Allen, 8). This also reflects his dedication to his anti-elitist stance. Nevertheless, especially in the 50s and early 60s, many critics enjoyed the pun on his name, calling him "curt" Vonnegut due to his brevity, pessimism and straightforward prose style (Reed, 9).
After Cornell he was not as heavily involved in journalism, although he did a stint at the City News Bureau in Chicago while he was studying anthropology. His undergraduate education in biology and chemistry gave him a strong background in the sciences, and then his graduate career in anthropology complimented the previous studies and familiarized him with the application of the scientific process to social circumstances. The army training in mechanical engineering added to his already fairly comprehensive understanding of architecture and engineering. World War II seriously affected his outlook on humanity, and all of these things eventually became plot fodder. His numerous science fiction stories of the 50s obviously draw from his education. Mother Night and Slaughterhouse-Five are centered around WWII, and Vonnegut repeatedly refers to it as "HIS" war.
While the psychological traumas he suffered during the war (mainly, his mother's suicide and the bombing of Dresden) and the death of his father in 1957 seriously affected him, they only served to fill him up. He couldn't actually get through any of it until after his sister Alice's death in 1958. This really affected Kurt, and became the impetus he needed to begin dealing with his psychological demons. Allen writes that Vonnegut "has said that a writer achieves unity in his works only by writing as if to one person in his case to his dead sister" (5). It is after he begins to address his late sister that his work reaches a radical new level in depth and artfulness.
And, it is just good fortune that he enters this phase of his life at a time when the cultural climate was ripe for social and political revolution. Or at least discourse. Throughout the 1960s he creates novels that capture the heart of a growing segment of the population. His stories are instructional, as Kathryn Hume, a Vonnegut critic, states: "A story may uphold a code of behavior without preaching it, and the coherence and strength of that code will come across as a form of meaning" (202). As Hume notes, this is an ancient way of teaching through a story, with roots stretching back to Homer's Odyssey, an early instructional tale of western culture. Unfortunately, it's this obvious endorsement of a certain kind of lifestyle, best summed up as an extreme humanism, coupled with his unique sense of aesthetic and style that has caused some critics to downplay the artfulness of his work.
Allen notes that it is easy to define Vonnegut's writing as simple. He writes journalistically, in short sentences and paragraphs, his characters are often deemed cartoonish or flat, and his stories and novels are crammed full of jokes. But, Allen notes that it is also easy to discuss Vonnegut's work in the theoretical jargon of postmodernism. Most of his work contains elements of metafiction, experimentalism, structural anthropology and semiotic dabbling. Raymond Federman, another noted 60s experimentalist, praises the self-reflexive nature of Slaughterhouse-Five:
He was also recognized during the height of Slaughterhouse-Five's popularity by postmodern critic Ihab Hassan as having an "honest perception of his moment" (Klinkowitz, 18). It is in this realm of criticism that he can be seen as a peer of Coover (who was also famous for metafiction) and Pynchon (who also utilized scientific theories to illustrate social issues) and Federman (who also appreciates white space) and Barth (who has the same flair for absurdity and theory).
Even so, Vonnegut has not found any kind of overwhelming critical support. He addresses this issue in Palm Sunday: "It has been my experience with literary critics and academics in this country that clarity looks a lot like laziness and ignorance and childishness and cheapness to them" (320). While this is most likely true, Klinkowitz points to another potential cause for academic resistance, noting that "the academic argument that 'experimental' fiction had refined itself beyond the appreciation of popular readers is confounded at every turn by Vonnegut's commercial success" (Allen, 8). This is also true. Vonnegut's books have regularly made the best-seller list, and were it not for the pitiful wages we're willing to pay our artists in America, he would be a very rich man.
After the intense attention paid to Slaughterhouse-Five and his other pivotal works in the 60s, the literary world was disappointed with his offerings in the 70s. During this time, Vonnegut was plagued with guilt over a dissolving marriage and family situation, and old ghosts of his parents' deaths kept haunting him. Allen points out that Breakfast of Champions and Slapstick "are essentially stories about the disintegration of families" (6). These novels do not engage as fully with the artistic and literary worlds, and are therefore considered less valuable in those realms. However, they did help Vonnegut work through some personal problems that had been bothering him throughout his career, and opened him up to try new experiments and accomplish new goals in the decades to come.
It is difficult to tell what the critical world will ultimately say about his work in the 80s and 90s. Reviewers and fans have heralded works like Galapagos, Palm Sunday, and Timequake as significant novels. They definitely feel to readers like a return to the "old" Vonnegut. Timequake is a fascinating headstone to a fascinating career, and will surely endure some serious analysis. But for now, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., the novelist and author of so many short stories, has said goodbye to the literary world in a strangely fitting fictional pseudo-suicide. Which leaves Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., the man who had been blessed with so many wonderful stories, in a strange situation.
So it goes.
Works Cited and Consulted
Allen, William Rodney. Understanding Kurt Vonnegut. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.
Federman, Raymond. Critifiction: Postmodern Essays. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.
Hume, Kathryn. "Kurt Vonnegut and the Myths and Symbols of Meaning". Critical Essays on Kurt Vonnegut. Ed. Robert Merrill. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co, 1990. 201-215.
Klinkowitz, Jerome. Slaughterhouse-Five: Reforming the Novel and the World. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.
Krassner, Paul. "Case History of a Cyberhoax." The Realist Autumn, 1997: 1-4.
Leeds, Marc. The Vonnegut Encyclopedia: an authorized compendium. London: Greenwood Press, 1995.
Reed, Peter J. The Short Fiction of Kurt Vonnegut. London: Greenwood Press, 1997.
The Vonnegut Web. Online. Duke University. Internet. 31 March 1998. Available: <www.duke.edu/~crh4/vonnegut>.
Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. Welcome to the Monkey House. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1971.
-----------------------. Cat's Cradle. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1972.
-----------------------. Mother Night. New York: Avon Books, 1972.
-----------------------. Palm Sunday. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1984.
-----------------------. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Dell Publishing Co., 1974.
-----------------------. Slaughterhouse-Five. Dell Publishing Co., 1991.
-----------------------. Hocus Pocus. New York: Berkley Books, 1990.
-----------------------. Timequake. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1997.
-----------------------. Fates Worse Than Death. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1991.
Weide, Robert. "The Morning After Mother Night." The Realist. Autumn, 1997: 1-11.
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