Kurt Vonnegut Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. (Vol. 12) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. 1922–

American novelist, short story writer, playwright, and essayist. Vonnegut is often considered a cultural spokesman for the present age, an heir to Jonathan Swift and George Orwell. He is a moralist who uses satire and iconoclastic humor to vividly portray the depravity of contemporary society. His novels combine fact and fantasy to raise many basic existential and epistemological questions. Although Vonnegut's plots are often bleak and pessimistic, his novels always contain some affirmation of man's essential decency, and a contention that our ability to love one another can save us from destruction and helplessness. Vonnegut's works seem to speak especially to young adults, who have identified with his humanistic concerns since the beginning of his career. It was the support of his student audience that first helped to bring him to prominence during the mid-1960s. World war and nuclear holocaust are central to an understanding of Vonnegut, as their influence on him permeates his fiction. He uses the novel as fable to exorcise the demons of his personal experience, and often appears as both character and author in his works. Vonnegut was captured by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge and interned as a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany, as was his character Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five. During the fire-bombing of Dresden, Vonnegut was sheltered in a meat storage cellar below a slaughterhouse; when the raid ended he was among those soldiers used by the Germans to recover the bodies of their dead from the ruins of the city, an experience which repeatedly recurs in his early work. Upon his return home, Vonnegut went to work as a public relations writer for the General Electric Research Lab in Schenectady, New York, an experience which figures in his first novel, Player Piano, and from which came several permanent themes: the impact of technological innovations on the ordinary person, the individual versus the institution, and the makeup (and satirization) of the writer. Vonnegut's first works were published as cheap sci-fi novels, and during his early career he remained virtually unknown. In God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater he satirizes this period of his life and introduces his most famous character, Kilgore Trout. An unsuccessful science fiction writer, Trout is Vonnegut's symbol for what he thought he might become; in a later novel, Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut portrays Trout's rise to phenomenal literary success, again indulging in self-parody. Most critics feel that his finest synthesis of theme and technique occurs in Slaughterhouse-Five, a cathartic novel in which Pilgrim, a kind of Everyman, survives the horrors of Dresden and tries to make sense of the world which allowed it to happen. Vonnegut is sometimes criticized for his sentimentality, superficial characterizations, and formulaic prose style; his philosophy, also, has been criticized for not being deep enough to warrant the seriousness with which readers take his books. However, Vonnegut's reputation has always been solid among the young. He, in turn, seems to have great respect for this section of his audience and wants, he says, to catch them at school, "before they become generals and senators and Presidents, and poison their minds with humanity." (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

[Player Piano is a] rather witty story of the future, with machines doing the work of men. The trouble with this book, as with many similar stories, is that the author gets his human beings so close to the machines that they are dehumanized, which means that although the nightmare remains, there is no sense of tragedy, and none of pity, and we are left with a feeling of disgust and weariness. (pp. 88-9)

The New Yorker, (© 1952 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), August 16, 1952.

David Goldknopf

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Player Piano is a preview of American life after the third World War…. It is a country in which a man's station and future are totally controlled by a configuration of punched holes in a personnel card and men's minds have been ground down to a conformity as fine as our dust. That dust is occasionally stirred by ancient dreams and inchoate resentments, and such a stirring is taking place as the novel begins. But mostly America is a country in which life is intolerably dull.

That seems to be a quality shared by most versions of the future and it poses a very difficult problem for their creators: namely, how to write interestingly about a dull subject. Player Piano's stereotyped or amorphous characters, inept construction, blunderbuss satire, and pedestrian prose help matters not at all.

And yet these defects, however serious, might be pardoned in a novel of ideas if the ideas themselves were profound or at least provocative. Mr. Vonnegut's are not; they are, in fact, demonstrably erroneous…. Of course the author is talking about the future; but the future in his eyes is obviously an extrapolation of the present—that's what makes the novel "significant"—and there is, in the history of technological development, no support whatsoever for the situation which Mr. Vonnegut envisions.

More disappointing than the author's misconceptions, however, is his evasiveness. Having created a...

