God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut
Or why the aging science fiction satirist deserves the Nobel Prize for literature
One day in the summer of 1969 my brother handed me a paperback book, saying, “Here, I think you’ll like this one.” The book was The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
My brother Phil went through sci-fi paperbacks like candy, and once in a while he would bring a book to my attention. What I was on the lookout for was anything that would make me laugh out loud, books like Catcher in the Rye, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Catch-22. Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan definitely fell into that category. I was amazed and delighted. It was sort of science fictional but mostly just off the wall, creative, inventive and funny!
After that I found and read Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Welcome to the Monkey House and Slaughterhouse-Five. Like a lot of other high-school and college kids at the time, I became a Vonnegut fan. Here was a writer, judging by the evidence in his books, who was about the same age as my parents. But what a difference! He seemed to understand exactly what was going on in the world and what my attitudes were toward God, country and authority. And he kept making me laugh.
The facts of Vonnegut’s life are familiar to many of his readers. He was born in Indianapolis, Ind., in 1922, the third child of a prominent architect father and a rich and brilliant but mentally unbalanced mother. When the Great Depression came along, the family’s financial situation suffered drastically, but Kurt was still able to attend Cornell University, where he studied chemistry and wrote for the school paper.
In 1943 he quit school to enlist in the Army. He was a private in the infantry, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, became a prisoner of war and survived the allied fire bombing of Dresden.
After the war he married his high-school sweetheart, Jane Cox, and attended graduate school at the University of Chicago. He studied anthropology, but his master’s thesis was rejected, and he left without a degree.
In 1947 the Vonneguts moved to Schenectady, N.Y., and Kurt took a job as a publicist at General Electric. (His first novel, Player Piano , would parody the corporate world of G.E. and Schenectady.) He began writing short stories that he sold to magazines such as Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post. The best of these stories were collected in Canary in a Cat House (1961) and Welcome to the Monkey House (1968), essentially the same book.
Encouraged by his success, Vonnegut quit his job at G.E. and moved with wife and children to West Barnstable, Mass. This is where he wrote his great early novels: The Sirens of Titan (1959), Mother Night (1961), Cat’s Cradle (1963) and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965). On the strength of these books he was offered a teaching position at the prestigious University of Iowa Writers Workshop. He taught there during the 1965-1966 academic year. After his stint in Iowa, Vonnegut received a Guggenheim Fellowship, visited Germany, and completed the book that remains his masterpiece, his novel about the fire bombing of Dresden, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).
Amidst the commercial and critical success of Slaughterhouse-Five, and with their children mostly grown and on their own, Kurt and Jane separated. Kurt moved by himself to Manhattan. He wrote a play, Happy Birthday Wanda June, that played with some success off-Broadway. In 1971 he taught creative writing at Harvard and became involved with photographer Jill Krementz, whom he would later marry. Also in that year the University of Chicago belatedly awarded him a master’s degree, citing the contribution of Cat’s Cradle to the field of cultural anthropology. 1972 saw the public television broadcast of Between Time and Timbuktu, a film based on Vonnegut’s fiction, and in 1973 a movie of Slaughterhouse-Five debuted.
In 1974 a new Vonnegut novel was out, Breakfast of Champions. In that novel Vonnegut announced the end of his career as a writer. “I am approaching my fiftieth birthday,” he wrote. “I am cleansing and renewing myself for the very different sorts of years to come. Under similar spiritual conditions, Count Tolstoi freed his serfs. Thomas Jefferson freed his slaves. I am going to set at liberty all the literary characters who have served me so loyally during my writing career.”
Maybe I was naive, but I believed him. I don’t remember being greatly disappointed. In the mid-1970s everyone was going to achieve enlightenment, or at least higher consciousness. At the time I read Breakfast of Champions, I was also reading a book called The Master Game, which identified and explained various paths to permanent bliss. It seemed to me that, compared to achieving true enlightenment, the writing of novels was small potatoes.
