Kurt Vonnegut Essay - Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. (Vol. 1)

Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. (Vol. 1)

Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. 1922–2007

American novelist, author of Cat's Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and Slaughterhouse-Five. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Slaughterhouse-Five is written with nerve-racking control: a funny book at which you are not permitted to laugh, a sad book without tears, a book of carefully strangled emotions. A tale told in a slaughterhouse.

Wilfrid Sheed, "Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse-Five" (1969), in his The Morning After (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1963, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971 by Wilfrid Sheed; © 1968 by Postrib Corp.; foreword © 1971 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.), Farrar, Straus, 1971, pp. 276-79.

Kurt Vonnegut's new novel [Slaughterhouse-Five] may not be as satisfying to his young audience as the other novel he has written for them so often. It is, to begin with, a much better book. He wants to tell his history as a prisoner of war, during which he witnessed the firebombing of Dresden, one doomsday in our apocalyptic time. Slaughterhouse-Five has a slight autobiographical frame for the story of Billy Pilgrim, prisoner of war, witness to the firebombing of Dresden, but there the identification ends. Billy is a Vonnegut hero—a vaguely dissatisfied dupe in a flabby society. Though he is a blank and stupid man, his humanity has survived not only the holocaust but American life.

Maureen Howard, in Partisan Review, No. 1, 1970, pp. 132-33.

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater ostensibly updates the argument for the Christian ethic that one should love his fellow man. It posits the overwhelming need for such love in a technological age, which increasingly relegates humans to an obsolescent category, substituting efficient machines for defective individuals. It suggests that Christ's consort with publicans and prostitutes has taken on fresh meaning with the growing number of humans rendered useless by our computerized civilization. And it indicts an obsession with wealth, which has undermined the American experiment, vitiating the American pioneering independence of action and judgment, until wealth has become identified with sloth (Stewart Buntline), lesbianism (Amanita Buntline), homosexuality (Bunny Weeks), drunkenness (Carolyn Rosewater), pornography (Lila Buntline), and death (Fred Rosewater who sells insurance with the philosophy that the value of life lies in the worth of death). In short, the novel acridly maintains, the American dream of a new Eden with a new Adam, possible in the virgin wilderness of a new land, has materialized into a junk yard by way of the glories of technology. In support of its Samaritan thesis, it holds up Eliot Rosewater as the ideal of the millionaire turned Do-Gooder (a sort of post-World-War II Andrew Carnegie), a modern reenactment of Christ-like commitment of more than of money—of self—to the poor in body and spirit….

A key question raised by Vonnegut concerns the constitution of reality. If traditional cultural systems have lost their perspicuity, what does man do for a sense of purpose in life? If he is a Vonnegut, a Pynchon, a Nabokov, a Barth, a Borges, he does like Eliot Rosewater and Billy Pilgrim, he re-invents himself and his universe. With Tralfamadorian logic he dispenses with why in favor of what….

Cat's Cradle is a novel about the varieties of truth available to man: scientific, religious, political, social, economic, humanistic. Ultimately, in its presentation of the open-ended, unconfirmable dilemma of human knowledge and wisdom, the novel sardonically blurs veracity and falsehood, treating them as interchangeable for all practical human purposes. It refuses to confirm what is reality.

Max F. Schulz, "The Unconfirmed Thesis: Kurt Vonnegut, Black Humor, and Contemporary Art," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XII, No. 3, 1971, pp. 5-28.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., through [his] novels and … stories, has crafted for his readers an exceedingly mad world. Grouped perhaps rashly with the Black Humorists, Vonnegut holds his own, matching Yossarians with Howard Campbells, Guy Grands with Eliot Rosewaters, and Sebastian Dangerfields with Malachi Constants. But unlike Joseph Heller, Vonnegut is prolific, tracing his vision through many different human contexts. He surpasses Terry Southern by striking all limits from human absurdity: destruction by nuclear fission is for Vonnegut the most passe of apocalypses. Moreover, he teases us with a Mod Yoknapatawpha County; "Frank Wirtanen" and "Bernard B. O'Hare" (originally characters in his third novel, Mother Night) and others appear again and again, always (as befits the modern county) in a maddening metamorphosis of roles. Favorite cities such as "Rosewater, Indiana" and "Ilium, New York" are storehouses for the paraphernalia of middle class life which so delight Vonnegut, whose region is one of cultural value rather than geographical place. But unlike Southern and Bruce Jay Friedman, who mock such culture in the socio-satiric mode of Evelyn Waugh …, Vonnegut uses his roots more like John Barth uses Maryland: interest lies beneath the surface and the surface itself is constantly changing. Vonnegut, in short, demands independent investigation. One finds at the end of Vonnegut's vision a "fine madness" indeed, but a madness at the same time more clinical and more comic than found elsewhere.

Perhaps a reason for the long critical neglect of Kurt Vonnegut is that his vision is superficially akin to that of Orwell, Huxley, and others who have written dolefully of the mechanical millenium to come. His first novel, Player Piano, warns of the familiar Brave New World future, while the much praised title story of Welcome to the Monkey House, with its Ethical Suicide Parlors and waning sentimental Romanticism, recalls Evelyn Waugh's alternatives of "Love Among the Ruins."…

Jerome Klinkowitz, "Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and the Crime of His Times," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XII, No. 3, 1971, pp. 38-53.

Although Vonnegut appears to feel that man can never adequately distinguish reality from illusion, truth from fantasy, he is not a nihilist; he believes passionately in both the importance of the individual and the need for human love and compassion. He opposes any institution, be it scientific, religious, or political, that dehumanizes man and considers him a mere number and not a human being.

Stanley Schatt, "The World of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XII, No. 3, 1971, pp. 54-69.

[Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who] has always considered himself of the mainstream [and] rejects the claim to being a science-fiction writer, [is] reviewed with respect and enthusiasm by the literary pundits of America, and …, by God, [he] deserves every word of it and is, in my opinion, one of the most originally brilliant science-fiction writers going….

Of Vonnegut's seven hard-cover books, four are distinctly in the science-fiction genre and the other three are spectacular in their own way. What makes him, then, a mainstream writer rather than a science-fiction writer?

The answer is because he says so, because he never wrote for the pulps or the category magazines and because he gets the highest rates for his writings—much higher than the sums paid by the standard s-f publishers…. Vonnegut is unique [in] that he apparently caters to nobody in his storytelling, that he has a positively scintillating cynicism the like of which cannot be found elsewhere, that he packs his books with razor-edged social comments, that he apparently does not seem to take his science-fiction elements with that often deadly seriousness that so many of [the] regulars do.

Donald A. Wolheim, in his The Universe Makers, Harper & Row, 1971, pp. 70-1.