Authors: Kurt Vonnegut
“UNIQUE … one of the writers who map our landscapes for us, who give names to the places we know best.”
—DORIS LESSING,The New York Times Book Review
“OUR FINEST BLACK-HUMORIST…. We laugh in self-defense.”
—The Atlantic Monthly
“AN UNIMITATIVE AND INIMITABLE SOCIAL SATIRIST.”
“A CAUSE FOR CELEBRATION.”
“A LAUGHING PROPHET OF DOOM.”
—The New York TimesBOOKS BY KURT VONNEGUT
Breakfast of Champions
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
The Sirens of Titan
Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons
Welcome to the Monkey House
Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to use the following material:
“An Account of the Ancestry of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., by an Ancient Friend of His Family” by John G. Rauch: Used by permission of William Rauch.
Excerpts fromIndianapolismagazine used by permission.
“How to Write with Style” by Kurt Vonnegut: Reprinted by permission from International Paper Company’s “Power of the Printed Word” Program.
“Self-Interview” appeared originally inThe Paris Review, Issue #69. Copyright 1977 by The Paris Review. Reprinted by permission of The Viking Press.
“Who in America Is Truly Happy?”: Reprinted fromPolitics Today, January 1979. Used by permission.
Review of SOMETHING HAPPENED by Joseph Heller: © 1974 by The New York Times Company. Reprinted by permission.
“Introduction” to WRITE IF YOU GET WORK: THE BEST OF BOB AND RAY by Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding: Used by permission of Random House, Inc.
“Class of ’57” by Harold Reid and Don Reid: © Copyright 1972 by House of Cash, Inc., Hendersonville, Tennessee 37075. Used by permission.
Viking Penguin, Inc. for “Louis-Ferdinand Céline” as the Introduction to the Penguin edition of CASTLE TO CASTLE, RIGADOON and NORTH by Louis-Ferdinand Céline.
“Dresden Revisited” was originally an introduction for the limited edition of SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE published by the Franklin Library and signed by the writer. The work is reprinted with the permission of the Franklin Library.
“Flowers on the Wall” by Lewis DeWitt: Copyright © 1965, 1966 by Southwind Music, Inc. Rights controlled by Unichappell Music, Inc. (Rightsong Music, Inc., Publisher). International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved.
Lines from “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg: Copyright © 1956, 1959 by Allen Ginsberg. Reprinted by permission of City Lights Books.
Acknowledgment is made to the following publications in whose pages these essays first appeared:
The New York Timesfor “Un-American Nonsense”;Again, Dangerous Visionsedited by Harían Ellison for “The Big Space Fuck”; andThe Nationfor “Mark Twain” and “Palm Sunday” as “Hypocrites You Always Have With You.”
For my cousins the de St. Andrés everywhere. Who has the castle now?TABLE OF CONTENTS (BITS OF THE COLLAGE)
1THE FIRST AMENDMENT
“Dear Mr. McCarthy”—letter by KV to head of school committee in Drake, N.D., where his books were burned
“Un-American Nonsense”—essay forThe New York Timesby KV, about the banning of his books by the school committee of Island Trees, N.Y.
“God’s Law”—speech by KV at a fund raiser for the American Civil Liberties Union in Sands Point, N.Y.
“Dear Felix”—letter by KV to a Russian friend about the harassment of writers in the USSR
“An Account of the Ancestry of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., by an Ancient Friend of His Family”—formal essay by the late John G. Rauch of Indianapolis
3WHEN I LOST MY INNOCENCE
“What I Liked about Cornell”—speech by KV to an annual banquet ofThe Cornell Daily Sunin Ithaca, N.Y.
“When I Lost My Innocence”—essay by KV forAftonbladet,a Swedish newspaper
“I Am Embarrassed”—antinuke speech by KV at rally in Washington, D.C.
“How to Write with Style”—essay by KV for a campaign by the International Paper Company to encourage literacy
Replies by KV to questions put by himself forThe Paris ReviewNo. 69
6THE PEOPLE ONE KNOWS
“Who in America Is Truly Happy?”—essay by KV on William F. Buckley, Jr., forPolitics Today
“Something Happened”—review by KV forThe New York Times Book Reviewof Joseph Heller’s second novel
“The Rocky Graziano of American Letters”—speech by KV at banquet in honor of Irwin Shaw at the Players’ Club, New York City
“The Best of Bob and Ray”—introduction by KV to book by the great comedians Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding
“James T. Farrell”—speech by KV at Farrell’s funeral in New York City
“Lavina Lyon”—speech by KV at the funeral of an old friend in Lexington, Ky.
“The Class of ’57”—song by Don and Harold Reid of the Statler Brothers, a country-music quartet
“The Noodle Factory”—speech by KV at the dedication of the new library at the University of Connecticut, New London
“Mark Twain”—speech by KV at the one-hundredth anniversary celebration of the completion of Mark Twain’s fanciful residence in Hartford, Conn.
9FUNNIER ON PAPER THAN MOST PEOPLE
“How Jokes Work”—commencement address by KV at Fredonia College, Fredonia, N.Y.
“Do Not Mourn!”—speech written by KV’s great-grandfather, Clemens Vonnegut, to be read at his own funeral
“Thoughts of a Free Thinker”—commencement address by KV at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, N.Y.
“William Ellery Charming”—speech by KV on the 200th anniversary of the birth of the great Unitarian minister, First Parish Church, Cambridge, Mass.
“The Big Space Fuck”—short story by KV
“Fear and Loathing in Morristown, NJ.”—speech by KV to the Mental Health Association of New Jersey
“Dear Mr. X”—letter by Nanette Vonnegut, waitress, to disgruntled restaurant customer
14JONATHAN SWIFT MISPERCEIVED
“Jonathan Swift”—rejected introduction by KV to new edition ofGulliver’s Travels
15JEKYLL AND HYDE UPDATED
The Chemistry Professor—treatment by KV for a musical comedy based on Stevenson’sDr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
16A NAZI SYMPATHIZER DEFENDED AT SOME COST
“Louis-Ferdinand Céline”—introduction by KV to paperback editions of the controversial author’s last three novels
17A NAZI CITY MOURNED AT SOME PROFIT
“Dresden Revisited”—introduction by KV to new edition ofSlaughterhouse- Five
18THE SEXUAL REVOLUTION
“Flowers on the Wall”—song by Lew De Witt of the Statler Brothers
19IN THE CAPITAL OF THE WORLD
“Palm Sunday”—sermon delivered by KV at St. Clement’s Church, New York CityINTRODUCTION
THIS ISa very great book by an American genius. I have worked so hard on this masterpiece for the past six years. I have groaned and banged my head on radiators. I have walked through every hotel lobby in New York, thinking about this book and weeping, and driving my fist into the guts of grandfather clocks.
It is a marvelous new literary form. This book combines the tidal power of a major novel with the bone-rattling immediacy of front-line journalism—which is old stuff now, God knows, God knows. But I have also intertwined the flashy enthusiasms of musical theater, the lethal left jab of the short story, the sachet of personal letters, the oompah of American history, and oratory in the bow-wow style.
This book is so broad and deep that it reminds me of my brother Bernard’s early experiments with radio. He built a transmitter of his own invention, and he hooked it up to a telegraph key, and he turned it on. He called up our cousin Richard, about two miles away, and he told Richard to listen to his radio, to tune it back and forth across the band, to see if he could pick up my brother’s signals anywhere. They were both about fifteen.
My brother tapped out an easily recognizable message, sending it again and again and again. It was “SOS.” This was in Indianapolis, the world’s largest city not on a navigable waterway.
Cousin Richard telephoned back. He was thrilled. He said that Bernard’s signals were loud and clear simply everywhere on the radio band, drowning out music or news or drama, or whatever the commercial stations were putting out at the time.
• • •
This is certainly that kind of masterpiece, and a new name should be created for such an all-frequencies assault on the sensibilities. I propose the nameblivit. This is a word which during my adolescence was defined by peers as “two pounds of shit in a one-pound bag.”
I would not mind if books simpler than this one, but combining fiction and fact, were also called blivits. This would encourageThe New York Times Book Reviewto establish a third category for best sellers, one long needed, in my opinion. If there were a separate list for blivits, then authors of blivits could stop stepping in the faces of mere novelists and historians and so on.
Until that happy day, however, I insist, as only a great author can, that this book be ranked in both the fiction and nonfiction competitions. As for the Pulitzer prizes: this book should be eligible for a mega-grand slam, sweeping fiction, drama, history, biography, and journalism. We will wait and see.
• • •
This book is not only a blivit but a collage. It began with my wish to collect in one volume most of the reviews and speeches and essays I had written since the publication of a similar collection,Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons, in 1974.But as I arranged those fragments in this order and then that one, I saw that they formed a sort of autobiography, especially if I felt free to include some pieces not written by me. To give life to such a golem, however, I would have to write much new connective tissue. This I have done.
The reader should expect me to chat about this and that, and then to include a speech or a letter or a song or whatever, and then to chat some more.
I do not really consider this to be a masterpiece. I find it clumsy. I find it raw. It has some value, I think, as a confrontation between an American novelist and his own stubborn simplicity. I was dumb in school. Whatever the nature of that dumbness, it is with me still.
I have dedicated this book to the de St. Andrés. I am a de St. André, since that was the maiden name of a maternal great-grandmother of mine. My mother believed that this meant that she was descended from nobles of some kind.
This was an innocent belief, and so should not be mocked or scorned. Or so I say. My books so far have argued that most human behavior, no matter how ghastly or ludicrous or glorious or whatever, is innocent. And here seems as good a place as any to include a statement made to me by Marsha Mason, the superb actress who once did me the honor of starring in a play of mine. She, too, is from the Middle West, from St. Louis.
“You know what the trouble is with New York?” she asked me.
“No,” I said.
“Nobody here,” she said, “believes that there is such a thing as innocence.”
Whoever entertains liberal viewsand chooses a consort that is capturedby superstition risks his libertyand his happiness.
—CLEMENS VONNEGUT(1824-1906)Instruction in Morals(The Hollenbeck Press, Indianapolis, 1900)1 THE FIRST AMENDMENT
IAM A MEMBERof what I believe to be the last recognizable generation of full-time, life-time American novelists. We appear to be standing more or less in a row. It was the Great Depression which made us similarly edgy and watchful. It was World War II which lined us up so nicely, whether we were men or women, whether we were ever in uniform or not. It was an era of romantic anarchy in publishing which gave us money and mentors, willy-nilly, when we were young—while we learned our craft. Words printed on pages were still the principal form of long-distance communication and stored information in America when we were young.
Nor are there many publishers and editors and agents left who are eager to find some way to get money and other forms of encouragement to young writers who write as clumsily as members of my literary generation did when we started out. The wild and wonderful and expensive guess was made back then that, we might acquire some wisdom and learn how to write halfway decently by and by. Writers were needed that much back then.
It was an amusing and instructive time for writers—for hundreds of them.
Television wrecked the short-story branch of the industry, and now accountants and business school graduates dominate book publishing. They feel that money spent on someone’s first novel is good money down a rat hole. They are right. It almost always is.
So, as I say, I think I belong to America’s last generation of novelists. Novelists will come one by one from now on, not in seeming families, and will perhaps write only one or two novels, and let it go at that. Many will have inherited or married money.
The most influential of my bunch, in my opinion, is still J. D. Salinger, although he has been silent for years. The most promising was perhaps Edward Lewis Wallant, who died so young. And it is my thinking about the death of James Jones two years ago, who was not all that young, who was almost exactly my age, which accounts for the autumnal mood of this book. There have been other reminders of my own mortality, to be sure, but the death of Jones is central—perhaps because I see his widow Gloria so often and because he, too, was a self-educated midwesterner, and because he, too, in a major adventure for all of us, which was the Second World War, had been an enlisted man. And let it here be noted that the best-known members of my literary generation, if they wrote about war, almost unanimously despised officers and made heroes of sketchily educated, aggressively unaristocratic enlisted men.
• • •
James Jones told me one time that his publisher and Ernest Hemingway’s, Charles Scribner’s Sons, had once hoped to get Jones and Hemingway together—so that they could enjoy each other’s company as old warriors.
Jones declined, by his own account, because he did not regard Hemingway as a fellow soldier. He said Hemingway in wartime was free to come and go from the fighting aspleased, and to take time off for a fine meal or woman or whatever. Real soldiers, according to Jones, damn well had to stay where they were told, or go where they were told, and eat swill, and take the worst the enemy had to throw at them day after day, week after week.
• • •
It may be that the most striking thing about members of my literary generation in retrospect will be that we were allowed to say absolutely anything without fear of punishment. Our American heirs may find it incredible, as most foreigners do right now, that a nation would want to enforce as a law something which sounds more like a dream, which reads as follows:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
How could a nation with such a law raise its children in an atmosphere of decency? It couldn’t—it can’t. So the law will surely be repealed soon for the sake of children.
And even now my books, along with books by Bernard Malamud and James Dickey and Joseph Heller and many other first-rate patriots, are regularly thrown out of public-school libraries by school board members, who commonly say that they have not actually read the books, but that they have it on good authority that the books are bad for children.
• • •
My novelSlaughterhouse-Fivewas actually burned in a furnace by a school janitor in Drake, North Dakota, on instructions from the school committee there, and the school board made public statements about the unwholesomeness of the book. Even by the standards of Queen Victoria, the onlyoffensive line in the entire novel is this: “Get out of the road, you dumb motherfucker.” This is spoken by an American antitank gunner to an unarmed American chaplain’s assistant during the Battle of the Bulge in Europe in December 1944, the largest single defeat of American arms (the Confederacy excluded) in history. The chaplain’s assistant had attracted enemy fire.
So on November 16, 1973, I wrote as follows to Charles McCarthy of Drake, North Dakota:
Dear Mr. McCarthy:
I am writing to you in your capacity as chairman of the Drake School Board. I am among those American writers whose books have been destroyed in the now famous furnace of your school.
Certain members of your community have suggested that my work is evil. This is extraordinarily insulting to me. The news from Drake indicates to me that books and writers are very unreal to you people. I am writing this letter to let you know how real I am.
I want you to know, too, that my publisher and I have done absolutely nothing to exploit the disgusting news from Drake. We are not clapping each other on the back, crowing about all the books we will sell because of the news. We have declined to go on television, have written no fiery letters to editorial pages, have granted no lengthy interviews. We are angered and sickened and saddened. And no copies of this letter have been sent to anybody else. You now hold the only copy in your hands. It is a strictly private letter from me to the people of Drake, who have done so much to damage my reputation in the eyes of their children and then in the eyes of the world. Do you have the courage and ordinary decency to show this letter to the people, or will it, too, be consigned to the fires of your furnace?
I gather from what I read in the papers and hear on television that you imagine me, and some other writers, too, as being sort of ratlike people who enjoy making money from poisoning the minds of young people. I am in fact a large, strong person, fifty-one years old, who did a lot of farm work as a boy, who is good with tools. I have raised six children, three my own and three adopted. They have all turned out well. Two of them are farmers. I am a combat infantry veteran from World War II, and hold a Purple Heart. I have earned whatever I own by hard work. I have never been arrested or sued for anything. I am so much trusted with young people and by young people that I have served on the faculties of the University of Iowa, Harvard, and the City College of New York. Every year I receive at least a dozen invitations to be commencement speaker at colleges and high schools. My books are probably more widely used in schools than those of any other living American fiction writer.
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.
After I have said all this, I am sure you are still ready to respond, in effect, “Yes, yes—but it still remains our right and our responsibility to decide what books our children are going to be made to read in our community.” This is surely so. But it is also true that if you exercise that right and fulfill that responsibility in an ignorant, harsh, un-American manner,then people are entitled to call you bad citizens and fools. Even your own children are entitled to call you that.
I read in the newspaper that your community is mystified by the outcry from all over the country about what you have done. Well, you have discovered that Drake is a part of American civilization, and your fellow Americans can’t stand it that you have behaved in such an uncivilized way. Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.
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 education 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.
• • •
That was seven years ago. There has so far been no reply. At this very moment, as I write in New York City,Slaughterhouse-Fivehas been banned from school libraries not fifty miles from here. A legal battle begun several years ago rages on. The school board in question has found lawyers eager to attack the First Amendment tooth and nail. There is never a shortage anywhere of lawyers eager to attack the First Amendment, as though it were nothing more than a clause in a lease from a crooked slumlord.
At the start of that particular litigation, on March 24thof 1976, I wrote a comment for the Op-Ed page of the Long Island edition ofThe New York Times. It went like this:
A school board has denounced some books again—out in Levittown this time. One of the books was mine. I hear about un-American nonsense like this twice a year or so. One time out in North Dakota, the books were actually burned in a furnace. I had a laugh. It was such an ignorant, dumb, superstitious thing to do.
It was so cowardly, too—to make a great show of attacking artifacts. It was like St. George attacking bedspreads and cuckoo clocks.
Yes, and St. Georges like that seem to get elected or appointed to school committees all the time. They are actually proud of their illiteracy. They imagine that they are somehow celebrating the bicentennial when they boast, as some did in Levittown, that they hadn’t actually read the books they banned.
Such lunks are often the backbone of volunteer fire departments and the United States Infantry and cake sales and so on, and they have been thanked often enough for that. But they have no business supervising the educations of children in a free society. They are just too bloody stupid.
Here is how I propose to end book-banning in this country once and for all: Every candidate for school committee should be hooked up to a lie-detector and asked this question: “Have you read a book from start to finish since high school? Or did you even read a book from start to finish in high school?”
If the truthful answer is “no,” then the candidate should be told politely that he cannot get on the school committee and blow off his big bazoo about how books make children crazy.
Whenever ideas are squashed in this country, literate lovers of the American experiment write careful and intricateexplanations of why all ideas must be allowed to live. It is time for them to realize that they are attempting to explain America at its bravest and most optimistic to orangutans.
From now on, I intend to limit my discourse with dimwitted Savonarolas to this advice: “Have somebody read the First Amendment to the United States Constitution out loud to you, you God damned fool!”
Well—the American Civil Liberties Union or somebody like that will come to the scene of trouble, as they always do. They will explain what is in the Constitution, and to whom it applies.
They will win.
And there will be millions who are bewildered and heartbroken by the legal victory, who think some things should never be said—especially about religion.
They are in the wrong place at the wrong time.
• • •
Why is it so ordinary for American citizens to show such scorn for the First Amendment? I discussed that some at a fund raiser for the American Civil Liberties Union at Sands Point, New York, out on Long Island, on September 16, 1979. The house where I spoke, incidentally, was said to be the model for Gatsby’s house in F. Scott Fitzgerald’sThe Great Gatsby. I saw no reason to doubt the claim.
I said this in such a setting:
“I will not speak directly to the ejection of my bookSlaughterhouse-Fivefrom the school libraries of Island Trees. I have a vested interest. I wrote the book, after all, so why wouldn’t I argue, that it is less repulsive than the school board says?
“I will speak of Thomas Aquinas instead. I will tell you my dim memories of what he said about the hierarchy of lawson this planet, which was flat at the time. The highest law, he said, was divine law, God’s law. Beneath that was natural law, which I suppose would include thunderstorms, and our right to shield our children from poisonous ideas, and so on.
“And the lowest law was human law.
“Let me clarify this scheme by comparing its parts to playing cards. Enemies of the Bill of Rights do the same sort of thing all the time, so why shouldn’t we? Divine law, then, is an ace. Natural law is a king. The Bill of Rights is a lousy queen.
“The Thomist hierarchy of laws is so far from being ridiculous that I have never met anybody who did not believe in it right down to the marrow of his or her bones. Everybody knows that there are laws with more grandeur than those which are printed in our statute books. The big trouble is that there is so little agreement as to how those grander laws are worded. Theologians can give us hints of the wording, but it takes a dictator to set them down just right—to dot the t’s and cross the i’s. A man who had been a mere corporal in the army did that for Germany and then for all of Europe, you may remember, not long ago. There was nothing he did not know about divine and natural law. He had fistfuls of aces and kings to play.
“Meanwhile, over on this side of the Atlantic, we were not playing with a full deck, as they say. Because of our Constitution, the highest card anybody had to play was a lousy queen, contemptible human law. That remains true today. I myself celebrate that incompleteness, since it has obviously been so good for us. I support the American Civil Liberties Union because it goes to court to insist that our government officials be guided by nothing grander than human law. Every time the circulation of this idea or that one is discouraged by an official in this country, that official is scorning the Constitution, and urging all of us to participate in far grander systems, again: divine or natural law.
“Cannot we, as libertarians, hunger for at least a little natural law? Can’t we learn from nature at least, without being burdened by another person’s idea of God?
“Certainly. Granola never harmed anybody, nor the birds and bees—not to mention milk. God is unknowable, but nature is explaining herself all the time. What has she told us so far? That blacks are obviously inferior to whites, for one thing, and intended for menial work on white man’s terms. This clear lesson from nature, we should remind ourselves from time to time, allowed Thomas Jefferson to own slaves. Imagine that.
“What troubles me most about my lovely country is that its children are seldom taught that American freedom will vanish, if, when they grow up, and in the exercise of their duties as citizens, they insist that our courts and policemen and prisons be guided by divine or natural law.
“Most teachers and parents and guardians do not teach this vital lesson because they themselves never learned it, or because they dare not. Why dare they not? People can get into a lot of trouble in this country, and often have to be defended by the American Civil Liberties Union, for laying the groundwork for the lesson, which is this: That no one really understands nature or God. It is my willingness to lay this groundwork, and not sex or violence, which has got my poor book in such trouble in Island Trees—and in Drake, North Dakota, where the book was burned, and in many other communities too numerous to mention.
“I have not said that our government is anti-nature and anti-God. I have said that it is non-nature and non-God, for very good reasons that could curl your hair.
“Well—all good things must come to an end, they say. So American freedom will come to an end, too, sooner or later. How will it end? As all freedoms end: by the surrender of our destinies to the highest laws.
“To return to my foolish analogy of playing cards: kingsand aces will be played. Nobody else will have anything higher than a queen.
“There will be a struggle between those holding kings and aces. The struggle will not end, not that the rest of us will care much by then, until somebody plays the ace of spades. Nothing beats the ace of spades.
“I thank you for your attention.”
• • •
I spoke at Gatsby’s house in the afternoon. When I got back to my own house in New York City, I wrote a letter to a friend in the Soviet Union, Felix Kuznetzov, a distinguished critic and teacher, and an officer in the Union of Writers of the USSR in Moscow. The date on the letter is the same as the date of the Sands Point oration.
There was a time when I might have been half-bombed on booze when writing such a letter so late at night, a time when I might have reeked of mustard gas and roses as I punched the keys. But I don’t drink anymore. Never in my life have I written anything for publication while sozzled. But I certainly used to write a lot of letters that way.
Be that as it may, I was sober then and am sober now, and Felix Kuznetzov and I had become friends during the previous summer—at an ecumenical meeting in New York City, sponsored by the Charles F. Kettering Foundation, of American and Soviet literary persons, about ten to a side. The American delegation was headed by Norman Cousins, and included myself and Edward Albee and Arthur Miller and William Styron and John Updike. All of us had been published in the Soviet Union. I am almost entirely in print over there—with the exceptionof Mother NightandJailbird. Few, if any, of the Soviet delegates had had anything published here, and so their work was unknown to us.
We Americans were told by the Soviets that we shouldbe embarrassed that their country published so much of our work, and that we published so little of theirs. Our reply was that we would work to get more of them published over here, but that we felt, too, that the USSR could easily have put together a delegation whose works were admired and published here—and that we could easily have put together a delegation so unfamiliar to them that its members could have been sewer commissioners from Fresno, as far as anybody in the Soviet Union knew.
Felix Kuznetzov and I got along very well, at any rate. I had him over to my house, and we sat in my garden out back and talked away the better part of an afternoon.
But then, after everybody went home, there was some trouble in the Soviet Union about the publication of an outlaw magazine calledMetropole. Mostof Metropole’swriters and editors were young, impatient with the strictures placed on their writings by old poops. Nothing inMetropole, incidentally, was nearly as offensive as calling a chaplain’s assistant a “dumb motherfucker.” But theMetropolepeople were denounced, and the magazine was suppressed, and ways were discussed for making life harder for anyone associated with it.
So Albee and Styron and Updike and I sent a cable to the Writers’ Union, saying that we thought it was wrong to penalize writers for what they wrote, no matter what they wrote. Felix Kuznetzov made an official reply on behalf of the union, giving the sense of a large meeting in which distinguished writer after distinguished writer testified that those who wrote forMetropoleweren’t really writers, that they were pornographers and other sorts of disturbers of the peace, and so on. He asked that his reply be published inThe New York Times, and it was published there. Why not?
And I privately wrote to Kuznetzov as follows:
Dear Professor Kuznetzov—dear Felix—
I thank you for your prompt and frank and thoughtfulletter of August 20, and for the supplementary materials which accompanied it. I apologize for not replying in your own beautiful language, and I wish that we both might have employed from the first a more conversational tone in our discussion of theMetropoleaffair. I will try to recapture the amiable, brotherly mood of our long talk in my garden here about a year ago.
