Jane Ciabattari on Kurt Vonnegut
Dec 25, 2009
By Jane Ciabattari
Occasionally from the nation's cultural attic come rare findslast
touches of genius brought to lightlike this wondrous new collection
of vintage Kurt Vonnegut short stories. "Look at the Birdie" includes
14 previously unpublished short stories that were written in the
years just following World War II, when Vonnegut was back home after
witnessing the firebombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war.
The stories are accompanied by Vonnegut's own whimsical line
drawings, and introduced by Vonnegut's longtime tennis partner, best
friend and literary man about New York, Sidney Offit, who is involved
now in compiling a future Library of America Vonnegut volume. In the
1950s and early '60s, Offit notes, Vonnegut had a growing family to
support and published regularly in The Saturday Evening Post,
Collier's, Cosmopolitan, Argosy. "Hemingway! Fitzgerald! Faulkner!
Steinbeck! Vonnegut!" Offit writes. "Their literary legacies survived
the demise of so many of the magazines that provided them with
generous fees, per word or per line, and introduced them to hundreds
of thousands, even millions of readers."
Why were these stories, with their lean language and supercharged
imaginative range, unpublished? Offit speculates they were probably
never submitted, as Vonnegut was always revising. "He was a master
craftsman, demanding of himself perfection of the story, the
sentence, the word. I remember the rolled up balls of paper in the
wastebaskets of his workrooms in Bridgehampton and on East
By midcentury, when he was writing these stories, Vonnegut was just
beginning to publish. In 1950 he sold his first short story, "Report
on the Barnhouse Effect," to Knox Burger, then fiction editor at
Collier's, for $750six weeks' pay at the PR job he had at GE. After
Vonnegut sold a second story, Burger urged him to quit his job. In
1952 Vonnegut published his dystopian first novel, "Player Piano,"
which drew in part on his graduate work in anthropology at the
University of Chicago. By 1969 he had entered the literary lexicon
with the Vietnam-era anti-war classic "Slaughterhouse Five."
In fact, Vonnegut has become such a literary icon that it is
surprisingindeed humanizingto read the letter that opens this
volume. This is the nervous young father Vonnegut writing to his
friend Walter J. Miller back in 1951, five weeks after leaving his GE
job to write full time, justifying his choice to write what he called
"high-grade, slick bombast" for the slicks. The alternative, Vonnegut
wrote, was "something to please The Atlantic, Harpers, or The New
Yorker. To do this would be to turn out something after the fashion
of somebody-or-other. … The kicks are based largely on having passed
off a credible counterfeit. … This is poor competition for the fat
checks from the slicks."
Vonnegut aimed to publish regularly in the publications his mother,
before her suicide in 1944, had hoped to crack. "She was a good
writer, it turned out, but she had no talent for the vulgarity the
slick magazines required," he said in an interview published in Paris
Review in 1977. "Fortunately, I was loaded with vulgarity, so when I
grew up I was able to make her dream come true. Writing for Collier's
and The Saturday Evening Post and Cosmopolitan and Ladies' Home
Journal and so on was as easy as falling off a log for me. I only
wish she'd lived to see it."
Most of the stories in this collection display Vonnegut's inimitable
sense of the absurd and his tragicomic voice. They are fully formed
and polished, with a quick setup (husbands and wives are popular in
this mix), a surreal or sci-fi undertone, and a twist at the end.
There is a Midwestern quality to Vonnegut's storytelling (he was,
after all, born and raised in Indianapolis)accessible, plainspoken,
with a straight-faced irony.
The noirish title story is neatly constructed in a variation on the
"man walked into a bar" plot. The opening lines: "I was sitting in a
bar one night, talking rather loudly about a person I hatedand a man
with a beard sat down beside me, and he said amiably, 'Why don't you
have him killed.' " Before long the bearded man has drawn out the
narrator, and his wife/accomplice, "a scrawny, thin-lipped woman with
raddled hair and bad teeth," has aimed a Rolleiflex with a flashgun
at him and said "Look at the …" you know what. And so proceeds a
slick bit of blackmail by a "murder counselor."