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Terry Southern

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The narrator of "Cat's Cradle" purports to be engaged in compiling a responsibly factual account of what certain interested Americans were doing at the precise moment the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Through correspondence with the three children of the late Felix Hoenikker, Nobel Prize winner and so-called "father of the atomic bomb," he evolves a portrait of the man in relation to his family and the community….

"Cat's Cradle" is an irreverent and often highly entertaining fantasy concerning the playful irresponsibility of nuclear scientists. Like the best of contemporary satire, it is work of a far more engaging and meaningful order than the melodramatic tripe which most critics seem to consider "serious."

Terry Southern, "After the Bomb, Dad Came Up with Ice," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1963 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 2, 1963, p. 20.

William James Smith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The trouble with the Black Humorists is that they are not, as a rule, very humorous. They are, in fact, generally very depressing…. It is not necessarily the genre that is at fault but the execution. We have our classics of Black Humor which are very funny indeed. And if the young are said to admire them more than their elders it is because, as always, much of the cynicism goes over their pretty little heads. And even that is assuming—contrary to my observation—that the young read anything at all.

Kurt Vonnegut has risen, if that is the word, to Black Humor from an even more dubious genre, humorous science fiction, having put out a couple of volumes of it before he eased over into the main stream with his first "serious" novel, Cat's Cradle. This is a tale of the end of the world as brought about through human stupidity, a theme always good for a few chuckles in terms of Black Humor. This novel, as his subsequent ones, carries some of the stigmata of Mr. Vonnegut's pulp fiction origins—the one-line paragraph, and the feeling that, at three cents a word, no word ever got x-ed out and no joke was ever deemed too feeble or tasteless for inclusion.

Nevertheless Mr. Vonnegut came through with real promise on his second serious novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater…. [The] book is good because Mr. Vonnegut occasionally forgets about being Black and concentrates on being Humorous to real effect. These passages are oddly tangential, even irrelevant, to the main story line. They deal with the denizens of a New England fishing village and it is not difficult to say why these bizarre folk are funny in their madness while Mr. Vonnegut's Mad Millionaire is not. It is simply that they are believable. Even Pisquontuit's thirteen-year-old...

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Charles Nicol

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

We are best cheered by untruths, so the bigger the whopper, the better—says Vonnegut. In his masterpiece, Cat's Cradle, the founder of a new religion insisted at every step that his own doctrines were lies. Solace, apparently, came immediately.

In the preface to [Welcome to the Monkey House] he announces that one of the themes of his novels is "No pain." Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., probably our finest Black Humorist, is offering us comfort.

He is the little Dutch boy stopping the hole in the dike: while he conscientiously aids us, he reminds us that we live in the shadow of deep waters. Or, to use the idea that appears frequently in his work as a main character, a minor...

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Larry L. King

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Welcome to the Monkey House"] says much against "collections."… Most collections are little more than old soup warmed over. Possibly a few bridging pages or paragraphs will be added in an effort to spark new flame under the kettle. The literary gourmet will not be fooled, however. Old soup is old soup no matter how you ladle it.

"Welcome to the Monkey House" fails to enhance Kurt Vonnegut's reputation. There are only brief glimpses of the hilarious, uproarious Vonnegut whose black-logic extentions of today's absurdities into an imagined society of tomorrow at once gives us something to laugh at and much to fear. At his wildest best (as in his earlier "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" or in "Cat's Cradle") Kurt Vonnegut is a laughing prophet of doom. Too much of this book … is slick, slapdash prose lifted from the pages of magazines of limited distinction. (pp. 4-5)

[In "Welcome to the Monkey House," Vonnegut is] content to write a three-page preface and then, apparently willy-nilly, toss together whatever materials appeared handiest….

Some few of the selections are worthwhile. There's a pleasant little essay on the Cape Cod village where the author lives, a funny review of The Random House Dictionary … and some three or four stories dealing competently and wildly with improbable tomorrows. (p. 5)

Unhappily, such touches are rare. The rather pitiful state of magazine fiction is what one most remembers about this book. (p. 19)

Larry L. King, "Old Soup," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 1, 1968, pp. 4-5, 19.