You speak of us in your letter as “American authors.” We do not feel especially American in this instance, since we spoke only for ourselves—without consulting with any American institution whatsoever. We are simply “authors” in this case, expressing loyalty to the great and vulnerable family of writers throughout the world. You and all other members of the Union of Writers surely have the same family feelings. Those of us who sent the cable are so far from being organized that I have no idea what sorts of replies the others may be making to you.
As you must know, your response to our cable was printed recently inThe New York Times, and perhaps elsewhere. The controversy has attracted little attention. It is a matter of interest, seemingly, only to other writers. Nobody cares much about writers but writers. And, if it weren’t for a few of us like the signers of the cable, I wonder if there would be anybody to care about writers—no matter how much trouble they were in. Should we, too, stop caring?
Well—I understand that our cultures are so different that we can never agree about freedom of expression. It is natural that we should disagree, and perhaps even commendable. What you may not know about our own culture is that writers such as those who signed the cable are routinely attacked by fellow citizens as being pornographers or corrupted of children and celebrators of violence and persons of no talent and so on. In my own case, such charges are brought against my works in court several times a year, usually by parents who, for religious or political reasons, do not wanttheir children to read what I have to say. The parents, incidentally, often find their charges supported by the lowest courts. The charges so far have been invariably overthrown in higher courts, those closer to the soul of the Constitution of the United States.
Please convey the contents of this letter to my brothers and sisters in the Writers’ Union, as we conveyed your letter toThe New York Times. This letter is specifically for you, to do with as you please. I am not sending carbon copies to anyone. It has not even been read by my wife.
That homely detail, if brought to the attention of the Writers’ Union, might help its members to understand what I do not think is at all well understood now: That we are not nationalists, taking part in some cold-war enterprise. We simply care deeply about how things are going for writers here, there, and everywhere. Even when they are declared non-writers, as we have been, we continue to care.
• • •
Kuznetzov gave me a prompt and likewise private answer. It was gracious and humane. I could assume that we were still friends. He said nothing against his union of his government. Neither did he say anything to discourage me from feeling that writers everywhere, good and bad, were all first cousins—first cousins, at least.
And all the argle-bargling that goes on between educated persons in the United States and the Soviet Union is so touching and comical, really, as long as it does not lead to war. It draws its energy, in my opinion, from a desperate wish on both sides that each other’s utopias should work much better than they do. We want to tinker with theirs, to make it work much better than it does—so that people there, for example, can say whatever they please without fear of punishment. They want to tinker with ours, so that everybody here who wants a job can have one, and so that we don’t have totolerate the sales of fist-fucking films and snuff films and so on.
Neither utopia now works much better than the Page typesetting machine, in which Mark Twain invested and lost a fortune. That beautiful contraption actually set type just once, when only Twain and the inventor were watching. Twain called all the other investors to see this miracle, but, by the time they got there, the inventor had taken the machine all apart again. It never ran again.
IAM DESCENDED FROMEuropeans who have been literate for a long time, as I will presently demonstrate, and who have not been slaves since the early days of the Roman games, most likely. A more meticulous historian might suggest that my European ancestors no doubt enslaved themselves to their own military commanders from time to time. When I examine my genealogy over the past century and a little more, however, I find no war lovers of any kind.
My father and grandfathers were in no wars. Only one of my four great-grandfathers was in a war, the Civil War. This was Peter Lieber, born in Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1832. My mother’s maiden name was Lieber. This Peter Lieber, who is no more real to me than to you, came to America with one million other Germans in 1848. His father was a brush manufacturer. He was living in New Ulm, Minnesota, running a general store and trading for furs with the Indians, when the Civil War broke out. When Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers, Peter Lieber joined the 22nd Minnesota Battery of Light Artillery, and served for two years until wounded and honorably discharged.
“The knee-joint of his right leg was permanently damaged,and he walked with a limp to the end of his days,” according to my Uncle John Rauch (1890-1976). Uncle John was not in fact my uncle, but the husband of a first cousin of my father, Gertrude Schnull Rauch. He was a Harvard graduate and a distinguished Indianapolis lawyer. Toward the end of his life, he made himself an historian,a griot, of his wife’s family—in part my family, too, although he was not related to it by blood, but only by marriage.
I am a highly diluted relative of his wife, and did not expect to appear as more than a footnote in the history—and so I was properly astonished when he one day made me a gift of a manuscript entitled “An Account of the Ancestry of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., by an Ancient Friend of His Family.” It was painstakingly researched and better written, by Uncle John himself, than much of my own stuff, sad to say. That manuscript is the most extravagant gift I ever expect to receive—and it came from a man who had never spoken favorably of my work in my presence, other than to say that he was “surprised by my convincing tone of authority,” and that he was sure I would make a great deal of money.
When I published my first short story, which was “Report on the Barnhouse Effect,” inCollier’s, its hero was a man who could control dice by thinking hard about them, and who could eventually loosen bricks in chimneys a mile away, and so on—and Uncle John said, “Now you will hear from every nut in the country. They can all do that.”
When I published the novelCat’s Cradle, Uncle John sent me a postcard saying, “You’re saying that life is a load of crap, right? Read Thackeray!” He wasn’t joking.
I was no literary gentleman in his eyes, surely, and one satisfaction he may have found in writing about my ancestry was demonstrating how a gentleman wrote. I stand instructed.
• • •
When Uncle John speaks of “Kurt” in his account, he means my father, Kurt Vonnegut, Sr. He commonly calls me “K,” which was my nickname when a child. People who knew me before I was twelve years old still call me that. So do my descendants.
I have never identified with the “K” in Kafka’s works, by the way. Having grown up in a democracy, I have dared to imagine that I know at all times who is really in charge, what is really going on. This could be a mistake.
The opening pages of Uncle John’s manuscript give an impersonal account, such as might be found in an encyclopedia, of the settling of this country by European immigrants, and the consequent growth of commerce, industry, agriculture, and so on. The largest of the waves was German—the second was Italian, the third was Irish.
Uncle John’s conclusion to this prologue is worth setting down here: “The two world wars in which the United States was arrayed against Germany were painful experiences for German-Americans. They hated to be obliged to fight their racial cousins, but they did so, and it is significant that of the millions of German descendants in the United States during those dreadful wars there was not one case of treason.
“The Germans, while loving the country of their origin, did not approve of Kaiser Wilhelm II and his warlords, nor Hitler and his wretched Nazis. Their sympathies were with England, and their adoption of the culture of England determined their attitude. When England was in trouble in 1917 and again in 1941, the German-Americans rallied to her support against the Fatherland. This is a phenomenon little remarked upon.”
So be it.
• • •
As I have said in other books, the anti-Germanism in this country during the First World War so shamed and dismayedmy parents that they resolved to raise me without acquainting me with the language or the literature or the music or the oral family histories which my ancestors had loved. They volunteered to make me ignorant and rootless as proof of their patriotism.
This was done with surprising meekness by many, many German-American families in Indianapolis, it seems to me. Uncle John almost seems to boast of this dismantling and quiet burial of a culture, a culture which surely would have been of use to me today.
But I still get afrissonwhen I encounter a German-American who was raised, amazingly, to loath Woodrow Wilson for calling into question the loyalty of what he called “hyphenated Americans,” for egging on those who loved democracy so much that they defaced the walls of German social and gymnastic and educational associations across the country, and refused to listen to German music or, even, to eat sauerkraut. As nearly as I can remember, none of my relatives ever said anything much, one way or another, about Woodrow Wilson to me.
• • •
One German-American friend of mine, an architectural historian my own age, can be counted on to excoriate Woodrow Wilson after he has had several strong drinks. He goes on to say that it was Wilson who persuaded this country that it was patriotic to be stupid, to be proud of knowing only one language, of believing that all other cultures were inferior and ridiculous, offensive to God and common sense alike, that artists and teachers and studious persons in general were ninnies when it came to dealing with problems in life that really mattered, and on and on.
This friend says that it was a particular misfortune for this country that the German-Americans had achieved such eminence in the arts and education when it was their turn tobe scorned from on high. To hate all they did and stood for at that time, which included gymnastics, by the way, was to lobotomize not only the German-Americans but our culture.
“That left American football,” says my German-American friend, and someone is elected to drive him home.
• • •
To return to Uncle John:
“All of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s eight great-grandparents were part of the vast migration of Germans to the Midwest in the half century from 1820 to 1870. They were: Clemens Vonnegut, Sr., and his wife, Katarina Blank; Henry Schnull and his wife, Matilde Schramm; Peter Lieber and his wife, Sophia St. André; Karl Barus and his wife, Alice Möllman. They were preceded only by four of his sixteen great-great-grandparents, who were Jacob Schramm and his wife, Julia Junghans; and Johann Blank and his wife, Anna Maria Oger. The remaining twelve and their forebears are mostly unknown. They never left Germany. Their bones still repose there in anonymity.
“But all of the eight ancestors who did settle here were better educated and of higher social rank than the mine-run of immigrants. They were with the exception of Anna Oger’s parents, burghers, city people, merchants and members of the upper middle class, in contrast to the bulk of German immigrants who were chiefly peasant farmers or skilled artisans.
“Thus, K’s great-great-grandfather Jacob Schramm came from Saxony, where for generations his family had been grain merchants. He brought with him five thousand dollars in gold, six hundred books, and boxes of household goods, including a dinner set of Meissen porcelain. He bought at once a section of land near Cumberland, Indiana. He was a highly literate fellow, and wrote a series of letters back to Germany detailing his experiences and making valuable suggestions for the guidance of subsequent immigrants. Theseletters were printed and published in Germany. A copy of this publication is in the library of the Indiana Historical Society, which issued an English translation of it in 1928. Jacob Schramm traveled extensively—once around the world, quite by himself. He prospered. He bought a great deal of land, one parcel of over two thousand acres on the old Michigan Road just northwest of Indianapolis. He loaned money, secured by good mortgages, to later arrivals in the vicinity. When his only daughter, Matilda, married Henry Schnull in 1857, Jacob Schramm advanced the latter capital to help him start a wholesale grocery business and launch a successful mercantile career which made him a large fortune.
“K’s paternal ancestors the Vonneguts, were likewise people of substance. They came from Münster, Westphalia, where the name derives from a distant forebear who had an estate—’ein Gut’—on the little River Funne; hence the surname FunneGut—the estate on the Funne. This name was subsequently changed from Funnegut to Vonnegut. Funnegut sounded too much like ’funny gut’ in English.
“Clemens Vonnegut, Sr., was born in Münster in Westphalia in 1824; came to the United States in 1848 and finally settled in Indianapolis in 1850. His father had been an official tax-collector for the Duke of Westphalia.
“Clemens had a far better formal education than ninety-eight percent or more of the German or other immigrants. He had completed his’Abitur’at theHochschulein Hannover; which meant that he had the equivalent at that time of an American college education and was qualified to attend one of the Universities as a candidate for a Ph.D. degree. He had an acquaintance with Latin and Greek, and spoke French fluently in addition to his native German. He had read widely in History and Philosophy; had acquired a fine vocabulary; and was able to write with clarity. Although raised and instructed in the Roman Catholic Church, he rejected formalized religion and disliked clergymen. He greatlyadmired Voltaire, and shared many of the latter’s philosophical views. Instead of attending a University, Clemens became a salesman for a textile firm located in Amsterdam, Holland. At the age of twenty-four, in 1848, he decided to emigrate to the United States, where he first traveled about as agent for the textile mill. When he came to Indianapolis in 1850, he encountered a fellow countryman named Vollmer, who had been settled here a few years and was already established in business for himself in a small way as a retail merchant in hardware and sundry merchandise. The two became friends, and Vollmer invited Vonnegut to join him in this enterprise. The firm then became known as Vollmer & Vonnegut. After a short association Vollmer decided to make a journey out West to explore the new country and visit the gold fields recently discovered in California. He was never heard from again, and presumably lost his life in the ’Wild West.’
“Vonnegut thus became the sole proprietor of the small business which he in 1852, and later his sons and grandsons, made into a considerable enterprise as the Vonnegut Hardware Company.
“Across the street from his first modest shop on East Washington Street in the 1850s was a small German restaurant. One of the waitresses in this establishment was an attractive girl named Katarina Blank. She was one of seven children of a German immigrant family of peasants who came from Urloffen in Baden and settled on a farm in Wayne Township, Marion County, just west of Indianapolis. They were struggling to get their farm to be productive after felling the forest trees and draining the land. With so many children to feed and clothe, all had to work for their living after a few years of primary instruction in the common school. Katarina Blank went to work as a waitress in this little cafe, and soon met Clemens Vonnegut, who fell in love with her. They were married in 1852. He was twenty-eight and she, twenty-four. They bought a modest home on West Market Street andraised their family in steadily improving material circumstances. Katarina was, like Clemens, small in stature and dark complected. Both spoke German in their home, but had considerable fluency in French as well. The training of their children was in the tradition and culture of nineteeth-century Germany. It is highly significant of Clemens’s ascetic and puritanical ethics that his literary idol was Schiller and not Goethe, who was much the greater genius. He disapproved of Goethe’s morals, and would not read him. Katarina, although of humble origin and little formal education, became a highly respected and extremely dignified matriarch, much beloved by her children and grandchildren.
“Clemens attained local distinction as an advocate of progressive public education. He served for twenty-seven years on the Board of School Commissioners of the City of Indianapolis; most of the time as Chairman and Chief administrative Officer. He was an incorruptible and highly efficient officer. He was particularly interested in the High School, and saw to it that first-rate instruction was provided in the classics, history, and the social sciences. He was instrumental in the establishment of the second High School in 1894, known as Manual Training High School, where, under Professor Emmerich as Principal, instruction was provided with emphasis on Science, Mathematics, and Practical Engineering. Graduates of these two high schools Ayere readily accepted at Harvard and Yale and other great Universities until about 1940; since then the prestige of these high schools has sadly declined as a result of lowered standards.
“Many tales were told of Clemens Vonnegut. When he was elected to the Board of School Commissioners, he found that the local banks did not pay interest on the somewhat large deposits which the Board carried to finance its operations. He demanded that the banks pay interest on the Board’s deposits. This was then considered to be an offensive innovation in the customary and comfortable practice whichuntil then had prevailed. The banker John P. Frenzel then called upon Clemens at his office and loudly upbraided him. Clemens pretended to be hard of hearing, and capped his ears. Frenzel shouted louder. Still Clemens pretended not to hear. Frenzel raised his voice and interjected profanity, but to no avail. Clemens would not ’hear’ him. Finally Frenzel stormed out—still not heard. But thenceforth the banks paid interest and have continued to do so to ¿his day.
“Upon another occasion a disgruntled contractor called upon him and protested the award of a contract for school construction to a bidder who did not have the ’right’ political connections. Here again Clemens pretended to be hard of hearing; but, in addition, took out a pen-knife and pared his fingernails. The frustrated contractor then indulged in invectives. Clemens remained calm and silent. After he finished paring his fingernails, he took off his shoes and socks and proceeded to pare his toenails with intense but silent concentration. His visitor soon left in disgust, cursing this crazy German. Clemens remained imperturbable and undisturbed. Many similar tales were told of him, but at his death at age eighty-two in 1906 he was a greatly respected figure in the business and civic life of the community; next only to Henry Schnull as the first in prestige of the German immigrants to Indianapolis.
“Old Clemens, as he advanced into his seventies, turned over management of his business to the competent hands of his three sons: Clemens, Jr., Franklin, and George. His son Bernard had a brief connection with the Company but disliked what he called ’the trade in nails’ and confined his attention to his profession of architecture and to his avocations in the arts. He had never been as robust as his brothers, two of whom lived into their nineties. The old man set them all an example not only of the highest standards of moral integrity but of physical fitness through exercise of the body. To the end of his days old Clemens was a devotee of the teachingsof Father Jahn: a sound mind in a sound body. He exercised daily in all weathers and ate and drank very sparingly. He never weighed much over one hundred and ten pounds. He could be seen striding vigorously about the streets swinging a large boulder in each hand. If he passed a tree with a stout branch within reach he would stop, lay down the boulders, and chin himself a number of times on the branch. On a cold December day in the year 1904, in his eighty-third year, he left his home for his usual walk. He apparently became confused and lost his way. When he did not return at his accustomed time, his family instituted a search with the assistance of the police. He was found several miles from his home lying by the side of a road—quite dead. It was the sort of death he would have welcomed—active to the very end.”
• • •
Almost all of my ancestors delivered themselves directly from Europe to Indianapolis, except for Peter Lieber and Sophia de St. André, who had the general store in New Ulm, Minnesota. When Peter returned from the Civil War with a crippled leg, he was full of stories about how Indianapolis was booming. New Ulm was dead by comparison.
So Peter, according to Uncle John, wangled an appointment as one of the secretaries to Oliver P. Morton, the Governor of Indiana. The governor needed a German liaison secretary in his political activities. The pay was good and steady, and Peter remained in his office until the close of the war.
“In 1865 came an opportunity for Peter. The leading brewery of the city was known as Gack & Biser’s. Owing to death of the proprietors, the business was offered for sale. Peter bought it and renamed it P. Lieber & Co. Peter knew absolutely nothing of the brewery business, but he engaged a skilled brewmaster named Geiger who did, and proceeded to brew and sell Lieber’s Beer. It was a successful venture fromthe very start. Peter gave his principal attention to sales, at which he became adept. This involved political activity and manipulation of saloon outlets.
“Peter was always involved in politics. He had to be in order to get saloon licenses for his favored customers. Until 1880 he was a staunch Republican, as all the Civil War veterans were. But in that year the Republicans, at the insistence of the Methodist Church, adopted a plank in their platform recommending a restraint upon the beer and liquor trade. It was the first stirring of Prohibition. This outraged Peter and was a threat to his interests. He promptly changed his politics and was thereafter a Democrat—and an aggressive, active one.
“He contributed generously to Grover Cleveland’s Campaign Funds, particularly in 1892, when Cleveland was elected President for the second time. He was rewarded by being appointed Consul General of the United States to Dusseldorf in 1893.”
Peter Lieber sold his brewery to a British syndicate, which was eager to have Peter’s oldest son, my grandfather Albert, run it for them.
Peter returned to Germany in 1893, where he bought a castle on the Rhine near Dusseldorf. He took with him President Cleveland’s commission as Consul General of the United States to Dusseldorf. Uncle John says, “He hoisted the Stars and Stripes over his castle, delegated his negligible duties to subordinates, and finished his days in opulence and official grandeur.”
His son Albert, who never went to college, stayed in Indianapolis and ran the brewery, and went to London once a year to report to its new owners.
• • •
So there—Uncle John has now accounted for four of my great-grandparents, those who brought my mother’smaiden name, Lieber, and my father’s name, Vonnegut, into this country when there was still much wilderness. Four more great-grandparents and four grandparents and two parents must still be described.
Let me say now that the ancestor who most beguiles me is Clemens Vonnegut, who died by the side of the road.
“Clemens Vonnegut was a cultivated eccentric,” says Uncle John. That is what I aspire to be.
“He was small in stature, but stout in his independence and convictions,” says Uncle John. “While his forebears had been Roman Catholics, he professed to be an atheist or Free Thinker.” So do I profess. “He would more properly be called a skeptic, one who rejects faith in the unknowable.” “Skeptic” is also the proper thing to call me.
“But he was a very model of Victorian asceticism, lived frugally, and eschewed excesses of any kind,” says Uncle John. I try. I don’t drink anymore, but I smoke like a house afire. I am monogamous, but I have married twice.
“He greatly admired Benjamin Franklin, whom he called an American saint, and named his third son after him instead of naming him for one of the saints on the Christian calendar.” I myself have named my only son after Mark Twain, another American Saint.
“As a recognition of his service to public education,” Uncle John goes on, “one of the City’s schools was named after him. He was highly literate, well read, and the author of various pamphlets expounding his views on education, philosophy, and religion. He wrote his own funeral oration.”
That oration, by the way, appears in Chapter XI. of this book, the chapter on religion. I read it out loud recently to my agnostic son, Mark, who is a physician now, but who set out during his undergraduate years to become a Unitarian minister.
Mark said this of the oration, grinding his teeth before and afterward: “Thesis move.” When you read the oration,and especially if you are a chess player like Mark, you are bound to admire the guts of Clemens Vonnegut.
Note: I do not have the guts to request that Clemens Vonnegut’s oration be read at my funeral, too.
• • •
To return to Uncle John:
“Another one of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s greatgrandfathers who attained distinction locally was Henry Schnull, who, with his brother, August, came to Indianapolis from the town of Hausberge in Westphalia about ten years before the Civil War. They had both been apprenticed as Kaufmann, or merchant, in Germany and knew the methods of trade and accounts. They first engaged in the business of buying and selling farm produce in central Indiana. They traveled about in a wagon to the farms in the area; bought grain, butter, eggs, chickens, and salted and smoked pork, and resold these farm products in the city at a profit.
“As they prospered by the hardest kind of work, they enlarged their operation by trucking surpluses to Madison or Jeffersonville, Indiana, on the Ohio River, where the merchandise was loaded on huge barges which were floated down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans. One or the other of the brothers would accompany the shipment and attend to the trading in New Orleans. Here they would sell the produce in a good market and buy coffee, rum and sorghum, which was called ’New Orleans molasses.’ These products they then shipped north by barge and sold at a profit in Cincinnati or Indianapolis. They are said to have brought to Indianapolis one of the last shipments from the South before the river was closed by the Confederates at Memphis. The price of sorghum and coffee skyrocketed, and the Schnull Brothers then had sufficient capital to establish a wholesale grocery business and construct a warehouse which still stands on the southeast corner of Washington and DelawareStreets in Indianapolis. The firm was originally a partnership known as A. & H. Schnull, later as Schnull & Company. At the close of the Civil War, August announced that he had enough money and wanted to return to Germany. So he sold his interests to Henry and took two hundred thousand dollars back to Hausberge, where he bought a small Schloss and lived like a gentleman until his death in 1918.
“Henry Schnull elected to remain in the United States. He became one of the leading merchants of Indiana, and was a most highly regarded citizen. In addition to his wholesale grocery business he founded the Eagle Machine Works, which later became the great Atlas Engine Company, which manufactured stationary steam engines and farm implements. He also organized the American Woolen Company, the first textile mill in the State.
“Shortly after passage in 1865 of the law authorizing national banks, he established and was first President of the Merchants National Bank of Indianapolis, which has survived all of the intervening panics and is still operating.
“Henry Schnull was a man of immense industry, courage, and independence; intelligent, self-reliant, and resourceful; incorruptibly honest and reliable in his dealings; and completely dedicated to business and accumulation. He became very rich for his times, endowed his children with generous gifts, and left a fortune in 1905 which has assisted three generations of his progeny to live comfortably. He was so much engaged with his many activities that he was not much of a family man, and his children saw but little of him. His wife, Matilda Schramm, whom he met on one of his early buying visits to her father’s farm in 1854, was as stern and tough as Henry, but she had a warm, lovable disposition and was the real matriarch of the family.”
• • •
• • •
All right now: Uncle John has now told us about my two sets of great-grandparents on my father’s side, Clemens Vonnegut, whose wife was Katarina Blank, and Henry Schnull, whose wife was Matilda Schramm, and one set from my mother’s side, the limping Civil War veteran Peter Lieber, whose wife was Sophia de St. André.
This brings me to my fourth set of great-grandparents—the only ones who had anything participatory to do with the arts. They were “Professor” Karl Barus, “the first real professional teacher of voice, violin, and piano in the city,” according to Uncle John, and his wife, Alice Möllman.
“Professor Barus was highly respected, and in addition to his function as a private teacher he conducted orchestras, organized choral singing and other musical events. He was well educated and a definite intellectual. He never engaged in trade or business but made a good income by his teaching and lived well. Professor Barus originally settled in Cincinnati in the early fifties, where he was appointed Musical Director of the Cincinnati Sangverein.
“In 1858 Dr. Barus was invited to come to Indianapolis to conduct the mixed chorus of German singing societies from Indianapolis, Louisville, Cincinnati, and Columbus, Ohio, at a great Musical Festival. In 1882 he was invited by Das Deutsche Haus to come to Indianapolis to be musical director of the Maennerchor, in which position he remained until 1896.
“At his last concert in that year at Tomlinson Hall he was given a standing ovation and was presented with a silver laurel wreath as an expression of appreciation of his great contribution to the musical life of the whole community. For the remaining twelve years of his life he gave instruction in piano and voice to selected pupils and was always held in highest esteem. His influence on the musical taste and sophisticationof the whole city was incalculable. No one ever seems subsequently to have quite taken his place.”
• • •
And Professor Karl Barus the musician, and his wife Alice begat another Alice Barus, who, according to Uncle John, “is said to have been the most beautiful and accomplished young lady in Indianapolis. She played the piano and sang; also composed music, some of which was published.”
She was my mother’s mother.
Yes, and Peter Lieber, the limping war veteran, and his wife Sophia begat Albert Lieber, who became an Indianapolis brewer andbon vivant.
He was my mother’s father.
Henry Schnull, the merchant and banker, and his wife Matilda begat Nanette Schnull, who, according to Uncle John, “was a very beautiful woman in her prime, and had a lovely speaking and singing voice. She often sang in public. She laughed readily, enjoyed people, and was greatly admired by a host of friends.”
