commentary (2007-16)

'Junior' was senior in his understanding of mankind


by Barry Henderson

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. has departed this earth. He took with him an essential part of the conscience we all should have and listen to. He left an important element of that conscience of his behind, though, in his writings, and we should pay attention to it.

Vonnegut was an idol of mine. I have wished that I could think and feel more like he did. I felt especially close to him, from afar, because he and I attended the same high school, Indianapolis Shortridge, and because I felt that many of the teachers in that great old school had some of his qualities and passed them along to us when we were there. Not enough, but some.

In Slaughterhouse Five and Cat's Cradle and many of his other books and voluminous writings, he laid bare his perceptions of the workings of the mind and soul. Those were often not pretty, but his personal credo was beautiful. It was simply to be kind. We could all do better if we did that consistently.

Vonnegut was an intellectual in the most comprehensive sense of the word. He was a scientist who wrote essays and works of fiction that were neither science fiction nor attempts at prophecy. They addressed the human condition in his time, not in some unpredictable future. He understood more about humanity and inhumanity than most everyone else in the world did, or does, and he was willing--compelled, he said--to write about what he saw in the human condition. No wonder he was subject to depression. No wonder he used black humor to punctuate his works. No wonder he was misunderstood by some and detested by others. One of his essay titles was "Yes, we have no nirvanas." There are people who refuse to be reminded of such things, and many others who just won't believe that such cynicism has any value or validity.

Vonnegut's early works were initially disparaged by many literary critics. His contemporary satirist, Texan Terry Southern, who had also served in the Army in World War II in the Battle of the Bulge where Vonnegut was an infantry scout and was taken prisoner, saw through the haze of such criticism when he reviewed Cat's Cradle for the New York Times in 1963. The book described science gone haywire with the development of Ice 9, a substance that turned water into ice on contact at room temperature, destroying life on the globe.

"Like the best of contemporary satire," Southern wrote, "it is work of a far more engaging and meaningful order than the melodramatic tripe which most critics seem to consider 'serious.'"

Vonnegut was originally dismissed by much of the New York intelligentsia, who tended to look down their noses at anyone from the Midwest, which they believed started just west of Philadelphia, or the South, which they saw as anything beyond Baltimore in that direction. He settled among the New Yorkers, and he eventually startled them into attentiveness and even adulation with his insistent insights and his indomitable sense of humor. Norman Mailer, the writer, who seldom bestows such compliments, refers to Vonnegut as a modern Mark Twain. It's about time he got that kind of recognition. Even his native Indianapolis, where his writings were viewed with something approaching horror at one time in his early career, designated 2007 as the official "Year of Vonnegut," just in time to see him off.

Vonnegut joked that he was once both admired and dismissed in the same breath as the "glib Philosopher of the Prairie."

He was a lot more than that. Vonnegut was a man who took the world by the ears and shook it. A religious skeptic and freethinking humanist, he wrote and spoke a lot about God and religion. For a non-believer, he showed an inordinate respect for the teachings of Jesus as they have been passed down through Christianity. He said he thought the Golden Rule and the Beatitudes were more fundamental than any religion.

He could be mesmerizing when speaking from a podium, as he was here on April 10, 2001, in one of his final public appearances. He spoke at UT, where the Army had once sent him briefly to study engineering. Before a packed auditorium, chain-smoking and with that nearly permanent expression that could have been a smile beneath his bushy mustache, but was probably a grimace, he enthralled his audience. It was the first and only time I had seen him in person, and I was too intimidated by his presence to try to approach him before or after his address, a wry and pithy assortment of his observations on mankind. His assessment of the American Way of Life was not flattering. Later, he was quoted as saying that "the 51st state is the state of denial." He lived 84 years. That was lucky for him and luckier for us.

His 2005 collection of autobiographical essays, A Man without a Country, was a best seller. As promised, it was his last book. It ends on a poem he wrote and called "Requiem." It concludes:

When the last living thing/has died on account of us,/how poetical it would be/if Earth could say,/in a voice floating up/perhaps from the floor of the Grand Canyon,/It is done./People did not like it here.