In early November 1991, the fall of my senior year of college, I went shopping for a birthday card for Kurt Vonnegut. His birthday is easy to remember, as it falls on November 11, when we celebrate Veterans Day now, though it was once Armistice Day, as Vonnegut never failed to remind audiences and readers, the symbolism of that change perfect for him. I never received a reply to the card I sent, not surprisingly, but I was glad I did it. My sister’s birthday is also on November 11. She did not receive anything from me that year, not even a card. It was clear where my loyalties were.
When I was in my first year of teaching, Vonnegut released Timequake, his final novel. I had not read one of his novels in several years, so I was looking forward to this one. However, I had now completed a doctorate in English, so my knowledge of literature had changed rather dramatically from my senior year of college, the last time I read one of his works for the first time.
Timequake is not a good novel. I have not read it since, and I remember nothing about the plot, as there was nothing memorable about it. All I remember is slogging through pages to get to sentences or even paragraphs where I saw Vonnegut as he once was. Those moments made reading the novel worthwhile.
Vonnegut said that Breakfast of Champions, written just over 25 years before Timequake, would be his final novel, his 50th birthday present to himself. He obviously did not live up to that declaration, and most critics have argued that he should have stopped then, as none of the work after it is anywhere near the level of the work before it.
I tell my classes this whenever I teach Vonnegut, yet I also point out how unfair such an assertion is. Asking writers to stop writing just because their abilities have decreased a bit is like asking them to stop breathing. Writers write because they must, not for any other reason. It’s not like his later work was earning a great deal of money.
Also, I cannot imagine choosing a career where one is told to stop doing it after 20 or so years. I am always amazed at professional athletes who retire at 30 or even 40. They have been pursuing a particular sport for most of their lives, as many of them begin playing before they turn 10. However, when they are in the prime of their overall lives, not their athletic lives, they are told they must stop playing the game (or they realize their abilities are failing). They then have 40, 50, even 60 more years of life where they will not compete in the sport that has defined them for decades.
Asking Vonnegut to stop writing at 50 would have been the same. I’ll live with the bad work, as it is necessary for the good work in a weird sort of way.
Last year, I taught Slaughterhouse-Five in a senior-level American Novel course. I have taught the same novel in other classes over the past few years, but always to the same level of students. This time, though, I realized I was getting a bit tired of the novel. I’ve read it probably 15 times or so, and I continue to find new aspects of it to talk about, but this time it just wasn’t catching my attention as it has in the past.
This change could be that I’ve read so many contemporary novels that are better written or are raising more interesting questions. It could also be that the more I’ve learned about Vonnegut, the more I’ve realized that, at some level, all of this was just a game to him. He wanted to make money, and, in some sense, wanted to be famous, and he wrote about his experiences in Dresden to accomplish those two goals.
I’ve begun to wonder if it was my idea of Vonnegut that I liked much more than the works themselves, especially when comparing those works to novels with more complexity or subtlety. As I’ve gotten to know more about Vonnegut and realized he was just as human as the rest of us, I’ve let my opinions of his novels slip, as well
I also wonder, though, if Vonnegut is one of those writers people need to read at a certain age, much like Kerouac and Salinger. Perhaps he is a novelist for the young, idealistic readers, and I have simply moved on past that point in my life. I now see that life is more complicated than Vonnegut made it out to be in his works.
If that is true, I’m bothered by that idea, as there are still writers I teach whom I get quite excited about, not because of the complexity of their works, but because of the ideas they raise, which are no more or less challenging than the ones Vonnegut raises.
Perhaps his jokes have just gotten old to me, and I’m looking for new ones. Perhaps his books are for the young, and I am no longer so.
In college and even into graduate school, I believed Vonnegut was the greatest writer in the English language. Actually, I thought he was the greatest writer in any language, but I couldn’t speak to the others, given my lack of knowledge. He was better than Shakespeare, certainly, as I found him barely intelligible and certainly not dealing with issues that I was concerned about.
I was taking a novel class during the second semester of my junior year, and we had to select a novel from a list of 20th-century works to read on our own and present to the class. Vonnegut was not on the list, so I asked my professor if I could present one of his works. She knew that I had been reading a good deal of his work, so she told me that I could not, as she wanted me to choose a writer I knew nothing about.
