“A writer is first and foremost a teacher.”
— Kurt Vonnegut
KURT VONNEGUT (1922-2007) stands in the long line of Emersonian American writers — those who, in Emerson’s words, “utter our painful secret,” or as Vonnegut put it in Timequake: “many people need desperately to receive this message: ‘I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people don’t care about them. You are not alone’.” The latter reassurance echoes and reechoes throughout his novels because of Vonnegut’s core belief, articulated in an interview, that “the great American disease is loneliness.” Hence his emphasis on the need for community (Timequake) and his on-going experiments with constructing artificial extended families (Slapstick). In addition, Vonnegut shares with Thoreau a sense of being but a “sojourner” — to which he adds the ethical imperative that we must “help one another get through whatever this is.” And like Mark Twain, he responds to his country’s shortcomings, failures, and pretensions with satire, while engaging and absorbing the common and the vulgar.
At the time of his death, Vonnegut was acclaimed as one of the United States’s most important twentieth-century writers — one who may also be seen as the representative post-World War II American writer both because of his subject matter and his innovative techniques. The five years since his death have seen a series of both good and unfortunate posthumous publications bearing his name, along with editions of his letters and interviews and a major full-scale biography. The compilation of interviews Tom McCartan selected from the last 35 years of Vonnegut’s life, Kurt Vonnegut: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (Melville House, 2011), nicely supplements William Rodney Allen’s earlier and much larger compendium, Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut (1988), while Love as Always, Kurt: Vonnegut as I Knew Him (Da Capo Press, 2009) records Loree Rackstraw and Vonnegut’s enduring friendship begun during his stay at the Iowa Writers Workshop in the 1960s. Rackstraw, an astute literary critic, also proves one of Vonnegut’s most competent readers.
Dan Wakefield’s meticulously edited Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (Delacourt, 2012) reflects sides of Vonnegut hinted at in interviews but here explored more fully: a loving, caring father, a frustrated businessman, a truly professional writer engaged with all aspects of his craft, and a self-educated American intellectual. Wakefield’s edition of the letters needs to be juxtaposed to Charles J. Shields exhaustive, well-researched biography, And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life (Henry Holt, 2011). Shields’s Vonnegut at the end proves a bitter old man whose work is finished, whose personal life is bereft of pleasure, whose children have long forgotten him, whose wife clearly loathes him, and so forth. Most of which is certainly true — at least as far as an outsider can judge. But if the emphasis becomes shifted ever so slightly, as in Wakefield’s editing of the letters, then a different Kurt Vonnegut emerges: one who is devoted to his children, who radiates love as well as despair, who is at one and the same time both an acute and a baffled businessman, and who has a healthy, self-deprecating view of his significance (“I am an American fad of a slightly higher order than the hula hoop”).
During his lifetime, Vonnegut rigorously guarded what could be published under his name. When he died, he left dozens of stories and a partially finished novel in his files, none of which he had deemed worthy of publication. Unfortunately, his wishes were not respected and a cottage industry sprang up, publishing several volumes of inferior works, including: Armageddon in Retrospect (Berkley, 2008), Look at the Birdie: Unpublished Short Fiction (Delacorte, 2009), While Mortals Sleep: Unpublished Short Fiction (Delacorte, 2011), and We Are What We Pretend to Be: The First and Last Works (Vanguard Press, 2012). Whether put together as an act of misplaced piety or out of greed, such books do a grave disservice to Vonnegut by damaging his reputation as well as disrespecting his clearly expressed wishes not to publish. Except for the charming reminiscence by Nanette Vonnegut — the “Nanny” of his many affectionate letters — neither “Basic Training” nor “If God Were Alive Today” deserve publication in We Are What We Pretend To Be. (Those manuscripts could have been donated to the Vonnegut collection in the Lilly Library at Indiana University or given to the new Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis, to be available primarily to scholars but also to those curious about what Vonnegut chose not to publish.) While “Basic Training” shows considerable promise, especially in some of its dialogue, it remains an apprentice writer’s stereotypical early story, with clichéd characters and a violent climax — the mature Vonnegut eschewed both these things. He did, however, learn from his mistakes in this and other early fiction, and two years after finishing “Basic Training” published Player Piano, an early-’50s satire with remarkable staying power that, as he wrote to film director Robert Weide in 1983, “gets more timely with each passing day.”
