Kurt Vonnegut dead at 84: He Tried

Originally published at Blast Magazine

Kurt Vonnegut dead at 84: He tried

Kurt Vonnegut, who died last month, named his first-born son after the great author Mark Twain.

Of course, Vonnegut and Twain never met. Twain, who like Vonnegut was a humanist, died in 1910, at age 75. Kurt Vonnegut was born in 1922.

So it is quite telling that Vonnegut would name his son after a man he never met other than through the written word: it shows he understood quite well how strong and lasting the relationship between an author and reader can be.

Vonnegut said he was influenced by Twain because he read him during his “formative years.” This is fitting, as Vonnegut, whose 14 novels for better or worse, are often in the “young adult” section of public libraries, is especially suited to shape the minds of young writers and readers during their formative years.

For example, when Vonnegut appeared on the Daily Show in 2005, in what would be one of his last television appearances, Jon Stewart introduced him as “the man who made my adolescence tolerable.” Doubtless that thousands watching nodded in agreement.


So what was it about Vonnegut that endeared him to the idealists among us? After all, Vonnegut was known, and criticized, for his chronic pessimism. He once said that “all great literature is about what a bummer it is to be a human being: Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Red Badge of Courage, the Iliad and the Odyssey, Crime and Punishment, the Bible and The Charge of the Light Brigade.” He wondered why kids weren’t taught about failure in school, since it is the thing they would experience most in life. And like Stephen Crane before him, Vonnegut wrote of a hopeless determinism, calling humans the “listless playthings of enormous forces.“ “[B]ugs trapped in the amber of the moment,“ he wrote in Slaughterhouse-Five, “there is no why.”

His cynicism did not waver with age. In 1997’s Timequake, he said being alive was a “crock of shit.” In a 2004 essay for In These Times, he said “I know now that there is not a chance in hell of America’s becoming humane and reasonable.” More recently, he went as far as to predict, sincerely, that the end of the world was near. “We have squandered our planet’s resources, including air and water, as though there were no tomorrow, so now there isn’t going to be one.”

While this dark tone drew heat from many critics, it resonated with readers. Vonnegut opened wounds with the intent of healing them, not to throw salt on them.

Yes he confesses in Slaughterhouse-Five, that trying to end war is a futile endeavor. But he refused to allow this to deter his desire to try, telling his children that they “are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee.” He writes of our lack of free will, but in 1959’s Sirens of Titan says that “the purpose of life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

He was proudly non-religious, and an honorary president of the American Humanist Association, yet wanted his epitaph to read: “The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.”

His idealism was often on display. Perhaps no more than In 1965’s God Bless You Elliot Rosewater. Here Vonnegut’s protagonist, inherited enormous wealth, and decided to use it to provide help–financial and emotional– to those people who were of no use to society.

While this type of philanthropy was viewed as the result of a mental disorder by most of society, it made sense to Vonnegut’s most famous character (and alter ego) Kilgore Trout, who responded “it is news that a man was able to give that kind of love over a long period of time. If one man can do it, perhaps others can do it, too. It means that our hatred of useless human beings and the cruelties we inflict upon them for their own good need not be parts of human nature. Thanks to the example of Eliot Rosewater, millions upon millions of people may learn to love and help whomever they see.”

He also managed to turn his deterministic views into a positive. His writings rarely placed blame, nor had any villains. In Slapstick, the main character spoke of his sister saying: “Since Alice had never received any religious instruction, and since she had led a blameless life, she never thought of her awful luck as being anything but accidents in a very busy place. Good for her.”

In the hilarious novel Breakfast of Champions he drew up what Kilgore Trout wanted as a tombstone, and in doing so, described quite nicely Vonnegut’s views on the what one can hope to achieve in life. It read:


[sometime to sometime]

He Tried

In his own way, Vonnegut did serve as a voice of hope to his readers. “Though he was sometimes derided as too gloomy and cynical,” an article in the AV club recently said, “Vonnegut’s most resonant messages have always been hopeful in the face of almost-certain doom.” And he wanted it this way. Passing along advice from his Uncle, Vonnegut suggested that we should remember to celebrate the good times, however rare, and simply say: “If this isn’t nice, what is?”


Vonnegut was a prisoner of war during the firebombing of Dresden during World War II. He survived what turned out to be one of the most disturbing examples of indiscriminate killings of civilians in modern history. “The firebombing of Dresden,” he wrote, “was a work of art … a tower of smoke and flame to commemorate the rage and heartbreak of so many who had had their lives warped or ruined by the indescribable greed and vanity and cruelty of Germany.”

This would come to shape his literary career, and propel him into becoming a fierce critic of war until the day he died.

His Dresden book, Slaughterhouse-five, which Reader’s Digest lists as the 18th greatest novel in American history, quickly became a classic. He subtitled it The Children’s Crusade, since the soldiers fighting in World War II “were just babies.” He also coined the famous term, “so it goes” using it every time someone in the book died.

“Robert Kennedy, whose summer home is eight miles from the home I live in all year round was shot two nights ago. He died last night. So it goes. Martin Luther King was shot a month ago. He died, too. So it goes. And every day my Government gives me a count of corpses created by military science in Vietnam. So it goes.”

The AV club called this recurring phrase “three simple, world-weary words that simultaneously accept and dismiss everything.”

In Mother Night, he noted the dangers of patriotism and nationalism and their roles in legitimizing war. He wrote: “[Hating my country] would be as silly as loving it … It’s impossible for me to get emotional about it, because real estate doesn’t interest me. It’s no doubt a great flaw in my personality, but I can’t think in terms of boundaries. Those imaginary lines are as unreal to me as elves and pixies.”

The fame and credibility that Vonnegut received from his work turned him into a social critic of sorts. He was especially outspoken about the United States roles in current wars. In his widely read essay Cold Turkey he said our leaders were “power-drunk chimpanzees” and that our troops “are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas.”

He added, “We’re spreading democracy, are we? Same way European explorers brought Christianity to the Indians, what we now call 'Native Americans.'”

He also spoke candidly on the need other issues such as economic justice and the environment. He cited as an influence Eugene Debs who ran as the Socialist Party’s candidate for President four times in the early 20th century, including once from jail. He would participate in readings of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. He also lamented what humans were doing to the earth writing in his last book, A Man without a Country, that “we could have saved it [the planet], but were too darn cheap and lazy.” After Hurricane Katrina, Vonnegut told Bill Maher that he thought “the Earth’s immune system is trying to get rid of us, and it is high time that it did.”


Vonnegut’s role as a fearless social and political critic no doubt endeared him to many. But it was his astute ability to say what others thought but couldn’t say, that cemented him as one the most influential American writers. Not only did Vonnegut debunk conventional thought on religion, politics and humanity–-but he did so with frighteningly simple ease, forcing his readers to see the absurdity of this world and the folly of the human condition. Such as the way he called smoking a “fairly sure, fairly honorable way of committing suicide” or suggested that "[i]f you really want to hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be a homosexual, the least you can do is go into the arts.”

In the heart of his work, however, was a desire to communicate with others who shared his outrage over the way humans treat each other. And, in doing so, to make this world a little less lonely. In Bluebeard he asked what is literature “but an insider’s newsletters about affairs relating to molecules, of no importance to anything in the Universe but a few molecules who have the disease called ‘thought?’”

But for all his talk of life’s hopelessness, and dread, in the end Vonnegut seemed to have found his place on this world–-and he seemed to know it. In Timequake he asked himself why one should bother writing at all.

“So why bother [to write]? Here is my answer. Many people need desperately to receive this message: ‘I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.’”

Thanks to Vonnegut–-our century’s Mark Twain–-millions of readers, many in their “formative years” and some who have not even been born yet, will indeed hear that message.

And if that isn’t nice, what is?

Michael Corcoran is journalist and writer. He has contributed to several publications including The Boston Globe and The Nation.