Granville Hicks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Vonnegut] is a sardonic humorist and satirist in the vein of Mark Twain and Jonathan Swift. In earlier works, such as Player Piano, Cat's Cradle, and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, he has made fun of the worship of science and technology. Now we can see that his quarrel with contemporary society began with his experiences in World War II, about which he has at last managed to write a book [Slaughter-house-Five]….

Vonnegut never does get around to describing the raid on Dresden, and that shows the wisdom of the strategy he was finally led to adopt. When the planes came over, Billy and a few other prisoners, together with four of their guards, took refuge in a meat locker…. In...

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Joyce Carol Oates

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children's Crusade is a book that hasn't yet been written. Vonnegut is so obsessed, so horrified by his subject that he quite literally cannot approach it, can only hint at it, surrounding it with semicomic non sequiturs, a kind of toned-down Catch-22. The subject is the firebombing of Dresden. But this subject is not the content of this novel. The novel is about any number of other things, and it is also about Vonnegut's failure to write the novel, his sense of despair, his conviction that it is a lousy novel, and so forth. Rarely has the failure of a piece of fiction been so obviously tied up with the author's intense desire to write about it. Vonnegut says in...

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Leslie A. Fiedler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] novel must cease taking itself seriously or perish…. Vonnegut has had what we now realize to be an advantage in this regard, since he began as a Pop writer, the author of "slick" fiction, written to earn money, which is to say, to fit formulas which are often genuine myths, frozen and waiting to be released. Fortunately, though he has sometimes written to suit the tastes of the middle-aged ladies who constitute the readership of the Ladies' Home Journal, he has tended more to exploit the mythology of the future. But he has, in any case—as writers of, rather than about, mythology must—written books that are thin and wide, rather than deep and narrow, books which open out into fantasy...

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Edith Oliver

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Happy Birthday, Wanda June"] is an attempt at a satire on the return of Odysseus. Mr. Vonnegut's Odysseus is a paunchy, bearded fellow named Ryan who has been missing for eight years, held captive by Indians in South America. He is a bully and a braggart who calls his young wife "Daughter," boasts of his heroism during the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, and at the end goes offstage with a loaded rifle to shoot himself. In short, he is a caricature of Hemingway, drawn in pure venom. A dreadful, cheap idea, and certainly unworthy of the clever Mr. Vonnegut's considerable talent—talent for comedy, that is, which, while slighter than Hemingway's, for example, often pays off. No talent for abstract though...

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Walter Kerr

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Happy Birthday, Wanda June" is a Punch and Judy show acted out by pretended people, in case you've forgotten the real content of any Punch and Judy show. It adds up, simply, to this: Punch kills everybody, one by one, until the Devil gets him. (p. 1)

There are at least three things wrong with the play and one—much more important—that is right. The play is structurally ambivalent about death. A number of quite jolly interludes take place in a heaven that is conveniently composed of a driving rain of spotlights. There Wanda June, who has nothing to do with the play except that she has been killed by an ice-cream truck, sings girlish songs in her pretty white frock, playing shuffleboard with the...

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Tony Tanner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is a growing awareness of the seriousness of Vonnegut's inquiries which has made people realize that he is not only the science fiction writer he first appeared to be.

His first novel, Player Piano (1952), was, to be sure, a fairly orthodox futuristic satire on the dire effects on human individuality of the fully mechanised society which technology could make possible. A piano player is a man consciously using a machine to produce aesthetically pleasing patterns of his own making. A player-piano is a machine which has been programmed to produce music on its own, thus making the human presence redundant. This undesirable inversion of the relationship between man and machine, suggested by the...

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J. D. O'Hara

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Breakfast of Champions] is almost a deliberate curiosity, an earnest attempt to play after getting Dresden out of the way. It's filled with Vonnegut's cartoon drawings of items mentioned in the text; it plays the whimsical game of pretending that we know nothing about life on earth … and it delivers many straight-faced criticisms of Life…. He indulges in some obligatory no-no's: he talks about Niggers, he draws a vagina, he gives penis measurements of most of the male characters (but fudges about his own). (p. 26)

Well, all this—and the funny names and the slapstick events—is less amusing than it ought to be. The characters are still stick figures, still listless playthings; but the...