At the time, I was not terribly happy with her decision, as I wanted any reason to read another Vonnegut novel, and I certainly wanted to share his works with anyone I could. I ended up choosing Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, though it was certainly not an informed decision.
When I was part of the way through the book, I came into class raving about it. I had found another novel that I thought was amazing, and my professor was excited to see me so enthusiastic about the novel. That enthusiasm lasted no more than a week. I came into class the next week talking about Vonnegut’s latest novel, Hocus Pocus, which I had begun reading after Greene.
Let me quickly add that I now know that Hocus Pocus is nowhere near the level of The Power and the Glory, and I would easily choose Greene’s novel every time, save for reasons of nostalgia. At the time, though, I had the opportunity to read a new novel by Vonnegut, which did not happen often (and would happen only one other time before he died).
My professor asked me about Greene and his novel, but I shrugged it off and said that it was pretty good, but he just wasn’t on the level of Vonnegut. I did my presentation on Greene, and I admitted to enjoying the novel, but my enthusiasm quickly went away. Despite having taught Greene’s novel in an introductory course since then, I still have not read another novel by Graham Greene.
When I was teaching at a private high school in Indiana, Vonnegut came to speak at the University of Chicago. My girlfriend was unable to get out of work as early as I was, so we left later than I would have liked, as it was a two hour drive, and I had never been to Chicago before, so I knew navigation could be a problem (it was; we got lost around the campus). Once we got there, we found a long line, but we did not have to stand in it for long. They announced that there were no more seats, so we left to try to find somewhere to eat. My frustration was clear, and it was not a pleasant evening.
Two years later, I did get to see Vonnegut read, as he came to the University of Georgia when I was in graduate school at the University of Alabama. Clearly, I was willing to travel to hear him read, as he would have been almost 77 by this point, and I knew my chances to see him were narrowing every year. Also, my two best friends lived in that area, one in Atlanta and one just north of Athens. I went to see them regularly, so it was a trip I was familiar with.
My first disappointment of the evening came when they announced that Vonnegut would neither take questions nor sign books. I had long since gotten past the phase of treating authors like rock stars, so I no longer got books signed at readings, but I had hoped to ask a question. I don’t remember if I had one planned or if I was simply hoping to come up with one during his talk, but I knew I wanted to take the opportunity to ask him something, just to interact with him in some way. If nothing else, I would have gotten a book signed, just for that opportunity.
The main disappointment was in his talk, though. I knew he was not writing new material and had not been for some time, but his talk was all material I had read almost a decade before in his collections of essays. Those collections had been published in the 1970s and early 1980s, so he was doing nothing more than recycling talks from almost 20-30 years earlier. He talked about his theory of narrative arcs and how few plots there are in all of literature, which was actually from his attempted Master’s thesis at the University of Chicago, so it was over 50 years old.
It was interesting to see him, as his cough from decades of heavy smoking and drinking made us wonder if he was going to live through his talk, more or less the year, but that was the only Vonnegut-related highlight of the evening. Otherwise, I simply enjoyed the time hanging out with my friends, as we wandered around the campus, as I behaved in the manner of someone ten years younger than I was, leaping over park benches and jumping off a stairway to a building that led to my collapsing into a chain that bordered a grassy part of campus. And, no, there was no alcohol involved, just an evening with friends. As Vonnegut would say, “Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.” I wish he would have said something that profound in his talk.
In the summer before my senior year of college, I talked to a friend of mine who was taking a sophomore Humanities course. He told me that they were covering Cat’s Cradle one day. I knew Dr. Dibble, as he was the same professor I had taken my Humanities course with, as well as another American Literature course. He was also my advisor. I found him in his office and asked if I could attend that day, as I had never gotten the chance to study Vonnegut in a class setting, and I thought this might be my only chance.
It turns out that I knew a few other students in the class, and they knew me as the student I was: not overly motivated to do the required work, not to mention extra work; talkative in class, but not always contributing positively with that discussion, someone who liked to hear myself talk, in fact; a better than average student, but certainly never the best student in the class by far. Needless to say, they were surprised to see that I would voluntarily attend a class in the summer, a fact they pointed out to me. They also admitted, though, that they would not have chosen to spend their summer morning in a class if they did not have to.
