Why Vonnegut's classic novel transcends the '60s.
December 23, 2009
By Gregory Sumner
Slaughterhouse-Five first appeared in bookstores forty years ago, and
it remains the signature achievement of Kurt Vonnegut's long and
distinguished writing career. Long in gestation, it oscillates
between realism and science fiction, mordant humor and grief,
relieved by moments of unexpectedly lyrical imagery to convey the
author's experience as a young soldier in the Second World War.
He recounts for us his trials after capture by the Germans during
their last great counter-offensive, in the chaos of the Battle of the
Bulge just before Christmas 1944. Through the tragicomic alter-ego
"Billy Pilgrim," we learn about Vonnegut's six months as an object
deprived of free will.
We are with him standing in boxcars bound, in mysterious
stop-and-start fashion, for unknown destinations. We encounter the
baseness to which people can descend, as well as the nobility to
which they sometimes rise, in the most extreme situations. Then we
find out what it is like to go through the apocalypsethe firebombing
of the city of Dresden on the night of February 13, 1945, which
Vonnegut and about one hundred other Americans interned there
Then followed days and weeks when the prisoners were deployed in the
process of corpse disposalimagine that task, that surreal landscape.
When he got home, Vonnegut was shocked to find almost nothing about
the raid and its ground-level consequences in newspaper archives, and
came to the conclusion that his government, abetted by the press,
could lie. The impulse to somehow tell his "untellable" war story, to
expose it to the light, would drive him for decades, and it became
the focus for his most ambitious work of art.
Slaughterhouse-Five was an immediate critical and commercial
sensation in 1969, and it has stood the test of time. It was named by
the editorial board of the Modern Library #18 on the index of the
most important English language novels of the twentieth century, and
is now securely in the canon of assigned readings in high schools and
colleges across the land.
Like all of Vonnegut's published works, it has remained continually
in print, and available globally in multiple translations. It reached
the big screen in 1972, in a film adaptation the author liked.
Alternatively, it has been condemned and even burned by those
claiming offense at its use of rough soldier's language, no doubt a
disingenuous excuse to quash a message some consider dangerously
But given the book's almost corny faith in bygone civic virtue and
the democratic traditions that lie at the heart of Vonnegut's vision,
his identification with the insurrectionist 1960s generation is
curious in some ways. Baby boomers formed the core of his underground
"cult" audience before Slaughterhouse was published, and an accident
of timing accounts for its deep footprint in the midst of the Vietnam trauma.
Young people loved Vonnegut's bag of tricksthe demystification of
the creative process, the fractured narrative, the time-travel and
flights to extragalactic planets like "Tralfamadore." They adopted to
the point of cliché the fatalism of the novel's repeated phrase,
"…and so it goes." Along with fellow veteran Joseph Heller's 1961
landmark Catch-22, Slaughterhouse bookends the decade with an
absurdist deglorification of the "Good War" narrative.
But just as a commentator for the Village Voice recently observed
that "Vonnegut has outlasted the counterculture that embraced him," I
would argue that his most famous book transcends its immediate
historical moment. It is really a meditation on the dignity, courage,
and shattered dreams of the Great Depression generation. Its power
and moral urgency come from sources far removed from the ideological
wars of its time.
It is important to consider Slaughterhouse-Five within the wider arc
of Vonnegut's careerand, to use another of its concepts, to get it
"unstuck in time," as something more than a 1960s relic. Beneath the
structural gimmicks, the sardonic detachment, the childlike proseall
adroitly executed, to be surelies a kind of humanism, and even
patriotism, that is more enduring than some of its early readers
might have suspected.
'Poor old Edgar Derby'
Vonnegut tells us in the opening chapter of Slaughterhouse that he
struggled for a long time to develop a language that would do justice
to his "war story," and for years had no good answers about when his
"famous Dresden novel" would finally be completed. He moved
cautiously, elliptically toward the task, but we now can see
premonitions of his ultimate direction even in earlier works.
