Like his character Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut came “unstuck in time” when he died recently at 84.
So he went.
Now he belongs to the obit writers, until they hand him back to literature.
For a writer to become an icon takes time, and 84 years is more than enough. Memorializers the day after spoke of Vonnegut’s send-up in novel after novel of America’s obsession with technology, materialism and power, his creative mentoring of younger ‘60s rebels, his evolution as a genre-busting, original comic voice (though Vonnegut traced his style in that department to Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton).
The arc of Vonnegut’s career received full attention—gangly Indiana kid with writerly and journalistic ambitions, distraught PR man for General Electric, frustrated freelance short-story writer and “sci-fi” author sick of being ghettoized, then the breakout, flower-power hero of Slaughterhouse-Five, the instant literary voice of an alienated generation.
Less focus extended to the “Why?” question. Why does Vonnegut endure so well? Why do all his novels remain in print?
Like his hero Mark Twain, Vonnegut united three American bents that often split off from one another in European culture and literature—antiauthoritarianism, a playful attitude toward it, and open-hearted solidarity toward all innocent others, regardless of class.
Vonnegut’s main genre, like that of many American writers back to Benjamin Franklin, was the joke. In his case, they came out as novels, such as The Sirens of Titan (1959), in which aliens mess up history because a spaceship needs a spare part.
Characters like ne’er-do-well writer Kilgore Trout and self-loathing philanthropist Eliot Rosewater (“Goddamn it, you’ve got to be kind”) took on Vonnegut’s ethos. If poet Robert Frost declared in his epitaph that he had “a lover’s quarrel with the world,” Vonnegut conducted a lifelong kibitzing session with it—part political panel, part stand-up routine, railing against the horrors of the world without losing his satiric bite.
To really understand Kurt Vonnegut, though, you needed to know how many terrible things happened to him. Vonnegut grew up in a family devastated by the Depression. His mother committed suicide on Mother’s Day 1944.
On Feb. 13 and 14, 1945, Vonnegut found himself a prisoner of war in a meat-locker bunker in Dresden, where he experienced the worst firebombing of World War II. One of only seven American survivors, he was assigned to collect thousands of German bodies. (The experience haunted Vonnegut his whole life—he wrote about it in seven separate books.)
In 1958, Vonnegut’s brother-in-law and sister Alice died the same week—the brother-in-law first in a train wreck, his sister days later from cancer—a catastrophe to which Vonnegut responded by adopting their three children. (A lifelong optimist imprisoned in the body of a pessimist, he was the father of seven children in all.)
Bad luck reached even into his respectable old age. In 2000, Vonnegut nearly died from a fire in his Manhattan townhouse that destroyed virtually all of his personal papers. In light of such patterned misery, it surprised few that Kurt Vonnegut contemplated suicide, and unsuccessfully tried it once.
He wrote in a speech to the American Psychiatric Association: “You cannot be a good writer of serious fiction if you are not depressed.”
That perhaps explains why Vonnegut’s leaps of inventiveness satisfied so many, why his political stilettos estranged so few. Readers intuited that they arose not from mischief, or the smugness of a later figure such as Michael Moore, but out of pain and empathy—out of Dresden.
To intellectuals and writers on the Left, Vonnegut served as an artistic demigod, unwaveringly sure of the malevolence of conservatives. To those who didn’t share his politics, he still exuded an insouciance that appealed beyond ideology.
Gore Vidal, one of the last of Vonnegut’s towering contemporaries, remarked on his death that “(O)ur generation of writers didn’t go in for imagination very much.” That made Vonnegut a treasured exception.
Vonnegut will also be remembered as an American aphorist of note. One of his best-known appears in “Mother Night”: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
He liked speaking to college students and teenagers because he believed we should “catch people before they become generals and senators and presidents,” try to “poison their minds with humanity.”
Late in life, Vonnegut’s political pronouncements became more caustic, yet still with a droll twist. Hated Bush administration figures, he declared, amounted to “upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography.”
Yet in a comment to Rolling Stone that might have astonished the Vonnegut of the ‘70s, his alter ego of the 21st century quipped, “Honestly, I wish Nixon were president. Bush is so ignorant.”
You had to laugh.