The discussion was great, and I took a good deal away from the novel that I had clearly missed in reading it on my own. I was not a strong reader at that point, having only been an English major for a year and lacking a solid background of reading, so I needed class discussion to help me along the way. I was able to contribute to the discussion, though, and it was one of the few times I really moved discussion along rather than simply spoke to hear myself.
I put off reading A Man Without a Country for more than a year after it came out. I had long since realized that Vonnegut was nowhere near the level he was at in the 1960s, and I was hoping to avoid another disappointment. However, the book was receiving a great deal of publicity, and several of my college students were raving about it. Vonnegut even made it on The Daily Show, so I thought I should give it a try, especially as I found a cheap copy to read.
I should have known better, as I was quickly disappointed. My reaction was not because of the level of writing or thinking in the book, nor was it even that he had moved from satire and biting wit to simple anger. The problem I had with the book was that it did not say anything Vonnegut had not been saying for 30 years. In fact, going through the book, I could pull out entire sections, almost entire chapters, and know exactly where he had previously published the same material, sometimes almost verbatim.
Instead of talking about Vietnam, he was now talking about Iraq and Afghanistan; however, he was saying the same things. He was not comparing the conflicts, just making the same general statements about the country and the war(s) we found ourselves in. Given his first-hand knowledge of war and his staunch pacifism, I was hoping for something more insightful than what I found.
In the fall of my senior year, I took Contemporary Literature with Dr. Dibble, the professor who motivated me to become an English major. His idea of “contemporary” was rather fluid, as we began the course with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and moved throughout the early 20th century; however, we did ultimately get to works from the 1960s and 1970s. I don’t know if he put Cat’s Cradle on the syllabus because of my love for Vonnegut or if he always taught him, but I was thrilled to get the chance to discuss it in a class of students I respected with a professor I obviously admired.
Whenever we would discuss a work of literature, Dr. Dibble would begin with a brief biographical sketch, relying mainly on his memory, though he would occasionally glance at a few notes he had scribbled in the front cover of his book. He would give the main points of an author’s life, then be sure to mention several important works that we should be aware of.
When we came to Vonnegut, though, he did not begin with the biography. Instead, he simply looked at me and said, “Brown, give us his background.” I had no notes with me, nor had I prepared such information for that day. I had done a presentation on Vonnegut the previous fall, but that was a year prior to this class meeting. Regardless, I was reading all I could find about Vonnegut in my free time, tracking down interviews and essays, so I probably knew as much about him as Dr. Dibble did at the time. In fact, when I was discussing the major works, I mentioned that he had just released a new collection of essays, Fates Worse Than Death, which Dr. Dibble jotted down in the front cover of his book, as he had not heard of it.
I did make one major error, mainly due to my lack of historical knowledge, as I mentioned that Vonnegut was captured in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944 when that battle actually took place in 1943. Dr. Dibble corrected me, but did so with a joke about a chronosynclastic infundibulum, a term from Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan, which was a time funnel, essentially, which allows Winston Niles Rumfoord to exist in different places at the same time. It also is a place or moment where all the different kinds of truths fit together, and where there are many different ways to be absolutely right about everything. I was actually rather impressed that I only missed that one detail, given that I had not prepared at all. There were few moments where I felt like an English major when I was college, but this was one of three, all of which happened in Dr. Dibble’s class that semester.
When we discussed the work itself, Dr. Dibble was talking about the ending of the novel, the conclusion with Bokonon thumbing his nose at God, we presume, I realized what I wanted to write my Master’s thesis on. I had no idea I would ultimately pursue a Ph.D., but I was already in the process of applying to Master’s programs, so I knew I needed a thesis topic. Dr. Dibble mentioned a little-known newspaper piece by Mark Twain called “The Petrified Man.” In it, a man leans against a tree with water dripping down his back, and he ultimately becomes petrified. It was one of those short articles that then-Sam Clemens simply made up when he was a reporter. If one looks carefully at the description of the man, though, it’s clear that he is thumbing his nose at the heavens and presumably God, given Twain’s theology.
Having already written a paper on Twain and enjoyed that process, I knew that I would write on the connection between Vonnegut and Twain for that thesis. I knew Vonnegut named his first-born son Mark and that there was an obvious physical resemblance. Now that I found out this information, my topic was set.
