Kurt Vonnegut: Our Reluctant, Agnostic, Hippy Guru
Vonnegut's timeless stories challenge the assumptions, institutions, and ideologies that so delimit critical thinking and open-mindedness.
"'What should young people do with their lives today?' The most daring thing is to create stable communities."
-- Kurt Vonnegut, Palm Sunday (1981)
Considering that Kurt Vonnegut’s bold satire of religion started prior to the cultural rebellions of the late '60s, and that he couched this mockery within novels that also challenged the norms and expectations of structure and narrative style, it's remarkable that this maverick author was ever published at all, never mind becoming one of his nation’s most enduringly popular fiction writers. Yet, despite his currently secure place in the pantheon of American greats, such was not always the case.
Nonetheless, despite taking some literary roads less traveled and meeting a few roadblocks along the way, Vonnegut was always a populist writer, not content to let his experimental and controversial works die in the literary wilderness. This desire to connect to a broad, largely youth-oriented audience informs the decisions of his artistic expression, such that today we embrace Vonnegut alongside the likes of George Orwell and Anthony Burgess as our most revered and read rebel fantasists.
In his second novel, The Sirens of Titan (1959), religion is embraced by the populace in response to the human discovery that there is no free will, thereby revealing our insistence on creating meaning where there is none. The larger point at play, though, is that by being apathetic and uninterested in helping humanity, this God actually liberates mankind to find its own purposes.
The novel’s call for love and self-discovery, rather than for obeying an institution, may have been ahead of its time in the late '50s, but it's hardly surprising that such a message would be salvaged when the counter-culture emerged in the mid-'60s. One of those who rediscovered Vonnegut’s early works was Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead. No doubt drawn to its pre-hippy idealism, Garcia bought the film rights to Sirens of Titan (though he sold them back later). Another artist popular with inquisitive young readers, Douglas Adams, has spoken of the book’s influence on his own classic sci-fi spoof novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Like Vonnegut, Adams stands today as one of the most potent satirists of religion within the fantasy fiction genre.
With its anti-institutional, pro-communal themes and messages, Vonnegut’s next novel, Cat’s Cradle (1963), despite its paltry early sales of only 500 copies on the initial release, became a staple of student reading by the late '60s. A book about a new religion premised on “agreeable lies” particularly struck a chord on college campuses, where the dissenting counter-culture was in the mood to “question authority” of all stripes.
By the close of the decade, Vonnegut had become a cult writer amongst this demographic, and this novel’s concept of “karass” (“teams that do God’s will”) was embraced by the more adventurous of the hippy fraternity then experimenting with their own spiritually-informed extended families: communes. Primitive collectives such as those on the fictional San Lorenzo became in vogue. The tragically ironic consequences of this trend, however, was that some of these youth groups descended into their own death cults, presided over by their own dictators like Charles Manson, Jim Jones, and Marshall Applewhite.
Initially, Vonnegut, ever the eternal child, embraced his new celebrity and was not averse to breaking bread with the young radicals, should the ensuing publicity help release him from the shackles of living as a cash-strapped struggling writer. He met with Peter Fonda, lead actor and producer of Easy Rider, with an eye to optioning Cat’s Cradle; he even rendezvoused with the Jefferson Airplane to toss around trippy lyrical ideas. Apparently, though, the suit-and-tie clad author was not what the band had expected of the writer of Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death (hereafter Slaughterhouse-Five. As with J.D. Salinger before him, it was the myth that held more appeal to fans than the man himself.
The youth adoration continued, nevertheless, as “gaggles of hippies” made pilgrimages to the writer’s home, some inviting him to address their various eccentric groups (And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, a Life. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2011. p.257). At times, the then 50-something author even accepted those invites. Garcia, who had already purchased the film rights to The Sirens of Titan, went on to name his band’s publishing company Ice Nine, after the life-destroying substance in Cat’s Cradle.
Although flattered by the attention paid to him and his work, Vonnegut rarely pandered to the hippy fad and trends of the era. Never did he trade in his suit for a kaftan as Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary had done; moreover, when asked to write an article on the visit of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi by Esquire magazine in 1968, Vonnegut was reluctant to valorize the spiritual sensation as large portions of the counter-culture were doing. A seasoned skeptic of religious operatives by this point, the author found the Maharishi a likeable man, but ultimately dismissed him as a slick salesman and his meditations as “Buddhist catnaps” (Shields, p.76). For the cynical Vonnegut, more joy and sensation could be attained by reading a good short story.
Even the New Left were left disappointed when attempting to cozy up to the author, only to discover that his liberal-left leanings were rooted less in their ideology than in a conservative craving for an old isolationist America that valued extended families, practiced the Christian “golden rule”, and respected “compassionate” corporations like G.E. As Shields concludes, Vonnegut was “less a radical than a reactionary” (p.248).
Arguably, young people flocked to Vonnegut as much for how as what he wrote. Isaac Asimov once commented upon how sci-fi can serve as “a recruiting agency” to get kids interested in both science and art (Conversations With Isaac Asimov. ed. Carl Freedman. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. p.5). Moreover, by orienting this genre towards contemporary concerns and using it as a portal through which to cast stones at institutional forts such as religion, Vonnegut was able to further appeal to young readers.
