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"Two years before Hannah Arendt declared evil banal, Vonnegut was staking it out for stand-up treatment."
March 11, 2012 3:45 PM   Subscribe

In the spring of 1945, three weeks after VE Day, Private First Class Kurt Vonnegut, Jr wrote a letter home to inform his family that he was alive. His infantry unit had been smashed by Panzer divisions in the Ardennes; his unmarked POW train attacked by the RAF; miraculously, he and a handful of fellow prisoners escaped incineration by American and British bombers. "Their combined labors killed 250,000 people in twenty-four hours and destroyed all of Dresden – possibly the world’s most beautiful city", Vonnegut wrote. "But not me."
- Survivor: How Kurt Vonnegut created a novel, a cult following and one of the most loyal readerships in American Fiction by Thomas Meaney in The Times Literary Supplement.
posted by Kattullus (85 comments total) 64 users marked this as a favorite

 
Thank You, Mr. Vonnegut
posted by the mad poster! at 4:00 PM on March 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


I love the use of the repeating, " But not me."

That was one of his stylistic flourishes throughout his writing career. Other examples include "And so it goes" and " ... flying f*ck at the mooooooon."

I miss him.
posted by noaccident at 4:01 PM on March 11, 2012


Hi ho.
posted by Eekacat at 4:03 PM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


*
posted by item at 5:02 PM on March 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


yeah, I was just coming in hear to say that I missed him.
It's nice to know that I'm not the only one.
posted by brevator at 5:03 PM on March 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


er, hear= here.
posted by brevator at 5:04 PM on March 11, 2012


By the time he started writing Slaughterhouse-Five, he had two forgettable comic novels behind him, Player Piano (1952) and The Sirens of Titan (1959).

Whaaa? Sirens of Titan forgettable?!
posted by Rev. Syung Myung Me at 5:10 PM on March 11, 2012 [26 favorites]


That's a really well-written letter; you can hear the same voice as in his books. Thanks for posting this.
posted by Forktine at 5:10 PM on March 11, 2012


Whaaa? Sirens of Titan forgettable?!

Word. Both my husband & I list SoT as our favorite Vonnegut, and independently we've each probably read more than most (including the aforementioned Player Piano and Deadeye Dick, which he likes a lot but which I pretty much hated. So it goes.)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:26 PM on March 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Right, Forktine! When people talk wistfully about email replacing letter-writing, I always wonder: how many well-written meaningful paper letters were people receiving? I never got a letter this beautifully written and I most certainly never wrote one.
posted by crush-onastick at 5:27 PM on March 11, 2012


He said he always wrote his books to someone - namely, his sister Alice, who died of cancer at a young age.

That's why his books have such a personal tone. He was writing a letter to someone he loved with each book.
posted by glaucon at 5:29 PM on March 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Holy shit. He was a prisoner of war? Glad he lived. Profound reading that moving letter of his. Amazing to learn these details. Poignant his repeated use of the phrase "but not me". It made me wonder if he suffered survivor's guilt along with the ptsd he likely experienced. Thanks for the, as usual, very interesting post, Kattullus.

Dumb Vonnegut anecdote: In the 1990's I was a street vendor selling West African art, masks, textiles and sculptures, down the street from the Museum of Modern Art. One Sunday morning, early, as I was setting up, a tall, shaggy haired man stopped by. He pointed at an Ibo mask and said that when he was in Nigeria the Ibo were the most stupid people he'd ever met. I started internally fuming at this racist bastard, whoever he was, who also seemed to be bragging about his having been to exotic Nigeria.

But he kept standing there as I kneeled on the pavement, setting up my display, which irritated the daylights out of me. Then he asked for the Cameroonian elephant headdress. So, grudgingly, I got up and handed it to him. He asked about it and as I looked more closely at him, I then asked him if he were an actor because he looked very familiar. He, in turn, seemed furious and sort of seething. Then he said, brusquely, that he'd take the mask for his wife. As I put it in a bag for him he took out his checkbook, without asking me if I accepted checks (I did routinely but people usually asked first). I stood there in front of him as he wrote the check and read, upside down, his name. Omg, it was Mr. Cat's Cradle in person. I gasped, a bit in shock that I'd just insulted a childhood hero and a bit tickled to know his home address from the check. But I still cashed the check instead of keeping it for a souvenir.
posted by nickyskye at 5:38 PM on March 11, 2012 [16 favorites]


Player piano was one of my favorites as well. I won't be forgetting it.
posted by kenaldo at 5:53 PM on March 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Poo-tee-weet?
posted by shakespeherian at 5:59 PM on March 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


It made me wonder if he suffered survivor's guilt

An interesting phrase. Vonnegut's mother committed suicide, and this obviously haunted him throughout his life. He addressed this in some of his fiction.
posted by thelonius at 6:01 PM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Holy shit. He was a prisoner of war? Glad he lived.

Yeah, all those bits in Slaughterhouse-Five where he says 'That was me. I was there' are because that was him, and he was there.
posted by shakespeherian at 6:29 PM on March 11, 2012 [10 favorites]


Whaaa? Sirens of Titan forgettable?!