In 1961's Mother Night, Vonnegut wrestled at length with the moral
complexities of his war, with a fable about Howard W. Campbell, Jr,
an American actor who posed as a rabid Nazi propagandist in Berlin,
the belly of Hitler's beast. In doing his job for army intelligence
so well, did Campbell go too far with evil in the service of good?
Two years later, in Cat's Cradle (1963), the moral inquiry involves
the scientists who create doomsday weapons, men like those who worked
for the Manhattan Project, or the eccentrics Vonnegut encountered in
his public relations job at General Electric after the war. Narrow
horizons sometimes blinded them to the havoc wrought by their
chalkboard formulas and laboratory gadgets. Cat's Cradle concludes
with an "end of the world" chain-reaction, the result of a substance
called ice-nine. Besides evoking the nightmare scenario of the recent
Cuban Missile Crisis, it reads today a lot like what Vonnegut must
have seen in Dresden.
With God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965), Vonnegut inches ever closer
to his own story. The title character, a World War II veteran who
shows all the signs of what we would now call PTSD, is a direct
precursor to Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse.
And so we come to Billy's tale, which Vonnegut determined would show
the soldiers he knew as the babes in arms they really were, not Frank
Sinatra or John Wayne swashbucklers. Subtitled "The Children's
Crusade," Billy appears as a passive, storm-tossed vessel, a gangling
clown, representing the callow youngster the author thought himself
to be during his time in combat. Soon enough Billy, a "chaplain's
assistant," finds himself in a "Mississippi of humiliated Americans,"
herded to collection points for the ride east. (In interviews,
Vonnegut recalled being thrown into the disintegrating lines of the
American front in December '44, an army scout wandering, lost in the
snow, with a ragtag collection of other frightened novices"I
imitated various war movies I'd seen," he once said.)
Billy attracts the unwanted attention of bullies along the way. But
Vonnegut conveys the humanity and brotherhood the prisoners were able
to muster, even in their collective misery. Crammed willy-nilly into
sealed cattle cars to be transferred into Germany, many died during
the halting ordeal. They were bombed and strafed by Allied planes,
and one's sense of time was all but obliterated. "Christmas was in
there somewhere," Vonnegut writes. Even with its Dante-like horror
(Primo Levi would write in his memoirs of similar things, drawing on
experiences on the other side of Europe) the scene is also a stage
for community in its most idealized form.
Here is Vonnegut's description, full of otherworldly wonder, of the
boxcar society he experienced:
Human beings in there were excreting into steel helmets which were
passed to the people at the ventilators, who dumped them. Billy was a
dumper. The human beings also passed canteens, which guards would
fill with water. When food came in, the human beings were quiet and
trusting and beautiful. They shared.
Once at a prison camp, the Americans seem wretched and demoralized to
the British soldiers who greet them, men who have long ago adjusted
to their confinement. Urged to choose a leader, for purposes of
discipline and self-respect, the Yanks halfheartedly elect the oldest
man in their midst, an unassuming middleaged high-school teacher
from Indianapolis named Edgar Derby, who emerges as the moral center
of the book.
"Poor old Edgar Derby," as Vonnegut refers to him, had pulled strings
to enlist at his advanced age, and now, as a POW, takes his
leadership responsibilities seriously. He finds meaning and purpose
in a fate that brings out the worst in others. He is kindly and
attentive, a father who looks after his charges in the camp as he
worries about his son serving out in the Pacific.
Vonnegut is, in important respects, Edgar Derby rather than Billy
Pilgrim. In a letter from a Red Cross station in France in late May
of 1945, published for the first time in the posthumous collection
Armageddon in Retrospect (2008), Vonnegut, still severely underweight
but otherwise intact, reassured his family that he was alive, and
told of how he had used what little German he knew to try to defend
his mates from the gratuitous excesses of their custodians.
"After desperately trying to improve our situation for two months,"
Pvt. Vonnegut typed in his accounting, "…I told the guards just what
I was going to do to them when the Russians came. They beat me up a
little. I was fired as group leader."