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Martin Burns

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut intends to release his characters from his control. In doing so, he shows their unreadiness to cope with freedom, or to measure up to its responsibilities. In a sense, he is telling us that we are all living in our own private novels, but our actions do not, in reality, follow a coherent plot. Our lives collide and interfere with each other. We inevitably become what we do….

Vonnegut's people were once machines that one could wind up and set loose. He wants to change that, because they are also part of his own machinery. Even after his decision to free them, they continue to behave as if they were acting out a drama beyond their own control, with major...

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Rebecca M. Pauly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

With a certain facile agility, [Vonnegut] has gone genre jumping, assuming the colors, alternately, of short story writer, novelist, playwright, and sometime poet. Critics have attempted to trace an evolutionary pattern through various categories, techniques, styles, and points of view. Yet, however much the form varies, Vonnegut's very personal, readily identifiable products persist in their family resemblance….

Vonnegut entered literature through the door of science fiction, what some would unhesitatingly label the back door…. His works often project the consequences of the modern scientific world in nightmarish sequences of a shocking future, to wit, Player Piano, Sirens of Titan, and...

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Ihab Hassan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Part satirist and part visionary, Kurt Vonnegut … enjoys a sudden vogue since the late Sixties, particularly among youths disaffected with militarism, greed, and excessive rationality, with various ecological and technological disasters. A dark comedian even more than a satirist, Vonnegut expresses his rage, guilt, and compassion, his sense of being alive in a world of death, in frightening dystopias. But as sly prophet, he presents alternatives to the human condition in science fictions, disporting the virtues of his favorite Tralfamadorians. His urgency carries itself lightly in fantasy or whimsy, though his gruff sentimentality also tends to weaken his hold on complex realities. (p. 45)


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Kathleen Cushman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons is a collection of Vonnegut's essays, reviews, and speeches.] His technique, properly applied, is unsurpassed. In a piece of speculative reporting such as "There's a Maniac Loose Out There," the account of a grisly crime on Cape Cod,… Vonnegut approaches his own opinion with a jigsawlike gallery of observations that leaves one meditating on one's own responses. And in "Excelsior! We're Going to the Moon! Excelsior!" he frequently follows his own paragraphs by repeating a word or phrase from within them, letting it reverberate as if to re-examine his own sentence from another, more interesting viewpoint…. Occasionally these techniques fall flat, leaving a sense of facility...

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Jean E. Kennard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Almost] all the commentators on Vonnegut betray a certain uneasiness in talking about him as a satirist; he does not quite fit the mold. (p. 101)

Vonnegut's basic world view is Post-existential. He [rejects] all ethical absolutes. Vonnegut stresses the futility of man's search for meaning in a world where everything is "a nightmare of meaninglessness without end," where we are all the victims of a series of accidents, "trapped in the amber of this moment…. Because this moment simply is." In Cat's Cradle he shows how man's "nostalgia for unity," to use Camus' phrase, forces him to interpret mere chance as purposeful, leads him to create the meaning he wants to find and makes him believe in...

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Stanley Schatt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The thrust of Vonnegut's fiction has moved from detached, ironic observation to impassioned participation. His early works, Player Piano and The Sirens of Titan, were concerned with the external environment—the dangers of technology and the glorification of the machine. He also evinced a marked concern with the relationship between destiny and fate, but the detached tone of his novels made it difficult to penetrate the layers of ambivalence. In Mother Night, Vonnegut began to concern himself more with the internal state of consciousness and with the problem of schizophrenia, as well as with the epistomological question of what can be perceived as real and what is simply illusory. Cat's...