I guess I was reading too much in, or the times changed, or the enlightenment didn’t take, because in the years that followed Vonnegut kept writing and publishing novels: Slapstick (1976), Jailbird (1979) and Deadeye Dick (1982). I read the first of these but only took a look at the other two, thinking they weren’t on a par with his earlier work. Not only was I somewhat disappointed that he had gone back on his promise to retire from writing, but the quality of his work also seemed to have reversed course.
Who knows? Maybe he was in a mid-career slump. At any rate he kept writing. Galapagos was published in 1985, followed by Bluebeard in 1987. These novels were not as wildly inventive as his early work or as artful as Slaughterhouse-Five, but they were more learned, more assured. Vonnegut was back on track, once again doing work almost equal to his brilliant early novels.
Galapagos was followed by Hocus Pocus (1990). Then there was a gap of some years before his next “last” novel, Timequake (1997). Vonnegut’s latest publications, both in 1999, were a second collection of early short stories, Bagombo Snuff Box, for which he wrote a very amusing introduction, and God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, a collection of insightful and imaginative pieces that he wrote for short spots on New York radio station WNYC.
Vonnegut spent the 2000-2001 academic year teaching writing at Smith College and began work on his next “last” novel, If God Were Alive Today. He has pursued a late career as a visual artist with shows at several New York galleries. Two more of his novels, Mother Night and Breakfast of Champions, have been made into movies, and he has had cameo roles in both. He continues to speak publicly on occasion, most recently at the University of Iowa and at the Chicago Public Library.
Vonnegut still smokes Pall Malls, a longtime addiction. You may remember hearing his name in the news when he was hospitalized for smoke inhalation after a cigarette started a fire in his apartment. He recovered fully and remains active and in reasonably good health. He and Krementz divide their time primarily between a home on Long Island and a Manhattan apartment. They were on Long Island when the attack on the World Trade Center occurred. A friend who spoke to Vonnegut that day said he seemed relatively unfazed, having lived through much worse in Dresden. His principal comment was: “With all the money the CIA spends on intelligence gathering, you’d think they could recruit one Muslim.”
So here it is the 21st century already. Somehow I have gotten to be 50 years old, the same age Vonnegut was when he first retired from writing. Now he’s closing in on his 80th birthday. Neither of us, as far as I can tell, has yet achieved true enlightenment, but he is still writing and I am still laughing out loud when I read his books. Recently I have been rereading his novels, partly for laughs, partly to see if his work is really as good as I first thought it was. There’s a short answer to that one: Yes, it is.
His greatest strength at all times is his sense of humor, but life is not just a joke to Vonnegut. At bottom there is sadness, poignancy, beauty and wonder. He deals with moral and existential questions. Who are we? Why are we here? How should we behave? The first two questions are most often treated playfully and given a great deal of leeway. They may not be answerable, but it’s fun to try. The third question receives some very definite answers. We should treat each other with kindness and common courtesy. We should stop sending children to kill and be killed in wars. We should find ways to break down barriers of class and race. We should start paying attention to preserving our planet for future generations.
Many American novelists as they grow older seem to lose their way, done in by fame or alcohol, or simply with nothing left to say. Vonnegut had his own struggles with depression and alcohol but kept writing and has seemed to grow kinder and wiser with age. His continuing popularity and influence are attested to by the fact that all of his books remain in print. He is as likely to be the favorite author of a college student in 2001 as he was in 1969, and a growing number of professors are paying serious attention to his work.
At this late stage in his career, I believe Kurt Vonnegut deserves a Nobel Prize for literature. He deserves the dynamite money. He has, in his own way and time, been as great a writer as Faulkner or Hemingway. He has produced a remarkable body of work ranging over half a century in time. He has spoken unstintingly for peace and kindness and simple human decency and has done so with humor and sympathy and more than a little art.
God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut. You have made the world a better place. Thank you for Bokonon and Boko-maru, for Kilgore Trout, Tralfamadore and so much more. Thank you for fathering an extended family of Vonnegut readers, and for making it possible to add to the family simply by handing someone a book and saying, “Here, I think you’ll like this one.”
Poet and critic Daniel Barth is a former Chico resident who now lives in Mendocino County.