She was my father’s mother.
And Clemens Vonnegut, the Free Thinker and founder of the Vonnegut Hardware Company, and his wife Katarina begat Bernard Vonnegut, who, Uncle John says, “was from earliest youth artistic. He could draw and paint with skill. Bernard was extremely modest and retiring. He had no intimates, and took but little part in social activities. He was never a happy, extroverted personality, but was inclined to be reticent, shy, and somewhat contemptuous of his environment.”
He was my father’s father.
• • •
We have come now to a rascal, Albert Lieber, whose emotional faithlessness to his children, in my humble opinion, contributed substantially to my mother’s eventual suicide. As I have said, he was the son of the limping Civil War Veteran. When his father retired to Dusseldorf, Albert remained in Indianapolis to run the brewery that his father had sold to a British syndicate. He was born in 1863.
When I got to know him, there wasn’t much to know. He was in bed all the time with a flabby heart. He might as well have been a Martian. What do I remember about him? His mouth was slackly open. It was very pink inside.
He was often in London on business when he was young. “He had his clothes tailored in Savile Row,” says Uncle John, “and was the very model of Victorian sartorial elegance: broadcloth Prince Albert coats, silk hats, Scotch tweeds, starched shirts and collars, and handmade boots. He was handsome, friendly, and highly sociable. He loved parties, good eating, and fine wines. He was always much involved in a series of love affairs, passing feminine attachments, and ribald entertainment.
“The brewery was under the general supervision of a retired British army officer—Colonel Thompson—who visited Indianapolis every year or two to look things over and report back to London. He and Albert between them milked the local operation of most of the profits of the brewery through padded expense accounts, sales promotion schemes, public relations departments, political contributions and other devices to skim the cream off the profits. The syndicate demanded a five percent return upon its investment and got it. Albert and his cohorts lined their pockets.
“In contrast to his father, who was conservative, retiring, and extremely modest and unassuming, Albert was extroverted, flamboyant, sociable, and a big spender. He always lived on a very lavish scale in various large houses with lots ofservants, horses, and carriages and then the earliest and finest motor cars. In his heyday he always had an English butler and a footman in livery. He entertained his friends without thought of cost: the choicest viands, rare wines, flowers, the whitest linens, and choicest porcelain chinaware.
“He soon acquired the reputation of a millionaire who counted the cost of nothing. He became a jolly companion of the town’s Tun boys’ who consisted of other rich men’s sons, among them Booth Tarkington. They gave fabulous parties. One of them owned the English Hotel on Monument Circle and English’s Opera House where all the principal traveling shows played. He had a stage box reserved for his use on the right side of the house where he had a door which connected to the stage. This gave him and his cronies access to the stage and easy opportunity to meet actresses and particularly the chorus girls with musical comedies.
“At other times they would take over for the night the leading bagnio of the town—facetiously known as the University Club Annex—which was situated on the east side of New Jersey Street about two blocks north of Washington Street. No cash changed hands to sully the dignified atmosphere of the Annex. Each month its devotees were billed discreetly for their share of maintenance. Here the local ’fun boys’ would stage real bacchanalian orgies which provided choice and juicy gossip for the staid community. But they always committed their indiscretions, with due respect for the Victorian proprieties, in privacy behind doors—which is what doors are for.
“One of their charming folkways was to initiate congenial spirits into what they called their ’W-A Club.’ Preceding an elaborate dinner at one of the clubs or hotels, the neophyte would be blindfolded and seated on a cool, fresh keg of Lieber’s beer to which a spigot and faucet had been attached. At the turn of the faucet the beer would squirt out and drench the candidate. He was then said to have a wet ass andwas qualified to be admitted to their fellowship. They even had a gold button made by a jeweler which could be worn on the coat lapel with the insignia ’W-A.’ They were real devotees of sport and always chartered a private Pullman car to take them to championship prizefights, horse races, and other sporting events. They never used drugs or much profanity, and always respected respectable women. They were always suitably attired and were uniformly well-mannered and gentlemanly.”
• • •
This Edwardian sport married the beautiful and musical Alice Barus in 1885. They had three children. My mother was the oldest. And then Alice Barus died of pneumonia when Mother was six.
• • •
“Shortly thereafter,” says Uncle John, “Albert married a very attractive but extremely eccentric woman, who was never accepted by Albert’s family or close friends. Her name was Ora D. Lane. She was an accomplished violinist and came from Zanesville, Ohio. She was familiarly known as ’O.D.’ but most people referred to her as ’Odious.’ She became a sort of storybook stepmother to Albert’s children. She chastised and ill-treated them in subtle ways. She seemed to resent them and abused them so that they all suffered a distinctive psychic trauma from which they never fully recovered. Where formerly they had known nothing but loving and tender care, now they were subjected to every sort of indignity, humiliation, and neglect. She terrorized Albert as well, threatened his life, slept with a pistol under her pillow, and was a perfect demon and termagant. Kindly, gentle Albert stood it as long as he could and then divorced her; but he was obliged to settle a large alimony upon her which depleted his capital, which was not large. He had never been an accumulatorand had spent freely, relying upon the brewery to carry him as usual with a large annual income.
“But nothing daunted, Albert soon was married a third time to a nondescript widow named Meda Langtry, a Canadian, who had a daughter whom Albert adopted and renamed Alberta.
“Meda was much younger than Albert. In fact she was about the same age as his daughter Edith.”
“Shortly after Albert’s third and last marriage came Prohibition in 1921,” Uncle John goes on, “the brewery was closed. Albert lost his position, and from then on his affairs went from bad to worse until he died in what he would have regarded as relative poverty. The last years of his life were supported by the sale of several parcels of real estate including his former residence, a large house situated on an estate of a hundred acres on a hill overlooking White River and running north to Kessler Boulevard and West Fifty-sixth Street in the City of Indianapolis. This land would now be worth at least a million dollars or more.
“He, like all rich men, had a miscellaneous assortment of personal property which will be acquired not for investment but as adjuncts of abundant privileges such as miscellaneous securities, paintings, porcelains, furniture, and other art objects. Much had to be sold but he had a few securities left and his estate inventory came to $311,607.65. All that his children got out of the Peter Lieber fortune was a small remnant from Albert’s estate and a few trust funds which Peter had established for them in Merchants Bank stock. And so the proverbial cycle of ’shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves’ was completed in three generations due for them to Prohibition and Albert’s extravagance and improvidence.
“But while Albert was still in his prime and riding high, his daughter, Edith—K’s mother—was married on November22, 1913, to Kurt Vonnegut. They were a charming and extremely attractive couple.”
• • •
As has already been said, my father’s mother Nanette was cheerful and sociable, and uninterested in the fine arts save for music—and my father’s father Bernard was a freak in the family for being able to draw and paint so well at an early age. He was also unsociable, and evidently unhappy in Indianapolis most of the time.
Uncle John said to me in conversation one time that my grandfather Bernard was probably relieved to die young—“to be well out of it.” He died of intestinal cancer at fifty-three, five years younger than I am now. That was in 1908, so he did not see any of his grandchildren. He did not even see his children married.
“Like his brothers,” says Uncle John, “he attended the public schools, the German-English school, and then the Indianapolis High School then situated at Pennsylvania and Michigan Streets. Recognizing his talents as an artist, Alexander Metzger, a friend of his father, suggested that Bernard be given a higher education. He was then sent to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, where he studied architecture. He later studied in Hannover, Germany, and then worked as draftsman, for a couple of years, with a leading firm in New York.
“Returning to Indianapolis in 1883, he engaged in the practice of architecture, first in his own office and later with Arthur Bohn in what became the well-known firm of Vonnegut & Bohn, whose successors are in practice today. This firm designed and supervised construction of many fine residences and public buildings in Indianapolis, including the first Chamber of Commerce, the Athenaeum, the John HerronArt Museum, the L. S. Ayres store, the Fletcher Trust Building, and many others.
“He read the poems of Heine with delight. He was highly cultivated in the arts, but his sympathies and inclinations were definitely Germanic. He and his family frequently lived abroad, and he sent his two sons to school in Strasbourg when they were quite young. He fathered three children: Kurt, born in 1884; Alex, in 1888; and then Irma, in 1890.
“Aside from his attachment to his profession, Bernard took little participation in the social or civic life of the community. He confined his activities to the arts. His favorite clubs were the Portfolio and the Lyra Casino. The former was composed of painters, sculptors, architects, and writers. It held monthly dinners and discussions, and considered itself to be the custodian of the aesthetic conscience of the community. The Lyra Casino was a society of musicians, and gave private concerts of classical music. Bernard was an active participant in both these organizations, and his son Kurt likewise joined them in his maturity. Bernard’s wife, Nanette, had a thorough training in and acquaintance with musical literature, but she did not share her husband’s other interests.
“When their children attained an age to enable them to make objective judgment, they agreed that their parents’ marriage was not a particularly congenial one. Kurt and Irma definitely identified with their father, while Alex identified with his mother. Unlike his brothers, Bernard was never robust physically. He suffered much with indigestion and headaches.”
• • •
I, too, identify with this unhappy Bernard, although I am more or less robust and can say, knocking on wood, that I am seldom ill. I sleep well always. My digestion is good.
The family legend is that Bernard Vonnegut when a boy was working with his brothers in the family hardwarestore, and he began to weep. He was asked what the trouble was, and he said that he didn’t want to work in a store. He said he wanted to be an artist instead.
A child expressing such a wish in such a family in such a town was a troubling mystery.
The legend goes on that he became stagestruck, and wanted to be a theatrical designer, but learned that almost no one could make a living at that—so he became an architect instead.
The legend says that he was happy and productive and even sociable as a young architect here in New York City. But then he was told by his family that it was time for him to come home to Indianapolis, and to marry a woman from a nice German family. He was to surrender to the gravitational pull of the tremendous mass of respectability which his father and mother had amassed in the American wilderness in a little more than thirty years.
He should have disobeyed, if he did not want constant headaches and indigestion. He should have stayed in New York City.
He should have moved into the very house I live in now. This house was standing back then.
In a huge and rich and bustling and polyglot world city like this one, he surely found many friends as gifted as himself. So he must have made all sorts of jokes here about giftedness, made romantic speeches about the pain of bringing new works of art into the world, and on and on. There was a knowing audience here for talk like that.
When he got back to Indianapolis, where the practice of the arts was regarded as an evasion of real life by means of parlor tricks, the things that made him happy or sad were equally meaningless to his relatives and neighbors. So, yes, he became as silent as a clam. He died.
Wasn’t it true that his wife was also gifted, that she sang beautifully? Yes, but she was not interested in creating anynew music. She was a sort of frontier phonograph, reproducing melodies from the Old World, where creative artists belonged, where they were needed, where they were supposed to be.
• • •
He may even have been a genius, as mutations sometimes are.
• • •
And it is always the men, even if they were as reclusive and secretive and unfond of life as my grandfather Bernard, who are the stars in this account of my ancestors. There are reasons for this. “It is regrettable that so little is known of K’s two grandmothers and four great-grandmothers,” says Uncle John. “Practically everyone who knew any of them intimately is now dead. The Victorian age in which they lived was a man’s world. Women’s place was in the home, and no public notice was taken of them. They left no records of their own, and were expected to bask in obscurity in the reflected glory of their husbands’ achievements—the most admired of which was the accumulation of money.
“But they bore the children, which was one thing the men could not do. They ran the households admirably, and provided their progeny with all their training in manners and morals which they received.
“The men were so much engaged in the struggle for material success that they gave but scant attention to their families. How they found time to father their children is conjectural. But in defense of the men it should be noted that they were emotionally and psychologically motivated to assert their own importance in a new environment: to achieve and to demonstrate their worth as individuals. Success was principally equated with money. To be rich was to be respected.
“The immigrants had been literally starved—materially and socially—in the nineteenth century of Western Europe. When they came here and found the rich table of the Midwest, they gorged themselves. And who can blame them? In the process they created an Empire by the hardest work and exercise of their inherent and varied talents. The men took the credit, but their womenfolk, if unnoticed, helped lay the foundation.”
• • •
Let Uncle John now run out his story of my family without further interruptions from me. There remain only a father and a mother to be described.
“K’s father—Kurt, the eldest son of Bernard and Nannie—was very much like his father in oudook and pattern of behavior, but dissimilar in appearance. Bernard was dark complected, wore a beard, and was rather bald. Kurt was blue-eyed, and very fair complected, with finely modeled features, long thin fingers, and blond curly hair. He was a sort of Adonis and extremely handsome, without any trace of effeminacy. He was, like his father, artistic. He could draw and paint. He worked in ceramics, and created some beautiful objects in that technique. And, of course, he was a fine, sensitive architect.
“Kurt Vonnegut attended School No. 10, a grammar school, from 1890 to 1898. He then attended Shortridge High School in Indianapolis for somewhat over a year. He was subsequently sent to the American College in Strasbourg, Germany, for three years. This was a small private school under the direction of Professor Goss, who organized it as a school principally for American boys on the model of the German Gymnasia. It was a good school, with rigid standards and discipline. In this school Kurt was steeped in the German language and in German cultural patterns. Strasbourg had itsown opera and symphony orchestra. Kurt was naturally devoted to music throughout his life, and in his formative years at this school became intimately acquainted with the whole classical repertoire.
“At the age of nineteen he was well prepared in a solid foundation of secondary education, and was admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied architecture and took his degree of Bachelor of Science in 1908—the year in which his father died. He then went with his widowed mother and his sister, Irma, to Berlin, and continued his architectural studies with the best masters. He returned to Indianapolis in 1910, and joined his father’s surviving partner, Arthur Bohn, in the well-established firm of Vonnegut & Bohn. He was thus launched upon what promised to be a comfortable and successful career. His family had a prominent position in the community. They had plenty of money.
“Kurt was handsome in appearance, with charming manners, and although dignified and reserved, soon had many friends who remained devoted to him. He joined the University Club, then situated at Meridian and Michigan Streets, which was the most exclusive men’s club in the City. He was received and accepted by the best families as a most eligible bachelor. He was generally approved by doting mamas looking for suitable mates for their daughters, and had the pick of the crop of debutantes. After a couple of years of a happy and carefree existence, Kurt began to court Edith Lieber, who was four years his junior and had likewise returned to an active social life after attending Miss Shipley’s School at Bryn Mawr and traveling much abroad. Her father, Albert Lieber, was then in the full tide of success as one of the town’s rich men. He resided on a beautiful estate of some hundred acres just to the northwest of the city, in a large residence which he had recently constructed.”
• • •
“Edith was a very beautiful woman, tall and statuesque. Kurt always admired her beauty and was very proud of her. They fell in love, became engaged, and were married on November 22, 1913. They remained a devoted couple until the day of Edith’s death thirty-one years later. The marriage was approved by both families; but the Schnull-Vonnegut clan was slightly condescending. In the pecking order in the social hierarchy of the community, and particularly in the German group it was generally understood that the Schnull-Vonnegut clan ranked ahead of the Lieber-Barus clan.
“Edith was a rather tall woman, about five feet eight inches, with a fine graceful figure. She was auburn-haired, not quite red, with a very fair, clear skin, finely modeled features, and blue-green eyes. She was stately and dignified in bearing. She had a lively sense of humor and laughed easily. Her adolescent years had been difficult with her odious stepmother, but she was strong enough in spirit and courage to endure her ordeal, although the scars were there.
“Prior to her engagement and marriage to Kurt, Edith had been engaged to other men but had each time broken her engagement. These suitors were all Europeans; for in the years from 1907 to 1913 Edith lived mostly abroad. As an extremely handsome woman and the daughter of an American millionaire she was much courted.
“She first became engaged to Kenneth Doulton, an Englishman, a grandson of Sir Henry Doulton, and a scion of the family which for generations had owned the world-famous Royal Doulton Porcelain Works in Lambeth. She met him while visiting the Thompsons for the London season of 1908 in the waning days of the Edwardian twilight of elegance and sophistication when the rich could still enjoy their privileges. Doulton was an attractive member of the upper-middleclass with connections in the aristocracy. He was a charming idler and of course expected Albert to supply a suitable settlement as a dowry upon his lovely daughter. Albert enjoyed a large income at that time but was not enthusiastic to part with his modest capital. And Doulton was not about to go in the brewery business in Indianapolis. He wanted to marry Edith, have her father buy them a country place and a little house in Mayfair, and remain in old England. Edith demurred and the engagement was broken.
“In the First World War Doulton as a junior officer in a Guard’s regiment lost his life while serving in the first British Expeditionary Force in the first months of the war.
“Edith then forsook merrie England and shifted her European base of operations from London to Dusseldorf. From 1909 to 1913 she spent most of each year staying with her grandfather, Peter, then past eighty, and her maiden aunt Laura, in the old man’s Schloss on the Rhine. He was no longer Consul General of the United States but he kept the Stars and Stripes flying over his palace and retained his American citizenship to the end. But his three children, Laura, Emily, and Rudolph, became German citizens. Rudolph adopted a military career, went through the Cadet School and became Lieutenant Colonel of a regiment of cavalry—the Uhlans—garrisoned in the area of Dusseldorf. Emily married a German army officer. Edith was thus thrown into the company of subalterns in her uncle’s famous regiment. At that time the Kaiser’s army officers constituted a sort of elite social group with many privileges and much prestige. The Kaiser’s pay and allowances to his officers were extremely meager. If an officer did not have substantial means to supplement his pay and maintain the position required of him, he was expected to marry a rich wife. In fact, he could not marry except with the consent of the colonel of his regiment; and the consent was withheld until the social position, reputability, and dowry of the bride were officially approved.
“Edith’s first serious German suitor was Lieutenant Paul Genth of the Uhlans. She gave him the go-by after a brief courtship. Shortly afterward Captain Otto Voigt of the regiment proposed to her, and after a spirited courtship was accepted by her with the consent of her family and of his commanding officer. The Captain was a dashing figure in his colorful dress uniform with shako and ’Merry Widow’ accoutrements.
“But here again the course of true love did not run true and smooth. There were difficulties about the dowry, and the prospect for Edith of a career as an army wife in the highly artificial and regulated life of the imperial army palled upon her. Captain Voigt was one of those heel-clicking Prussian-type officers who looked good in his uniform in command of his squadron of cavalry but was quite different from the easygoing, indulgent, and deferential American husbands of Edith’s experience. She wavered. But Albert gave her carte blanche to buy a trousseau and she proceeded to do so. All of the linens were duly embroidered ’L-V.’ The Liebers of the German branch thought it was a great match.”
• • •
“But Edith began to have misgivings. So did Albert, who never liked dowries anyway. And Edith did not want to make her permanent home in Germany. The captain was likewise not an enthusiastic candidate for a job in the brewery. At all events, the engagement was broken by mutual consent and Edith returned to Indianapolis where her father built for her a small cottage on his estate very attractively situated on a bluff overlooking White River. It was furnished to her taste; had a grand piano in the living room, a fireplace, comfortable lounge chairs and couches; and it was her own retreat when she wanted privacy—which was most of the time. But she got along well enough with her father and his third wife Meda and their two young children. She resumedcontact with her old friends, went about in the social life of the city, and had plenty of suitors. Kurt Vonnegut, Sr., fell deeply in love with her and she reciprocated his affection. In every respect the match was universally approved.
“Edith and Kurt’s wedding celebration was one long remembered in Indianapolis. It was probably the biggest and most costly party which the town had ever seen or is likely ever to witness again. The couple were married by the Reverend Frank S. C. Wicks, a Unitarian clergyman, in an evening ceremony in the First Unitarian Church attended by members of the two families—Lieber and Vonnegut—and a bevy of lovely bridesmaids and handsome ushers. But these families in three generations were then numerous and both clans had many friends. The Liebers and the Vonneguts with the Hollwegs, Mayers, Severeins, Schnulls, Rauchs, Frenzels, Pantzers, Haueisens, Kipps, Kuhns, Metzgers, and Kothes were the leading German families of the city. They were all convivial people, sentimental and emotional. And they loved to celebrate weddings, particularly between congenial clans of a common heritage and cultural background. The nuptials qualified to be celebrated in accordance with the best German traditions: food, drink, dancing, music, and song. Albert decided to give them a party to end all parties.
“In 1913 the Claypool Hotel, situated on the northwest corner of Washington Street and Illinois Street in the very heart of the city of Indianapolis, was one of the finest hostelries in the Midwest. It has just been completed about ten years before and was in prime condition. Eight stories high, it contained five hundred bedrooms. Its main lobby was 80 feet square and 60 feet high, elaborately decorated in the fashion of the time. The mezzanine story had a huge ballroom about 125 feet by 80 feet. This later was named the Riley Room after the Hoosier poet—James Whitcomb Riley. On the Illinois Street side of the mezzanine floor were a series of privatedining rooms decorated in red and gold in Louis XV rococo. The proprietor of this garish caravansary was Henry Lawrence. He and Albert Lieber were buddies. And so Albert decided to throw the wedding celebration party for Edith and Kurt in the Claypool. Henry Lawrence decided to give his all—and did so.
“In addition to the numerous relatives of the Lieber-Vonnegut clans Albert had a host of friends, a rigid selection of whom had to be invited. About six hundred of them came, including Colonel Thompson who journeyed from London to represent the English syndicate. The men guests were arrayed in white tie and tails, the women in long elaborate ball gowns. The chefs of the hotel were put to work days ahead and a large buffet of choice viands was served. Champagne of rarest vintages flowed like water. Then the floor was cleared and a large band of musicians played for dancing in the ballroom.
“A bar some sixty feet long had been specially erected. Here every variety of beverage was provided. The party lasted through the night and until six o’clock in the morning. Never before or since have so many otherwise respectable and thoroughly conservative citizens of the dull community passed out in so short a time. The consumption of spirits after the preliminary foundation of champagne was like pouring gasoline on a hot fire. It was estimated later that about seventy-five men and ten or fifteen women passed out cold. But Henry Lawrence was ready for the occasion. He had reserved plenty of bedrooms above and, as guests wavered and lost the coordination required for locomotion, they were gently assisted by the hotel waiters and bellmen to comfortable beds and the arms of Morpheus where a few of them were still reposing three days later.
“It was a grand occasion, but the Vonneguts and Schnulls thought it was all rather vulgar, and did not hesitateto express their disapproval. Some of the town wags, who were familiar with Albert’s ways, in commenting on the huge cost of the bash said: ’What the Hell! Albert probably charged the tab to the brewery, and let the syndicate unwittingly give the party.’ It was a strictlyfin de siècleaffair.
“The next year came the First World War and then Prohibition. The curtain fell on a glorious scene—never to be witnessed again.”
• • •
“Kurt and Edith’s marriage was a happy and congenial one—as marriages go. At first they were reasonably affluent—had servants, governesses for their children, and lived well. But they were both inclined to be extravagant. They traveled and entertained rather lavishly. If they needed money, they sold securities or borrowed. After Prohibition in 1921 Albert was no longer able to help them.
“But they had enough economic fat which, with Kurt’s income from his profession, saw them through the twenties. Kurt’s mother, Nannie Schnull Vonnegut, died in 1929 and left Kurt his share of her then modest fortune derived from her father, Henry Schnull. They soon used this up. Kurt had acquired a plot of land on the east side of North Illinois Street at about Forty-fifth Street. Here he designed and built a large and very beautiful brick residence. They sent their older children in the twenties and thirties to private schools; Bernard to Park School, and Alice to Tudor Hall School for girls. Bernard went on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he took his degree of Bachelor of Science and remained to take his Ph.D. degree in Chemistry. He became and remains a distinguished scientist. Alice married James Adams. But by the time K came along to his adolescence, the family was in financial trouble. He knew only the hard times of the 1930s. He was taken out of private school after thethird grade, and sent to Public School No. 43 and then Shortridge High School. He was sent to Cornell University with specific instructions not to waste time or money on ’frivolous’ courses, but to give full attention to practical studies, principally physics and chemistry and math.
“His parents were in straitened circumstances. There was practically no building in the Depression years and Kurt’s professional income vanished. They began to live on their capital which, to a good bourgeois, is a heresy looked upon with horror and usually followed by disaster.
“It was obvious to them that they could not continue to support so large an establishment. This residence, by then heavily mortgaged, was sold. It still stands and is now the home of Evans Woollen HI, a descendent of a well-known family and a distinguished architect in his own right. With the proceeds of their equity in this property and a few remaining assets, Kurt and Edith then purchased an attractive plot of land in William’s Creek—a suburban development lying about nine miles due north of Monument Circle, to which many of the leading families migrated to escape the deteriorating conditions of the inner city. Here Kurt designed and built in 1941 a somewhat smaller and less pretentious dwelling, but it was well constructed of brick. It was surrounded by tall virginal forest trees—oaks, maples, and elms. It was a most attractive home, was well furnished, and displayed Kurt’s artistic skills. In the basement Kurt had a small shop where he installed a kiln and dabbled in ceramics in which he produced some beautiful pieces. Here the family lived quietly and modestly with but little entertaining or traveling.