The “last work” in this regrettable volume, “If God Were Alive Today,” is, as Vonnegut said repeatedly in private letters and public statements, a novel that “will not let itself be finished . . . [that] I can never finish.” While he worked for years on this novel, he was never remotely satisfied with it and finally, close to the end of his life, answered an interviewer’s question: “Is there another book in you…” with a vigorous, unequivocal “No…. There are plenty of other people writing. Let them do it.” In “If God Were Alive Today,” he had set himself an almost impossible task: much of the surviving manuscript consists of the various routines of a standup comic — routines that Vonnegut would try out in his column for In These Times and in interviews. If Cat’s Cradle with its plethora of jokes took five years to complete at the rate of a draft page a day, how many years would a novel about a standup comic take? Clearly more than Vonnegut had left. Moreover, some of this so-called “last work” is simply recycled material from previous fiction and speeches, while the rest appears tired and not nearly as original as Vonnegut’s most celebrated work.
A parallel failure, as he himself recognized, occurred with the late Mark Twain who, Vonnegut observes in his 2007 collection A Man without a Country, also ‘held the awfulness of life at bay with jokes … but finally could not do it anymore.” Vonnegut then perceptively adds, speaking of himself, “It may be that I am no longer able to joke — that it is no longer a satisfactory defense mechanism.” One reason for the deep pessimism that was “making [him] unfunny” lay in his facing what he called “the biggest truth … that I don’t think people give a damn whether the planet goes on or not.” As The Last Interview reveals, he even had bumper stickers printed and distributed that read: “Good Earth. We could have saved it, but we were too damn cheap and lazy.”
Similarly, Armageddon in Retrospect is a collection of previously rejected short fiction bundled together with a personal letter to his family that Vonnegut wrote at an army repatriation center in Le Havre, France on 29 May 1945. This letter is valuable, as I demonstrated a decade ago in my book The Novels of Kurt Vonnegut: Imagining Being an American (Praeger, 2003), but it is now readily available in Sidney Offit’s 2011 Library of America volume of the Novels and Stories 1963-1973. The rest of Armageddon in Retrospect is apprentice fiction that shows some promise here and there, but that is all. Those readers who have seen only facility and superficiality in Vonnegut’s work will have their opinions confirmed by these fugitives from his extensive files of rejected and unpublished manuscripts. John Irving years ago commended Vonnegut’s deceptively simple style, his lucidity, as “hard and brave work” in a literary world where “pure messiness is frequently thought to be a sign of some essential wrestling with ‘hard questions’.”
Similar to the charge of superficiality, his work has occasionally been denigrated because of its relationship with science fiction. But the 1969 publication of Slaughterhouse-Five helped to change the reading public’s perception of SF as immured in a pop-culture ghetto, showing it to be a vehicle for serious thought and cultural commentary. Slaughterhouse-Five was reviewed on page one of the New York Times Book Review by Robert Scholes, an eminent academic critic who declared in no uncertain terms that Slaughterhouse-Five was “a book we need to read, and to reread,” disposing of any anticipated objections to Vonnegut’s employment of science-fiction tropes. Slaughterhouse-Five quickly became both a critical and a popular success, catapulting Vonnegut from relative obscurity to celebrity status in a matter of months. As Dan Wakefield remarks in Letters, “The timing of the novel’s publication was eerily right, for by 1969 many Americans had become critical of the war in Vietnam,” leaving them open to a novel that questioned the received wisdom about World War II. Unlike most instant best-sellers, however, Slaughterhouse-Five in more than four decades has never gone out of print.
Vonnegut was proud of his science fiction. Despite some grousing about being dismissed for writing SF, he boasted in a 1975 letter to the editor of Newsweek that “I am the first SF writer to win a Guggenheim, the first to become a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the first to have a book become a finalist for a National Book Award.”
As a writer, Vonnegut was “untimely” in that he was “a modernist in a postmodern condition,” as Robert Tally astutely claims in his recent book Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel (Continuum, 2011). Reacting to that condition in Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut continually breaks down order and continuity to better reflect the chaos of the contemporary world: “Others may bring order to chaos,” he writes, “I am bringing chaos to order.” Throughout his novels, what appears to be order — whether imposed by a greater force (The Sirens of Titan), by corporations (Player Piano), by politics (Jailbird), by the armed forces (Hocus Pocus), by spying (Mother Night), or even by the narrator (Breakfast of Champions) — always proves an illusion. What remains is human awareness in all its complexity.
“One thing that makes my books hard to write,” Vonnegut confided to his daughter in a letter, “is that I try to tell stories without the almost essential elements of blame and villainy.” Moreover, from the start of his career to its end, Vonnegut never lost his true voice, which he described often (as he does in The Last Interview) as that “of a child.” A special child, admittedly — but still a child, one who continually sees those in power parading in the nude and calls attention to their sartorial poverty. Speaking truth to power while uttering “our painful secret,” Vonnegut was the truly representative American writer of the post WWII era.