"Confido" has echoes of Cheever's 1953 story "The Enormous Radio" in
its dark scenario of a new technology unmasking the politesse of
post-World War II America. Henry, a company man, has found his ticket
out of the Accousti-gem Corp. by inventing a device that listens to
your innermost thoughts and responds. It's "a small tin box, a wire,
and an earphone, like a hearing aid, a creation, in its own modern
way, as marvelous as Niagara Falls or the Sphinx." Ellen, his wife,
has dubbed it "Confido"a combo confidant and household pet. Confido
is somebody to talk to. Ellen gives it a try while Henry is heading
to work to resign, and after hearing the insinuating voice trashing
her friends and neighbors for several hours, decides it's a bad idea.
But Henry is hard to persuade this is not the way to get rich. "It's
bigger than television and psychoanalysis combined," he says.
"Shout About It From the Housetops" is a set piece probably inspired
by the scandalous publication of Grace Metalious' "Peyton Place." The
story introduces Elsie Strang Morgan, author of a raw book about
Hypocrite's Junction (but really Crocker's Falls) and her husband,
Lance Magnum, from the perspective of a man selling aluminum storm
windows. Her book leads to marital discord, resolved by the narrator,
who, in a neat wrap-up, has the last word.
In "Hello, Red," Red Mayo, a young man injured at sea, returns to his
hometown to serve as a bridge tender. Vonnegut's concise description
is all we need to know about Red: "He was a heavy young man,
twenty-eight, with the flat mean face of a butcher boy." Red
discovers his now deceased former girlfriend had a daughter he can
see is his by her vivid red hair. Vonnegut captures Red's pain as he
makes a stumbling attempt at a showdown with Eddie, the man the
8-year-old thinks is her father, while giving equal time to Eddie's
trembling dignity as he claims he's more her father than Red is. One
of the locals who witnesses the scene in a coffee shop delivers the
zinger at the end.
"King and Queen of the Universe," set in 1932, during the Great
Depression, follows a well-to-do young engaged couple, age 17, as
they leave a dance and walk across a city park, fantasizing about
being hobos. Real life pops up in a surreal fashion: "In the middle
of the park, what seemed to be a gargoyle on the rim of a fountain
detached itself. It revealed itself as a man." At first frightened,
the two are gradually drawn into an intimate and transforming
encounter with the man and his mother. Vonnegut's acute sense of
social masks and hypocrisy is undergirded with compassion even for
those naive or arrogant enough to be blind to human connection.
The last story in the collection, "The Good Explainer," is a shaggy
dog story about a husband and wife who travel from a small town
outside Cincinnati to Chicago to visit a fertility expert. The pacing
and intricately structured revelations deliver a whammo ending.
Reading "Look at the Birdie" is a bit like watching "Mad Man" on TV,
with the added knowledge that the stories are of their time, not
re-creations. The line-by-line mastery evident in these early stories
provides a precious glimpse of a writer finding his wings in the
years before he soared.
Slaughterhouse-Five at Forty
Why Vonnegut's classic novel transcends the '60s.
By Gregory Sumner
December 23, 2009
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."
An unfashionable patriot
Vonnegut later described Dresden as having possessed the strategic
importance of a wedding cake. Life there was spartan, for civilians
and prisoners alike, but not so disagreeable. The Americans were put
to work every day in a plant making vitamin-enriched malt syrup for
pregnant women, slipping each other clandestine samples under the
eyes of the old men and teenagers who guarded them. At night they
repaired to their improvised billet, Schlachthof-funf, building
number 5 of a sprawling slaughterhouse complex.
One night, Howard W. Campbell, the notorious propagandist from Mother
Night, shows up in the bunker, spewing viciously racist
interpretations of the war and seeking recruits to fight for Hitler
on the Eastern Front. Hungry and emaciated as they were, none of the
men stepped forward to volunteer, even with the enticement of all the
steak, mashed potatoes and mince pie they could eat.
Outraged by Campbell's display, "Poor old Edgar Derby lumbered to his
feet," Vonnegut writes, "for what was probably the finest moment of his life":
His stance was that of a punch-drunk fighter. His head was down. His
fists were out front, waiting for information and battle plan. Derby
raised his head, called Campbell a snake [and] spoke movingly about
the American form of government, with freedom and justice and
opportunities and fair play for all.
These young men, he declared with steely eyes to his smiling,
reptilian adversary, were united in their willingness to die for
those ideals, and they would prevail in the end, thanks to "the
brotherhood of the American and Russian peoples, as they worked
together to crush the disease of Nazism." Derby believed, in good
faith, the declared purposes of the war, and he was ready to risk all
to stand up for them.
Kurt Vonnegut was not mocking Edgar Derby. He was using him to voice
the idealism he had learned as a boy, the civic religion of
Midwesterners Lincoln and Twain, the New Deal optimism he had drunk
deeply and never stopped defending. It is true that Vonnegut was a
man of the left, broadly speaking. He loved the socialism of his
German-American forebears, and the labor militancy of fellow Hoosier
Eugene Debs. He saw firsthand the effects of the "survival of the
fittest" capitalism that had wrecked so many lives during the stock
crash and its aftermathan experience he always called, even more
than the war, the defining historical episode of his life.
Vonnegut was freethinking and pacifist by inclination, inspired by
the "Merchants of Death" anti-militarism of the 1930s and opposed to
knee-jerk nationalism. Vonnegut condemned, early and publicly, the
tragic folly of the Vietnam War and the shredding of the Constitution
that accompanied it. He was an instinctive communitarian in politics,
and approved of many aspects of the youth revolt of the 60scivil
rights, women's equality, environmentalism and challenges to
But through it all he remained a "patriot," of the kind that was
quite unfashionable when Slaughterhouse appeared. Vonnegut disliked
the anti-intellectual proclivities of the later New Left, the
violence of its rhetoric, even as his books were deployed on the
insurgent side in the political wars of the day. In a 1973 interview
with Playboy, he disagreed with the idea that he was a "radical."
"Everything I believe," he said, "I was taught (during the Great
Depression…) at School 43 in Indianapolis, with the full approval of
the school board…I simply never unlearned junior civics. I still
believe in it. I got a very good grade." In short, Edgar Derby is an
expression of Kurt Vonnegut as what Michael Walzer once called a
"connected critic," a lover of his county and culture even as he
anguishes about its shortcomings and failed promise. He was a
brokenhearted American dreamer, not a bull-in-a-china-shop revolutionist.
There is much more to be said about Slaughterhouse on its fortieth
anniversaryabout the firebombing and its aftermath, Edgar Derby's
absurd death, and Billy Pilgrim's travels in time and space, which
are an escape from the oppressive demands of post-war domesticity and
But Slaughterhouse needs to be seen in a larger context, as an
attempt (which Vonnegut declared, at the start, a "failure") to come
to terms with the ravages of warthe one he survived, and all wars.
It is a commentary on Vietnam"[e]very day," Vonnegut laments in the
final chapter, "my Government gives me a count of corpses created by
military science"but it is more universal than that, and more sad
than angry in its tone.
Vonnegut remained proud, if troubled, by his service in World War II,
and declared it a "good war," despite the many crimes committed by
the winning side. Speaking of his ingrained sense of duty, Vonnegut
once said that if he had been younger he probably would have enlisted
for service in Vietnam, as wrongheaded as he thought that war to be.
Slaughterhouse needs to be "unstuck" from our conception of it as
simply an artifact of the Vietnam era, and instead read for its
expression of humanist values by a self-described "child of the Great
Depression." Call it the ethics of "poor old Edgar Derby," the 1960s'
most unlikely hero, a living symbol of moderation, decency and idealism.