Depends on who you are. I don't tend to like "science fiction for the sake of science fiction," and Sirens of Titan is pretty much a straightforward science fiction. It has some embryonic Vonnegut elements, but that's the only reason the book was interesting to me. If I didn't know who wrote it, I probably wouldn't have read it. If I did, I think I would have genuinely liked it, but I wouldn't recall it unless it came up in conversation.

It may be an excellent sci-fi novel-- I'm not qualified to judge. But from my vantage point I think that's a fair assessment.
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:41 PM on March 11, 2012


"Forgettable if you don't like a specific genre" is a fair assessment. "Forgettable" is an unfair dismissal of an exceptional genre book.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 6:54 PM on March 11, 2012


Among the most common criticisms levelled at Vonnegut is that he became too cosy with his audience, that they made his posturing too easy for him. But that also ignores his main achievement: from unpromising beginnings, he built one of the most faithful and enduring audiences in American fiction.

This comes off as undeservedly backhanded. Vonnegut's main achievement was in building...a faithful audience? His work stands apart because the work connects to, and still connects to, an audience. The work is brilliant because it connects with a great many people, even with people who do not read the Times Literary Supplement and who are not doctoral students at Columbia.

Its greatness is of a different kind than of a more seemingly "elite" author. Vonnegut's "easy" writing belied a subtle mastery of tone, content, pacing, the whole shebang. Other authors may thrive on the smaller audience of the more "serious" reader, and there's nothing wrong with that, but Vonnegut's legacy appears to be going more the way of Twain, Dickens, and Austen: great authors who found something almost eternal, who are still loved by the masses - including those goldarned teenagers, who oftentimes know better than the "serious" reader as to what makes a good or bad story.

I happily assert that Vonnegut is a great writer, while not trying to suggest that Vonnegut is above criticism. I agree that his post-Slaughterhouse work is generally not as strong, although to be fair, I have not read all of it. But, this article seems to quietly damn almost all of his work before and after Slaughter-House 5, with even Mother Night pegged as just being the "funniest".
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:55 PM on March 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


The firebombing of Dresden was a war-crime and should have been recognized as such. Even though Vonnegut wrote a classic and harrowing novel that should have given credence to the notion that this was a war-crime, it's never been regarded as such by anything beyond a tiny minority of American opinion.

Part of why this is the case is that so little is widely known about the subject. (Well, that and the majority notion that the Germans and Japanese deserved it.) As it happens, the first fire-bombing event, in Hamburg, came as a complete surprise to everyone involved. It was an accidental result of itself accidental "carpet bombing", also a term that is widely misunderstood and misused.

This bombing was the first time that air power was used to drop munitions at such a scale. Because of how the bombers were flown and the bombs targeted, what happened was that as each wave of bombers dropped their ordnance, due to a psychological quirk that the mission planners hadn't accounted for, each would be dropped slightly in advance of the last, rather than precisely on the same target. As a result, because of the sheer enormous quantity of explosives and the unintentional advancing in targeting, an enormous wall of fire was created that would slowly "roll" forward towards an observer in the same line of approach as the bombers. It looked to some like a carpet unrolling. Thus, "carpet bombing".

But it also was a wall of fire that rose high into the sky, advancing forward; and because of convection pulling huge amounts of air and fuel into the conflagration and which grew ravenously of its own accord. So, in Hamburg in July of 1943, a bombing mission that was intended to be precisely targeted (by those historical standards), surprised everyone and became an enormous holocaust of flame that destroyed the city and killed many tens of thousands of civilians, about half as many as immediately died in Hiroshima.

However, the psychological and propaganda value of this were not lost on the war planners and by February of 1945, they deliberately exploited this to full effect in Dresden. The destruction of the entire city center and the deaths of many, many thousands of civilians, in a horrifying fashion of asphyxiation and incineration, was intentional.

This strategy reached its natural conclusion in, first, Tokyo, and then Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The firebombing of Tokyo was as deliberate a targeting and mass killing of civilians to produce terror as any other action in modern American history. Even more so than Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Tokyo bombing was advocated for and planned by Curtis LeMay. (Think Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper, except crazier—the guy who created and ran the Strategic Air Command, the ones with the nukes, and who deliberately had SAC overfly Cuba without Kennedy's knowledge during the Cuba Missile Crisis, hoping to provoke an incident that Kennedy was attempting to avoid...no, really, I'm not making this up.) Tokyo proper wasn't the best target militarily, though it was thought to have great value as a target psychologically. But, more importantly, because of the prevalent construction, LeMay and other planners were well-aware that a firestorm was probable, especially if using incendiaries, which they certainly did.