My Master’s thesis was on John Barth, as I became fascinated with meta-fiction in his works after reading both The Floating Opera and The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor. When I was instructed to read everything else he wrote for the second chapter of my thesis, I realized I did not like anything else he wrote, making the thesis much less enjoyable than it could have been. My dissertation was a comparison of Vonnegut and Twain, and I used that scene to help support one of my chapters.
When I was in graduate school, I was still gathering as much material on Vonnegut as I could, especially as I planned to write my dissertation on his work. When I saw, then, that he and Joseph Heller were going to be interviewed about World War II to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that war’s end, I made sure to record it. Their discussion itself was not all that interesting and didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. The opening questions did not elicit any new information, either.
A young woman then stood up and asked a great question, though I cannot remember what it was now. I was looking forward to hearing what both authors had to say about the subject. However, Vonnegut looked at the moderator and asked, “Are we finished?” then walked off the stage. There was nothing antagonistic about her question, nor did Heller seem to want the conversation to end. At that point, though, there was nothing the moderator could do but conclude the session. This was the first time I had seen or read about Vonnegut behaving in such a fashion. For someone who’s works purported, “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind to one another,” he didn’t seem to be all that kind.
I became an English major in the summer of 1990. I was not a strong student in English, and my background was weak, as well. I did not change majors because I fell in love with literature or writing; instead, I simply found a professor who changed my life and made me want to study what he taught, which was English. To be honest, I did not like most of what I was assigned in college, whether the more traditional classics or even 20th century works, though I was beginning to find a few of those I enjoyed.
I felt I needed to spend my summer reading more to provide me with some sort of knowledge before I walked into upper-level English courses, so I took the only approach I knew to take: I began reading through the fiction anthology from my Humanities course, which was arranged alphabetically. I made it through the As without much trouble, but I hit a long story in the Bs that did not interest me at all. Rather than simply stopping, though, I turned to the back of the book and began to work from that end. It was not long before I found Vonnegut’s story “A Report on the Barnhouse Effect.” It seems that my first experience reading Vonnegut was the first story he published.
The story is not subtle. The narrator tells about Professor Barnhouse, a man who has learned to control objects with his mind, beginning with dice, but moving up to weapons. The army wants to use him as the ultimate weapon, but he goes into hiding, destroying any weapon he hears of. The Cold War becomes an anti-arms race, then, as countries try to discover whatever weapon the other countries are creating, then report them publicly, so Professor Barnhouse will destroy them. The narrator admits that the professor must be getting older and that he will soon die, but he then confesses that he has learned how to control dice, as well, showing that he will continue the professor’s work.
The story clearly lays out Vonnegut’s feelings on pacifisms and the arms race at the time. Part of why I liked the story so much is because it was so easy to understand. Vonnegut’s writing is certainly simply enough for a reasonably intelligent college student to follow, and the moral is as clear as a fable’s.
I would not have called myself a pacifist at that time; in fact, I had never thought about where I stood on war. I do remember questioning my friends’ enthusiasm when President Reagan bombed Libya looking for Gaddafi, but that was as far as my thinking on the subject went. I was certainly contrary by nature, so I was normally drawn to anyone who was questioning the status quo. Given that I lived in the rural South, a penchant for war and weaponry was definitely the status quo.
However, something in Vonnegut’s story reached a part of me I did not yet know existed. He articulated a belief I already had, but did not know it. He gave voice to a thought that was at the core of my being before I could do so. His was the first story to ever do so, so it is no surprise that I was drawn to him after one story.
I first heard the news of Vonnegut’s death on public radio, as I was getting ready to go teach that day. I was not overly affected, as I knew his health was always bad, and I had assumed it was a matter of time before the news came. I went into work and went about my day, as if it were any other. I have been more affected by other authors’ deaths, most notably David Foster Wallace. When he died, I went into a class where we were not studying him and read them part of his work, as I just wanted to make sure they knew who he was. I did not do anything like that with Vonnegut.
However, as the day passed and in the days to follow, I received emails from students, colleagues, friends, and former students to ask me how I was doing. They sent links to obituaries and remembrances because they thought I would want to see them. I found that I did, as I started reading all that they sent my way, even seeking out more on my own. Even though I had not read his work in recent years, and I had not enjoyed much of what I had read, I realized that I would miss the fact that he existed, that he was still alive, no matter how he was writing (or if he wasn’t). Part of it was nostalgia for how I once thought of him, but part of it was also a remembrance of the difference he made in my reading and thinking life. It was only then that the emotional impact of his death hit me.
Since I read most of Vonnegut’s work in college, I didn’t have much money to buy his books. I didn’t think to check our library, as I always wanted to own his books, despite the lack of funds. This was also well before the internet or even major chain bookstores, Barnes and Noble still a mail order company I wouldn’t find for another year or two.
In order to get his books, then, I would have to find a list of them in Books in Print or interviews, then go to the only bookstore in town, a rather small store without a deep collection. They would order the books for me whenever I had the money. The books were usually around $5.99 or so, paperbacks put out by Dell, but that’s not a cheap purchase for a college student who has textbooks, food, car insurance, gas, and other such expenses.
Instead of ordering the books in order, I simply chose a title randomly or based on something I had read. While I did manage to read Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five early on, mainly due to Dr. Dibble, I also read some of his weaker books, such as Galapagos, Slapstick, and Deadeye Dick. My continuing to read his work simply shows my lack of literary knowledge at the time, as I could not even distinguish between his good work and the mediocre.
At the same time I was reading Vonnegut, though, people suggested I read Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I read the first book, and I certainly found it humorous, but it was not as deep as Vonnegut. Adams wasn’t dealing with the more universal ideas that Vonnegut was at least attempting to engage. At least I could make that distinction.
When I first went to graduate school, I had no idea I was expected to present papers at conferences or publish. I knew there were articles and books written on authors, but I somehow did not connect their existence to my future or any of my professors. I simply thought they existed, and we used them, but I could never see any real person writing them.
After I learned that we were supposed to engage in the discipline in this manner, I began looking for papers I had written in graduate school that would fit with a conference. I was not particular about which conference, as I did not know enough to know that there were levels of quality. When I saw a call for papers through the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association, then, I realized that a paper I had written on Vonnegut would fit. I would later find out that almost anything would fit at a PCA/ACA conference, but I was worried that Vonnegut was too literary to fit in there, especially as my panel was on science fiction, a label Vonnegut never liked.
The paper presentation itself went well enough, though I spent the plane ride to New Orleans re-reading Breakfast of Champions to be prepared to answer any questions that might come up. I should have spent my time some other way, as I was clearly not prepared for the questions that would come, not because of a lack of knowledge, but because of a lack of awareness of how such conferences functioned.
After my presentation, several people in the audience began asking questions of the other participants and simply having a discussion. When one person said that he believed Vonnegut did not like to be categorized as science fiction, there was a lull in the conversation. I sat there, waiting for someone to say something, but, since I had not been asked a direct question, I did not think anyone was expecting me to answer. When the conversation moved on, the man who asked the question got up and left. I realized then that I was supposed to have entered the conversation, that I was supposed to be an expert on Vonnegut, and he was eager to hear what I had to say about. Given how much time I had spent over the previous three years studying Vonnegut, I would have had something to say, but I had not yet learned when to say it.
I’ve begun to wonder if Vonnegut is as popular as he once was. When I was in England for a couple of weeks, I looked in every bookstore (or bookshop) I went in, and only one had any books he wrote. Since some of them were used bookstores, his absence could show that people who buy his books don’t seem to sell them back. However, his absence in the other stores could also show a lack of demand.
I just finished an MFA program, and they have recently updated their reading lists. Vonnegut is noticeably absent, given writers such as Barthelme, Roth, and Pynchon, his contemporaries are represented. I looked at syllabi online, as well, and found that Vonnegut was on fewer than 10% of syllabi focusing on contemporary literature.
Part of the problem may be that he’s in a gray area right now. His works aren’t old enough to really be classics in the way that even Faulkner and Ellison’s works have, but he also isn’t contemporary any longer, which causes him to be left off of syllabi that focus on such authors. People like Updike and Roth continued writing quality work into the 1980s and 1990s (even into the present for Roth), while Vonnegut’s best works are finished by 1969. In looking at syllabi, I found that professors tended to either focus their courses on very recent fiction, from the past twenty or so years or give a broad sweep of the 20th and 21st centuries, which led them to focus on writers with more of a reputation than Vonnegut.