“They continued to invade their diminishing capital. But Kurt had two $1,000 corporate bonds which he had inherited from his mother. Edith, true to her delusions to grandeur, said: ’Let’s take one more trip abroad.’ So they soldthe two bonds, went to Paris for three weeks and returned broke. But it was a rate example ofésprit—what the French callpanache. It was going out with flair—all banners flying.
“Meanwhile came the Second World War in December 1941 and once again America was arrayed against Germany. Bernard at twenty-four escaped the draft, but Kurt, Jr., at nineteen was caught. He was enlisted in the army as a private and sent to training camp. This came as a great shock with acute distress to Edith. With her other financial problems the prospect of losing her son in the impending holocaust made her cup of troubles overflow. She became despondent and morose. Wanting money desperately, she attempted to write short stories which she could sell, but it was a futile, hopeless venture; a tragic disillusion. She simply could not see daylight. Kurt, Jr., got leave from his regiment to come home and spend Mother’s Day in May 1944 with his family. During the night before, Edith died in her sleep in her fifty-sixth year on May 14, 1944. Her death was attributed to an overdose of sleeping tablets taken possibly by mistake. Her gross estate was inventoried in probate at $10,815.50. It was all that was left as her share of her grandfather’s fortune and of her father’s residue.
“She missed by a matter of two months the birth of her first grandchild, the son of her daughter Alice. She would miss seeing twelve grandchildren in all. She missed by seven months the capture of her son K by the Germans in the Batde of the Bulge, and his imprisonment in Dresden until the end of the war.”
• • •
“After Edith’s death Kurt lived almost as a recluse, for some ten years. But his sister, Irma Vonnegut Lindener, who was then a resident of Hamburg, Germany, paid him protracted visits—sometimes for months at a time. They werevery congenial and deeply attached to each other. She understood his vagaries, respected his privacy and fierce independence, and gave him the only sort of companionship which he would tolerate. They resembled each other in many ways and were deeply empathetic. They were both blond and blue-eyed. They both spoke German fluently and shared their attachment to their German traditions of music and literature. Kurt acquired a sort of skeptical and fatalistic contempt for life—what the Germans call Weltschmerz.
“As Kurt aged and his fortunes waned, he could not continue to support this last abode of modest elegance. He sold it, and with the pittance left to him, some ten thousand dollars, Kurt then bought a small cottage in the country on a little hill on a winding road just north of Nashville, in Brown County, about twenty-five miles south of Indianapolis. Brown County is still a bucolic community but it has some of the highest hills and loveliest scenery in the Midwest. It is the abode of preference of artists. Here Kurt retired alone and lived in perfect seclusion. He had his books and the phonograph which his sister gave him and upon which he played his favorite recordings of classical music: principally Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms, and particularly Richard Strauss. The four last songs of Strauss were his favorites. He played them over and over. They express his mood perfectly.”
• • •
“Although he suffered from emphysema, Kurt continued to smoke cigarettes heavily and drank whiskey in moderation. His health deteriorated slowly until it was found that he had a cancer in one of the lobes of his lungs. The surgeons wanted to operate but he wisely declined. As the cancer spread, he became extremely weak and short of breath with lack of oxygen. But he refused to go into a hospital or toremain in bed at home. He would get up in the morning, dress, eat very sparingly, and then lie about on a couch before a comfortable fire reading or listening to his records, quite alone. He had no nurses, was completely self-reliant, and never complained or feared death. Toward the end a faithful devoted old servant—Nelly—came down to look after him. Just before the end he had a trained nurse in attendance as he became bedfast. He died quietly in his sleep on October 1, 1957—quite alone. Two days later his remains were buried in the Vonnegut lot in Crown Hill Cemetery next to his wife Edith and his parents, Bernard and Nanette.”
• • •
There ends my Uncle John’s essay, save for a grandiloquent coda not entirely in keeping with the facts. I have left a lot out, but nothing which has a direct bearing on what I myself have become. It is copyrighted.
The owner of the copyright is Uncle John’s grandson, my second cousin once-removed, William Rauch. He works here in New York now for Mayor Edward Koch. See how we disperse and disperse?
• • •
Was I a sad child, knowing how rich my family had been? Not at all. We were at least as well off as most of the people I went to public school with, and I would have lost all my friends if we had started having servants again, and worn expensive clothes again, and ridden on ocean liners and visited German relatives in a real castle, and on and on. Mother, who was half-cracked, used to speak of the time when I would resume my proper place in society when the Great Depression ended, would swim with members of other leading families at the Indianapolis Athletic Club, would play tennis and golf with them at the Woodstock Golf and Country Club. She could not understand that to give up myfriends at Public School No. 43, “the James Whitcomb Riley school,” by the way, would be for me to give upeverything.
I still feel uneasy about prosperity and associating with members of my parents’ class on that account.
Henry David Thoreau said, “I have traveled extensively in Concord.” That quotation was probably first brought to my attention by one of my magnificent teachers in high school. Thoreau, I now feel, wrote in the voice of a child, as do I. And what he said about Concord is what every child feels, what every child seeminglymustfeel, about the place where he or she was born. There is surely more than enough to marvel at for a lifetime, no matter where the child is born.
Castles? Indianapolis was full of them.
• • •
One of my brother Bernard’s favorite stories is about the farmer who decides to go to have a look at St. Louis, the nearest city. This would be in 1900, say. When he comes back to his farm after a week, he is gaga about all the human activities and machinery he has seen.
When he is questioned about this famous landmark or that one in St. Louis, it turns out that he knows nothing about them. He makes this confession: “Actually, I never got past the depot.”
• • •
My father had few gifts for getting along famously with me. That’s life. We did not spend much time together, and conversations were arch and distant. But Father’s younger brother, Uncle Alex, a Harvard graduate and life insurance salesman, was responsive and amusing and generous with me, was my ideal grown-up friend.
He was also then a socialist, and among the books he gave me, when I was a high school sophomore, was Thorstein Veblen’sTheory of the Leisure Class. I understood it perfectlyand loved it, since it made low comedy of the empty graces and aggressively useless possessions which my parents, and especially my mother, meant to regain someday.
• • •
It will be noted that my mother attempted to be what I have in fact become—which is a professional writer.
It used to be a fairly reliable rule of American middle-class life that a son could be expected to try hard, with his own life, to make some of his disappointed mother’s dreams come true.
This may no longer be the case. Things change.
• • •
Uncle John’s coda to the history of my family is this:
“In reviewing K’s ancestors for four generations it is highly significant that there was not a weakling, nor even a mildly psychotic or neurotic individual in the lot. Taken together they provided K with a rich bank of genes upon which to draw. How this genetic background was influenced by K’s adolescent conditioning is for him to say. But with respect to his ancestors who came to America from their homeland, let him observe the counsel of the poet Goethe:
’WAS DU ERERBET VON DEINEN VATERN HAST, ER WIRBES; UM EST ZU BESITZEN.’
“WE WILL LET HIM TELL HIS OWN STORY.”
The German quotation means this, and I take it seriously: “Whatever it is that you have inherited from your father, you are going to have to earn it if it is toreallybelong to you.”3 WHEN I LOST MY INNOCENCE
AND MY STORYseems to be this to me:
I left Indianapolis, where my ancestors had prepared so many comforts and privileges for me, because those comforts and privileges were finally based on money, and the money was gone.
I might have stayed if I had done what my father had done, which was to marry one of the richest women in town. But I married a poor one instead. I might have stayed if my father had not told me this: be anything but an architect. He and my older brother, who had become a chemist, urged me to study chemistry instead. I would have liked to be an architect, and an architect in Indianapolis at that. I would have become a third-generation Indianapolis architect. There can’t be very many of those around.
But Father was so full of anger and sorrow about having had no work as an architect during the Great Depression that he persuaded me that I, too, would be that unhappy if I studied architecture.
• • •
So I entered Cornell University in 1940 as a chemistry student. I had in high school been an editor ofThe Shortridge Daily Echo, one of two high school dailies in the country at the time, so I also qualified easily for the staff ofThe Cornell Daily Sun.
The children now running theSuninvited me to speak at their annual banquet in Ithaca, New York, on May 3, 1980. TheSun, by the way, a corporation entirely separate from the university, will be one hundred years old when this book is published—in 1981.
This doddering alumnus, who drinks no more, had this to say above the raiding of the ice cubes:
“Good evening, fellow Americans.
“You should have invited a more sentimental speaker, I think. This is surely a sentimental occasion, and I am sentimental about faithful dogs sometimes, but that is as far as it goes.
“The most distinguished living writer who was also aSunman is, of course, Elwyn Brooks White of the class of 1921. He will be eighty-one on July eleventh of this year. You might want to send him a card. His mind is as clear as a bell, and he is not only sentimental about dogs but about Cornell.
“I myself liked only two things about this place: theSunand the horse-drawn artillery. Yes—there was horse-drawn artillery here in my time. I suppose I should tell you how old I am, too. I will be fifty-eight in November of this year. You might want to send me a card, too. We never hooked up the horses to caissons, because we knew that was no way to frighten Hider. So we just put saddles on the horses, and pretended we were at war with Indians, and rode around all afternoon.
“It was not Cornell’s fault that I did not like this place much, in case some alumni secretary or chaplain is about toburst into tears. It was my father’s fault. He said I should become a chemist like my brother, and not waste my time and his money on subjects he considered so much junk jewelry—literature, history, philosophy. I had no talent for science. What was infinitely worse: all my fraternity brothers were engineers.
“I probably would have adored this hellhole, if I had been allowed to study and discuss the finer things in Ufe. Also: I would not have become a writer.
“I eventually wound up on academic probation. I was accelerating my course at the time—because of the war. My instructor in organic chemistry was my lab partner in biochemistry. He was fit to be tied.
“And one day I came down with pneumonia. It is such a dreamy disease. Pneumonia used to be called ’the old people’s friend.’ It can be a young person’s friend, too. All that you feel is that you are sleepy and that it is time to go. I did not die, so far as I know—but I left Cornell, and I’ve never come back until now.
“Good evening, fellow Cornellians. I am here to congratulateThe Cornell Daily Sunon its one-hundredth anniversary. To place this event in historical perspective: theSunis now forty years younger than the saxophone, and sixty years older than the electric guitar.
“It was a family to me—one that included women. Once a week we allowed coeds to put together a woman’s page, but I never got to know any of them. They always seemed so burned up about something. I never did find out what it was. It must have been something over at the sorority house.
“I pity youSunpeople of today for not having truly great leaders to write about—Roosevelt and Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek and Stalin on the side of virtue, and Hitler and Mussolini and Emperor Hirohito on the side of sin.
“Oh, sure, we have another world war coming, andanother great depression, but where are the leaders this time? All you have is a lot of ordinary people standing around with their thumbs up their ass.
“Here is what we must do, if glamour is to be restored to those who lead us into catastrophes, out of catastrophes, and then back into catastrophes again: We must oudaw television and set an example for our children by worshiping the silver screens in motion picture palaces every week.
“We should see moving and talking images of leaders only once a week in newsreels. This is the only way we can get leaders all balled up in our heads with movie stars again.
“When I was a freshman here, I didn’t know or care where the life of Ginger Rogers ended and the life of General Douglas MacArthur began. The senior senator from California was Mickey Mouse, who would serve with great distinction as a bombardier in the Pacific during the Second World War. Commander Mouse dropped a bomb right down the smokestack of a Japanese battleship. The captain of the battleship was Charlie Chan. Boy, was he mad.
“What a shame that there are so many young people here who never saw J. Edgar Hoover on the silver screen. This was a man fourteen feet high who could not be bribed. Imagine a man who loved this country so much that he could not be bribed, except for some minor carpentry on his house. You can’t adore such integrity without the magic of the silver screen.
“Was theSunany good when I was here? I don’t know, and I am afraid to find out. I remember I spelled the first name of Ethel Barrymore ’E-T-H-Y-L’ one time—in a headline.
“In preparation for this event, I had lunch last week with the best editor in chief I worked under here. That was Miller Harris, who is one year older than I am. I would sure hate to be as old as he is. I wouldn’t mind being as old as E. B. White, if I could actually be E. B. White. Miller Harrisis president of the Eagle Shirtmakers now. I ordered a shirt from him one time, and he sent me a bill for one one-hundred-forty-fourth of a gross.
“He said at lunch that theSunin our day was without question the finest student paper in the United States of America. It would be nice if that were true. Eagle shirts, I know, are the greatest shirts in the world.
“I was shattered, I remember, during my sophomore year here, when a world traveler said that Cornell was the forty-ninth greatest university in the world. I had hoped we would at least be in the high teens somewhere. Little did I realize that going to an only marginally great university would also make me a writer.
“That is how you get to be a writer, incidentally: you feel somehow marginal, somehow slightly off-balance all the time. I spent an awful lot of time here buying gray flannel. I never could find the right shade.
“I finally gave up on gray flannel entirely, and went to the University of Chicago, the forty-eighth greatest university in the world.
“Do I know Thomas Pynchon? No. Did I know Vladimir Nabokov? No. I know and knew Miller Harris, the president of Eagle Shirtmakers.
“Well—I am more sentimental about this occasion than I have so far indicated. We chemists can be as sentimental as anybody. Our emotional lives, probably because of the A-bomb and the H-bomb, and the way we spell ’Ethel,’ have been much maligned.
“I found a family here at theSun, or I no doubt would have invited pneumonia into my thorax during my freshman year. Those of you who have been kind enough to read a book of mine, any book of mine, will know of my admiration for large families, whether real or artificial, as the primary supporters of mental health.
“And it is surely curious that I, as an outspoken enemyof the disease called loneliness, should now remember as my happiest times in Ithaca the hours when I was most alone.
“I was happiest here when I was all alone—and it was very late at night, and I was walking up the hill after having helped to put theSunto bed.
“All the other university people, teachers and students alike, were asleep. They had been playing games all day long with what was known about real Ufe. They had been repeating famous arguments and experiments, and asking one another the sorts of hard questions real life would be asking by and by.
“We on theSunwere already in the midst of real Ufe. By God, if we weren’t! We had just designed and written and caused to be manufactured yet another morning newspaper for a highly intelligent American community of respectable size—yes, and not during the Harding administration, either, but during 1940, ’41, and ’42, with the Great Depression ending, and with World War Two well begun.
“I am an agnostic as some of you may have gleaned from my writings. But I have to tell you that, as I trudged up the hill so late at night and all alone, I knew that God Almighty approved of me.”
• • •
I make my living as a writer in New York City, the capital of the world, and am, so far as I know, now the only person from Indianapolis who is a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Until last year, there were two of us. The other one was Janet Flanner, who, writing under the name of “Genêt,” wasThe New Yorker’sParis correspondent for thirty years or more. I got to know her some in recent years, and once wrote in a book I gave her, “Indianapolis needs you!”
She read that, and she said to me, “How little you know.”
She used to know my father, too, when she was a young woman—before she lit out for the sunrise and never went home again. Her family in Indianapolis was best known for the mortuaries some of its members ran.
Janet Flanner was the most deft and charming literary stylist Indianapolis has so far produced, and the one who came closest to being a planetary citizen, too. She was not a local writer. Neither was she, like another Hoosier writer, Ernie Pyle, a globe-trotting rube.
So when she died here in New York, I wanted to make sure that her native city knew about it. I telephoned the city desk ofThe Indianapolis Star, a morning paper being put to bed. Nobody in the city room had ever heard of her. Neither was anybody much interested when I told of all she had done.
But then I found a way to excite them, to get them to run a front page obituary, which was a rewrite of the obituary that had appeared in that morning’sNew York Times.
What did the trick? I told them that she was somehow related to the people who ran the funeral homes.
• • •
I myself will get an obituary in an Indianapolis paper when I die because I am related to people who used to own a chain of hardware stores. The chain was wrecked by discount stores after the Second World War. It had a manufacturing division, which made door hardware, and that was bought by a conglomerate. It beat the mortuary business, at any rate.
I used to work in the main store of the Vonnegut Hardware Company in the summertime, when I was high school age. I ran a freight elevator. I made up packages in the shipping room, and so on. I liked what we sold. It was all so honest and practical.
And I discovered only the other day how sentimental I still was about the hardware business—when I was asked byone Gunilla Boëthius ofAftonbladet, a Swedish newspaper, to write for one thousand crowns a short essay on this subject: “When I Lost My Innocence.”
On May 9, 1980, I wrote this letter:
Dear Gunilla Boëthius—
I thank you for your letter of April 25, received by me only this morning.
An enthusiasm for technological cures for almost all forms of human discontent was the only religion of my family during the Great Depression, when I first got to know that family well. It was religion enough for me, and one branch of the family owned the largest hardware store in Indianapolis, Indiana. I still do not believe that I was wrong to adore the cunning devices and compounds on sale there, and when I feel most lost in this world, I comfort myself by visiting a hardware store. I meditate there. I do not buy anything. A hammer is still my Jesus, and my Virgin Mary is still a cross-cut saw.
But I learned how vile that religion of mine could be when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The date of that event can be found in almost any good reference book. How profound had my innocence been? Only six months before, as a captured American foot soldier, I had been in Dresden when it was burned to the ground by a purposely set firestorm. I was still innocent after that. Why? Because the technology which created that firestorm was so familiar to me. I understood it entirely, and so had no trouble imagining how the same amount of ingenuity and determination could benefit mankind once the war was over. I could even help. There was nothing in the bombs or the airplanes, after all, which could not, essentially, be bought at a small hardware store.
As for fire: Everybody knows what you do with unwanted fire. You put water on it.
But the bombing of Hiroshima compelled me to see that a trust in technology, like all the other great religions of the world, had to do with the human soul. I will bet you the one thousand crowns you have offered me for this piece that every one of the tales of lost innocence you receive will embody not only the startling discovery of the human soul, but of how diseased it can be.
How sick was the soul revealed by the flash at Hiroshima? And I deny that it was a specifically American soul. It was the soul of every highly industrialized nation on earth, whether at war or at peace. How sick was it? It was so sick that it did not want to live anymore. What other sort of soul would create a new physics based on nightmares, would place into the hands of mere politicians a planet so “destabilized,” to borrow a CIA term, that the briefest fit of stupidity could easily guarantee the end of the world?
It is supposed to be good to lose one’s innocence. I do not read them, but I think that is what my novels say, so it must be true. I, for one, now know what isreallygoing on, so I can plan more shrewdly and be less open to surprise. But my morale has been lowered a good deal, so I am probably not any stronger than I used to be. Since Hiroshima, I have increased my amperes but decreased my volts, and wound up with the same number of watts, so to speak.
It is quite awful, really, to realize that perhaps most of the people around me find lives in the service of machines so tedious and exasperating that they would not mind much, even if they have children, if life were turned off like a light switch at any time. How many of your readers will deny that the movieDr. Strangelovewas so popular because its ending was such a happy one?
• • •
I am invited to all sorts of neo-Luddite gatherings, of course, and am sometimes asked to speak. I had this to saybetween rock and roll numbers at an antinuke rally in Washington, D.C., on May 6, 1979:
“I am embarrassed. We are all embarrassed. We Americans have guided our destinies so clumsily, with all the world watching, that we must now protect ourselves against our own government and our own industries.
“Not to do so would be suicide. We have discovered a brand-new method for committing suicide—family style, Reverend Jim Jones style, and by the millions. What is the method? To say nothing and do nothing about what some of our businessmen and military men are doing with the most unstable substances and the most persistent poisons to be found anywhere in the universe.
“The people who play with such chemicals are sodumb!
“They are also vicious. How vicious it is of them to tell us as little as possible about the hideousness of nuclear weapons and power plants!
“And, among all the dumb and vicious people, who jeopardizes all life on earth with hearts so light? I suggest to you that it is those who will lie for the nuclear industries, or who will teach their executives how to lie convincingly—for a fee. I speak of certain lawyers and communicators, andallpublic relations experts. The so-called profession of public relations, an American invention, stands entirely disgraced today.
“The lies we have been fed about nuclear energy have been as cunningly handcrafted as the masterpieces of Benvenuto Cellini. They have been a damned sight better built, I must say, than the atomic energy plants themselves.
“I say to you that the makers of such lies are filthy little monkeys. I hate them. They may think they are cute. They are not cute. They stink. If we let them, they will kill everything on this lovely blue-green planet with their rebuttals to what we say here today—with their vicious, stupid lies.”4 TRIAGE
IWAS EDUCATED SOMEin chemistry, and in biology and physics, too, at Cornell University. I did badly, and I soon forgot all they tried to teach me. The Army sent me to Carnegie Tech and the University of Tennessee to study mechanical engineering—thermodynamics, mechanics, the actual use of machine tools, and so on. I did badly again. I am very used to failure, to being at the bottom of every class.
An Indianapolis cousin of mine, who was also a high school classmate, did very badly at the University of Michigan while I did badly at Cornell. His father asked him what the trouble was, and he made what I consider an admirable reply: “Don’t you know, Father? I’m dumb!” It was the truth.
I did badly in the Army, remaining a preposterously tall private for the three years I served. I was a good soldier, an especially deadly marksman, but nobody thought to promote me. I learned all the dances of close-order drill. Nobody in the Army could dance better than I could in ranks. If a third world war comes, I am still spry enough to dance again.
• • •
Yes, and I was a mediocrity in the anthropology department of the University of Chicago after the Second World War. Triage was practiced there as it is practiced everywhere. There were those students who would surely be anthropologists, and the most winsome faculty members gave them intensive care. A second group of students, in the opinion of the faculty, just might become so-so anthropologists, but more probably, would use what they had learned aboutHomo sapiensto good advantage in some other field, such as medicine or law, say.
The third group, of which I was a member, might as well have been dead—or studying chemistry. We were given as a thesis advisor the least popular faculty member, un-tenured and justifiably paranoid. His position paralleled that of the waiter Mespoulets in the stories of Ludwig Bemelmans about the fictitious Hotel Splendid. Mespoulets had the table next to the kitchen, and his specialty was making sure that certain sorts of guests at the hotel restaurant never came back again.
This terrible faculty advisor of mine was surely the most exciting and instructive teacher I have ever had. He gave courses whose lectures were chapters in books he was writing about the mechanics of social change, and which no one, as it turned out, would ever publish.
After I left the university, I would visit him whenever business brought me to Chicago. He never remembered me, and seemed annoyed by my visits—especially, I suppose, when I brought the wonderful news of my having been published here and there.
One night on Cape Cod, when I was drunk and reeking of mustard gas and roses, and calling up old friends and enemies, as used to be my custom, I called up my beloved old thesis advisor. I was told he was dead—at the age of about fifty, I think. He had swallowed cyanide. He had not published. He had perished instead.
And I wish I had an unpublished essay of his on the mechanics of social change to paste into this collage of mine now.
I do not give his name, because I do not think he would like to see it here.
• • •
My mother, who was also a suicide and who never saw even the first of her eleven grandchildren, is another one, I gather, who would not like to see her name anywhere.
• • •
Am I angry at having had triage practiced on me? I am glad it was practiced on me at a university rather than at a battalion aid station behind the front lines. I might have wound up as a preposterously tall private expiring in a snow-bank outside the tent, while the doctors inside operated on those who had at least a fifty-fifty chance to survive. Why waste time and plasma on a goner?
And I myself have since practiced triage in university settings—in writing classes at the University of Iowa, at Harvard, at City College.
One third of every class was corpses as far as I was concerned. What’s more, I was right.
That would certainly be a better name for this planet than Earth, since it would give people who just got here a clearer idea of what they were in for: Triage.
Welcome to Triage.
• • •
What good is a planet called Earth, after all, if you own no land?
• • •
And let us end on a sunnier note, with an essay I wrote in May of 1980 at the behest of the International Paper Company. That company, for obvious reasons, hopes that Americans will continue to read and write. And so it has asked various well-known persons to write leaflets for free distribution to anyone hankering to read and write some—about how to increase one’s vocabulary, how to write an effective business letter, about how to do library research, and so on.
In view of the fact that I had nearly flunked chemistry, mechanical engineering, and anthropology, and had never taken a course in literature or composition, I was elected to write about literary style. I was more than glad to do this. But I must bring up the joyless subject of triage again, for I intended my essay not for the bottom third of would-be writers, the warm corpses, nor for the top third—those who are or could be brilliant writers anyway.
My essay is for the middle third, and it goes like this:
Newspaper reporters and technical writers are trained to reveal almost nothing about themselves in their writings. This makes them freaks in the world of writers, since almost all of the other ink-stained wretches in that world reveal a lot about themselves to readers. We call these revelations, accidental and intentional, elements of literary style.
These revelations are fascinating to us as readers. They tell us what sort of person it is with whom we are spending time. Does the writer sound ignorant or informed, crazy or sane, stupid or bright, crooked or honest, humorless or playful—? And on and on.
When you yourself put words on paper, remember that the most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not. Don’t you yourself like or dislike writers mainly for what they choose to show you or make you think about? Did youever admire an empty-headed writer for his or her mastery of the language? No.
So your own winning literary style must begin with interesting ideas in your head. Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.
I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way— although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do.
Do not ramble, though.
As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of our language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. “To be or not to be?” asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story “Eveline” is this one: “She was tired.” At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those words do.
Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate my subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out. Here is the same rule paraphrased to apply to storytelling, to fiction:Never include a sentence which does not either remark on character or advance the action.
The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo speech you heard when a child. English was the novelist Joseph Conrad’s third language, and much that seems piquant in his use of English was no doubt colored by his first language, which was Polish. And lucky indeed is the writer who has grown up in Ireland, for the English spoken there is so amusing and musical. I myself grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as un-ornamental as a monkey wrench.
In some of the more remote hollows of Appalachia, children still grow up hearing songs and locutions of Elizabethan times. Yes, and many Americans grow up hearing a language other than English, or an English dialect a majority of Americans cannot understand.
All these varieties of speech are beautiful, just as the varieties of butterflies are beautiful. No matter what your first language, you should treasure it all your life. If it happens not to be standard English, and if it shows itself when you write standard English, the result is usually delightful, like a very pretty girl with one eye that is green and one that is blue.
I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. What alternatives do I have? The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: that I write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago.
I used to be exasperated by such teachers, but am no more. I understand now that all those antique essays and stories with which I was to compare my own work were not magnificent for their datedness or foreignness, but for saying precisely what their authors meant them to say. My teachers wished me to write accurately, always selecting the most effectivewords, and relating the words to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine. The teachers did not want to turn me into an Englishman after all. They hoped that I would become understandable—and therefore understood.
And there went my dream of doing with words what Pablo Picasso did with paint or what any number of jazz idols did with music. If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledy-piggledy, I would simply not be understood. So you, too, had better avoid Picasso-style or jazz-style writing, if you have something worth saying and wish to be understood.
If it were only teachers who insisted that modern writers stay close to literary styles of the past, we might reasonably ignore them. But readers insist on the very same thing. They want our pages to look very much like pages they have seen before.
Why? It is because they themselves have a tough job to do, and they need all the help they can get from us. They have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately. They have toread, an art so difficult that most people do not really master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high school—for twelve long years.
So this discussion, like all discussions of literary styles, must finally acknowledge that our stylistic options as writers are neither numerous nor glamorous, since our readers are bound to be such imperfect artists. Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient teachers, ever willing to simplify and clarify—whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales.
That is the bad news. The good news is that we Americans are governed under a unique Constitution, which allows us to write whatever we please without fear of punishment.So the most meaningful aspect of our styles, which is what we choose to write about, is unlimited.
Also: we are members of an egalitarian society, so there is no reason for us to write, in case we are not classically educated aristocrats, as though we were classically educated aristocrats.
For a discussion of literary style in a narrower sense, in a more technical sense, I commend to your attentionThe Elements of Styleby William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White (Macmillan, 1979). It contains such rules as this: “A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject,” and so on. E. B. White is, of course, one of the most admirable literary stylists this country has so far produced.
You should realize, too, that no one would care how well or badly Mr. White expressed himself, if he did not have perfectly enchanting things to say.5 SELF-INTERVIEW
THIS SELF-INTERVIEW FROMThe Paris ReviewNo. 69, 1977, appears here with the permission of The Viking Press, which gets out collections ofParis Reviewinterviews and owns the copyrights to all of them.
Sentences spoken by writers, unless they have been written out first, rarely say what writers wish to say. Writers are unlucky speakers, by and large, which accounts for their being in a profession which encourages them to stay at their desks for years, if necessary, pondering what to say next and how best to say it. Interviewers propose to speed up this process by trepaning writers, so to speak, and fishing around in their brains for unused ideas which otherwise might never get out of there. Not a single idea has ever been discovered by means of this brutal method—and still the trepaning of authors goes on every day.
I now refuse all those who wish to take the top off my skull yet again. The only way to get anything out of a writer’s brains is to leave him or her alone until he or she is damn well ready to write it down.
This interview is purely written. Not a word of it was spoken aloud. The prefatory material in italics was not written by me, however, but byThe Paris Review, to wit:
The introduction to the first of the incorporated interviews (done in West Barnstable, Massachusetts, when Vonnegut was 44) reads: “He is a veteran and a family man, large-boned, loose-jointed, at ease. He camps in an armchair in a shaggy tweed jacket, Cambridge gray flannels, a blue Brooks Brothers shirt, slouched down, his hands stuffed into his pockets. He shells the interview with explosive coughs and sneezes, windages of an autumn cold and a lifetime of heavy cigarette smoking. His voice is a resonant baritone, Midwestern, wry in its inflections. From time to time he issues the open alert smile of a man who has seen and reserved within himself almost everything: depression, war, the possibility of violent death, the inanities of corporate public relations, six children, an irregular income, long-delayed recognition.”
The last of the interviews which made up the composite was conducted during the summer of 1916, years after the first. The description of him at this time reads:”… he moves with the low-keyed amiability of an old family dog. In general, his appearance is tousled: the long curly hair, moustache and sympathetic smile suggest a man at once amused and saddened by the world around him. He has rented the Gerald Murphy house for the summer. He works in the little bedroom at the end of a hall where Murphy, artist, bon vivant, and friend to the artistic great, died in 1964. From his desk Vonnegut can look out onto the front lawn through a small window; behind him is a large, white canopy bed. On the desk next to the typewriter is a copy of Andy Warhol’sInterview,Clancy Sigal’sZone of the Interior,and several discarded cigarette packs.
“Vonnegut has chain-smoked Pall Malls since 1936 and during the course of the interview he smokes the better part of one pack. His voice is low and gravelly, and as he speaks, the incessant procedure of lighting the cigarettes and exhaling smoke is like punctuation in his conversation. Other distractions such as the jangle of the telephone, and the barking of a small, shaggy dog named ’Pumpkin,’ do not detract from Vonnegut’s good-natured disposition. Indeed, as Dan Wakefield once said of his fellow Shortridge High School alumnus: ’He laughed a lot and was kind to everyone.’”
• • •
INTERVIEWER:You are a veteran of the Second World War?
VONNEGUT:Yes. I want a military funeral when I die—the bugler, the flag on the casket, the ceremonial firing squad, the hallowed ground.
VONNEGUT:It will be a way of achieving what I’ve always wanted more than anything—something I could have had, if only I’d managed to get myself killed in the war.
VONNEGUT:The unqualified approval of my community.
INTERVIEWER:You don’t feel that you have that now?
VONNEGUT:My relatives say that they are glad I’m rich, but that they simply cannot read me.
INTERVIEWER:You were an infantry battalion scout in the war?
VONNEGUT:Yes, but I took my basic training on the 240-millimeter howitzer.
INTERVIEWER:A rather large weapon.
VONNEGUT:The largest mobile field piece in the Army at that time. This weapon came in six pieces, each piece dragged wallowingly by a Caterpillar tractor. Whenever we were told to fire it, we had to build it first. We practically had to invent it. We lowered one piece on top of another, using cranes and jacks. The shell itself was about nine-and-a-half inches in diameter and weighed three hundred pounds. We constructed a miniature railway which would allow us to deliver the shell from the ground to the breech, which was about eight feet above grade. The breech-block was like the door on the vault of a savings and loan association in Peru, Indiana, say.
INTERVIEWER:It must have been a thrill to fire such a weapon.
VONNEGUT:Not really. We would put the shell in there, and then we would throw in bags of very slow and patient explosives. They were damp dog biscuits, I think. We would close the breech, and then trip a hammer which hit a fulminate of mercury percussion cap, which spit fire at the damp dog biscuits. The main idea, I think, was to generate steam. After a while, we could hear these cooking sounds. It was a lot like cooking a turkey. In utter safety, I think, we could have opened the breechblock from time to time, and basted the shell. Eventually, though, the howitzer always got restless. And finally it would heave back on its recoil mechanism, and it would have to expectorate the shell. The shell would come floating out like the Goodyear blimp. If we had had a stepladder, we could have painted “Fuck Hider” on the shell as it left the gun. Helicopters could have taken after it and shot it down.
INTERVIEWER:The ultimate terror weapon.
VONNEGUT:Of the Franco-Prussian War.
INTERVIEWER:But you were ultimately sent overseas not with this instrument but with the 106th Infantry Division?
VONNEGUT:“The Bag Lunch Division.” They used to feed us a lot of bag lunches. Salami sandwiches. An orange.
VONNEGUT:When we were still in the States.
INTERVIEWER:While they trained you for the infantry?
VONNEGUT:I was never trained for the infantry. Battalion scouts were elite troops, see. There were only six in each battalion, and nobody was very sure about what they were supposed to do. So we would march over to the rec room every morning, and play Ping-Pong and fill out applications for Officer Candidate School.
INTERVIEWER:During your basic training, though, you musthave been familiarized with weapons other than the howitzer.
VONNEGUT:If you study the 240-millimeter howitzer, you don’t have time for other weapons. You don’t even have time left over for a venereal disease film.
INTERVIEWER:What happened when you reached the front?
VONNEGUT:I imitated various war movies I’d seen.
INTERVIEWER:Did you shoot anybody in the war?
VONNEGUT:I thought about it. I did fix my bayonet once, fully expecting to charge.
INTERVIEWER:Did you charge?
VONNEGUT:No. If everybody else had charged, I would have charged, too. But we decided not to charge. We couldn’t see anybody.
INTERVIEWER:This was during the Battle of the Bulge, wasn’t it? It was the largest defeat of American arms in history.
VONNEGUT:Probably. My last mission as a scout was to find our own artillery. Usually, scouts go out and look for enemy stuff. Things got so bad that we were finally looking for our own stuff. If I’d found our own battalion commander, everybody would have thought that was pretty swell.
INTERVIEWER:Do you mind describing your capture by the Germans?
VONNEGUT:Gladly. We were in this gully about as deep as a World War I trench. There was snow all around. Somebody said we were probably in Luxembourg. We were out of food.
INTERVIEWER:Who was “we”?
VONNEGUT:Our battalion scouting unit. All six of us. And about fifty people we’d never met before. The Germans could see us, because they were talking to us through a loudspeaker. They told us our situation was hopeless,and so on. That was when we fixed bayonets. It was nice there for a few minutes.
VONNEGUT:Being a porcupine with all those steel quills. I pitied anybody who had to come in after us.
INTERVIEWER:But they came in anyway?
VONNEGUT:No. They sent in eighty-eight-millimeter shells instead. The shells burst in the treetops right over us. Those were very loud bangs right over our heads. We were showered with splintered steel. Some people got hit. Then the Germans told us again to come out. We didn’t yell “nuts” or anything like that. We said, “Okay,” and “Take it easy,” and so on. When the Germans finally showed themselves, we saw they were wearing white camouflage suits. We didn’t have anything like that. We were olive drab. No matter what season it was, we were olive drab.
INTERVIEWER:What did the Germans say?
VONNEGUT:They said the war was all over for us, that we were lucky, that we could now be sure we would live through the war, which Was more than they could be sure of. As a matter of fact, they were probably killed or captured by Patton’s Third Army within the next few days. Wheels within wheels.
INTERVIEWER:Did you speak any German?
VONNEGUT:I had heard my parents speak it a lot. They hadn’t taught me how to do it, since there had been such bitterness in America against all things German during the First World War. I tried a few words I knew on our captors, and they asked me if I was of German ancestry, and I said, “Yes.” They wanted to know why I was making war against my brothers.
INTERVIEWER:And you said—?
VONNEGUT:I honestly found the question ignorant and comical. My parents had separated me so thoroughly frommy Germanic past that my captors might as well have been Bolivians or Tibetans, for all they meant to me.
INTERVIEWER:After you were captured, you were shipped to Dresden?
VONNEGUT:In the same boxcars that had brought up the troops that captured us—probably in the same boxcars that had delivered Jews and Gypsies and Jehovah’s Witnesses and so on to the extermination camps. Rolling stock is rolling stock. British mosquito bombers attacked us at night a few times. I guess they thought we were strategic materials of some kind. They hit a car containing most of the officers from our battalion. Every time I say I hate officers, which I still do fairly frequently, I have to remind myself that practically none of the officers I served under survived. Christmas was in there somewhere.
INTERVIEWER:And you finally arrived in Dresden.
VONNEGUT:In a huge prison camp south of Dresden first. The privates were separated from the noncoms and officers. Under the articles of the Geneva Convention, which is a very Edwardian document, privates were required to work for their keep. Everybody else got to languish in prison. As a private, I was shipped to Dresden.
INTERVIEWER:What were your impressions of the city itself before the bombing?
VONNEGUT:The first fancy city I’d ever seen. A city full of statues and zoos, like Paris. We were living in a slaughterhouse, in a nice new cement-block hog barn. They put bunks and straw mattresses in the barn, and we went to work every morning as contract labor in a malt syrup factory. The syrup was for pregnant women. The damned sirens would go off and we’d hear some other city getting it—whump a whump a whumpa whump. We never expected to get it. There were very few air raidshelters in town and no war industries, just cigarette factories, hospitals, clarinet factories. Then a siren went off—it was February 13, 1945—and we went down two stories under the pavement into a big meat locker. It was cool there, with cadavers hanging all around. When we came up the city was gone.
INTERVIEWER:You didn’t suffocate in the meat locker?
VONNEGUT:No. It was quite large, and there weren’t very many of us. The attack didn’t sound like a hell of a lot either.Whump. They went over with high explosives first to loosen things up, and then scattered incendiaries. When the war started, incendiaries were fairly sizeable, about as long as a shoebox. By the time Dresden got it, they were tiny little things. They burnt the whole damn town down.
INTERVIEWER:What happened when you came up?
VONNEGUT:Our guards were noncoms—a sergeant, a corporal, and four privates—and leaderless. Cityless, too, because they were Dresdeners who’d been shot up on the front and sent home for easy duty. They kept us at attention for a couple of hours. They didn’t know what else to do. They’d go over and talk to each other. Finally we trekked across the rubble and they quartered us with some South Africans in a suburb. Every day we walked into the city and dug into basements and shelters to get the corpses out, as a sanitary measure. When we went into them, a typical shelter, an ordinary basement usually, looked like a streetcar full of people who’d simultaneously had heart failure. Just people sitting there in their chairs, all dead. A fire storm is an amazing thing. It doesn’t occur in nature. It’s fed by the tornadoes that occur in the midst of it and there isn’t a damned thing to breathe. We brought the dead out. They were loaded on wagons and taken to parks, large open areas in the city which weren’t filled with rubble.The Germans got funeral pyres going, burning the bodies to keep them from stinking and from spreading disease. 130,000 corpses were hidden underground. It was a terribly elaborate Easter egg hunt. We went to work through cordons of German soldiers. Civilians didn’t get to see what we were up to. After a few days the city began to smell, and a new technique was invented. Necessity is the mother of invention. We would bust into the shelter, gather up valuables from people’s laps without attempting identification, and turn the valuables over to guards. Then soldiers would come with a flame thrower and stand in the door and cremate the people inside. Get the gold and jewelry out and then burn everybody inside.
INTERVIEWER:What an impression on someone thinking of becoming a writer!
VONNEGUT:It was a fancy thing to see, a startling thing. It was a moment of truth, too, because American civilians and ground troops didn’t know American bombers were engaged in saturation bombing. It was kept a secret until very close to the end of the war. One reason they burned down Dresden is that they’d already burned down everything else. You know: “What’re we going to do tonight?” Here was everybody all set to go, and Germany still fighting, and this machinery for burning down cities was being used. It was a secret, burning down cities—boiling pisspots and flaming prams. There was all this hokum about the Norden bombsight. You’d see a newsreel showing a bombardier with an MP on either side of him holding a drawn .45. That sort of nonsense, and hell, all they were doing was just flying over cities, hundreds of airplanes, and dropping everything. When I went to the University of Chicago after the war the guy who interviewed me for admission had bombed Dresden. He got to that part ofmy life story and he said, “Well, we hated to do it.” The comment sticks in my mind.
INTERVIEWER:Another reaction would be, “We were ordered to do it.”
VONNEGUT:His was more humane. I think he felt the bombing was necessary, and it may have been. One thing everybody learned is how fast you can rebuild a city. The engineers said it would take 500 years to rebuild Germany. Actually it took about 18 weeks.
INTERVIEWER:Did you intend to write about it as soon as you went through the experience?
VONNEGUT:When the city was demolished I had no idea of the scale of the thing…. Whether this was what Bremen looked like or Hamburg, Coventry … I’d never seen Coventry, so I had no scale except for what I’d seen in movies. When I got home (I was a writer since I had been on theCornell Sunexcept that was the extent of my writing) I thought of writing my war story, too. All my friends were home; they’d had wonderful adventures, too. I went down to the newspaper office,The Indianapolis News, and looked to find out what they had about Dresden. There was an item about half an inch long, which said our planes had been over Dresden and two had been lost. And so I figured, well, this really was the most minor sort of detail in World War II. Others had so much more to write about. I remember envying Andy Rooney who jumped into print at that time; I didn’t know him, but I think he was the first guy to publish his war story after the war; it was calledTail Gunner. Hell, I never had any classy adventure like that. But every so often I would meet a European and we would be talking about the war and I would say I was in Dresden; he’d be astonished that I’d been there, and he’d always want to know more. Then a book by David Irving was published about Dresden,saying it was the largest massacre in European history. I said, By God, I saw something after all! I would try to write my war story, whether it was interesting or not, and try to make something out of it. I describe that process a little in the beginning ofSlaughterhouse-Five;I saw it as starring John Wayne and Frank Sinatra. Finally, a girl called Mary O’Hare, the wife of a friend of mine who’d been there with me, said, “You were just children then. It’s not fair to pretend that you were men like Wayne and Sinatra and it’s not fair to future generations because you’re going to make war look good.” That was a very important clue to me.
INTERVIEWER:That sort of shifted the whole focus …
VONNEGUT:She freed me to write about what infants we really were: 17, 18, 19, 20, 21. We were baby-faced, and as a prisoner of war I don’t think I had to shave very often. I don’t recall that that was a problem.
INTERVIEWER:One more question; do you still think about the fire-bombing of Dresden at all?
VONNEGUT:I wrote a book about it, calledSlaughterhouse-Five. The book is still in print, and I have to do something about it as a businessman now and then. Marcel Ophuls asked me to be in his film,A Memory of Justice. He wanted me to talk about Dresden as an atrocity. I told him to talk to my friend Bernard V. O’Hare, Mary’s husband, instead, which he did. O’Hare was a fellow battalion scout, and then a fellow prisoner of war. He’s a lawyer in Pennsylvania now.
INTERVIEWER:Why didn’t you wish to testify?
VONNEGUT:I had a German name. I didn’t want to argue with people who thought Dresden should have been bombed to hell. All I ever said in my book was that Dresden, willy-nilly,wasbombed to hell.
INTERVIEWER:It was the largest massacre in European history?
VONNEGUT:It was the fastest killing of large numbers of people—one hundred and thirty-five thousand people in a matter of hours. There were slower schemes for killing, of course.
INTERVIEWER:The death camps.
VONNEGUT:Yes—in which millions were eventually killed. Many people see the Dresden massacre as correct and quite minimal revenge for what had been done by the camps. Maybe so. As I say, I never argue that point. I do note in passing that the death penalty was applied to absolutely anybody who happened to be in the undefended city—babies, old people, the zoo animals, and thousands upon thousands of rabid Nazis, of course, and, among others, my best friend Bernard V. O’Hare and me. By all rights, O’Hare and I should have been part of the body count. The more bodies, the more correct the revenge.
INTERVIEWER:The Franklin Library is bringing out a deluxe edition ofSlaughterhouse-Five, I believe.
VONNEGUT:Yes. I was required to write a new introduction for it.
INTERVIEWER:Did you have any new thoughts?
VONNEGUT:I said that only one person on the entire planet benefited from the raid, which must have cost tens of millions of dollars. The raid didn’t shorten the war by half a second, didn’t weaken a German defense or attack anywhere, didn’t free a single person from a death camp. Only one person benefited—not two or five or ten. Just one.
INTERVIEWER:And who was that?
VONNEGUT:Me. I got three dollars for each person killed. Imagine that.
INTERVIEWER:How much affinity do you feel toward your contemporaries?
VONNEGUT:My brother and sister writers? Friendly, certainly.It’s hard for me to talk to some of them, since we seem to be in very different sorts of businesses. This was a mystery to me for a while, but then Saul Steinberg—
INTERVIEWER:The graphic artist?
VONNEGUT:Indeed. He said that in almost all arts there were some people who responded strongly to art history, to triumphs and fiascoes and experiments of the past, and others who did not. I fell into the second group, and had to. I couldn’t play games with my literary ancestors, since I had never studied them systematically. My education was as a chemist at Cornell and then an anthropologist at the University of Chicago. Christ—I was thirty-five before I went crazy about Blake, forty before I readMadame Bovary, forty-five before I’d even heard of Céline. Through dumb luck, I readLook Homeward, Angelexactly when I was supposed to.
VONNEGUT:At the age of eighteen.
INTERVIEWER:So you’ve always been a reader?
VONNEGUT:Yes. I grew up in a house crammed with books. But I never had to read a book for academic credit, never had to write a paper about it, never had to prove I’d understood it in a seminar. I am a hopelessly clumsy discusser of books. My experience is nil.
INTERVIEWER:Which member of your family had the most influence on you as a writer?
VONNEGUT:My mother, I guess. Edith Lieber Vonnegut. After our family lost almost all of its money in the Great Depression, my mother thought she might make a new fortune by writing for the slick magazines. She took short story courses at night. She studied magazines the way gamblers study racing forms.
INTERVIEWER:She’d been rich at one time?
VONNEGUT:My father, an architect of modest means, married one of the richest girls in town. It was a brewingfortune based on Lieber Lager Beer and then Gold Medal Beer. Lieber Lager became Gold Medal after winning a prize at some Paris exposition.
INTERVIEWER:It must have been a very good beer.
VONNEGUT:Long before my time. I never tasted any. It had a secret ingredient, I know. My grandfather and his brewmaster wouldn’t let anybody watch while they put it in.
INTERVIEWER:Do you know what it was?
INTERVIEWER:So your mother studied short story writing?
VONNEGUT:And my father painted pictures in a studio he’d set up on the top floor of the house. There wasn’t much work for architects during the Great Depression—not much work for anybody. Strangely enough, though, Mother was right: Even mediocre magazine writers were making money hand over fist.
INTERVIEWER:So your mother took a very practical attitude toward writing.
VONNEGUT:Not to say crass. She was a highly intelligent, cultivated woman, by the way. She went to the same high school I did, and was one of the few people who got nothing but A-plusses while she was there. She went east to a finishing school after that, and then traveled all over Europe. She was fluent in German and French. I still have her high school report cards somewhere. “A-plus, A-plus, A-plus …” She was a good writer, it turned out, but she had no talent for the vulgarity the slick magazines required. Fortunately, I was loaded with vulgarity, so, when I grew up, I was able to make her dream come true. Writing forCollier’sandThe Saturday Evening PostandCosmopolitanandLadies’ Home Journaland so on was as easy as falling off a log for me. I only wish she’d lived to see it. I only wish she’dlived to see all her grandchildren. She has ten. She didn’t even get to see the first one. I made another one of her dreams come true: I lived on Cape Cod for many years. She always wanted to live on Cape Cod. It’s probably very common for sons to try to make their mothers’ impossible dreams come true. I adopted my sister’s sons after she died, and it’s spooky to watch them try to make her impossible dreams come true.
INTERVIEWER:What were your sister’s dreams like?
VONNEGUT:She wanted to live like a member ofThe Swiss Family Robinson, with impossibly friendly animals in impossibly congenial isolation. Her oldest son, Jim, has been a goat farmer on a mountain top in Jamaica for the past eight years. No telephone. No electricity.
INTERVIEWER:The Indianapolis high school you and your mother attended—
VONNEGUT:And my father. Shortridge High.
INTERVIEWER:It had a daily paper, I believe.
VONNEGUT:Yes.The Shortridge Daily Echo. There was a print shop right in the school. Students wrote the paper. Students set the type. After school.
INTERVIEWER:You just laughed about something.
VONNEGUT:It was something dumb I remembered about high school. It doesn’t have anything to do with writing.
INTERVIEWER:You care to share it with us anyway?
VONNEGUT:Oh—I just remembered something that happened in a high school course on civics, on how our government worked. The teacher asked each of us tó stand up in turn and tell what we did after school. I was sitting in the back of the room, sitting next to a guy named J. T. Alburger. He later became an insurance man in Los Angeles. He died fairly recently. Anyway— he kept nudging me, urging me, daring me to tell thetruth about what I did after school. He offered me five dollars to tell the truth. He wanted me to stand up and say, “I make model airplanes and jerk off”
VONNEGUT:I also worked onThe Shortridge Daily Echo.
INTERVIEWER:Was that fun?
VONNEGUT:Fun and easy. I’ve always found it easy to write. Also, I learned to write for peers rather than for teachers. Most beginning writers don’t get to write for peers—to catch hell from peers.