Conservative estimates of the immediate number of people killed in the Tokyo firebombing are well over 100,000 people. More than either Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

Dresden and Tokyo are both as much examples of unnecessary and cruel mass targeting of civilians as both atomic bombings are, if not more so. Hamburg is not—what happened there was the first event of its kind and, by reliable accounts, not anticipated. But the firebombings that followed were very much intentional, designed to maximize everything that is most horrifying about a firestorm.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:55 PM on March 11, 2012 [54 favorites]


Depends on who you are. I don't tend to like "science fiction for the sake of science fiction," and Sirens of Titan is pretty much a straightforward science fiction. It has some embryonic Vonnegut elements, but that's the only reason the book was interesting to me. If I didn't know who wrote it, I probably wouldn't have read it. If I did, I think I would have genuinely liked it, but I wouldn't recall it unless it came up in conversation.

What is 'science fiction for the sake of science fiction'?

It's not like Kurt was doing an experiment in hard SF there.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:58 PM on March 11, 2012


(At the time I read Titans, I was not particularly an SF reader. "So glad you are" is right up there in Vonnegut gems with "everything was beautiful and nothing hurt" if you ask me).
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:59 PM on March 11, 2012


I read and re-read so much Vonnegut in High School that I had to take a long, long break. I think it's time to get back together. Thanks for posting this.

"Nice, nice, very nice"
posted by jabo at 7:13 PM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, the repeated use in Cat's Cradle of the phrases

As it happened-- as it was supposed to happen...

In which, the narrator, speaking those one after another each time is constantly trying to convince himself that the caprices of man and random chance are actuality part of some divine plan. The point being, perhaps, that the narrator doesn't actually believe that to be true, but is trying to will himself to believe it, by repeating dogma.

It drives home the same point as "But not me" while meditating on man's capacity to believe. It's a very powerful work for such a slim volume - one of my go-to works of philosophy, for sure.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:14 PM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you wish to study a granfalloon
Just remove the skin of a toy balloon.
posted by candyland at 7:19 PM on March 11, 2012


The firebombing of Dresden was a war-crime and should have been recognized as such
If I remember correctly Robert McNamara says in Fog of War that when planning the Tokyo bombing they knew they were carrying out a war-crime and if the Allies were to lose the war it would be considered as such.

We're such a horrible fucking species really aren't we.
posted by fullerine at 7:21 PM on March 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


a faithful audience

Yes, that's me. His work has resonated with me strongly, I've spent a lot of my time as an adult reflecting on the world as clarified and explained by Mr. Vonnegut.

When I was in Poland, the train to my German friend in Erfurt had a connection in Dresden. Never had any other reason to be there, and it was always a break from about 5am - 7am or so, so my experience in that city is always of an empty center with not much to do but reflect on Kurt's writings. I would walk down the 1960s East German commercial promenade to the old church - at the time still a half completed jigsaw, a church coming back together from a pile of rubble. Here he was, climbing out of his meat locker, his crew then digging civilians out of their bomb shelters, as described in the introduction to Mother Night.

Later Tadeusz Borowski and Christopher Browning added further depth and texture, but the main message was already in place from that same source when I wandered around Auschwitz, Birkenau, the parade grounds in Nuremburg, and the other bits of Nazi Germany that I would seek out for contemplation. Normal men did this, I might well have been no different if I'd been born there, then.

In one of his books he sets a scene at the very end of the war, in one of the final pockets of Nazi Europe, I think in Northern Moravia... it was the life work of the painter in the novel, a thousand refugees from every corner of the war disoriented and wandering, looking to pick themselves back up. I wonder about the direct connection to Kurt, whether he was there, or heard it second hand.

When I reflect on the "Greatest Generation", one thing that strikes me is that it was the crucible of this cataclysm that made them what they were. There was nothing so special about them but that they happened into something so very terrible, and that it was big enough that everyone was involved in this shared experience. Missing that isn't something to regret, but there isn't much hope of the people coming after that having a claim to the same sort of visceral and ugly truth that was exposed at that time.
posted by Meatbomb at 7:30 PM on March 11, 2012 [12 favorites]


Without the capability of great villainy I am not sure that we would be capable of great beauty.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:31 PM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I wish I could practice boko-maru with the awesomeness of Cat's Cradle. Instead, I content myself with taking off my shoes & socks whenever I read it.
posted by smirkette at 7:46 PM on March 11, 2012


Great letter. Thanks.

Regarding that second forgettable comic novel:
Vonnegut sold the film rights to Sirens of Titan to Jerry Garcia, guitarist and vocalist for rock band The Grateful Dead.
Yet another unfinished project. And so it goes.
posted by alms at 7:53 PM on March 11, 2012


What is 'science fiction for the sake of science fiction'? ... It's not like Kurt was doing an experiment in hard SF there.

It's "I will specifically write a piece for an audience that is interested in narratives set in a world that is impossible given our current limitations."

I suspect that "Hard SF" is a relative term, because anything involving a mission to Mars is, in my mind, Hard Science Fiction. I'm not dismissing the legitimacy of the genre; I'm merely saying that I personally, along with many other readers, are not generally interested in it. Vonnegut transcended genre with innovative technique and that's fantastic.
posted by Mayor Curley at 8:28 PM on March 11, 2012


Mmmmm, time to pull out and re-read the Vonnegut.
posted by BlueHorse at 9:07 PM on March 11, 2012


Fates Worse Than Death.
posted by zoinks at 9:07 PM on March 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Cat's Cradle was the first time I read Vonnegut and didn't really connect with me the first time I read it, possibly because my English teacher at the time was one of those creatures that was obsessed with the symbolism of every little thing to the point of giving quizzes on it, so we spent the whole book figuring out symbols and taking tests on it and not discussing anything else.