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John W. Tilton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Vonnegut has taken great care to date precisely various incidents and stages in the life of Billy Pilgrim [in Slaughterhouse-Five] and just as much care to date the appearances and intrusions of the narrator, who insists on at least a partial identification with Billy and becomes himself a character in the novel. Ultimately this observation leads to the realization that imbedded in the telegraphic, schizophrenic manner of the tale is a considerably detailed biography of Billy Pilgrim and that time-travel, together with the other science-fiction components of the novel, is a brilliant psychological technique devised by Vonnegut to interpret the life and philosophy of his created character. (p. 71)


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James Lundquist

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is a mystical, perhaps unnerving appeal in the way Vonnegut artistically maintains the clement aloofness that strangely accounts for much of his contemporaneity; but behind it all, behind the fantasy and the anti-establishmentarianism, is a deceptive fondness for the uncomplicated that enchants some readers, repels others, and seems downright anti-intellectual or, worse, silly to his least sympathetic critics. Which of the three reactions is most valid is a matter of taste or tastelessness (depending on how you look at it); but how Vonnegut, a distinctly bourgeois writer who has more in common with Sinclair Lewis than with Hermann Hesse, came to achieve his present reputation and whether his artistry will...

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Clark Mayo

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.] is a Cosmic Fool, a clown who laughs at the world's failings and sorrows (and tries to tease, cajole and seduce us into laughing at them, too), rather than be overwhelmed by them (though sometimes it is touch and go). His satirical commentaries on business, war, politics, machine technology, organized religion, and organizations in general expose the foibles and inhumanities of a society of which he is always highly critical. Yet his satire and cosmic pessimism are paradoxically countered by his humor, gentleness and kindness, as well as his comic energy and individual optimism. (p. 3)

Faced with a world defined by Emersonian or Jungian polarities (what he calls in Cat's...

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Richard Giannone

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Player Piano] intends to startle us with something sinister. Aspiring toward moral autonomy violates the order of creation. In grabbing for the complete freedom of God, the technological mind abuses the freedom God has given the human creature to share in life within limitations. The consequence of this overreaching is the degradation and oppression felt by all the figures in the story.

In Player Piano humanity lives under the curse brought about by its own arrogance. The novels that follow take the reader to many remote, exotic places as they recount the adventures of many wonderfully strange persons; and yet they come back to this old—Old Testament, really—predicament of the...

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Peter J. Reed

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Slaughterhouse-Five from the start suggested the possibility that Vonnegut had written the crucial personal experiences out of his system, and I think that this is one reason we have all tended to wait with particular interest, and perhaps a little uncertainty, for what would subsequently come from him. In prefacing [Happy Birthday, Wanda June], Vonnegut declared that he was through with novels and with characters who were "spooks"…. The end appeared at hand, if one dared take the author seriously. In Breakfast of Champions he announced the discarding of old characters and themes, while also bringing certain other lines of development in his fiction to their seeming logical ends. With Vonnegut's...

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Richard Lupoff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Vonnegut's novels are science fiction, will he or nil he. Listen, Slapstick is about a pair of telepathic twins whose intelligences synergize into super-genius when they're in close proximity but deteriorate to bright-normal when they're farther apart. They pretend to be idiots, however, as a form of protective coloration. Nice old science fiction device, first used by Olaf Stapledon around 1935, I believe. It also involves a scheme to relieve population pressures by breeding miniature humans—Bob Bloch did this in the 1960s. And there's a future plague which reduces most of the world to a state of neo-barbarism-in-the-ruins. Cf. Jack London, 1915. (pp. 52-3)

[Slapstick is] a science...

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David Bosworth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Vonnegut expresses a relentessly pessimistic vision of man, a pessimism far surpassing the cynic's belief in the eventual victory of evil or the fundamentalist's version of a fall from grace. For there can be no victory without a battle and no fall if one from the start is inescapably mired at the bottom of the pit. The moral drama between right and wrong loses all meaning if men are not free to choose and competent to act, and Vonnegut sees man as neither competent nor free. In his fictional world, there are no villains and, as well, no heroes to oppose them; both good and evil are beyond man's grasp. When he writes in the introduction to Slaughterhouse-Five that he learned in college "there was absolutely no...

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