INTERVIEWER:SO every afternoon you would go to theEchooffice—
VONNEGUT:Yeah. And one time, while I was writing, I happened to sniff my armpits absent-mindedly. Several people saw me do it, and thought it was funny—and ever after that I was given the name “Snarf.” In the Annual for my graduating class, the Class of 1940, I’m listed as “Kurt Snarfield Vonnegut, Jr.” Technically, I wasn’t really a snarf. A snarf was a person who went around sniffing girls’ bicycle saddles. I didn’t do that. “Twerp” also had a very specific meaning, which few people know now. Through careless usage, “twerp” is a pretty formless insult now.
INTERVIEWER:What is a twerp in the strictest sense, in the original sense?
VONNEGUT:It’s a person who inserts a set of false teeth between the cheeks of his ass.
VONNEGUT:I beg your pardon; between the cheeks of his orherass. I’m always offending feminists that way.
INTERVIEWER:I don’t quite understand why someone would do that with false teeth.
VONNEGUT:In order to bite the buttons off the back seats of taxicabs. That’s the only reason twerps do it. It’s all that turns them-on.
INTERVIEWER:You went to Cornell University after Short-ridge?
VONNEGUT:I had a friend who was a heavy drinker. If somebody asked him if he’d been drunk the night before, he would always answer off-handedly, “Oh, I imagine.” I’ve always liked that answer. It acknowledges life as a dream. Cornell was a boozy dream, partly because of booze itself, and partly because I was enrolled exclusively in courses I had no talent for. My father and brother agreed that I should study chemistry, since my brother had done so well with chemicals at M.I.T. He’s eight years older than I am. Funnier, too. His most famous discovery is that silver iodide will sometimes make it rain or snow.
INTERVIEWER:Was your sister funny, too?
VONNEGUT:Oh, yes. There was an odd cruel streak to her sense of humor, though, which didn’t fit in with the rest of her character somehow. She thought it was terribly funny whenever anybody fell down. One time she saw a woman come out of a streetcar horizontally, and she laughed for weeks after that.
VONNEGUT:Yes. This woman must have caught her heels somehow. Anyway, the streetcar door opened, and my sister happened to be watching from the sidewalk, and then she saw this woman come out horizontally—as straight as a board, facedown, and about two feet off the ground.
VONNEGUT:Sure. We loved Laurel and Hardy. You know what one of the funniest things is that can happen in a film?
VONNEGUT:To have somebody walk through what looks like a shallow little puddle, but which is actually six feet deep. I remember a movie where Cary Grant was loping across lawns at night. He came to a low hedge, which he cleared ever so gracefully, only there was a twenty-foot drop on the other side. But the thing my sister and I loved best was when somebody in a movie would tell everybody off, and then make a grand exit into the coat closet. He had to come out again, of course, all tangled in coathangers and scarves.
INTERVIEWER:Did you take a degree in chemistry at Cornell?
VONNEGUT:I was flunking everything by the middle of my junior year. I was delighted to join the Army and go to war. After the war, I went to the University of Chicago, where I was pleased to study anthropology, a science that was mostly poetry, that involved almost no math at all. I was married by then, and soon had one kid, who was Mark. He would later go crazy, of course, and write a fine book about it—The Eden Express. He has just fathered a kid himself, my first grandchild, a boy named Zachary. Mark is finishing his second year in Harvard Medical School, and will be about the only member of his class not to be in debt when he graduates—because of the book. That’s a pretty decent recovery from a crackup, I’d say.
INTERVIEWER:Did the study of anthropology later color your writings?
VONNEGUT:It confirmed my atheism, which was the faith of my fathers anyway. Religions were exhibited and studied as the Rube Goldberg inventions I’d always thought they were. We weren’t allowed to find one culture superior to any other. We caught hell if we mentioned races much. It was highly idealistic.
INTERVIEWER:Almost a religion?
VONNEGUT:Exactly. And the only one for me. So far.
INTERVIEWER:What was your dissertation?
INTERVIEWER:But you wrote that years after you left Chicago, didn’t you?
VONNEGUT:I left Chicago without writing a dissertation— and without a degree. All my ideas for dissertations had been rejected, and I was broke, so I took a job as a P.R. man for General Electric in Schenectady. Twenty years later, I got a letter from a new dean at Chicago, who had been looking through my dossier. Under the rules of the university, he said, a published work of high quality could be substituted for a dissertation, so I was entitled to an M.A. He had shownCat’s Cradleto the Anthropology Department, and they had said it was halfway decent anthropology, so they were mailing me my degree. I’m Class of 1972 or so.
VONNEGUT:It was nothing, really. A piece of cake.
INTERVIEWER:Some of the characters inCat’s Cradlewere based on people you knew at G.E., isn’t that so?
VONNEGUT:Dr. Felix Hoenikker, the absent-minded scientist, was a caricature of Dr. Irving Langmuir, the star of the G.E. Research Laboratory. I knew him some. My brother worked with him. Langmuir was wonderfully absent-minded. He wondered out loud one time whether, when turtles pulled in their heads, their spines buckled or contracted. I put that in the book. One time he left a tip under his plate after his wife served him breakfast at home. I put that in. His most important contribution, though, was the idea for what I called “Ice-9,” a form of frozen water that was stable at room temperature. He didn’t tell it directly to me. It was a legend around the Laboratory—about the time H. G. Wells came to Schenectady. That was long before mytime. I was just a little boy when it happened—listening to the radio, building model airplanes.
VONNEGUT:Anyway—Wells came to Schenectady, and Langmuir was told to be his host. Langmuir thought he might entertain Wells with an idea for a science-fiction story—about a form of ice that was stable at room temperature. Wells was uninterested, or at least never used the idea. And then Wells died, and then, finally, Langmuir died. I thought to myself: “Finders, keepers—the idea is mine.” Langmuir, incidentally, was the first scientist in private industry to win a Nobel Prize.
INTERVIEWER:How do you feel about Bellow’s winning the Nobel Prize for Literature?
VONNEGUT:It was the best possible way to honor our entire literature.
INTERVIEWER:Do you find it easy to talk to him?
VONNEGUT:Yes. I’ve had about three opportunities. I was his host one time at the University of Iowa, where I was teaching and he was lecturing. It went very well. We had one thing in common, anyway—
VONNEGUT:We were both products of the Anthropology Department of the University of Chicago. So far as I know, he never went on any anthropological expeditions, and neither did I. We invented pre-industrial peoples instead—I inCat’s Cradleand he inHenderson the Rain King.
INTERVIEWER:So he is a fellow scientist.
VONNEGUT:I’m no scientist at all. I’m glad now, though, that I was pressured into becoming a scientist by my father and my brother. I understand how scientific reasoning and playfulness work, even though I have no talent for joining in. I enjoy the company of scientists, am easily excited and entertained when they tell me what they’redoing. I’ve spent a lot more time with scientists than with literary people, my brother’s friends, mostly. I enjoy plumbers and carpenters and automobile mechanics, too. I didn’t get to know any literary people until the last ten years, starting with two years of teaching at Iowa. There at Iowa, I was suddenly friends with Nelson Algren and José Donoso and Vance Bourjaily and Donald Justice and George Starbuck and Marvin Bell, and so on. I was amazed. Now, judging from the review my latest book,Slapstick, has received, people would like to bounce me out of the literary establishment— send me back where I came from.
INTERVIEWER:There were some bad reviews?
VONNEGUT:Only inThe New York Times, Time, Newsweek, The New York Review of Books, The Village Voice, andRolling Stone. They loved me in Medicine Hat.
INTERVIEWER:TO what do you attribute this rancor?
VONNEGUT:Slapstickmay be a very bad book. I am perfectly willing to believe that. Everybody else writes lousy books, so why shouldn’t I? What was unusual about the reviews was that they wanted people to admit now that I had never been any good. The reviewer for the SundayTimesactually asked critics who had praised me in the past to now admit in public how wrong they’d been. My publisher, Sam Lawrence, tried to comfort me by saying that authors were invariably attacked when they became fabulously well-to-do.
INTERVIEWER:You needed comforting?
VONNEGUT:I never felt worse in my Ufe. I felt as though I were sleeping standing up on a boxcar in Germany again.
VONNEGUT:No. But bad enough. All of a sudden, critics wanted me squashed like a bug. And it wasn’t just that I had money all of a sudden, either. The hidden complaintwas that I was barbarous, that I wrote without having made a systematic study of great literature, that I was no gentleman, since I had done hack writing so cheerfully for vulgar magazines—that I had not paid my academic dues.
INTERVIEWER:You had not suffered?
VONNEGUT:I had suffered, all right—but as a badly-educated person in vulgar company and in a vulgar trade. It was dishonorable enough that I perverted art for money. I then topped that felony by becoming, as I say, fabulously well-to-do. Well, that’s just too damn bad for me and for everybody. I’m completely in print, so we’re all stuck with me and stuck with my books.
INTERVIEWER:Do you mean to fight back?
VONNEGUT:In a way. I’m on the New York State Council for the Arts now, and every so often some other member talks about sending notices to college English departments about some literary opportunity, and I say, “Send them to the chemistry departments, send them to the zoology departments, send them to the anthropology departments and the astronomy departments and physics departments, and all the medical and law schools. That’s where the writers are most likely to be.”
INTERVIEWER:You believe that?
VONNEGUT:I think it can be tremendously refreshing if a creator of literature has something on his mind other than the history of literature so far. Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.
INTERVIEWER:Let’s talk about the women in your books.
VONNEGUT:There aren’t any. No real women, no love.
INTERVIEWER:Is this worth expounding upon?
VONNEGUT:It’s a mechanical problem. So much of what happens in storytelling is mechanical, has to do with the technical problems of how to make a story work. Cowboy stories and policeman stories end in shoot-outs, forexample, because shoot-outs are the most reliable mechanisms for making such stories end. There is nothing like death to say what is always such an artificial thing to say: “The end.” I try to keep deep love out of my stories because, once that particular subject comes up, it is almost impossible to talk about anything else. Readers don’t want to hear about anything else. They go gaga about love. If a lover in a story wins his true love, that’s the end of the tale, even if World War III is about to begin, and the sky is black with flying saucers.
INTERVIEWER:So you keep love out.
VONNEGUT:I have other things I want to talk about. Ralph Ellison did the same thing inInvisible Man. If the hero in that magnificent book had found somebody worth loving, somebody who was crazy about him, that would have been the end of the story. Céline did the same thing inJourney to the End of the Night:He excluded the possibility of true and final love—so that the story could go on and on and on.
INTERVIEWER:Not many writers talk about the mechanics of stories.
VONNEGUT:I am such a barbarous technocrat that I believe they can be tinkered with like Model T Fords.
INTERVIEWER:To what end?
VONNEGUT:To give the reader pleasure.
INTERVIEWER:Will you ever write a love story, do you think?
VONNEGUT:Maybe. I lead a loving life. I really do. Even when I’m leading that loving life, though, and it’s going so well, I sometimes find myself thinking, “My goodness, couldn’t we talk about something else for just a little while?” You know what’s really funny?
VONNEGUT:My books” are being thrown out of school libraries all over the country—because they’re supposedlyobscene. I’ve seen letters to small town newspapers that putSlaughterhouse-Fivein the same class withDeep ThroatandHustlermagazine. How could anybody masturbate toSlaughterhouse-Five?
INTERVIEWER:It takes all kinds.
VONNEGUT:Well, that kind doesn’t exist. It’s my religion the censors hate. They find me disrespectful toward their idea of God Almighty. They think it’s the proper business of government to protect the reputation of God. All I can say is, “Good luck to them, and good luck to the government, and good luck to God.” You know what H.L. Mencken said one time about religious people? He said he’d been greatly misunderstood. He said he didn’t hate them. He simply found them comical.
INTERVIEWER:When I asked you a while back which member of your family had influenced you most as a writer, you said your mother. I had expected you to say your sister, since you talked sp much about her inSlapstick.
VONNEGUT:I said inSlapstickthat she was the person I wrote for—that every successful creative person creates with an audience of one in mind. That’s the secret of artistic unity. Anybody can achieve it, if he or she will make something with only one person in mind. I didn’t realize that she was the person I wrote for until after she died.
INTERVIEWER:She loved literature?
VONNEGUT:She wrote wonderfully well. She didn’t read much—but, then again, neither in later years did Henry David Thoreau. My father was the same way: he didn’t read much, but he could write like a dream. Such letters my father and sister wrote! When I compare their prose with mine, I am ashamed.
INTERVIEWER:Did your sister try to write for money, too?
VONNEGUT:No. She could have been a remarkable sculptor, too. I bawled her out one time for not doing more withthe talents she had. She replied that having talent doesn’t carry with it the obligation that something has to be done with it. This was startling news to me. I thought people were supposed to grab their talents and run as far and fast as they could.
INTERVIEWER:What do you think now?
VONNEGUT:Well—what my sister said now seems a peculiarly feminine sort of wisdom. I have two daughters who are as talented as she was, and both of them are damned if they are going to lose their poise and senses of humor by snatching up their talents and desperately running as far and as fast as they can. They saw me run as far and as fast as I could—and it must have looked like quite a crazy performance to them. And this is the worst possible metaphor, for what they actually saw was a man sitting still for decades.
INTERVIEWER:At a typewriter.
VONNEGUT:Yes, and smoking his fool head off.
INTERVIEWER:Have you ever stopped smoking?
VONNEGUT:Twice. Once I did it cold turkey, and turned into Santa Claus. I became roly-poly. I was approaching 250 pounds. I stopped for almost a year, and then the University of Hawaii brought me to Oahu to speak. I was drinking out of a coconut on the roof of the Hi Kai one night, and all I had to do to complete the ring of my happiness was to smoke a cigarette. Which I did.
INTERVIEWER:The second time?
VONNEGUT:Very recently—last year. I paid SmokEnders 150 dollars to help me quit, over a period of six weeks. It was exactly as they had promised—easy and instructive. I won my graduation certificate and recognition pin. The only trouble was that I had also gone insane. I was supremely happy and proud, but those around me found me unbearably opinionated and abrupt and boisterous. Also: I had stopped writing. I didn’t even write lettersanymore. I had made a bad trade, evidently. So I started smoking again. As the National Association of Manufacturers used to say—
INTERVIEWER:I’m not sure I know what they used to say.
VONNEGUT:’There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
INTERVIEWER:Do you really think creative writing can be taught?
VONNEGUT:About the same way golf can be taught. A pro can point out obvious flaws in your swing. I did that well, I think, at the University of Iowa for two years…. I taught creative writing badly at Harvard—because my marriage was breaking up, and because I was commuting every week to Cambridge from New York. I taught even worse at City College a couple of years ago. I had too many other projects going on at the same time. I don’t have the will to teach anymore. I only know the theory.
INTERVIEWER:Could you put the theory into a few words?
VONNEGUT:It was stated by Paul Engle—the founder of the Writers’ Workshop at Iowa. He told me that, if the Workshop ever got a building of its own, these words should be inscribed over the entrance: “Don’t take it all so seriously.”
INTERVIEWER:And how would that be helpful?
VONNEGUT:It would remind the students that they were learning to play practical jokes.
VONNEGUT:If you make people laugh or cry about little black marks on sheets of white paper, what is that but a practical joke? All the great story lines are great practical jokes that people fall for over and over again.
INTERVIEWER:Can you give an example?
VONNEGUT:The Gothic novel. Dozens of the things are published every year, and they all sell. My friend Borden Deal recently wrote a Gothic novel for the fun of it, andI asked him what the plot was, and he said, “A young woman takes a job in an old house and gets the pants scared off her.”
INTERVIEWER:Some more examples?
VONNEGUT:The others aren’t that much fun to describe: Somebody gets into trouble, and then gets out again; somebody loses something and gets it back; somebody is wronged and gets revenge; Cinderella; somebody hits the skids and just goes down, down, down; people fall in love with each other, and a lot of other people get in the way; a virtuous person is falsely accused of sin; a sinful person is believed to be virtuous; a person faces a challenge bravely, and succeeds or fails; a person lies, a person steals, a person kills, a person commits fornication.
INTERVIEWER:If you will pardon my saying so, these are very old-fashioned plots.
VONNEGUT:I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaningless of modern life still have to drink water from time to time. One of my students wrote a story about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her lower left molars, and who couldn’t get it out all day long. I thought that was wonderful. The story dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed. Nobody could read that story without fishing around in his mouth with a finger. Now, there’s anadmirable practical joke for you. When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are—
INTERVIEWER:And what they want.
VONNEGUT:Yes. And you can put him to sleep by never having characters confront each other. Students like to say that they stage no confrontations because people avoid confrontations in modern life. “Modern life is so lonely,” they say. This is laziness. It’s the writer’s job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all. If a writer can’t or won’t do that, he should withdraw from the trade.
VONNEGUT:Trade. Carpenters build houses. Storytellers use a reader’s leisure time in such a way that the reader will not feel that his time has been wasted. Mechanics fix automobiles.
INTERVIEWER:Surely talent is required?
VONNEGUT:In all those fields. I was a Saab dealer on Cape Cod for a while, and I enrolled in their mechanic’s school, and they threw me out of their mechanic’s school. No talent.
INTERVIEWER:How common is storytelling talent?
VONNEGUT:In a creative writing class of twenty people anywhere in this country, six students will be startlingly talented. Two of those might actually publish something by and by.
INTERVIEWER:What distinguishes those two from the rest?
VONNEGUT:They will have something other than literature itself on their minds. They will probably be hustlers, too. I mean that they won’t want to wait passively forsomebody to discover them. They will insist on being read.
INTERVIEWER:You have been a public relations man and an advertising man—
VONNEGUT:Oh, I imagine.
INTERVIEWER:Was this painful? I mean—did you feel your talent was being wasted, being crippled?
VONNEGUT:No. That’s romance—that work of that sort damages a writer’s soul. At Iowa, Dick Yates and I used to give a lecture each year on the writer and the free enterprise system. The students hated it. We would talk about all the hack jobs writers could take in case they found themselves starving to death, or in case they wanted to accumulate enough capital to finance the writing of a book. Since publishers aren’t putting money into first novels anymore, and since the magazines have died, and since television isn’t buying from young freelancers anymore, and since the foundations give grants only to old poops like me, young writers are going to have to support themselves as shameless hacks. Otherwise, we are soon going to find ourselves without a contemporary literature. There is only one genuinely ghastly thing hack jobs do to writers, and that is to waste their precious time.
VONNEGUT:A tragedy. I just keep trying to think of ways, even horrible ways, for young writers to somehow hang on.
INTERVIEWER:Should young writers be subsidized?
VONNEGUT:Something’s got to be done, now that free enterprise has made it nearly impossible for them to support themselves through free enterprise. I was a sensational businessman in the beginning—for the simple reason that there was so much business to be done. When I was working for General Electric, I wrote a story, “Reporton the Barnhouse Effect,” the first story I ever wrote. I mailed it off toCollier’s. Knox Burger was fiction editor there. Knox told me what was wrong with it and how to fix it. I did what he said, and he bought the story for seven hundred and fifty dollars, six weeks’ pay at G.E. I wrote another, and he paid me nine hundred and fifty dollars, and suggested that it was perhaps time for me to quit G.E. Which I did. I moved to Provincetown. Eventually, my price for a short story got up to twenty-nine hundred dollars a crack. Think of that. And Knox got me a couple of agents who were as shrewd about storytelling as he was—Kenneth Littauer, who had been his predecessor atCollier’s, and Max Wilkinson, who had been a story editor for MGM. And let it be put on the record here that Knox Burger, who is about my age, discovered and encouraged more good young writers than any other editor of his time. I don’t think that’s ever been written down anywhere. It’s a fact known only to writers, and one that could easily vanish, if it isn’t somewhere written down.
INTERVIEWER:Where is Knox Burger now?
VONNEGUT:He’s a literary agent. He represents my son Mark, in fact.
INTERVIEWER:And Littauer and Wilkinson?
VONNEGUT:Littauer died ten years ago or so. He was a colonel in the Lafayette Escadrille, by the way, at the age of twenty-three—and the first pilot to strafe a trench. He was my mentor. Max Wilkinson has retired to Florida. It always embarrassed him to be an agent. If some stranger asked him what he did for a living, he always said he was a cotton planter.
INTERVIEWER:Do you have a new mentor now?
VONNEGUT:No. I guess I’m too old to find one. Whatever I write now is set in type without comment by my publisher, who is younger than I am, by editors, by anyone.I don’t have my sister to write for anymore. Suddenly, there are all these unfilled jobs in my life.
INTERVIEWER:Do you feel as though you’re up there without a net under you?
VONNEGUT:And without a balancing pole, either. It gives me the heebie-jeebies sometimes.
INTERVIEWER:Is there anything else you’d like to add?
VONNEGUT:You know the panic bars they have on the main doors of schools and theaters? If you get slammed into the door, the door will fly open?
VONNEGUT:The brand name on most of them is “Vonduprin.” The “Von” is for Vonnegut. A relative of mine was caught in the Iroquois Theater Fire in Chicago a long time ago, and he invented the panic bar along with two other guys. “Prin” was Prinz. I forget who “Du” was.
VONNEGUT:And I want to say, too, that humorists are very commonly the youngest children in their families. When I was the littlest kid at our supper table, there was only one way I could get anybody’s attention, and that was to be funny. I had to specialize. I used to listen to radio comedians very intently, so I could learn how to make jokes. And that’s what my books are, now that I’m a grownup—mosaics of jokes.
INTERVIEWER:Do you have any favorite jokes?
VONNEGUT:My sister and I used to argue about what the funniest joke in the world was—next to a guy storming into a coat closet, of course. When the two of us worked together, incidentally, we could be almost as funny as Laurel and Hardy. That’s basically whatSlapstickwas about.
INTERVIEWER:Did you finally agree on the world’s champion joke?
VONNEGUT:We finally settled on one. It’s sort of hard to tell it just flat-footed like this.
INTERVIEWER:Do it anyway.
VONNEGUT:Well—you won’t laugh. Nobody ever laughs. But one is an old ’Two Black Crows” joke. The “Two Black Crows” were white guys in blackface—named Moran and Mack. They made phonograph records of their routines, two supposedly black guys talking lazily to each other. Anyway, one of them says, “Last night I dreamed I was eating flannel cakes.” The other one says, “Is that so?” And the first one says, “And when I woke up, the blanket was gone.”
VONNEGUT:I told you you wouldn’t laugh.
INTERVIEWER:YOU seem to prefer Laurel and Hardy over Chaplin. Is that so?
VONNEGUT:I’m crazy about Chaplin, but there’s too much distance between him and his audience. He is too obviously a genius. In his own way, he’s as brilliant as Picasso, and this is intimidating to me.
INTERVIEWER:Will you ever write another short story?
VONNEGUT:Maybe. I wrote what I thought would be my last one about eight years ago. Harían Ellison asked me to contribute to a collection he was making. The story’s called “The Big Space Fuck.” I think I am the first writer to use “Fuck” in a title. It was about firing a space ship with a warhead full of jizzum at Andromeda. Which reminds me of my good Indianapolis friend, about the only Indianapolis friend I’ve got left—William Failey. When we got into the Second World War, and everybody was supposed to give blood, he wondered if he couldn’t give a pint of jizzum instead.
INTERVIEWER:If your parents hadn’t lost all their money, what would you be doing now?
VONNEGUT:I’d be an Indianapolis architect—like my fatherand grandfather. And very happy, too. I still wish that had happened. One thing, anyway: One of the best young architects out there lives in a house my father built for our family the year I was born—1922. My initials, and my sister’s initials, and my brother’s initials are all written in leaded glass in the three little windows by the front door.
INTERVIEWER:So you have good old days you hanker for.
VONNEGUT:Yes. Whenever I go to Indianapolis, the same question asks itself over and over again in my head: “Where’s my bed, where’s my bed?” And if my father’s and grandfather’s ghosts haunt that town, they must be wondering where all their buildings have gone to. The center of the city, where most of their buildings were, has been turned into parking lots. They must be wondering where all their relatives went, too. They grew up in a huge extended family which is no more. I got the slightest taste of that—the big family thing. And when I went to the University of Chicago, and I heard the head of the Department of Anthropology, Robert Redfield, lecture on the folk society, which was essentially a stable, isolated extended family, he did not have to tell me how nice that could be.
VONNEGUT:Yes.Slapstickis the first American novel to employ units from the metric system throughout. Nobody noticed, so now I have to toot my own horn about it.
VONNEGUT:Well—I just discovered a prayer for writers. I’d heard of prayers for sailors and kings and soldiers and so on—but never of a prayer for writers. Could I put that in here?
VONNEGUT:It was written by Samuel Johnson on April 3, 1753, the day on which he signed a contract whichrequired him to write the first complete dictionary of the English language. He was praying for himself. Perhaps April third should be celebrated as “Writers’ Day.” Anyway, this is the prayer: “O God, who hast hitherto supported me, enable me to proceed in this labor, and in the whole task of my present state; that when I shall tender up, at the last day, an account of the talent committed to me, I may receive pardon, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.”
INTERVIEWER:That seems to be a wish to carry his talent as far and as fast as he can.
VONNEGUT:Yes. He was a notorious hack.
INTERVIEWER:And you consider yourself a hack?
VONNEGUT:Of a sort.
VONNEGUT:A child of the Great Depression.
INTERVIEWER:I see. Our last question. If you were Commissar of Publishing in the United States, what would you do to alleviate the present deplorable situation?