Slaughterhouse-Five, though, hit me like a ton of bricks. It still hits me like a ton of bricks. If I had a kid I wanted to prepare for the world, I'd give them Slaughterhouse-Five and Catch-22 from Heller.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:07 PM on March 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


I suspect that "Hard SF" is a relative term, because anything involving a mission to Mars is, in my mind, Hard Science Fiction.

"Hard SF" is a term that actually has a fairly precise definition. "Science fictiony, like Mars and stuff," aint it.

It's "I will specifically write a piece for an audience that is interested in narratives set in a world that is impossible given our current limitations."

Frankly, based on what Vonnegut said about genre, I suspect this wasn't his intention at all. I don't think he ever wrote SF for the sake of writing SF, or even because he was particularly interested in SF (he himself argued that he was interested in technology as opposed to "science-fiction"). I suspect he wrote stories with missions to Mars, etc., because that was the best way he could tell the stories he wanted to tell.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:08 PM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hard SF" is a term that actually has a fairly precise definition. "Science fictiony, like Mars and stuff," aint it.

Does it? I didn't bother to look it up because, as I've been saying, I don't care about science fiction. To each his own! Be sure to write another subtley exasperated response correcting me for not sharing your interests!
posted by Mayor Curley at 9:44 PM on March 11, 2012


It made me wonder if he suffered survivor's guilt

> An interesting phrase. Vonnegut's mother committed suicide, and this obviously haunted him throughout his life. He addressed this in some of his fiction.


Sad info about his mother's suicide. Didn't know that. Yes, survivor's or survivor guilt is the name of an aspect of ptsd.
posted by nickyskye at 9:51 PM on March 11, 2012


Does it? I didn't bother to look it up because, as I've been saying, I don't care about science fiction. To each his own! Be sure to write another subtley exasperated response correcting me for not sharing your interests!

I . . . kind of don't care if you share my interests. But words mean something, and aren't very good for communicating if we just bend them to our will (unless you're Humpty Dumpty. My apologies if you're not a fantasy fan.)

Anyway, more relevantly, there's really been nothing to indicate that Vonnegut was using a lot of SF tropes because he wanted to write science fiction particularly. In fact, he generally seemed fairly scornful of doing so as a general endeavor.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:03 PM on March 11, 2012


"Does it? I didn't bother to look it up because, as I've been saying, I don't care about science fiction. To each his own! Be sure to write another subtley exasperated response correcting me for not sharing your interests!"

I think the subtle exasperation had more to do with your knowingly talking about shit you're ignorant of, rather than that you lack interest in it.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:04 PM on March 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


In fact, he generally seemed fairly scornful of doing so as a general endeavor.

It was complicated - look at the main character of KV's work, Kilgore Trout. He got the best line in the whole story (stories, but really the bulk of them are threaded together as one), and was the only character that ever got to meet the author. He was also self-aware enough to realize that he was meeting his author, his creator. Thinking about that scene tears me up, every time.

"Make me young again!"
posted by Meatbomb at 10:21 PM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Kurt Vonnegut pretty much nailed it with the answer to the purpose of life: "To be the eyes and ears and conscience of the Creator of the Universe, you fool"

Teenage Mind.Blown.

Now I'm just a cynical old bastard who's forgotten how to share in the joy of life.
posted by roboton666 at 11:25 PM on March 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


That and Timequake pretty much rocked my grown-up cynical worldview.
posted by roboton666 at 11:26 PM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Kurt Vonnegut is just the Kerouac of a different sort of nerd.
posted by dame at 11:53 PM on March 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Kurt Vonnegut is just the Kerouac of a different sort of nerd.
This made me laugh because I almost didn't read this post. I was afraid it was going to be full of people mocking Vonnegut like they did Kerouac and my entire high school reading list was going to be a shambles. I'd be left with nothing but Tolkien.
posted by Lame_username at 12:47 AM on March 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


Mother Night is Vonnegut's best book.

I have spoken.
posted by Decani at 1:49 AM on March 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


Vonnegut had an uncanny ability to turn some of the simplest phrasings into powerful statements. Consider, toward the end of Slaughterhouse Five, after relating the deaths of RFK and MLK:

He left me his guns. They rust.
posted by borborygmi at 2:46 AM on March 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Curtis LeMay. (Think Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper, except crazier—the guy who created and ran the Strategic Air Command, the ones with the nukes, and who deliberately had SAC overfly Cuba without Kennedy's knowledge during the Cuba Missile Crisis, hoping to provoke an incident that Kennedy was attempting to avoid...no, really, I'm not making this up.)

You forgot one last touch of colour to define what a truly excellent human being LeMay was: he was George Wallace's running mate in '68.
posted by Skeptic at 3:11 AM on March 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


I think the subtle exasperation had more to do with your knowingly talking about shit you're ignorant of, rather than that you lack interest in it.

