So long, Mr. Vonnegut

The title of this blog, The Free Lance” is the name H.L. Menken used for a column of his; my son Samuel is named for Sam Clemens; and, I saw Spalding Gray four times in the six years before he died. These are my bona fides for writing about the loss I feel on the death of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

It’s not that I anticipated reading lots more from him, but there was something pleasant about knowing he was alive, still smoking filterless Pall Malls and undoubtedly bitching at someone about something. (He once described smoking as “a fairly sure, fairly honorable form of suicide.)
I first read Vonnegut as a teenager, as I suspect lots of others did. I read the wonderfully funny and sad Slaughterhouse Five, Or, The Children’s Crusade, at the suggestion of a favorite high school teacher. I loved it most for the odd way it mixed the story of the bombing of Dresden (which Vonnegut lived through as a prisoner of war), with the tale of a man living happily with a starlet in a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore. I’ve read Slaughterhouse Five a number of times since, listened to a really great audio version, read by Ethan Hawke, and if there was a copy right here now I’d probably pick it up and read it again right away.

Vonnegut was, in many ways, as engagingly contradictory as his novel about war and Tralfamadore. He was famously pessimistic, but with a humanist warmth that Twain lacked. For example, he wrote:

I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, ‘Please—a little less love, and a little more common decency.’

A direct and palpable hit on the institution of love if there ever was one, but then there’s the grudging hope in a plea for common decency.

Another contradiction: He was a socialist, but wrote Harrison Bergeron, a short story with a barb aimed at the heart of the idea of absolute equality. The Wall St. Journal published Harrison Bergeron a few years ago in its editorial section; not the kind of place you’d expect an admirer of Eugene Debs to hang out. (You can read Harrison Bergeron here.)

Over the past few years, Vonnegut became embittered about the direction the Bush administration was leading America. Once during an interview, he said he was going to sue Brown & Williamson, manufacturers of Pall Malls, because: “they promised to kill me. Instead, their cigarettes didn’t work. Now I’m forced to suffer leaders with names like Bush and Dick and, up until recently, ‘Colon'” But then in May of 2004 he wrote “Cold Turkey,” a diatribe about the follies of human beings generally and the US under President Bush specifically. In the middle of this bleak prognosis for mankind, he wrote about the inspiration of Confucius, Eugene Debs, Jesus, and of Vonnegut’s own his son, who, asked “what life is all about”, responded: “Father, we are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”

So that’s my short tribute to Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who lived through the horrors of the bombing of Dresden, but still retained enough hope to rant pessimistically about a 21st century America, somewhat older, but not a whit wiser. Just one more favorite story…

Death was a subject Vonnegut wrote about a lot in that characteristically unimpressed way he had. In Breakfast of Champions, he described a short story written by one of his characters as:

..a dialogue between two pieces of yeast. They were discussing the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.

Typically Vonnegut, it’s not a very pleasant view of life or death. But then, right there at the end, there’s that champagne.

3 thoughts on “So long, Mr. Vonnegut

  1. I heard a Fresh Air interview this afternoon, of KV a couple of years ago. He talked a bit about Dresden, and his voice broke after all these years. He said he was the only person in the world who benefited from the bombing of Dresden, because he made $3 per body that he carries to a mass grave. Chilling.

  2. Like Kendra, I could not really figure out how to express my own sadness about Vonnegut’s passing. I sat yesterday in my car, in a parking lot, just so I could listen to the replay of one an off-the-cuff diatribe he uttered in 2003 at a forum on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Like you, there was something wonderful and reassuring about the simple knowledge that he was out there and thinking and complaining in his funny-sad-biting kind of way.

    And thank you for the link to Harrison Bergeron. It has been one of my favorite stories since I first read it in Jr. High. I discuss it sometimes in my Intro Sociology classes as a way to talk about the difference between equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes.

    Thank you for your tribute, Tom. Your pieces always manage to beautifully blend real emotional feeling with intellectual reflection. I’m grateful that you’re out there writing.

  3. Thanks for writing all this… I sat down a few times today and couldn’t quite figure out exactly how to mourn such a sappy optimistic curmudgeon and do any kind of justice. Also, I saw the phrase “Absolute Equality” and thought of a book/art piece you may enjoy. It’s called Neotopia
    I think Vonnegut would have approved… it kindly, absurdly tells us about our worst nature.

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