VONNEGUT:There is no shortage of wonderful writers. What we lack is a dependable mass of readers.
VONNEGUT:I propose that every person out of work be required to submit a book report before he or she gets his or her welfare check.
VONNEGUT:Thankyou.6 THE PEOPLE ONE KNOWS
FROMPOLITICS TODAY, January/February 1979:
“Who in America is truly happy?” my offspring used to ask me in one way or another as they entered adolescence, which is children’s menopause. I was silent then, but need not have been. There was an answer then which holds good today: “William F. Buckley, Jr.” I have his fifteenth solo book at hand, a collection of 130 or so pieces published elsewhere (with one interesting exception) since 1975 began. Norman Mailer has said of himself that he is one of the best “fast writers” around. Buckley is at least twice as fast. He can do a column in 20 minutes, he tells us, and turn out 150 a year, plus a book and many reviews and speeches and articles, and television introductions besides. The fast writings collected in this volume are uniformly first rate—not only in terms of unbridled happiness (where Mailer surely falls short), but as shrewd comedies and celebrations of the English language.
He is a superb sailor and skier as well—and multilingual, and a musician, and an airplane pilot, and a family man, and polite and amusing to strangers. More: He is, like the Yale-educated hero of his novelSaving the Queen, startlingly good-looking. His distinctly American features are animated, buttempered with a certain shyness, a reserve. (The last nine words are Buckley’s own gloss on the good looks of the hero, Bradford Oakes.)
So whenever I see Mr. Buckley, I think this, and, word of honor, without an atom of irony: “There is a man who has won the decathlon of human existence.”
I also marvel at how much he resembles a far more lopsided genius, the comedian Stanley Laurel. Laurel also managed to imply, despite his beauty and seriousness, that something screamingly funny was going on. People cannot earn or cultivate that look, in my opinion. Peer through the window of any hospital nursery, and you will find that one infant in fifty has it. The difficult part for many, but easy as pie for Laurel and Buckley, is living up to such a face.
I would give a million dollars to look like that.
I wonder, too, when I see Buckley: Would he have known that it was possible to be genuinely funny and conservative at the same time, if it had not been for the pioneering work of H. L. Mencken? Probably so. That face of his, when coupled with his fine mind and high social position, would have made him sound like a spiritual son of Mencken’s, even if he had never heard of the Sage of Baltimore.
How serious is he about conservatism? Well—serious enough to devote his life to it, surely, but beyond that? The ideals he defends, conventional Republicanisms, really, were logically his from birth. He was rich and brilliant with congenial and enterprising relatives before he wore his first diaper—and he had the rare gift of being happy a lot, as I say. And nothing changed much except, perhaps, that life kept getting better and better.
Most important: there has never been anything to be ashamed of. It is a quite unusual experience in America to have never been ashamed. Buckley’s intellectual voyage hasbeen one of confirmations rather than discoveries. So there is the chance that he is more playful about conservatism than many who have come to it the hard Way—than Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, say. Buckley has not come to conservatism through rage and pain.
Solzhenitsyn could never say at the beginning of a book, and neither could Mencken, for that matter, what Buckley says at the beginning of this one, that he must subtitle it as being controversial for this reason: “… for almost everything that is said here, there is an opposite, if intellectually unequal, reaction set down somewhere. This is of course a pity, but on the other hand I have not expected to bring around the world by acclamation.”
These are, I submit, the nearly weightless words of an undefeatable debater rather than of a passionate advocate—a debater who, because he is so good at debating, is about to make ninnies of the opposition yet again, knowing that nobody is going to be particularly burned up afterward. He continues to do what he did as a Yale undergraduate, which was to engage in badinage with registered Democrats, and always genially. He tells us that “… one of the reasons I was so happy at Yale was that geniality is … as natural to Yale as laughter is to Dublin, song to Milan, or angst toThe New York Review of Books.”
I, for one, am grateful that Buckley, serious or not, has volunteered to be as consistent in his responses to outside stimuli as a pinball machine, a machine designed to teach conservative ideals—5,000 points for the electric chair, 10,000 for right-to-work laws, 50,000 for more sympathy with the CIA, a cool million for individual excellence and daring, and so on. If we did not have such an intelligent and genial man (as compared with General Goldwater, for instance) to argue in favor of social Darwinism, some of us might be too appalled and confused to listen, to learn for our own good how uncharitable we had better be.
• • •
William F. Buckley, Jr., is a friend of mine. Ours is a New York friendship. A New York friendship is a friendship with a person you have met at least once. If you have met a person only once, and you are a New Yorker, you are entitled to say, whenever that person’s name comes up in conversation, “Yes—so-and-so is a friend of mine.”
I have met Mr. Buckley, or Bill, as his friends call him, maybe thrice, for a grand total of sixty seconds. I am intimidated by his cultural and athletic accomplishments, and by his social rank—but especially by his skills as a debater. I have no idea how to win an argument, or even to hold my own in one.
If I am to say what I believe, I must do so without opposition, or I am mute. I have been on the Irv Kupcinet Show, a talk show originating in Chicago, four times. I have never said a word. I ran into Mr. Kupcinet recently, and he said he would certainly like to have me on again. Why not?
• • •
I spoke one time at the Library of Congress, in 1972, or so. A man stood up in the middle of the audience, when I was about halfway through, and he said, “What right have you, as a leader of America’s young people, to make those people so cynical and pessimistic?’”
I had no good answer, so I left the stage.
Talk about profiles in courage!
• • •
The beliefs I have to defend are so soft and complicated, actually, and, when vivisected, turn into bowls of undifferentiated mush. I am a pacifist, I am an anarchist, I am a planetary citizen, and so on.
But the subject of this chapter is friendship, and, thanksto a routine miracle of this age of computers, I am able to submit an alphabetized list of writers who are or, in the case of the dead, were friends of mine. My wife, Jill Krementz, you see, has over the years photographed hundreds of writers, and has given their names and negative numbers to a computer, in order that she may deliver a picture of any one of them in a twinkling or two.
So I simply go down her list with my index finger, stopping at the name of each person I have met at least once, and, hey presto, my friends are Chinua Achebe, Richard Adams, Renata Adler, Ghingiz Aitmatov, Edward Albee, Nelson Algren, Lisa Alther, Robert Anderson, Maya Angelou, Hannah Arendt, Michael Arlen, John Ashbery, Isaac Asimov, Richard Bach, Russell Baker, James Baldwin, Marvin Barrett, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Jacques Barzun, Steve Becker, Saul Bellow, Ingrid Benjis, Robert Benton, Tom Berger, Charles Berlitz, Carl Bernstein, Michael Bessie, Ann Birstein, William Blatty, Heinrich Boll, Vance Bourjaily, Ray Bradbury, John Malcolm Brinnin, Jimmy Breslin, Harold Brodkey, C.D.B. Bryan, Art Buchwald, and, yes, William F. Buckley, Jr., William Burroughs, Lynn Caine, Erskine Cald-well, Hortense Calisher, Vincent Canby, Truman Capote, Schuyler Chapin, John Cheever, Marchette Chute, John Ciardi, Eleanor Clark, Ramsey Clark, Author C. Clarke, James Clavell, Arthur Cohen, William Cole, Dr. Alex Comfort, Richard Condon, Evan Connell, Frank Conroy, Malcolm Cowley, Harvey Cox, Robert Creighton, Michael Crichton, Judith Crist, John Crosby, Charlotte Curtis, Gwen Davis, Peter Davison, Peter de Vries, Borden Deal, Midge Decter, Lester Del Rey, Barbaralee Diamonstein, Monica Dickens, James Dickey, Joan Didion, E. L. Doctorow, Betty Dodson, J. P. Donleavy, José Donoso, Rosalyn Drexler, John Dunne, Richard Eberhart, Leon Edel, Margareta Ekstrôm, Stanley Elkin, Ralph Ellison, Richard Elman, Amos Elon, Gloria Emerson, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Nora Ephron,Edward Epstein, Jason Epstein, Willard Espy, Fred Exley, Oriana Fallaci, James T. Farrell, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Frances Fitzgerald, Joe Flaherty, Janet Flanner, Thomas Fleming, Peter Forbath, William Price Fox, Gerald Frank, Michael Frayne, Eliot Fremont-Smith, Betty Friedan, Bruce Jay Friedman, Otto Friedrich, Max Frisch, Erich Fromm, Carlos Fuentes, William Gaddis, Nicholas Gage, Charles Gaines, John Kenneth Galbraith, Mavis Gallant, John Gardner, William Gass, Barbara Gelb, Dan Gerber, Brendan Gill, Penelope Gilliatt, Allen Ginsberg, Nikki Giovanni, Gail Godwin, William Goldman, Nadine Gordimer, Edward Gorey, Lois Gould, Gunter Grass, Francine du Plessix Gray, Adolph Green, Gael Greene, Germaine Gréer, Winston Groom, Alex Haley, Daniel Halpern, Pete Hamill, Elizabeth Hard-Wick, Curtis Harnack, Michael Harper, Jim Harrison, Molly Haskell, John Hawkes, Joseph Heller, Lillian Hellman, Nat Hentoff, John Hersey, Rust Hills, Warren Hinkle, Sandra Hochman, Townsend Hoopes, A. E. Hotchner, Barbara Howar, Jane Howard, William Inge, Clifford Irving, John Irving, Christopher Isherwood, Roman Jakobson, Jill Johnston, James Jones, Erica Jong, Pauline Kael, E. J. Kahn, Garson Kanin, Justin Kaplan, Sue Kaufman, Elia Kazan, Alfred Kazin, Murray Kempton, Galway Kinnell, Judy Klemesrud, John Knowles, Hans Koning, Jerzy Kosinski, Robert Kotlowitz, Joe Kraft, Paul Krassner, Stanley Kunitz, Lewis Lapham, Jack Leggett, Siegfried Lenz, John Leonard, Max Lerner, Doris Lessing, Ira Levin, Meyer Levin, Robert Jay Lifton, Jakov Lind, Loyd Little, Anita Loos, Anthony Lukas, Alison Lurie, Leonard Lyons, Peter Maas, Dwight MacDonald, John D. MacDonald, Ross Macdonald, Archibald Mac-Leish, Eugene McCarthy, Mary McCarthy, Tom McGuane, Marshall McLuhan, Larry McMurtry, Terrance McNally, John McPhee, James McPherson, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, Marya Mannes, Peter Matthiessen, Armistead Maupín, Rollo May, Margaret Mead, William Meredith,James Merrill, Arthur Miller, Jonathan Miller, Merle Miller, Kate Millett, James Mills, Jessica Mitford, Honor Moore, Eisa Morante, Alberto Moravia, Hans Morgenthau, Willie Morris, Wright Morris, Toni Morrison, Penelope Mortimer, Ray Mungo, Albert Murray, William Murray, V. S. Naipaul, Victor Navasky, Edwin Newman, Leslie Newman, Anais Nin, William A. Nolen, Marsha Norman, Edna O’Brien, Joyce Carol Oates, Sidney Offit (best friend!), Iris Owens, Amos Oz, Cynthia Ozick, Grace Paley, Gordon Parks, Jonathan Penner, S. J. Perelman, Eleanor Perry, Frank Perry, Jayne Anne Phillips, George Plimpton, Robert Pisig, Peter Prescott, V. S. Pritchett, Dotson Rader, Ishmael Reed, Rex Reed, Richard Reeves, James Reston, Jr., Adrienne Rich, Jill Robinson, Betty Rollins, Judith Rossner, Philip Roth, Mike Royko, Muriel Rukeyser, John Sack, William Safire, Carl Sagan, Harrison Salisbury, William Saroyan, Andrew Sarris, Nora Sayre, Dick Schaap, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Steve Schlesinger, Bud Schulberg, Ellen Schwamm, Barbara Seaman, Erich Segal, Anne Sexton, Ntozake Shange, Harvey Shapiro, Adam Shaw, Irwin Shaw, Wilfrid Sheed, Neil Sheehan, Susan Sheehan, Lynn Sherr, Alix Kates Shulman, Andre Simenov, John Simon, Isaac B. Singer, Hedrick Smith, W. D. Snodgrass, C. P. Snow, Barbara Probst Soloman, Susan Sontag, Terry Southern, Wole Soyinka, Stephen Spender, Benjamin Spock, Jean Stafford, Gloria Steinem, Shane Stevens, I. F. Stone, Irving Stone, Robert Stone, Dorothea Straus, Rose Styron, William Styron, Jacqueline Susann, Gay Tálese, James Tate, Peter Taylor, Studs Terkel, Hunter S. Thompson, Lionel Tiger, Hannah Tillich, Alvin Toffler, Lazlo Toth, Michael Tournier, Willard Trask, Calvin Trillin, Diana Trilling, Barbara Tuch-man, Kenneth Tynan, Amy Vanderbilt, Gore Vidal, Esther Vilar, Roman Vishniac, Mark Vonnegut, Andrei Voznesen-sky, Alice Walker, Joseph Wambaugh, Wayne Warga, Robert Penn Warren, Per Wästberg, Peter Weiss, Eudora Welty,Glenway Wescott, Morris West, E. B. White, Theodore White, William Whitworth, Tom Wicker, Elie Wiesel, Richard Wilbur, Paul Wilkes, Joy Williams, Tennessee Williams, Garry Wills, Larry Woiwode, Tom Wolfe, Geoffrey Wolff, Herman Wouk, Christopher Wren, Charles Wright, James Wright, Lois Wyse, and Richard Yates.
Would you like an introduction?
• • •
What stories I must have to tell in Indianapolis about all these celebrities! Not really. Most writers are not quickwitted when they talk. Novelists in particular, as I have said before, drag themselves around in society like gut-shot bears. The good ones do.
Some people say that my friend Gore Vidal, who once suggested in an interview that I was the worst writer in the United States, is witty. I myself think he wants an awfiil lot of credit for wearing a three-piece suit.
• • •
After meeting all these people, I have only a single shapely anecdote to tell. It took place at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, where I taught in the famed Writers’ Workshop in 1965 and 1966. My most famous colleagues were the novelists Vance Bourjaily, Nelson Algren, and Richard Yates, and the Chilean José Donoso, and the poets George Starbuck, James Tate, Marvin Bell, Donald Justice—and the poet-founder of the Workshop, of course, who is Paul Engle.
Among those students of ours who would really amount to something as writers by and by, incidentally, were Jane Barnes and John Casey and Bruce Dobler and Andre Dubus and Gail Godwin and John Irving and Jonathan Penner.
So Algren and Donoso and I were new arrivals, and wewent together to the first autumn meeting of the English department, against whose treasury our paychecks were drawn. We thought we should be there. Nobody had told us that lecturers in the Writers’ Workshop traditionally ignored all such bureaucratic, sesquipedalian sniveling and obfuscation.
So Algren and Donoso and I were going down a staircase afterward. Algren had come late, and so had sat separate from Donoso and me. He and Donoso had never met before, so I introduced them on the staircase, explaining to Algren that Donoso was from Chile, but a graduate of Princeton University.
Algren shook Donoso’s hand, but said nothing to him until we reached the bottom. He at last thought of something to say to a Chilean novelist: “It must be nice,” he said, “to come from a country that long and narrow.”
• • •
Are many novelists schizophrenic—at least marginally so? Do they hallucinate, seeing and hearing things that healthy people cannot sense? Do they turn disordered perceptions into gold in the literary marketplace? If writers are usefully crazy, what is the medical name for their disease? Or, if writers themselves aren’t lunatics, perhaps a lot of their ancestors were.
The psychiatric department of the University of Iowa’s hospital, it turns out, has wondered some about these questions, which have their roots in folklore. It has taken advantage of the large numbers of reputable writers who come to Iowa City, usually down on their luck, to teach at the Writers’ Workshop. So they have questioned us about our mental health and about that of our ancestors and siblings, too.
It is apparent to them, I am told, that we are not hallucinators, nor are many of us descended from those who sawor heard things which weren’t really there. Overwhelmingly, we are depressed, and are descended from those who, psychologically speaking, spent more time than anyone in his or her right mind would want to spend in gloom.
• • •
I would add that novelists are not only unusually depressed, by/and large, but have, on the average, about the same IQs as the cosmetics consultants at Bloomingdale’s department store. Our power is patience. We have discovered that writing allows even a stupid person to seem halfway intelligent, if only that person will write the same thought over and over again, improving it just a little bit each time. It is a lot like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump. Anybody can do it. All it takes is time.
• • •
I heard a Frenchman in a Madison Avenue bookstore say in English the other day that nobody in America had produced a book in forty years or more. I knew what he meant. He was talking about planetary literary treasures on the order ofMoby DickorHuckleberry FinnorLeaves of GrassorWalden, say. I had to agree with him. No book from this country during my lifetime (1922-?) has been in scale withUlyssesorRemembrance of Things PastorThe Tin DrumorOne Hundred Years of SolitudeorA Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch.
Still, now that I contemplate all the Americans on my list of friends, I wish the Frenchman were here so that I could say to him frostily: “You are quite right, mon-sewer, we have not produced a book. All we poor Americans could do was produce a literature.”
• • •
And here is how I spoke well of my friend Joseph Heller’s contributions to that literature inThe New York Times Book Reviewof Sunday, October 6, 1974:
The company that made a movie out of Joseph Heller’s first novel,Catch-22, had to assemble what became the 11th or 12th largest bomber force on the planet at the time. If somebody wants to make a movie out of his second novel,Something Happened, he can get most of his props at Bloom-ingdale’s—a few beds, a few desks, some tables and chairs.
Life is a whole lot smaller and cheaper in this second book. It has shrunk to the size of a grave, almost.
Mark Twain is said to have felt that his existence was all pretty much downhill from his adventures as a Mississippi riverboat pilot. Mr. Heller’s two novels, when considered in sequence, might be taken as a similar statement about an entire white, middle-class generation of American males, my generation, Mr. Heller’s generation, Herman Wouk’s generation, Norman Mailer’s generation, Irwin Shaw’s generation, Vance Bourjaily’s generation, James Jones’s generation, and on and on—that for them everything has been downhill since World War II, as absurd and bloody as it often was.
Both books are full of excellent jokes, but neither one is funny. Taken together they tell a tale of pain and disappointments experienced by mediocre men of good will.
Mr. Heller is a first-rate humorist who cripples his own jokes intentionally—with the unhappiness of the characters who perceive them. He also insists op dealing with only the most hackneyed themes. After a thousand World War II airplane novels had been published and pulped, he gave us yet another one, which was gradually acknowledged as a sanely crazy masterpiece.
Now he offers us the thousand and first version ofThe HuckstersorThe Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.
There is a nattily dressed, sourly witty middle-management executive named Robert Slocum, he tells us, who lives in a nice house in Connecticut with a wife, a daughter, and two sons. Slocum works in Manhattan in the communications racket. He is restless. He mourns the missed opportunities of his youth. He is itchy for raises and promotions, even though he despises his company and the jobs he does. He commits unsatisfying adulteries now and then at sales conferences in resort areas, during long lunch hours, or while pretending to work late at the office.
He is exhausted.
He dreads old age.
Mr. Heller’s rewriting of this written-to-death situation took him 12 years. It comes out as a monologue by Slocum. Nobody else gets to talk, except as reported by Slocum. And Slocum’s sentences are so alike in shape and texture from the beginning to the end of the book, that I imagined a man who was making an enormous statue out of sheet metal. He was shaping it with millions of identical taps from a ball-peen hammer.
Each dent was a fact, a depressingly ordinary fact.
“My wife is a good person, really, or used to be,” says Slocum near the beginning, “and sometimes I’m sorry for her. She drinks during the day and flirts, or tries to, at parties we go to in the evening, although she doesn’t know how.”
“I have given my daughter a car of her own,” he says near the end. “Her spirits seem to be picking up.”
Slocum does his deadly best to persuade us, with his tap-tap-tapping of facts, that he is compelled to be as unhappy as he is, not because of enemies or flaws in his own character, but because of the facts.
What have these tedious facts done to him? They have required that he respond to them, since he is a man of good will. And responding and responding and responding to themhas left him petrified with boredom and drained of any capacity for joyfulness, now that he is deep into middle age.
Only one fact among the millions is clearly horrible. Only one distinguishes Slocum’s bad luck from that of his neighbors. His youngest child is an incurable imbecile.
Slocum is heartless about the child. “I no longer think of Derek as one of my children,” he says. “Or even as mine. I try not to think of him at all. This is becoming easier, even at home when he is nearby with the rest of us, making noise with some red cradle toy or making unintelligible sounds as he endeavors to speak. By now I don’t even know his name. The children don’t care for him either.”
Mr. Heller might have here, or at least somewhere in his book, used conventional, Chekhovian techniques for making us love a sometimes wicked man. He might have said that Slocum was drunk or tired after a bad day at the office when he spoke so heartlessly, or that he whispered his heartlessness only to himself or to a stranger he would never see again. But Slocum is invariably sober and deliberate during his monologue, and does not seem to give a damn who hears what he says. Judging from his selection of unromantic episodes and attitudes it is his wish that we dislike him.
And we gratify that wish.
Is this book any good? Yes. It is splendidly put together and hypnotic to read. It is as clear and hard-edged as a cut diamond. Mr. Heller’s concentration and patience are so evident on every page that one can only say thatSomething Happenedis at all points precisely what he hoped it would be.
The book may be marketed under false pretenses, which is all right with me. I have already seen British sales promotion materials which suggest that we have been ravenous for a new Heller book because we want to laugh some more. This is as good a way as any to get people to read one of the unhappiest books ever written.
Something Happenedis so astonishingly pessimistic, in fact, that it can be called a daring experiment. Depictions of utter hopelessness in literature have been acceptable up to now only in small doses, in short-story form, as in Franz Kafka’s ’The Metamorphosis,” Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” or John D. MacDonald’s “The Hangover,” to name a treasured few. As far as I know, though, Joseph Heller is the first major American writer to deal with unrelieved misery at novel length. Even more rashly, he leaves his chief character, Slocum, essentially unchanged at the end.
A middle-aged woman who had just finishedSomething Happenedin galleys said to me the other day that she thought it was a reply to all the recent books by women about the unrewardingness of housewives’ lives. And Slocum does seem to argue that he is entitled to at least as much unhappiness as any woman he knows. His wife, after all, has to adapt to only one sort of hell, the domestic torture chamber in Connecticut, in which he, too, must writhe at night and on weekends, when he isn’t committing adultery. But he must go regularly to his office, where pain is inflicted on all the nerve centers which were neglected by the tormentors at home.
(The place where Slocum works, incidentally, is unnamed, and its products and services are undescribed. But I had a friend of a friend of an acquaintance ask Mr. Heller if he minded naming Slocum’s employers. Mr. Heller replied with all possible speed and openness, “Time, Incorporated.” So we have a small scoop.)
Just as Mr. Heller is uninterested in tying a tin can to anything as localized as a company with a familiar name, so is he far above the complaining contests going on between men and women these days. He began this book way back in 1962, and there have been countless gut-ripping news items and confrontations since then. But Heller’s man Slocum isdeaf and blind to them. He receives signals from only three sources: his office, his memory and home.
And, on the basis of these signals alone, he is able to say, apparently in all seriousness: “The world just doesn’t work. It’s an idea whose time is gone.”
This is black humor indeed—with the humor removed.
Robert Slocum was in the Air Force in Italy during World War II, by the way. He was especially happy there while demonstrating his unflagging virility to prostitutes. So it was also with John Yossarian, the hero ofCatch-22, whose present whereabouts are unknown.
There will be a molasses-like cautiousness about accepting this book as an important one. It took more than a year forCatch-22to gather a band of enthusiasts. I myself was cautious about that book. I am cautious again.
The uneasiness which many people will feel about likingSomething Happenedhas roots which are deep. It is no casual thing to swallow a book by Joseph Heller, for he is, whether he intends to be or not, a maker of myths. (One way to do this, surely, is to be the final and most brilliant teller of an oft-told tale.)Catch-22is now the dominant myth about Americans in the war against fascism.Something Happened, if swallowed, could become the dominant myth about the middle-class veterans who came home from that war to become heads of nuclear families. The proposed myth has it that those families were pathetically vulnerable and suffocating. It says that the heads of them commonly took jobs which were vaguely dishonorable or at least stultifying, in order to make as much money as they could for their little families, and they used that money in futile attempts to buy safety and happiness. The proposed myth says that they lost their dignity and their will to live in the process.
It says they are hideously tired now.
To accept a new myth about ourselves is to simplify ourmemories—and to place our stamp of approval on what might become an epitaph for our era in the shorthand of history. This, in my opinion, is why critics often condemn our most significant books and poems and plays when they first appear, while praising feebler creations. The birth of a new myth fills them with primitive dread, for myths are so effective.
Well—I have now suppressed my own dread. I have thought dispassionately aboutSomething Happenedand I am now content to have it shown to future generations as a spooky sort of summary of what my generation of nebulously clever white people experienced, and what we, within the cage of those experiences, then did with our lives.
And I am counting on a backlash. I expect younger readers to love Robert Slocum—on the grounds that he couldn’t possibly be as morally repellent and socially useless as he claims to be.