Yeah, I lost sight of the path somewhere, though this being an Internet Discussion I think I should get points for candidly admitting that I don't know much about it! I'm going to backtrack. I didn't recognize "hard sci-fi" as a term until PBWK used it, so I've read up and learned something today. Sorry and thanks.
posted by Mayor Curley at 4:53 AM on March 12, 2012 [10 favorites]


The firebombing of Dresden was a war-crime and should have been recognized as such.... Dresden and Tokyo are both as much examples of unnecessary and cruel mass targeting of civilians as both atomic bombings are, if not more so. Hamburg is not—what happened there was the first event of its kind and, by reliable accounts, not anticipated. But the firebombings that followed were very much intentional, designed to maximize everything that is most horrifying about a firestorm.

That's an interesting point, but I don't think that Dresden and Tokyo make a good pairing. Both of them were seen as retaliation at the time-- Dresden clearly for the German rocket attacks and attempted bomber campaign in Britain, Tokyo, more ethereally, for Pearl Harbor.

Pearl Harbor is a military installation, and attacking your enemy's forces is what is supposed to happen in war, whether you declare your intentions or not. Whether or not Pearl Harbor was on anyone's mind, there's a strong case to be made that the civilian targeting that the US did in Japan was a war crime, because there wasn't a comparable action on the part of the Japanese.

Dresden's muddier. The German rocket campaign was indiscriminate by nature-- the Germans may have hoped to score some hits on military targets, but they knew very well the rockets' limitations in accuracy. Mostly they expected to terrorize the British populace and burn their cities. And if the Battle of Britain had gone the other way, does anyone doubt that the Germans would have initiated carpet bombing of cities?

The Allies shouldn't have intentionally annihilated population centers, I agree. But it's less egregious when you know that the other side was trying to do the same thing. You might be right in asserting that it's a war crime. I'm with you on Tokyo, I'm not sure where I stand with Dresden. As a modern observer looking back, I can see how loathsome it was. In the moment, I think it was less clear-- there was a lot of perceived value in "you know that horrible thing you tried to do to us? We can actually do it. You've already lost but you don't realize it."

Full disclosure: I have trouble being objective about it. I have a strong, visceral loathing of Naziism and a hard time not painting the 1940s German populace as collaborators. My grandfather served in the European theater and was injured by a German shell, returned to action, was shot in Germany and consequently lost the use of his arm. I can't serve on your jury.

Of course, the real message behind any mass destruction in war time is the same for any act of violence "We hate you and look at the shit that we can bring. Just give us what we want, asshole."
posted by Mayor Curley at 5:33 AM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


dame: Kurt Vonnegut is just the Kerouac of a different sort of nerd.

I've been thinking of this comment today. In non-Anglophone Europe saying that Kurt Vonnegut was the greatest American novelist of the 20th Century would be an uncontroversial opinion, if a slightly boring one, comparable to claiming that Flaubert is the greatest French novelist of the 19th Century. When I moved to the US one of the things that took me a really long time to understand was that Vonnegut is widely looked down on. It's something I've thought about often through the years, but I've never really understood it.

This comment made me think that partly it's because he's embraced by the wrong sort. Maybe it's because I've been reading a lot of Joan Didion lately, but I've been hyper-aware of consumption-as-signifier, and carrying a Vonnegut book around in the US would send a certain kind of class and sub-culture signal that people who want to be part of the American literature sub-culture would not want to broadcast. Why that is, however, I don't really know. Maybe it's because he got too popular.

Jack Kerouac is an interesting co-example because like with Vonnegut, thinking that Kerouac is the greatest American novelist of the 20th Century would be a slightly staid opinion to hold in non-Anglophone Europe. They're in that category of great American novelists that Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and a few others inhabit. In the US, they are part of a completely different venn diagram.
posted by Kattullus at 6:07 AM on March 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Of course the Germans targeted civilians in other attacks, as did the Japanese - just ask the Chinese. The point about Dresden and so on is that the Allies' cruelty and wanton destruction goes against the idea that the Allies were all wholly noble warriors - the Greatest Generation. World War II was a bloody affair with blood shed cruelly on both sides, where being on one side or another was as much a flip of a coin as anything else.

Vonnegut's work remains to be one of the best assaults on the romantic view of WWII. He survived the most notorious of the Allied bombings. He was a POW with a German name. As one of his prison guards had aptly pointed out, had Vonnegut's relatives not emigrated, he would have fought for the Nazis. Vonnegut spent the rest of his life knowing that.

He came out of WWII with some interesting antimonies about that war. Of course the Nazis were evil. But what could he say about the 20th century's grand battle of good and evil, when he knew that, from the ant's-eye-view, it was anything but? What did it mean to be a hero in war, when it wasn't even really your choice to be a hero or a corpse, on the right side or on the wrong side?

This confusion plays especially well to teenagers, who as a rule are both highly sincere and highly ironic, wanting to fill a huge role in the universe, but also feeling that adults' structures are false and hollow. Vonnegut's work played well with this ambivalence, with an artful use of irony that just about anyone could understand, cycling rapidly between cynicism and sentiment.