However, in looking at the MLA International Bibliography, which lists all works written about language and literature, Vonnegut is still doing quite well. In 2011, 278 articles were written on his works, mainly Breakfast of Champions, but not exclusively. In the same year, Updike had 328 articles, though he also had more books written about him. By contrast, though, Faulkner had 1312 written on his works, Ralph Ellison had 627, while Toni Morrison had 907. Vonnegut certainly isn’t on their level, at least in terms of academic interest, but he’s not doing too badly.
One problem is that he really only has two works that are often discussed or taught: Breakfast of Champions and Cat’s Cradle. I’ve never been to an academic conference where someone presented a paper on God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater or Bluebeard, nor have I ever seen such works on syllabi.
The one piece that might keep him in the academic world is “Harrison Bergeron,” a short story that is often anthologized. Inclusion in anthologies is almost always a sure way to keep a writer’s career alive long after they’ve stopped writing or died. However, even it has begun to be overtaken by other, more contemporary works, such as Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Interpreter of Maladies” or Tim Gautreaux’s “Welding with Children.” I’ll be curious to see if he’s still being taught in 20 or 30 years.
As with many authors, since Vonnegut’s death, several books of unpublished work have now come out. Readers continue to buy such work, especially from authors with cult followings, such as Vonnegut, so publishers want to get all of the money out of such an author. Even before he died, though, Vonnegut began releasing unpublished work, perhaps recognizing that he didn’t have any quality new work in him. One such work was Bagambo Snuff Box. Even after reading Timequake, I was hopeful, given that this work was written was Vonnegut was younger.
I have discovered over the two decades I have been studying literature that there is almost always a reason work has not been published earlier in an author’s career. The stories in this collection reiterated that feeling. There are several stories in Welcome to the Monkey House, Vonnegut’s first collection of short stories (there’s also Canary in a Cat House, but most of the stories are reprinted in Monkey House, and it’s almost impossible to find), that were clearly published simply to make money. The entire collection in Bagambo feels that way, with glimpses of promise, much like Timequake.
Late in Vonnegut’s career, I kept reaching a point where I felt I should stop reading work that he (or the publisher, after Vonnegut’s death) was publishing. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it, though, so I kept pushing through, hoping to be proven wrong. I’m still waiting for that point to come.
A new biography of Vonnegut came out last year, And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles Shields. Despite the fact that I still teach Vonnegut’s work on a regular basis, I’m not sure I will read it. Given the reviews, I don’t think there’s anything in it I don’t already know about his life, as I spent all of those years in college and graduate school seeking out interviews with him and articles about him.
Vonnegut’s family does not endorse the portrayal of him in the work, saying that it shows him to be a bad father. Perhaps I’m just trying to avoid one more letdown in my expectations of who Vonnegut was, but I don’t think so. I’ve never been a fan of reading author’s biographies, partly because I try to separate the work from the author as much as I can (probably a New Critical influence from when I was in college), but also because biographers often make claims about authors that I, as a writer, don’t think they can make. They often connect aspects of the author’s life directly to their work, as if the author were doing nothing more than changing names and a few facts and writing thinly veiled autobiography (Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce is awful in this regard; I couldn’t get more than a few chapters in).
If D.H. Lawrence tells us to trust the tale, not the teller, perhaps we should also trust the tale, not the life. What matters, in the long run, is the art, not what kind of father Vonnegut was, either good or bad. At least that’s what matters to readers and critics; I’m sure Vonnegut’s family has different ideas on the subject.
In a literature class that focused on the short story that I took my junior year of college, we were required to do a presentation on an author. Our professor, Mrs. Iles, allowed me to go off the syllabus when I asked if I could present on Vonnegut, though I also had to come up with a story to read since there was not one in the anthology, so she had not put one on the syllabus.
I asked Dr. Dibble for a recommendation, and he suggested “Deer in the Works,” a story I was not very fond of. I should have known that he would suggest a story that was more complex than the one I had chosen: “Harrison Bergeron.” The reason “Harrison Bergeron” is often anthologized in Freshman textbooks is that is a simple story to understand, it’s short, and it’s easy to write about.
What I had not prepared for, though, was the fact that the class would not like the story. As soon as we began the discussion, which I, thankfully, did not have to lead, Mrs. Iles requiring us only to present the biographical information, people turned on Vonnegut. They said the story was unrealistic (it is set in 2081), and, not surprisingly, they accused it of being simplistic. Only one other student came to Vonnegut’s defense, a student who was much smarter than I was, thankfully, as I needed help. Neither of us succeeded in convincing the others that Vonnegut was a worthwhile writer, so my first attempt at introducing other people to Vonnegut left them not wanting to read him instead.
