In watching an old video of Jon Stewart’s, dare I say, famous appearance on the now dumped-into-the-dustbin-of-history, CNN show,Crossfire, I was reminded of the vital strain of satire and good-natured social commentary that Kurt Vonnegut wielded like Tinkerbell’s magic wand — from the roiling drug and sex crazed period of the United States self-inflicted ruination also known as the Viet Nam war, until his passing in 2007.
That the times when I discovered and began to read Kurt Vonnegut were transformative seems to be the conventional wisdom. Unpopular wars, minority political action, generational searching for the zeitgeist, pharmaceutical experimentation, various liberations and radical critiques insured that it was noisy time. His non- doctrinaire critique of modern American life was what made him strong beacon of sanity in the dark night of modern times. At the center Vonnegut’s well-honed and piquant humor was a fundamental decency that echoed the Dalai Lama:
Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies-“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”
Apparently not very one admired Kurt Vonnegut, though it is hard to take this the following piece of pretzel logic seriously (why do an obituary of a failure?):
The issue of whether Vonnegut was a literary master is already settled for me. If you like You can review his cultural valence,in two new Library of America compilations — Kurt Vonnegut, Novels & Stories 1950–1962 which includes Player Piano,The Sirens of Titan, Mother Night and selected stories. Volume Two, Kurt Vonnegut Novels & Stories 1963–1973 includes Cat’s Cradle,God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions and more Stories.
In addition to his fiction Kurt Vonnegut was a prolific and expansive orator, to which Isn’t This Nice, What Is?: Advice for the Young edited and introduced by Dan Wakefield attests. Before the recent wave of memorable commencement orations (David Foster Wallace, George Saunders,David McCullough Jr), Vonnegut was charming graduating classes around the US This anthology includes nine speeches, seven commencement orations, one to the ICLU (Indiana Civil Liberties Union), one upon receiving the Carl Sandburg Award.
Even casual readers of Vonnegut were aware of his penchant for doodling (many of his later novels were festooned with his drawings). A quick scan of his official website makes clear he went beyond doodling. When the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library opened in Indianapolis the inaugural exhibition included drawings and silkscreens etc. Now comes Kurt Vonnegut Drawings edited by his daughter Nanette Vonnegut. You can view them here
Charles J. Shields’s authorized biography And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life paints “the portrait of a man who made friends easily but always felt lonely, sold millions of books but never felt appreciated, and described himself as a humanist but fought with humanity at large. As a former public relations man, Vonnegut crafted his image carefully—the avuncular, curly-haired humorist—though he admitted, “I myself am a work of fiction.”
Fellow writer and friend Dan Wakefield edited Kurt Vonnegut: Letters collecting Vonnegut’s personal correspondence, written over a sixty-year period. Many of these epistles are as amusing and engaging as Vonnegut’s fiction. To whit,
On November 7th, 1973, the head of the local school board, Charles McCarthy in Drake, North Dakota —demanded that all 32 copies of Slaughterhouse-Five be burned in the school’s furnace as a result of its “obscene language.” Deliverance by James Dickey and a short story anthology with works by William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck, among others were also incinerated. Vonnegut wrote to Mr, McCarthy (not to be confused with mid century TV entertainer Edgar Bergen’s puppet Charley McCarthy:
..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. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us….
…If you and your board are now determined to show that you in fact have wisdom and maturity when you exercise your powers over the eduction of your young, then you should acknowledge that it was a rotten lesson you taught young people in a free society when you denounced and then burned books–books you hadn’t even read. You should also resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and to survive.
Again: you have insulted me, and I am a good citizen, and I am very real.
A Man Without a Country: A Memoir Of Life In George W Bush’s America is a collection of short essays, Kurt Vonnegut published in 2005 maintaining (correctly) it would be his final work. As a number of commentators opined, it was as close as Vonnegut ever came to a memoir. Uhr Chicagoan Studs Terkel effused,
Thank God, Kurt Vonnegut has broken his promise that he will never write another book. In this wondrous assemblage of mini-memoirs, we discover his family’s legacy and his obstinate, unfashionable humanism.
Three interviews interviewer and Vonnegut devotee Walter James Miller conducted in 1971, 1983, and 2006 are preserved on this unabridged CD, Essential Vonnegut Interviews
Kurt Vonnegut The Last Interview is an anthology of conversations with Vonnegut spanning his long career is edited by Tom McCartan. Here’s a sampling:
Is there another book in you, by chance?
No. Look, I’m 84 years old. Writers of fiction have usually done their best work by the time they’re 45. Chess masters are through when they’re 35, and so are baseball players. There are plenty of other people writing. Let them do it.
So what’s the old man’s game, then?
My country is in ruins. So I’m a fish in a poisoned fishbowl. I’m mostly just heartsick about this. There should have been hope. This should have been a great country. But we are despised all over the world now. I was hoping to build a country and add to its literature. That’s why I served in World War II, and that’s why I wrote books.
When someone reads one of your books, what would you like them to take from the experience?
Well, I’d like the guy—or the girl, of course—to put the book down and think, “This is the greatest man who ever lived.”
Currently reading A Broken Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen’s Secret Chord by Leil Leibovitz (WW Norton)