Vonnegut didn't have much in the way of theses, nor did he have grand morals beyond "God damn it, you've got to be kind." Between this, his irony, and his frequent use of narrators who spoke directly to the reader, his books are both very "what you see is what you get" and as personal-seeming as a favorite song. This may frustrate some critics, who would prefer to deal in novels that are more self-consciously Important, or in Difficult novels that communicate to a more Literary Crowd.

Maybe it's because I've been reading a lot of Joan Didion lately, but I've been hyper-aware of consumption-as-signifier, and carrying a Vonnegut book around in the US would send a certain kind of class and sub-culture signal that people who want to be part of the American literature sub-culture would not want to broadcast. Why that is, however, I don't really know. Maybe it's because he got too popular.

That's not too far off the mark. Carrying around a Vonnegut book could also communicate a lack of effort in seeking out "better" authors who write more difficult books, which are read by more serious readers, especially more adult readers. Vonnegut is widely assigned in high school, and he's about as difficult to read as Stephen King - ditto Hemingway, ditto Kerouac. Vonnegut just isn't a marker of being a serious reader, i.e. an adult who frequently seeks out non-genre fiction.

Some might see someone reading a Vonnegut book and think, "what, didn't you read that at 15," or if you say Vonnegut is your favorite author, some might think, "what, you didn't read anything after age 15." This is a shame, because any five Vonnegut novels are worth more than, say, the whole of William Gass' The Tunnel, no matter its leaden density.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:19 AM on March 12, 2012 [8 favorites]


Kurt Vonnegut is just the Kerouac of a different sort of nerd.

Nah, Vonnegut knew how to write.
posted by shakespeherian at 6:48 AM on March 12, 2012 [6 favorites]


World War II was a bloody affair with blood shed cruelly on both sides, where being on one side or another was as much a flip of a coin as anything else.

Günther Grass found himself squarely on the other side if this coin, and is also one of the Difficult Authors, but in the end, though he's been de-habilitated due to his glossing of his own past, he also had a lot of the same profound messages about WWII as Vonnegut, in a way. I maybe don't understand Dog Years too well despite having read it thrice, but it seems to carry the same message that individual humans are beautiful creatures, but that humanity itself is perhaps irredeemable.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:08 AM on March 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


Dresden's muddier. The German rocket campaign was indiscriminate by nature-- the Germans may have hoped to score some hits on military targets, but they knew very well the rockets' limitations in accuracy. Mostly they expected to terrorize the British populace and burn their cities. And if the Battle of Britain had gone the other way, does anyone doubt that the Germans would have initiated carpet bombing of cities?

In fact, Mayor Curley, the Luftwaffe was never particularly interested in strategic bombing, and never had the heavy bombers for the job. During the Battle of Britain, it shifted from bombing airfields to bombing cities in retaliation for the first RAF bombing of Berlin. Not that the Nazis had huge scruples about razing cities (see Rotterdam), but there's that.

As for the lack of accuracy of the V-1 and V-2, the Allies' bombers were similarly inaccurate and indiscriminate, and the Allied command was perfectly aware of that. See this account by Freeman Dyson, who was actually involved in planning the bombing of German cities and was racked by remorse for it during his whole life. Incidentally, he mentions Vonnegut and "Slaughterhouse Five", and is full of praise for it.

The only thing that makes Dresden "muddier" is that it is often trotted out by neo-Nazis using the "tu quoque" fallacy. However, it was a war crime, even more indiscutably so because several of its perpetrators (Dyson, for example, but even LeMay, without the same remorse) acknowledged it as such.
posted by Skeptic at 7:34 AM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's not like Kurt was doing an experiment in hard SF there...

Kurt had a conflicted relationship with the traditional Science Fiction genre. He used Sci Fi elements in most of his writing, but he also resisted being slotted (and marketed) deeply into the genre because he feared that his work wouldn't be taken as seriously, and that his audience would be more limited.

He mentioned that 'Sirens of Titan' was his only real attempt to write a straightforward old-style genre Science Fiction Story, and he had mixed feelings about the results. I think what makes 'Sirens of Titan' still interesting today are those profound little Kurt meditations on individuality, illusion and regret that he weaves into the story.
posted by ovvl at 7:44 AM on March 12, 2012


This comment made me think that partly it's because he's embraced by the wrong sort. Maybe it's because I've been reading a lot of Joan Didion lately, but I've been hyper-aware of consumption-as-signifier, and carrying a Vonnegut book around in the US would send a certain kind of class and sub-culture signal that people who want to be part of the American literature sub-culture would not want to broadcast. Why that is, however, I don't really know. Maybe it's because he got too popular.

I'd actually argue that it's not solely genre prejudice or popularity that cripples critical opinion of either Keruoac or Vonnegut. Both have a loose, conversational sort style that doesn't normally net many accolades over here. Salinger's similar, though I think he's benefited more heavily by inclusion in high school curriculum, and has been able to gain more esteem that way. Both Vonnegut and Keruoac are sometimes taught in schools, but are more often the kind of risque stuff teens have to discover on their own.