By the time I had accepted my first teaching job, I had begun to be disillusioned by Vonnegut. One of the aspects of his life that I admired was that he tried to live out his principles. He did not own a computer, as he argued that would have taken his typist out a job. Given that his first novel, Player Piano, was about technology replacing people and taking meaning from their lives, such an approach made sense.
He also would talk about going to the store and buying an envelope to mail a letter or manuscript, then going to the post office to mail it. His wife would tell him that he could buy envelopes in bulk and not have to make a trip every time. His response was that such an approach would take away opportunities to interact with people, as he could have conversations every time he went to buy an envelope and mail something.
However, it was around this time that Vonnegut showed up in a Discover card commercial, and he replaced his typewriter (and typist, one would assume) with a computer. For someone who so openly associated the principles of his life with those in his fiction, moves such as these seemed betrayals to his ideals. At the time, I considered writing an essay about his selling out, but I was hesitant to do so. After all, he was a person and he deserved to be treated like one.
One idea that bothered me then and continues to bother me is how we talk about any type of celebrity, as if they are not humans. We criticize professional athletes for their behavior both within their sport and outside of it. We talk about celebrities as if they did not have the same problems we have. Those of us who study literature do it to authors, both living and dead, as well. We talk about T.S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism, as if we have never said or done anything racist ourselves, for example.
I mentioned this concern to one of my fellow teachers, a creative writing teacher and fiction writer. He actually took the opposite side of my argument, pointing out that Vonnegut had embraced the public sphere, so he needed to be held accountable for whatever he did in that arena. If someone earns his or her living by holding forth on ideas, as Vonnegut had done for 25 years or so by that point, then he or she should be judged in a public sphere, as well, he argued.
I never wrote that essay. I just couldn’t bring myself to hold Vonnegut to a level that I would hate to be judged by. Of course, I’m effectively writing that essay now, though my intent is not to simply point out Vonnegut’s failings. What’s changed? Part of it is that I’m not as sure of myself now, and I’m trying to understand how I feel about Vonnegut, and writing helps me know what I think. Part of it is that I think Steve, the creative writing teacher, was right, in that people who have willingly become part of the public sphere open themselves up for such a discussion.
The largest part, though, is that I now understand Vonnegut to be human in a way I did not then. Before, I simply saw him as a representation of those ideals he wrote about, so when he failed to live up to them, I believed he deserved to be judged accordingly. Now I see him as being more like most of us. He held beliefs that he tried to convey to other people, as that was his way of making the world a better place. At the same time, he wrote stories for money, as he was good at doing so, and he needed to pay the bills, just like the rest of us. He could be someone who was not very nice, though friends and family members say that he could be kind, as well. In other words, he’s human.
I liked him better when he was not, as we all want our heroes to be perfect. His writing should have shown me how wrong I am to feel this way.
No matter where Vonnegut’s reputation ends up or whether or not I continue reading his work, I can thank him for getting me into the world of literature, though it was through the back door. I had tried reading Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath the same summer, as I had skipped it when it was assigned the year before in a sophomore Humanities course (full disclosure: I read the Cliff’s Notes and made a perfect score on the essay, the only perfect score I received in the two year Humanities cycle we were required to take), but I did not make it far. I found the book boring and, as I described it, depressing, as it was about the Great Depression.
Most of what I was being assigned through my junior and senior years, I did not like. I confused Henry James and James Joyce, not because of any similarities in the writing, certainly, but because of their names. I criticized Dickens’s Pip for not being proactive, and I simply hated works, such as Fanny Burney’s Evelina and Spenser’s .
Vonnegut kept me engaged in literature, as he helped me to see that there were some works out there that mattered to me. Since there was at least one writer who could do so, I believed there were others, so I kept reading to find them. In the meantime, I began to find more and more stories I did enjoy, not realizing that it was not the work that was changing, but me. In the same way that I wanted more depth than Douglas Adams was giving me, I found myself wanting more depth than Vonnegut was giving me. After a few years, I preferred Joyce and Melville and Ellison and Dickens to Vonnegut, though I never left him behind. It seems I still haven’t.