Besides the form, Vonnegut used various rhetorical and stylistic techniques to spice the pot further. Some have noted the druggy quality of Vonnegut’s narrative meandering, while others see much in common between the author’s surrealistic humor and the hippy “head” humor that informed many of the illustrations in counter-culture comic books. A deceptive simplicity is also apparent both in the author’s perspectives on grand themes, as well as in the language he uses to articulate them. As he once stated, “I deal with sophomoric questions that full adults regard as settled. I talk about what God is like, what could He want, is there a heaven, and, if there is, what would it be like?” (Shields, p.258). Shields calls this “draping ethical questions in humorous costumes”, adding, “Idealism of this kind resonates strongly with young people” (p.258).
Such passion for curiosity, irreverence, and wit is underscored at the sentence level, too, where Vonnegut’s pithy, staccato style invariably suggests ironic understatement, and his manifesto-style phrases provide short, sharp shocks that electrify young readers. Many of his Zen-like phrases -- like “So it goes” from Slaughterhouse-Five -- are still recited in regular parlance.
Shields characterizes Vonnegut’s stories as “easy-to-read parables” with an “existential despair” tailor-made for restless young souls (p.258). By portraying complex phenomena like religion in accessible ways via intelligible language and a conversational tone, Vonnegut was able to build a career of enduring appeal to the youth culture -- even though certain adult critics derided and dismissed him on the very same grounds.
Vonnegut grew weary of being pigeon-holed as a youth-cult novelist, yet would remain one due to serendipitous circumstances of time and place aligning with his reflective authorial style and content. Most obituaries recognized as much when he passed away in 2007, at which point he was heralded as the voice of the counter-culture and recognized for his potent combination of moral righteousness and humor. Dinitia Smith of the New York Times, for example, wrote of Vonnegut capturing the “temper of his times and the imagination of a generation.”
As this “temper” sometimes took Vonnegut’s writing into controversial terrain, not all of American culture willingly sat back and tolerated his irreverence, social dissent, and unchecked influence on young minds. As for so many free speech advocates and practitioners, the forces of censorship followed the author around for much of his career. A conservative backlash against him became particularly evident by the early '70s when, as English departments sought to make their materials more relevant to the new generation, his books found their way onto school curriculums. One Alabama school board fired an early shot across the bough by firing a teacher in 1970 for teaching the author’s “Welcome to the Monkey House” story. The board then publicly dismissed the piece as “literary garbage” (Shields, p.315).
Before long, the flood gates opened. Slaughterhouse-Five, the most common target of complaint, was stricken from the public schools of Oakland County, Michigan, in 1972, the circuit judge calling the book “anti-Christian” (Shields, p.316). Then, in 1973, a student in Drake, South Dakota, complained about the profanity in Slaughterhouse-Five. Responding to her grievance, the school board added that it was also “anti-American”, “anti-Semitic”, and made a mockery of God and Jesus. The board ordered the superintendent to burn all copies in the school furnace, as the principal checked student lockers for any that had escaped the purge. Local ministers also chimed in, one decrying Vonnegut’s books as “tools of the devil”.
As this story went national, a mouthpiece for the counter-culture, Rolling Stone magazine, smelled an opportunity for a generational showdown and asked Vonnegut if they could cover him visiting the small town of Drake. Although the author declined to participate in this proposed PR stunt, he did write a stinging letter to the Chairman of the Drake school board, explaining that its members had misunderstood his book, which advocated, more than anything else, on behalf of kindness and decency. Moreover, what lesson would burning books send to the kids?
In a letter to his friend, Peter Reed, in 1988, Vonnegut bemoaned these recurrent sagas, rationalizing, “It is my agnosticism which gets me in trouble with the censors, I am sure” (Shields, p.300).
As noted, the novel that ruffled the feathers of some conservatives, but for which he is most renowned and revered, is Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). A partial roman à clef based on Vonnegut’s own experiences of surviving the Allied bombings of Dresden during World War Two, the author integrates a sci-fi subplot that enables us to compare and contrast life on earth with that lived by the fictional Tralfamadorians. They serve as surrogate gods to the central character, Billy Pilgrim, who becomes an “Adam” figure for the aliens’ amusement.
In real life Germany, Billy is a prisoner-of-war and serves as the Chaplain’s assistant. Through his encounters with the Tralfamadorians, however, Billy learns a non-theistic philosophy at odds with that prevalent on earth. He thereby becomes a “pilgrim” spreading the new word, one unencumbered by any god or religion. He is taught by the Tralfamadorians that war and death are already determined and are meant to be; prayer is thus “silly” and religion useless.
A secondary character in the novel, Kilgore Trout, provides more critical challenges to religion. His novel, The Gospel From Outer Space, tells of an alien who visited earth and “made a serious study of Christianity, to learn, if he could, why Christians found it so easy to be cruel” (p.108). Despite the horrors of war informing such cynicism, Vonnegut, via Trout, still holds dear to the principles of Christianity as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount, and argues that the purpose of life is to be the “conscience of the Creator of the Universe” (p.67). Somehow, certain conservative and Christian critics still managed to find such messages sacrilegious.
Until the time of his death, Vonnegut remained a popular novelist but also underwent a process of re-evaluation in critical quarters. The simplicity, populism, and directness he had once been panned for by some became regarded as pivotal traits of both his distinction and expertise, something young readers had recognized all along.
Still to this day, high school and college curriculums include Vonnegut books, not only for their accessibility to students, but also because their ideas challenge the (adult) assumptions, institutions, and ideologies that so delimit critical thinking and open-mindedness. Nowhere is this subversive invitation to open inquiry more provocatively pronounced than in the author’s many satirical musings over matters of faith, belief, and organized religion.