Actually, I wonder if "beloved by teenagers" is part of it, too. Stephen King is similarly seen as kids stuff, whether rightfully so or not. Makes it difficult to have a conversation about their works actual literary quality.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:50 AM on March 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


I had a 16 year-old student years ago whose true love was ATV racing. He didn't like books. Cat's Cradle was on my American Lit curriculum, and he said it was the only book he ever liked.
posted by kozad at 7:58 AM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


There is no better idea in modern American lit than the chronosynclastic infindibulum.
posted by ahimsakid at 8:29 AM on March 12, 2012


Sirens of Titan, Cats Cradle, and Slaughterhouse Five are books that were part of my reading life when I was 11 or 12 or so and they changed me forever. Rented a tent, rented a tent.
posted by jokeefe at 9:26 AM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wikipedia:

In the mid-1950s, Vonnegut worked very briefly for Sports Illustrated magazine, where he was assigned to write a piece on a racehorse that had jumped a fence and attempted to run away. After staring at the blank piece of paper on his typewriter all morning, he typed, "The horse jumped over the fucking fence," and left.
posted by ovvl at 9:34 AM on March 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


The first Vonnegut I read was Hocus Pocus, which I loved for the idea of Vonnegut being the editor of the random scraps that were found. Then I read Sirens of Titan an dI was hooked.

Then I read Slaughterhouse 5, and my god was that stunning. I think it is one of the few novels that have changed me as a person. Thank you Mr Vonnegut, for this, and for hours of exceptionally pleasurable reading.
posted by marienbad at 10:14 AM on March 12, 2012


Actually, I wonder if "beloved by teenagers" is part of it, too. Stephen King is similarly seen as kids stuff, whether rightfully so or not. Makes it difficult to have a conversation about their works actual literary quality.

Well, we would have to define the term "Literary Quality". Some people would say that Kurt's writing isn't really literary because it isn't boring enough, because by their definition the word 'literature' describes writing which is done in a dry serious style. That might not be my opinion, but that is one way of looking at it.

I think what really makes a piece of writing 'literary' is that it has a thought-provoking aspect to it which transcends the content itself. (And also an elegant style, well-defined characters, unique metaphors, ... and everything coming together for a complete effect).

I don't like everything about Kurt's writing, I think sometimes it comes across as kinda clunky and corny, but I will say that what makes him interesting and even 'literary' is that he really strives to make us 'think' about things after the story has been read.
posted by ovvl at 10:18 AM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


In recent years, the American literati have tended to prefer faux-sophistication (maybe because they're actually a pretty unsophisticated crowd these days?) to the kind of brutal honesty, practical wisdom and self-critical humor Vonnegut made his stock in trade? But then I'm biased. I think his American critics are idiots. He was the last natural heir to the legacy of America's great literary satirists, like Mark Twain. I don't see anyone out there who could take his place.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:18 AM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's never been regarded as such by anything beyond a tiny minority of American opinion. Part of why this is the case is that so little is widely known about the subject.

I agree on your other points but I don't think the fact that so little is widely known has anything at all to do with why. Everyone knows about Hiroshima and pretty much nobody in the US sees it as a war crime. If you even dare to imply so people get mighty angry. It's not ignorance of what was done at all, IMO.
posted by cairdeas at 10:38 AM on March 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


In recent years, the American literati have tended to prefer faux-sophistication

Who are these people? What are their names?
posted by shakespeherian at 10:57 AM on March 12, 2012


One of the famous quotes from Vonnegut about his opinion on being labeled an SF writer:
Years ago I was working in Schenectady for General Electric, completely surrounded by machines and ideas for machines, so I wrote a novel about people and machines, and machines frequently got the best of it, as machines will. (It was called Player Piano, and it's coming out in hard covers again next spring.) And I learned from the reviewers that I was a science-fiction writer.

I didn't know that. I supposed that I was writing a novel about life, about things I could not avoid seeing and hearing in Schenectady, a very real town, awkwardly set in the gruesome now. I have been a sore-headed occupant of a file-drawer labeled ''science- fiction'' ever since, and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a tall white fixture in a comfort station.
From "On Science Fiction", 1965.
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:31 AM on March 12, 2012


In non-Anglophone Europe saying that Kurt Vonnegut was the greatest American novelist of the 20th Century would be an uncontroversial opinion, if a slightly boring one, comparable to claiming that Flaubert is the greatest French novelist of the 19th Century.

This is absolutely shocking to me.
posted by kenko at 11:37 AM on March 12, 2012


Who are these people? What are their names?

Well, by 'literati,' I mostly mean state university literature grad students.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:39 AM on March 12, 2012


I know a great deal of those people and I've never heard any down-talking about Vonnegut, so I'm sort of surprised to hear the idea floated in this thread that such is the case.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:40 AM on March 12, 2012


Me, too. And my experience was not with those people specifically "down-talking about Vonnegut" so much as making way more fuss than I would over the talents of guys like Martin Amis (I know--not an American author, but an example of the kind of writer that seemed popular in the academic lit circles back in my university days). But then, that's been nearly 20 years ago now, probably.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:52 AM on March 12, 2012


The Allies shouldn't have intentionally annihilated population centers, I agree. But it's less egregious when you know that the other side was trying to do the same thing.

That's the logic that leads the U.S. to torture, by the way. I have a big problem with it.
posted by The World Famous at 12:22 PM on March 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


kenko: This is absolutely shocking to me.

Yeah, it's always interesting which writers travel well and who don't. A lot of American writers who are very well known in their homeland are little known outside of it. John Updike and Flannery O'Connor, for instance, are names I rarely come across.
posted by Kattullus at 12:49 PM on March 12, 2012


It's a shame about O'Connor, but I would have been surprised if Updike had travelled well. He seems fairly culturally-bound even within the Anglosphere.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:04 PM on March 12, 2012


Both of them were seen as retaliation at the time-- Dresden clearly for the German rocket attacks and attempted bomber campaign in Britain
posted by Mayor Curley at 1:33 PM on March 1


Attempted? The survivors of the Coventry and London Blitzes (to name perhaps the two worst cases) thought the attempt was pretty successful. Hell yes, it was seen as retaliation. Britain damned near went under in 1940. I certainly don't blame my parents' generation for feeling justified in inflicting a bit of payback on Nazi Germany.
posted by Decani at 3:23 PM on March 12, 2012


Sidenote: I read recently that, in a very roundabout way, we should be almost glad that Germany chose to focus their air attacks on civilians in the UK.

Had the Nazis any military sense, they would have attacked the airfields in southern England, which had much more strategic value, and which the Germans probably could have overpowered if they had gotten their collective shit together. However, their ham-fisted military planning led them instead to terrorize civilians, in an attempt to demoralize the UK.

The Nazis wound up completely wasting their resources, with massive opportunity costs. The Zeros ran circles around them, and the British couldn't be cowed so easily. Horrific loss of life, don't get me wrong, but had the Nazis used a more surgical approach directed at significant military targets, the UK could have actually fallen.
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:31 PM on March 12, 2012


"Had the Nazis any military sense" they wouldn't have been the Nazis. Believing idiocy about German martial prowess and the fighting spirit of other nations was the lodestar of Nazi military sense.
posted by Kattullus at 3:50 PM on March 12, 2012


The Zeros ran circles around them

Wha?
posted by pjern at 5:39 PM on March 12, 2012


The Zeros ran circles around them

AHAHAHAHA oops. Yeah, no, the British were not flying Zeros.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:41 PM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Spitfires. I thought they initially did have a proper air strategy - radar and air force infrastructure - before Hitler got pissy and put his hand into the detailed planning?
posted by Meatbomb at 9:18 PM on March 12, 2012


In recent years, the American literati have tended to prefer faux-sophistication
The American Literati of whom you speak are indeed philistines at heart.
posted by Isadorady at 10:16 PM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


That's the logic that leads the U.S. to torture, by the way. I have a big problem with it.

I disagree. I think the logic that leads the US to torture is simply "these prisoners might have information that we find valuable, and our crumbling position has devolved to the point where 'The Other' is subhuman" not "they're torturing our guys."
posted by Mayor Curley at 3:46 AM on March 13, 2012


Now that you put it that way, Mayor Curley, I think you're right that it's different logic. Let's look at it again:

The Allies shouldn't have intentionally annihilated population centers, I agree. But it's less egregious when you know that the other side was trying to do the same thing. You might be right in asserting that it's a war crime. I'm with you on Tokyo, I'm not sure where I stand with Dresden. As a modern observer looking back, I can see how loathsome it was. In the moment, I think it was less clear-- there was a lot of perceived value in "you know that horrible thing you tried to do to us? We can actually do it. You've already lost but you don't realize it."

It's the Bizarro-Godwin defense - the idea that the fact that Hitler did or attempted to do something first is a mitigating factor in how bad it is when the U.S. does it.
posted by The World Famous at 9:58 AM on March 13, 2012


Vonnegut haunts me with these two scenes:

1) the narrator visits a war buddy, whom he hasn't seen in years. His buddy's wife greets him with icicles in her eyes, makes sit them at the kitchen table on hard-backed, uncomfortable chairs, under a glaring overhead light, then leaves them alone to share a bottle. She hates him (the narrator says), because she knows that he and her husband are going to tell glorious lies about the war.

2) the narrator hunkers in the bowels of a slaugherhouse, listening to giants walk the earth.

I loved the rest of his work for his skill at making an accomplice of the reader.

I'm still an ardent fan.
posted by mule98J at 12:12 PM on March 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Had the Nazis any military sense, they would have attacked the airfields in southern England, which had much more strategic value
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:31 PM on March 12


Err, they did that too, you know.
posted by Decani at 1:04 PM on March 13, 2012


Err, they did that too, you know.

Yes, but that wasn't their main focus. The Blitz was about targeting civilians, and it did so at the expense of a better-planned attack on just the targets of strategic value.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:43 PM on March 13, 2012


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