People a lot younger than I am may even be able to laugh at Slocum in an affectionate way, something I am unable to do. They may even see comedy in his tragic and foolish belief that he is totally responsible for the happiness or unhappiness of the members of his tiny family.
They may even see some nobility in him as an old soldier who has been brought to emotional ruin at last by the aging process and civilian life.
As for myself: I can’t crack a smile when he says, ostensibly about the positions in which he sleeps, “I have exchanged the position of the fetus for the position of the corpse.” And I am so anxious for Slocum to say something good about life that I read hope into lines meant to be supremely ironical, such as when he says this: “I know at last what I want to be when I grow up. When I grow up I want to be a little boy.”
What is perhaps Slocum’s most memorable speech mourns not his own generation but the one after his, in theperson of his sullen, teen-age daughter. “There was a cheerful baby girl in a high chair in my house once,” he says, “who ate and drank with a hearty appetite and laughed a lot with spontaneous zest; she isn’t here now, and there is no trace of her anywhere.”
We keep reading this overly long book, even though there is no rise and fall in passion and language, because it is structured as a suspense novel. The puzzle which seduces us is this one: Which of several possible tragedies will result from so much unhappiness? The author picks a good one.
I say that this is the most memorable, and therefore the most permanent variation on a familiar theme, and that it says baldly what the other variations only implied, what the other variations tried with desperate sentimentality not to imply: That many lives, judged by the standards of the people who live them, are simply not worth living.
• • •
Was it unethical of me to review a book by a friend of mine forThe New York Times?I did not know Heller all that well back then. We had taught at City College together, and had exchanged greetings in the halls. If I had known him well, I would have refused the assignment.
But then, after I accepted it, I rented a summer house close to his on Long Island—and I got to know him better and better at precisely the time I was reviewingSomething Happened. He was especially concerned, it turned out, about who was going to do that job for theTimes.
I told him that I had heard a strong rumor, one which satisfied him entirely, that theTimeshad hired Robert Penn Warren, who was, even as we spoke, probably ransacking the book for its deepest meanings in his leafy hideaway in Vermont.
• • •
As for literary criticism in general: I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel or a play or a poem is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split.
I admire anybody who finishes a work of art, no matter how awful it may be. A drama critic from a news magazine, speaking to me on the opening night of a play of mine, said that he liked to remind himself from time to time that Shakespeare was standing right behind him, so that he had to be very responsible and wise whenever he expressed an opinion about a play.
I told him that he had it exactly ass backwards—that Shakespeare was standing behind me and every other playwright who was foolhardy enough to face an opening night, no matter how bad our plays might be.
• • •
And here is how I praised my friend Irwin Shaw at a banquet in his honor at The Players Club here in New York, a so-called pipe night, on October 7, 1979. My friend Frank Sinatra was there, and my friends Adolph Green and Betty Comden, and my friend Joseph Heller, and my friend Willie Morris, and my friend Martin Gabel, and on and on. I had this to say:
“I apologize for reading from a piece of paper. Writers are pitiful people in a way. They have to write everything out.
“This is an actors’ club, and I must admit that actors are far superior to writers when it comes to public speaking. They have somebody else write whatever it is they’re going to say, and then they memorize it.
“This is a club for memorizers, and I think it’s nice thatthey have a club. Everybody who wants a club should have one. That’s what America is all about.
“That, and fighting different diseases, and so on.
“We are here principally to honor Irwin Shaw as an artist and human being. I would like to thank him, too, for his demonstration of what a lifetime of vigorous athletics can do to the human body.
“He likes to be thought of as a very tough guy. And it’s true that he has turned skiing into a contact sport.
“So, Irwin, I salute you now as the Rocky Graziano of American letters—because that is the way I think you want to be saluted. And you will be happy to know that I often get taxi drivers who don’t talk just a little like you. Irwin, they talk exactly like you.
“They’ve also all turned out to be gentlemen like you.
“And how can you claim to be so tough anyway, when you have written one of the most innocent and beautiful stories I ever hope to read? I refer to ’The Girls in Their Summer Dresses.’ This story says that even men in love will look longingly at every beautiful girl who comes along when the weather is warm, but concludes that there is no harm in this.
“Irwin, how innocent can you be?
“Well, I hate to say this with Joseph Heller present….
“Actually, it’s sort of elating to say it with Joseph Heller present….
“Irwin Shaw wrote the best American novel about World War Two, which wasThe Young Lions. He was the only one of us who had enough wisdom and nerve to write about the European part of that war from both sides of the lines. As a German-American, of course, I was sorry to see him make the Nazis the bad guys.
“But by and largeThe Young Lionswas such a goodbook that it made Ernest Hemingway mad. He thought he had copyrighted war.
“But the Ernest Hemingway story is a tragic one, and the Irwin Shaw story is anything but that. Look how happy Irwin is.
“I know where a lot of that happiness is coming from, but some of it should surely be attributed to the fact that the publication of Irwin’s collected short stories last year confirmed beyond a doubt that he is one of the greatest storytellers of all time.
“Oh, I know it is cruel on a man’s ninety-second birthday to talk about nothing but the work he did as a youngster. But I have done that tonight for selfish reasons, to celebrate my own youth, when I was so enthusiastic about so many things. That’s what it was to be young—to be enthusiastic rather than envious about the good work other people could do.
“And I was so enthusiastic about everything written by Irwin Shaw. He continues to write as well as ever, but I can no longer take pleasure in reading him, since he is my colleague now. I simply can’t afford to like anybody but me. When I read anybody else now, I see his or her words only dimly, as though through a finely divided mist of sulfuric acid or mustard gas.
“I can see this much in Irwin’s present work, though: Despite all the high living he has done far away from us, in Europe and the Hamptons and so on, he still knows how Americans talk and feel. This is highly unusual in our literary history. Almost every other important American writer who has lived elsewhere has soon lost touch with how we talk and feel.
“How has he worked this miracle? I will have to guess, but I am almost sure I’m right about this. Every time Irwin comes to New York, I think, he takes a job driving a taxicab.
“Now that I have let you in on his little secret, you won’t be surprised if you find him driving you home after this banquet in his honor.
“I thank you for your attention.”
• • •
And here is what I said about my friends Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding, perhaps the most significant and ridiculous American comedy team alive today, as an introduction to their bookWrite If You Get Work: The Best of Bob & Ray(Random House, 1975):
It is the truth: Comedians and jazz musicians have been more comforting and enlightening to me than preachers or politicians or philosophers or poets or painters or novelists of my time. Historians in the future, in my opinion, will congratulate us on very little other than our clowning and our jazz.
And if they know what they are doing, they will have especially respectful words for Bob and Ray, whose book this is. They will say, among other things, that Bob and Ray’s jokes were remarkably literary, being fun to read as well as to hear. They may note, too, that Bob and Ray had such energy and such a following that they continued to create marvelous material for radio at a time when radio creatively was otherwise dead.
I have listened to Bob and Ray for years and years now—in New England, in New York City. We are about the same age, which means that we were inspired by roughly the same saints—-Jack Benny, Fred Allen, W. C. Fields, Stoopnagle and Bud, and on and on. And my collected works would fill Oliver Hardy’s derby, whereas theirs would fill the Astrodome.
This book contains about one ten-thousandth of theiroutput, I would imagine. And it might be exciting to say that it represents the cream of the cream of the cream of their jokes. But the truth is that there has been an amazing evenness to their performances. I recall a single broadcast of ten years ago, for example, which might have made a book nearly as elating as this one.
I was in the studio when I heard it—and saw it, too. I was supposedly applying for a job as a writer for Bob and Ray. We meant to talk about the job in between comedy bits, when the microphones were dead. One of the bits I remember was about selling advertising space on the sides of the Bob and Ray Satellite, which was going to be orbited only twenty-eight feet off the ground.
There was an announcement, too, about the Bob and Ray Overstocked Surplus Warehouse, which was crammed with sweaters emblazoned with the letter “O.” If your name didn’t begin with “O,” they said, they could have it legally changed for you.
And so on.
There was an episode from Mary Backstayge. Mary’s actor husband, Harry, was trying to get a part in a play. His big talent, according to his supporters, was that he was wonderful at memorizing things.
There was an animal imitator who said that a pig went “oink oink,” and a cow went “moo,” and that a rooster went “cock-a-doodle-doo.”
I very nearly popped a gut. I am pathetically vulnerable to jokes such as these. I expect to be killed by laughter sooner or later. And I told Bob and Ray that I could never write anything as funny as what I had heard on what was for them a perfectly ordinary day.
I was puzzled that day by Bob’s and Ray’s melancholy. It seemed to me that they should be the happiest people on earth, but looks of sleepy ruefulness crossed their faces likeclouds from time to time. I have seen those same clouds at subsequent encounters—and only now do I have a theory to explain them:
I surmise that Bob and Ray feel accursed sometimes— like crewmen on theFlying Dutchmanor caged squirrels on an exercise wheel. They are so twangingly attuned to their era and to each other that they can go on being extremely funny almost indefinitely.
Such an unlimited opportunity to make people happy must become profoundly pooping by and by.
It occurs to me, too, as I look through this marvelous book, that Bob and Ray’s jokes are singularly burglar-proof. They aren’t like most other comedians’ jokes these days, aren’t rooted in show business and the world of celebrities and news of the day. They feature Americans who are almost always fourth-rate or below, engaged in enterprises which, if not contemptible, are at least insane.
And while other comedians show us persons tormented by bad luck and enemies and so on, Bob and Ray’s characters threaten to wreck themselves and their surroundings with their own stupidity. There is a refreshing and beautiful innocence in Bob’s and Ray’s humor.
Man is not evil, they seem to say. He is simply too hilariously stupid to survive.
And this I believe.
• • •
And here is what I said at a funeral here for my friend James T. Farrell on August 24, 1979, whose body was taken afterward to a Catholic cemetery in his native Chicago:
“I am here at the request of a member of the family— perhaps as a representative of the generation of Americanwriters most influenced by James T. Farrell. I was not a close friend. Many of you were, and I envy you that. I knew him some. I found him easy to love and admire. He was eighteen years my senior.
“Here is what he did for me and many like me when I was very young: He showed me through his books that it was perfectly all right, perhaps even useful and beautiful, to say what life really looked like, what was really said and felt and done—what really went on. Until I read him, I wished only to be well received in polite company.
“We were both University of Chicago people.
“I note that there is a cross over his casket. That is a nice try by whoever put it there, but it is surely known in heaven that James T. Farrell of Chicago and New York was not among our leaders in organized tub-beating for Jesus Christ. He took his chances that way. If he is being scolded at this moment at the Pearly Gates, it may be for his overemphasis of rationality and compassion and honor at the expense of piety. I fear not for him. This is an argument he has won before.
“The last time I was in this melancholy depot, it was to say farewell to Janet Flanner, another midwesterner who became a planetary patriot. Ms. Flanner and Mr. Farrell were members of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Ms. Flanner came regularly to the annual spring meeting of that organization. So do many of our leading culture heroes. James T. Farrell never came. One time I asked him why not. He said that he did not care to come face to face with some of the critics, fellow writers, who had damned his work years ago—had damned it ostensibly for bad writing, but actually for the supposedly incorrect political opinions he was known to hold. He was a premature anti-Stalinist. He was, and remained so to his death, a left-wing thinking man.
“The malicious attacks did not humble him, could not humble him, since he was Irish. They did, however, somuddy his reputation that a dispassionate appraisal of his life’s work remains to be made. It is a huge work. It is Balzacian in scale. I spoke at his seventy-third birthday, two years ago, and I suggested that, if only James T. Farrell had produced such a body of work in a smaller country, he would have won a Nobel prize by then. That was a strong statement. It had the added force of ringing true.
“The ancient Greeks believed, or some of them did, anyway, that a person could not be said to have lived well if he or she died in unhappy circumstances. This is a deservedly unpopular opinion in America, where so many lives end abominably, almost as a matter of routine. But let us suppose that the Greeks were right. By their hard standards we can say that the American writer James T. Farrell had a wonderful life. He died in his sleep, in the presence of deep love such as the world has seldom seen—and owing no one an apology for anything.
“He was a sports nut, of course—and once an athlete of great and varied skills. So it is appropriate if we now address our memories of him in this fashion: ’You won, you won.’”7 PLAYMATES
IDELIVERED A SPEECHat the University of Virginia maybe eight years ago, which mercifully has been lost, so I do not have to paste it in here somewhere. I said, I remember, that Thomas Jefferson in his mansion called Monticello, with an artificial trout pool in its front yard, and its dumbwaiters for bringing wine and cider up from the basement, and its secret staircases and so on, was the Hugh Hefner of his time. Jefferson didn’t have for servants young women with great balls of cotton stuck to their behinds. He owned honest-to-God slaves instead.
A history professor explained to me afterward that Jefferson was so slow to free his slaves because he did not really own them. He had mortgaged them. Like this mortgaged house in which I write now, they belonged to the bank.
Author’s note: No entirely white descendent of Thomas Jefferson is alive today.
• • •
But the best part of that visit was finding out what had happened to a childhood playmate of mine. He was two years my junior, and had lived right next door to me in Indianapolis. We were playmates during the 1930s. His father and minehad both built grandiose houses during the boom of the 1920s. But during the 1930s they were both going broke. His father owned a furniture store which was bankrupt, and my father could find no work as an architect, and my mother and father were becoming widely known as deadbeats who would run huge charge accounts and never pay. This playmate sent me a note while I was in Charlottesville, and by God if he hadn’t become head of the astronomy department at the university. Sam Goldstein was his name.
So Sam and I had a good talk about the work he was doing, which was mainly with radio telescopes, and the work I was doing. We told about our children. Things were going well.
We refreshed our memories about neighborhood dogs we had known, dogs which had known us, too. We remembered two bulldogs named Boots and Beans, who were owned by a family named Wales. Boots and Beans used to catch cats and small dogs and pull them in two. I personally witnessed their doing that to a cat of ours.
Sam and I laughed when I told about my father’s sending the message to Mr. Wales that he would shoot Boots and Beans if they ever came into our yard again. Mr. Wales sent back the message that he would shoot Father if Father shot Boots and Beans.
Psychoanalysts are missing important clues about patients’ childhoods if they do not ask about dogs the patients knew; As I have said elsewhere, dogs still seem as respectable and interesting as people to me. Any day.
• • •
Dog poisoning is still the most contemptible crime I can think of. Boots and Beans were poisoned finally, but I couldn’t celebrate that, and our family certainly had nothing to do with it. If we were going to poison anybody, it would have been Mr. Wales.
• • •
The dogs of our childhood were dead when Sam Goldstein and I were reunited in Charlottesville, so we would have been crazy to speculate about what they might be doing nowadays. We could speculate about children we had known, though, since human beings live so long. We would say things like, “What do you suppose ever happened to Nancy Briggs?” or “Where do you think Dick Martin is now?” and on and on. Sometimes one or the other of us had a stale clue or two. Nancy Briggs married a sailor and moved to Texas during the Second World War. How’s that for a clue?
• • •
I have played that game so often in this jerry-built society of ours—“Whatever Became of So-and-so?” It becomes a truly sad game only if someone actually knows in detail what became of several so-and-sos. Several ordinary life stories, if told in rapid succession, tend to make life look far more pointless than it really is, probably.
The people I am most eager to have news of, curiously enough, are those I worked with in the General News Bureau of the General Electric Company in Schenectady, New York—from 1948 to 1951, from the time I was twenty-six until I was twenty-nine. They were all men I worked with, but when I think of that good old gang of mine, I include their wives.
As the song from the Gay Nineties, “That Old Gang of Mine,” would have it:
So long forever, old fellows and pals,
So long forever, old sweethearts and gals….
My persisting concern about all those General Electric people is so irrational and deep that I have to suspect that itmay have genetic roots of some sort. I may have been born with some sort of clock in me which required me to love those working alongside of me so much at that time. We were just getting our footing as adult citizens, and in other times we might have been correct in thinking that we had better like and trust each other a lot, since we would be together for life.
It was the Darwinian wish of General Electric, of the Free Enterprise System, of course, that we compete instead.
I have heard other people say that they, too, remain irrationally fond of those who were with them when they were just starting out. It’s a common thing.
• • •
One of my closest friends from General Electric is Ollie M. Lyon, who became a vice-president at Young and Rubicam advertising for a while, and then went back to his home state of Kentucky to sell sophisticated silos to farmers. The silos were so airtight that almost no silage was lost to fermentation and vermin and rot.
I loved Ollie’s wife Lavina exactly as much as I loved him, and she died fast of cancer of the pancreas out there in Kentucky. One of her last requests was that I speak at her funeral. “I want him to say good-bye to me,” she said. So I did.
I said this:
“Lavina asked me to be up here.
“This is the hardest thing Lavina ever asked me to do, but then she never asked anyone to do anything hard. Her only instructions were that I was to say good-bye to her as an old friend—asallold friends.
“I say it now. If I had to say it at the end, to build up to saying it, I would go all to pieces, I think. I would bark like a dog. So I say it now: ’Good-bye, darling Lavina.’
“There—that is behind me now. That is behind us, now.
“It is common at funerals for survivors to regret many things that were said and done to the departed—to think, ’I wish I had said this instead of this, I wish I had done that instead of that.’ This is not that sort of funeral. This is not a church filled with regrets.
“Why not? Wealwaystreated Lavina with love and decency. Why did we do that? It was Lavina’s particular genius to so behave that the only possible responses on our part were love and decency. That is her richest legacy to us, I think: Her lessons in how to treat others so that their only possible responses are, again, love and decency.
“There is at least one person here who does not need to learn what Lavina knew. He is Lavina’s spiritual equal, although he was so much in love with her that perhaps he never knew it. He is Ollie Morris Lyon.
“Ollie and Lavina are country people, by the way.
“I have seen them achieve success and happiness in the ugly factory city of Schenectady, New York, where I first met them. They were not much older than Mary and Philip then. Think of that. Yes, and when they lived in New York City, they had as much fun as any jazz-age babies ever did. Good for them! But they were always a farmer and his wife.
“Now the farmer’s wife has died. I’m glad they got back here before she died.
“The wife died first.
“It happens all the time—but it always seems like such a terrible violation of the natural order when the wife dies first. Is there anyone here, even a child, who did not believe that Lavina would survive us all? She was so healthy, so capable, so beautiful, so strong. She was supposed to come toourfunerals—not the other way around.
“Well—she may come to them yet. She will, if she can.She will talk to God about it, I’m sure. If anybody can stretch the rules of heaven a little, Lavina can.
“I say she was strong. We all say she was strong. Yes, and in this bicentennial springtime we can say that she was like a legendary pioneer woman in her seeming strengths. We know now that she was only pretending to be strong—which is the best any of us can do. Of course, if you can pretend to be strong all your life, which is what Lavina did, then you can be very comforting to those around you. You can allow them to be childlike now and then.
“Good job, Lavina, darling. And remember, too, Lavina, the times we let you be a little girl.
“When she was a little girl in Palmyra, Illinois, being the youngest of a large family, she was expected to leave a note in the kitchen saying where she had gone after school. One day the note that was found said ’I have gone where I have decided.’
“We loved you.
“We love you.
“We will always love you.
“We will meet again.”
• • •
I now confess that the American poems which move me most are those which marvel most, simply and clearly, at the queer shapes which the massive indifference of America gives to lives. SoThe Spoon River Anthologyby Edgar Lee Masters seems a very great book to me.
That is a barbarous opinion. So I have nothing to lose by blurting moreover that I find much to celebrate in the shrewd innocence of many of the poems now being set to country music.
Pay attention, please, to the words of “The Class of ’57,” a big country hit of a few years ago:
Tommy’s sellin’ used cars,
Nancy’s fixin’ hair,
Harvey runs a groc’ry store
And Marg’ret doesn’t care,
Jerry drives a truck for Sears
And Charlotte’s on the make.
And Paul sells life insurance
And part-time real estate.
And the Class of Fifty Seven had its dreams.
But we all thought we’d changed the world
With our great works and deeds;
Or maybe we just thought the world
Would change to fit our needs.
The Class of Fifty Seven had its dreams.
Betty runs a trailer park,
Jan sells Tupperware,
Randy’s on an insane ward,
And Mary’s on welfare,
Charley took a job with Ford,
Joe took Freddy’s wife,
Charlotte took a millionaire,
And Freddy took his life.
And the Class of Fifty Seven had its dreams,
But livin’ life from day to day
Is never like it seems.
Things get complicated
When you get past eighteen,
But the Class of Fifty Seven had its dreams.
Helen is a hostess,
Frank works at the mill,
Janet teaches grade school
And prob’ly always will,
Bob works for the city,
And Jack’s in lab research,
And Peggy plays the organ
At the Presbyterian Church.
And the Class of Fifty Seven had its dreams.
But we all thought we’d change the world
With our great works and deeds;
Or maybe we just thought the world
Would change to fit our needs.
The Class of Fifty Seven had its dreams.
John is big in cattle,
Ray is deep in debt,
Where Mavis fin’ly wound up
Is anybody’s bet,
Linda married Sonny,
Brenda married me,
And the class of all of us
Is just part of history.
And the Class of Fifty Seven had its dreams,
But livin’ life from day to day
Is never like it seems.
Things get complicated
When you get past eighteen,
But the Class of Fifty Seven had its dreams.
Ah, the Class of Fifty Seven had its dreams.
Copyright © 1972 by House of Cash.
The authors are Don and Harold Reid, the only actual brothers in the country-music quartet that calls itself the Statler Brothers. Nobody in the quartet is named Statler. The quartet named itself after a roll of paper towels.
• • •
My wife Jill and I admire the Statler Brothers so much that we went all the way to the Niagara Falls International Convention Center in April of 1980 to hear them and to shake their hands. We had our pictures taken with them, too.
Yes, and they announced from the stage that they were honored that night to have in the audience “the famous writer Kurt Vonnegut and his wife, Jill Krementz, the famous photographer.” We got a terrific hand, although we did not stand up and identify ourselves, and although nobody, I’m sure, had ever heard of us before.
A woman came up to us afterward, and she said that we must be the famous people the brothers had mentioned, since we didn’t look like anybody else in the auditorium. She said that from now on she was going to read everything we wrote.
Jill and I stayed in the same Holiday Inn as the Statler Brothers, but they slept all afternoon. Their bus was parked outside where we could see it from our room. Right after their performance, around midnight, they got on the bus, and it started up with that fruity, burbling, soft purple rumble that bus engines have. The bus left without any lights showing inside. Nobody waved from a window. It headed for Columbus, Ohio, for another performance the next night. I forget where it was supposed to go after that—Saginaw, Michigan, I think.
• • •
I would actually like to have “The Class of ’57” become our national anthem for a little while. Everybody knows that “The Star Spangled Banner” is a bust as music and poetry, and is as representative of the American spirit as the Taj Mahal.
I can see Americans singing in a grandstand at the Olympics somewhere, while one of our athletes wins amedal—for the decathlon, say. I can see tears streaming down the singers’ cheeks when they get to these lines:
Where Mavis fin’ly wound up
Is anybody’s bet.
• • •
“The Class of ’57” could be an anthem for my generation, at least. Many people have said that we already have an anthem, which is my friend Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” which starts off like this:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyedby madness, starving hysterical naked,dragging themselves through the negro streetsat dawn looking for an angry fix,angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancientheavenly connection to the starry dynamoin the machinery of night.
And so on.
I like “Howl” a lot. Who wouldn’t? It just doesn’t have much to do with me or what happened to my friends. For one thing, I believe that the best minds of my generation were probably musicians and physicists and mathematicians and biologists and archaeologists and chess masters and so on, and Ginsberg’s closest friends, if I’m not mistaken, were undergraduates in the English department of Columbia University.
No offense intended, but it would never occur to me to look for the best minds in any generation in an undergraduate English department anywhere. I would certainly try the physics department or the music department first—and after that biochemistry.
Everybody knows that the dumbest people in anyAmerican university are in the education department, and English after that.
• • •
Also, and again I intend no offense, the most meaningful and often harrowing adventures which I and many like me have experienced have had to do with the rearing of children. “Howl” does not deal with such adventures.
Truly great poems never do, somehow.
• • •
Allen Ginsberg and I were inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters in the same year, 1973. Somebody fromNewsweekcalled me up to ask what I had to say about two such antiestablishment writers being embraced by such a conservative organization.
I said this, and I meant it, and my comment was not printed: “My goodness, if Mr. Ginsberg and I aren’t already members of the establishment, I don’t know who is.”
• • •
To return to the subject of childhood playmates: In the Vonnegut house, with its charge-account deadbeats, and in the Goldstein house next door, with its bankruptcy, there were many books. As luck would have it, the Goldstein children and I, and the Marks children three doors down, whose father would soon die quite suddenly, could all read about as easily as we could eat chocolate ice cream. Thus, at a very tender age and in utter silence, disturbing no one, being children as good as gold, we were comforted and nourished by human minds which were calmer and more patient and amusing and unafraid than our parents could afford to be.
• • •
Years later, on October 1, 1976, I would pay this circuitous tribute to the art of reading at the dedication of a new library at Connecticut College, New London:
“The name of this speech is ’The Noodle Factory.’