Kurt Vonnegut, a leading humanist and moral critic of all forms of tyranny as well as the author of 14 very popular novels that spoke to both the despair and hope of his time, died in New York on April 10. He was 84 and a chain-smoker to the last, which he called "an elegant way of committing suicide." He had tried a less elegant way with sleeping pills and alcohol in 1984 and was constantly aware of the possibility of ending his life as his mother had done. "The child of a suicide will naturally think of death, the big one, as a logical solution to any problem," he wrote. Nevertheless, he endured.
His only biological son, Mark Vonnegut, who was named after his father's hero Mark Twain, has endured also. Mark Vonnegut suffered from schizophrenia with suicidal thoughts, wrote about it in his 1975 book The Eden Express: A Memoir of Insanity, and survived to become a successful Boston pediatrician. One of Kurt Vonnegut's later books, God Bless You, Dr. Kervorkian, was a fictional account of near-death experiences that allowed Vonnegut to interview victims of Texas governor George W. Bush's enthusiasm for capital punishment as well as Vonnegut heroes like John Brown and Eugene V. Debs. The short book ended when suicide doctor Jack Kervorkian was jailed, and Vonnegut did not seem eager to leave this vale of tears in any great hurry.
Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis in 1922. His father was an architect and his mother's family had been brewers. His German roots were strong. In the 1930s one of his relatives married a German citizen, and the family had the mayor of Indianapolis fix up a certificate attesting to her pure Aryan ancestry as required by the Nazi authorities. One of Vonnegut's best novels, Mother Night, is about an amiable German American who becomes a Nazi propagandist, a hapless victim of a monstrous system. Vonnegut was always loyal to his Midwestern roots and the radical heritage of that section. He said in 2001 when accepting the Carl Sandburg award from the Friends of the Chicago Public Library: "That wage earners, without social position or higher education or wealth, are of inferior intellect is surely belied by the fact that two of the most splendid writers and speakers on the deepest subjects in American history were self-taught workmen. I speak, of course of Carl Sandburg and Abraham Lincoln Both were continental, freshwater people like ourselves ... I know upper-class graduates of Yale University who can't talk or write worth a nickel."
When Vonnegut received the public service award of the Eugene Debs Foundation of Terre Haute in 1981, he began his acceptance speech by saying "This is fun." He had spent some time before his speech in conversation with a previous winner, Martin Miller, who had been the conductor on Debs' 1912 "Red Special" train and later an effective lobbyist for the elderly. Vonnegut cautioned his audience not to fall into the trap built by the structure of war movies. We think we are like the stars, who mostly survive, whereas we are only extras in the service of those who try to profit from wars, and the odds are that we will not survive.
Vonnegut himself almost did not survive World War II. Caught behind the lines during the Battle of the Bulge, he was sent to a camp near Dresden. Assigned to a vitamin supplement plant, he was working in an underground meat locker when British and American planes carpet bombed the city on Feb. 14, 1945. Vonnegut lived to help burn the corpses, which were a health hazard. There were 135,000 of them, the vast majority of them civilians. This became the core of his most popular novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, published in 1969, in which the protagonist Billy Pilgrim is unstuck in time and keeps wandering between the destruction of Dresden, his present suburban anomie, and his future captivity by space aliens. It became a best seller and alerted the public to Vonnegut's earlier neglected books, classified as science fiction although they transcended that category.
One of the characters in Slaughterhouse-Five was a neglected science fiction writer named Kilgore Trout who appeared in many subsequent Vonnegut books. In Breakfast of Champions (1973) Vonnegut decides to emulate Tolstoy, who freed his serfs on his fiftieth birthday, by freeing his characters. One of them promptly becomes murderous. Vonnegut has told only Kilgore Trout about this, the only Vonnegut character with imagination enough to realize he might be imagined by another person. However, in Jailbird (1979) Trout is back as a prison inmate. Like many freed prisoners, he could not make it on the outside. In his last novel Timequake (1997) Vonnegut rewards Trout with a Nobel Prize for understanding a temporary reversal of time that has caused chaos.
Vonnegut himself never got a Nobel Prize. He was perhaps too easy to understand, too light-hearted in his despair, too simplistic in his denunciations of war and poverty. Woody Allen once joked that he had read all of Vonnegut's works in three hours. It takes a little longer than that, but Vonnegut is easy reading and worthwhile reading.
J. Quinn Brisben is a retired Chicago high school teacher. He was the Socialist Party USA candidate for president in 1992.
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