Monday, May 29, 2017

Kurt Vonnegut, Head Bokonist 1969

After reading my post, In Praise of Vonnegut, I thought why the hell shouldn't I post the entire New York Times profile from 1969

Kurt Vonnegut,
Head Bokononist
C.D.B. Bryan/1969
New York Times Book Review.
6 April 1969. pp. 2. 25.
Copyright 1969 by the New York Times Company.
 Reprinted by permission.

 Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., the author of six novels and two short-story collections, lives and writes in an old house in West Barnstable on Cape Cod with his wife, six children, a sheep dog, and a tidal wave of house guests. Vonnegut is over 6 feet tall, a rumpled and shaggy 46-year-old fourth generation German-American with a drooping mustache, a brow chevroned like a sergeant-major's sleeve, and the eyes of a sacrificial alter-bound virgin caught in mid-shrug. 

 Seated, Vonnegut disappears so deeply into cushions that he resembles a courdroy covered bat-wing chair that has been dropped 2,000 feet from a passing airplane. He is the impatient humanitarian, the disappointed-but-constant optimist, an ex-P.R. man for General Electric, ex-Volunteer Fireman (Badge 155, Alpaus, N.Y.), ex-visiting lecturer, Iowa Writers' Workshop, and ex-Cornell chemistry major turned amiable Cassandra whose short stories and novels since 1961 have reflected an admirable -- if not sinister -- blending of H.G. Wells and Mark Twain. 

 Among Vonnegut's earliest fans were Conrad Aiken, Nelson Algren, Marc Connelly, Jules Fieffer, Graham Greene, and Terry Southern. But today whether because of, or in spite of, the fact that Vonnegut's novels are now being taught at universities, the under-30's are beginning to grant him a cultish attention which Vonnegut finds "very gratifying, it really is. It's charming," an attention that has long been overdue. And, happily, an increasing number of general readers are finding in Vonnegut's quiet, humorous, well-mannered and rational protests against man's inhumanity to man an articulate bridge across the generation chasm. For a distressingly long period Vonnegut's novels have been ignored by just exactly the broad readership he had most hoped to reach simply because critics, uncertain quite how to categorize him, either dismissed him as a "science fiction" writer -- 

 (Vonnegut: "I objected finally to this label because I thought it was narrowing my readership. People regard science-fiction writers as interchangable with comic-strip writers.") 

 Or called him a "Black Humorist" -- 

 (Vonnegut: "One day I was sitting on the beach at Cape Cod and this enormous bell jar was lowered over me and I managed to read the label. It said, 'Black Humor by Bruce Jay Friedman.' I find the label mystifying.") 

 Or, with nothing but the best intentions, critics judged Vonnegut a "satirist" and thereby all but doomed him to a life of abject poverty. 

 (Vonnegut: "I speak a lot at universities now, and people ask me to define 'satire' and, you know? I've never even bothered to look it up. I wouldn't know whether I'm a satirist or not. One thing about being a chemistry major at Cornell, I've never worried about questions like that. It was never important for me to know whether I was one or not.") 

 Still other critics, unwilling to forgive Vonnegut for having written patently commercial short stories, ignore his work entirely. 

 (Vonnegut: "When I was supporting myself as a freelance writer doing stories for the Saturday Evening Post and Collier's, I was scorned! I mean, there was a time when to be a slick writer was a disgusting thing to be, as though it were prostitution. The people who did not write for the slicks obviously did not need the money. I would have liked very much to have been that sort of person, but I wasn't. I was the head of a family, supporting the damn thing in what seemed -- to me, at least -- an honorable way. During most of my freelancing I made what I would have made in charge of the cafeteria at a pretty good junior-high school.") 

 In the hopes of avoiding similar pitfalls I telephoned Vonnegut and asked him, if he had his choice, what he would most like to be known as. He answered, "George Orwell." 

 In God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: Or, Pearls Before Swine, published in 1965, Eliot P. Rosewater, heir to the Rosewater fortune, crashes a science-fiction writers' convention being held in a Milford, Pa. motel and interrupts their meeting to say, "I love you sons of bitches. You're all I read any more. You're the only ones who'll talk about the really terrific changes going on, the only ones crazy enough to know that life is a space voyage, and not a short one either, but one that will last for billions of years. You're the only ones with guts enough to really care about the future, who really know what machines do to us, what cities do to us, what big, simple ideas do to us, what tremendous mistakes, accidents, and catastrophies do to us. You're the only ones zany enough to agonize over time and distance without limit, over mysteries that will never die, over the fact that we are right now determining whether the space voyage for the next billion years or so is going to Heaven or Hell." The speaker may have been Rosewater, but the voice was Vonnegut's own.

 "All writers are going to have to learn more about science," says Vonnegut, "simply because the scientific method is such an important part of their environment. To reflect their times accurately, to respond to their times reasonably, writers will have to understand that part of their environment. . . C.P. Snow and I are both very smug on this subject because we both have two cultures -- H.L. Mencken, by the way, started as a chemist. H.G. Wells, too." 

 Vonnegut has stated that he deliberately keeps his books short because he wants to be read by men in power and he knows politicians have neither the time nor the inclination to read thick books. "I've worried some about why write books when Presidents and Senators and generals do not read them," he says, "and the university experience taught me a very good reason: you catch people before they become generals and Senators and Presidents, and you poison their minds with humanity. Encourage them to make a better world." 

 Two messages recur through all of Vonnegut's writing. The first is Be Kind; the second is God doesn't care whether you are or not. In his introduction to Mother Night, a novel (published initially in paperback in 1961, republished in hardcover in 1965) about an American intelligence agent whose cover was as an anti-Semetic radio broadcaster for the Nazis, Vonnegut introduced a third message: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be." 

 Vonnegut's message in Slaughterhouse-Five, Or the Children's Crusade is: 

 "I have told my sons 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." 

 Is he a pacifist? "I've got four boys of military age and none of them are going," he told me. "It's a decision they reached on their own, I've certainly not brought any leverage -- one thing I've said to them, too, is that if I were them I would go. Out of morbid curiosity. This exasperates a lot of people. But, knowing myself, I think I probably would go, although I'd be sick about it the minute I got over there and realized I'd been had." 

 Should Vonnegut go, Bokonon's epigraph at the end of Cat's Cradle seems appropriate: 

 "If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity, and I would climb to the top of Mount McCabe and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow; and I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who."