Sunday, December 4, 2011
Kurt Vonnegut: And So He Went
I read Slaughterhouse Five in a college literature class. It was only then that I realized that the phrase, “And so it goes,” did not originate with Linda Ellerbee of NBC News’ Overnight, the sassy late night news hour that ran from 1982-83. I liked the book, but wasn’t impressed enough to read anything else that Kurt Vonnegut had written. Years later, I did read a few of his essays (in one, he praised Helena Blavatsky, the witch credited with introducing the occult to America, as “quite wonderful”), and a slim volume, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian (chosen because it was slim and wouldn’t require more than an hour to read). By then, he was being published by the comparatively small Seven Stories Press since the major houses had written him off as a spent force.
I always liked his hair. Like me, he had a head of thick, unruly curls, and still did when he died at age 83 in April 2007. I always liked that he was an unrepentant and unapologetic chain smoker (another trait I share, although he preferred Pall Malls while I favor Camels). Somehow, he avoided the diseases associated with the nicotine habit, although I do recall reading he had emphysema in his latter years, but a case too mild to require traveling with an oxygen tank. However, I did not like his rather smug, knee-jerk liberalism, often expressed in cheap shots like the one he took at George W. Bush on The Jon Stewart Show. I don’t remember his exact words, but then they weren’t very memorable, pretty much limited to calling Bush an “idiot.” I wasn’t a fan of Bush 43 either, but to go on TV and suck up applause for such a trite insult is unworthy of anyone, but especially of a man who made his name with words. Real clever, Kurt.
A self-professed “humanist,” a philosophy he described as promoting decency and kindness without concern for the rewards in an afterlife, Vonnegut was not always decent and kind himself, even at times when decency and kindness would not require much effort. In And So It Goes - Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, Charles J. Shields describes Vonnegut’s behavior at a 1983 speaking engagement at Oxford. Taking questions from the audience, he was asked if he kept any “tools of the trade” on his desk, perhaps a favorite dictionary. It’s as legitimate as asking a writer where he gets his ideas, but an easier one to answer. Vonnegut treated the question as an opportunity to get a cheap laugh at the expense of an admirer. As Shields writes:
“Kurt chuckled, apparently amused by such a jejune question - a favorite dictionary? The audience murmured and laughed in sympathy.”
The fan who asked the question felt humiliated. After the audience stopped chuckling, Vonnegut finally provided an answer.
“No, he said finally, he had no ‘favorite dictionary,’ dismissing the notion by shaking his curly head”
Angry that the big shot author he idolized would embarrass him publicly, the student who posed the question wrote Vonnegut the next day: “It is your prerogative to piss on everything till doomsday, Mr. Vonnegut: but why do it in public? And why do it pretending to be doing something else?”
A few weeks later, Vonnegut sent a reply, along with a check, a refund for the cost of admission to his speaking engagement, not, he insisted, as a gesture of apology. Vonnegut was angry that he had been taken him to task for his rudeness. Years later, the student, now a reporter for Newsweek, found himself having lunch with Vonnegut and several others at Rockefeller Center. Before leaving, he reminded Vonnegut of their previous correspondence, believing both could laugh it off. Vonnegut didn’t laugh. “Oh, I remember,” he said. “Funny, you don’t seem like an asshole.” Of course not. On both occasions, the asshole was Vonnegut.
Before becoming a successful novelist, one who I always assumed was highly regarded in literary circles (alas, the literati generally dismiss his work as belonging to a phase that college students go through before abandoning him for more serious writers), Vonnegut was a corporate writer (so was I for a time), a public relations man at General Electric. He got the job on the recommendation of his brother, Bernard, a chemist credited with co-inventing a process of “cloud seeding” that could manipulate the weather. (Gee, I wonder what those who chuckle at conspiracy theories involving chemtrails would say about that?)
Vonnegut, like many another liberal, would later rail against corporations like GE. But, like many another liberal - Bella Abzug, are you listening from beyond the grave? - he owned stock in them, fattening his bank account on profits from, among others, “Dow Chemical, the sole maker of napalm during the Vietnam War: and Multitrust Real Estate Fund, a development of apartment complexes and shopping centers in six cities.”
Shields claims these investments were not really inconsistent with Vonnegut’s beliefs. “He believed in free enterprise,” he writes. “It had made his forebears rich. And he recognized that many ideas of Western freedom are intrinsically tied to capitalism.”
I guess if you’re going to devote a chunk of your life to writing a 513 page bio (including the index, etc), you’re tempted to make excuses for your subject, but for Vonnegut to profit from a war he publicly opposed, which he certainly did by investing in Dow, is hypocrisy. Even investing in a company that built shopping malls and had to mow down nature to do it should raise eyebrows. Vonnegut was an environmentalist, after all, who said, “I think the earth’s immune system is trying to get rid of us . . . we are a disease on the face of this planet.”
It was only after he achieved literary success that Vonnegut even began to think about a political stance. Since the audience for his work was primarily young and liberal, he adapted a pose that would appeal to that demographic. He let his close-cropped hair grow into an unruly mop and grew a mustache. But he continued to favor suits, ties, and black wingtips, attire that, if favored by anyone under 30 in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, could only mean they were flag waving, Nixon supporting republicans. That wouldn’t describe Jefferson Airplane, the psychedelic rock band responsible for “White Rabbit” whose lead singer, Grace Slick, once claimed to have dropped LSD into Tricia Nixon’s drink during a visit to the White House. As a “hero of the counterculture,” Vonnegut received an invitation from the band to brainstorm ideas for their next album. “The vibrations were just awful,” he remembered. “I wanted out as fast as possible.. . . They may have had funny ideas about who I am on the basis of my books, and I turned out not to be that way at all.”
Some fans who never met him personally saw through the facade. After receiving a “fill in the blanks” form after requesting Vonnegut for a personal appearance, a fan wrote an angry letter to his agent. “Maybe I’m silly but I thought he’d be different. I thought he’d care just a little. How wrong I was. He’s just a capitalist like everyone else. No time for someone truly interested, for someone who truly cares.”
To hear others tell it, Vonnegut gave Hal Holbrook a run for his money by consciously playing Mark Twain in public. Critics had first pointed out Vonnegut’s resemblance to Twain in appearance (the hair, mostly, and the mustache), and the fact that they shared a birthplace and a sense of humor encouraged Vonnegut to play up the similarities, and pattern himself after the former Samuel Clemens. Much in demand for public speaking engagements, Vonnegut did his Mark Twain schtick, an act he also trotted out for fellow writers. At a party for PEN, an organization claiming to promote free speech but actually designed to further a liberal political agenda, novelist Hilary Masters recalled Vonnegut “doing his Mark Twain imitation, baggy white suit, bushy hair, and flowing mustache. He was standing a little apart, maybe aloof, like an icon of some kind . . . My attitude toward Vonnegut was that he was something of a poseur and that his impersonation of Twain was almost a theatrical device.”
Poseur. My thoughts exactly. And so it goes.
© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks