Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., November 11, 1922 - April 11, 2007

kurt_vonnegut_jrKurt Vonnegut died Wednesday from brain injuries sustained after a fall. So it goes. He was initially filed under science fiction. He wrote in The New York Times in 1965, "I learned from the reviewers that I was a science-fiction writer. I didn't know that. I supposed that I was writing a novel about life, about things I could not avoid seeing and hearing in Schenectady, a very real town, awkwardly set in the gruesome now. I have been a sore-headed occupant of a file-drawer labeled 'science fiction' ever since, and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a tall white fixture in a comfort station. The way a person gets into this drawer, apparently, is to notice technology. The feeling persists that no one can simultaneously be a respectable writer and understand how a refrigerator works." 

Vonnegut's most famous book, the fatalistic Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (1969), was inspired by his experience as a soldier in World War II, specifically being a prisoner of war of the Germans when the Allies fire-bombed Dresden. The book was a bestseller. Three years later, it was a movie as well, directed marvelously by George Roy Hill. It won the Jury Prize at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival.

Despite its sections where the main character, Billy Pilgrim, is "unstuck in time," often displayed in a zoo on an alien planet in the future, Slaughterhouse-Five freed Vonnegut from the SF ghetto. Success will do that, but more significantly, readers saw that he was making points about contemporary society with salt-of-the-earth elegance. A populist philosopher, in all his books, stories, and articles, Vonnegut spoke directly to normal people willing to look past what they're told to believe, offering a common-sense alternative. He was not afraid to get straight to the point in language anyone could understand.

This simplicity naturally cost him points with some critics and tastemakers. Gore Vidal called him the worst writer in American. But Time's review of Slaughterhouse-Five stated, "Few modern writers have borne witness against inhumanity with more humanity or humor." And while academics also tend to look down on humorists, Mark Twain remains probably the greatest of all American writers, and it's easy to see Vonnegut's work as a modern extension of Twain's. Vonnegut's broad satire also recalls Swift, and its pungency is sometimes redolent of Rabelais Eventually, Vonnegut's novels joined their works in the academic canon.

For all the fantastical elements in Vonnegut's work, for all the wit, for all the actually sophisticated manipulation of narrative structure, he was usually making a rather mundane point: people want to live a normal life doing something useful and enjoying themselves, but their governments keep interfering and messing things up. (The roots of this attitude are already displayed in his first novel, Player Piano (1952), the book he was speaking of in the quote in my first paragraph.) On one level Slaughterhouse-Five is about war being the worst of the ways in which governments keep us from living the normal lives we crave. War is a perversion that makes the atrocity-level fire-bombing of Dresden seem like a good idea to a planner. It killed some 135,000 people to absolutely zero strategic benefit. So it goes. War promulgates absurdity such that a POW can survive this bombing, only to be formally executed by his own army for "stealing" a teapot. So it goes.

Vonnegut (who was taken prisoner at the Battle of the Bulge), having studied anthropology at the University of Chicago, was not blind to the impossibility of ending war, and has a Slaughterhouse-Five character say so right in the first chapter: "You know what I say to people when I hear they're writing anti-war books? 'Why don't you write an anti-glacier book instead?'" Vonnegut wrote it anyway. A man has to try.

After he had given up fiction, this long-time member of the ACLU continued to write against war and human folly, especially offended by the Iraq war and the policies of the current administration ("power-drunk chimpanzees"). Vonnegut's writing is simultaneously deeply cynical and naively, touchingly optimistic. He delineated the worst behavior of mankind unflinchingly, even casually. He laid out our worst follies and ridiculed them mercilessly. Still, he held out the slim hope that if we would just be nice to each other, things would be better. Expressed so baldly, this may seem the prescription of a simpleton, but really it's just "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" minus the mystical underpinning. (He references the original here.)

Vonnegut often returned to the idea of religion, usually lampooning it yet seeming to have a fondness for some aspects. Two prime examples are The Sirens of Titan (1959) and Cat's Cradle (1963). (The latter includes a mock anthropological analysis; the University of Chicago, having rejected his previous thesis ideas, accepted Cat's Cradle and granted him his graduate degree.) A couple of years ago Vonnegut, Honorary President of the American Humanist Association, wrote, "And if I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, 'Kurt is up in heaven now.' That's my favorite joke." Here's to Kurt Vonnegut in heaven. "Farewell, hello, farewell, hello." - Steve Holtje sholtje.jpg

Mr. Holtje probably uses more semi-colons than anybody since Henry James. But last year Mr. Vonnegut told an audience at Ohio State, "Never use semi-colons. What are they good for? All semi-colons do is suggest you've been to college." So for this article, Mr. Holtje shunned semi-colons.