Kurt Vonnegut Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. (Vol. 22) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. 1922–

American novelist, short story writer, and playwright.

Vonnegut satirizes American contemporary life through the use of fantasy, black humor, and the absurd. Although many of his books have been best sellers, Vonnegut is probably best known for Slaughterhouse-Five.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 12, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1, and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2: American Novelists since World War II; Vol. 8: Twentieth Century Science-Fiction Writers.)

Thomas L. Hartshorne

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[A] comparison between Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse V offers interesting insights into the shift in attitudes, the change in political culture, and the transition in the general cultural atmosphere [during the decade of the sixties]. The two books are particularly suited for comparison because there are many points of similarity between them. To mention only the most obvious, both deal with World War II, both assert a strongly antiwar position, both are highly critical of other features of modern life, both present the individual protagonist as a victim, both are written in a narrative style which violates normal time sequence, both are cited as examples of black humor, and both are also cited as examples of the literature of the absurd. With all these similarities, the differences between them become especially revealing and instructive. (pp. 19-20)

In Catch-22 the central problem is how the individual may survive in a hostile system, find methods of beating it or changing it. Vonnegut's central concern, not only in Slaughterhouse V, but in most of the rest of his novels, is the relationship between man and his own nature or between man and God. He is trying to come to terms with the dichotomy between man and whatever it is that is responsible for the universe being organized the way it is.

However, if one does read Slaughterhouse V as a political fable, the moral is clear: the individual is a pawn of forces he cannot control, and all he can hope to do is to learn to accept, be kind, and to love. Billy Pilgrim is mired in his fate. Even his ability to travel in time does him no good; it does not contribute to his freedom or his happiness; it affords him no way of escaping from or controlling the absurdity, injustice, or brutality of the world; it simply places him in the midst of a system of recurring cyclical patterns which confirm the lesson he learns during his captivity on Tralfamadore: everything that is now, always was, and always will be. In other words, everything is unchangeable. Knowing this, Billy's one major effort to have an effect on his world is to become a crusader for the Tralfamadorian message that it is futile to struggle against one's fate, trying to teach others what he has learned for himself, that the only wise course is to learn to accept things as they are.

Note that the subtitle of the book is "The Children's Crusade." Overtly, this subtitle is intended to reinforce the book's antiwar theme, but it does more than that. It indicates Vonnegut's belief that all crusades are children's crusades. Indeed all crusades are childish, first because they are futile gestures, mere playacting having no consequences except for the possible release of the aggressive fantasies of those who participate in them, not a wholly desirable occurrence, second because all men are childish, dependent, at the mercy of forces beyond their control. One cannot control one's fate, so one should simply allow things to happen; one will probably be better off in the long run; this is the way to make life reasonably tolerable.

This overt message is reinforced by the tone of the book. Both Heller and Vonnegut have been called black humorists, and Catch-22, whatever else it may be, is a very funny book. Slaughterhouse V, on the other hand, does not provoke laughter. The dominant mood is, rather, sadness, resigned sadness, and compassion for most of the characters in the book. In addition, while there are more laughs in Catch-22, there are also more violence and horror than in Slaughterhouse V. The latter certainly does not lack horrifying events—there is nothing in Catch-22 comparable to the extent of the death and devastation produced by the Dresden raid—but the raid does occur offstage; we do not see it, only its aftermath. It is not so much an event in the novel as its setting, its premise. In Catch-22 the death of a single individual, Snowden, is presented with more dramatic intensity, in a more shocking fashion, than the death of 130,000 people in Dresden. And this difference in dramatic intensity is characteristic of the books as wholes. There is far more dramatic contrast in Catch-22 than Slaughterhouse V. In fact, it seems that Vonnegut is deliberately writing in a monotone, flattening dramatic rises and falls so as to make one event seem approximately as important as any other event, tending to produce the impression that the sequence of events adds up to nothing more than one damn thing after another. There is climactic action and intensity in Catch-22 because there are discernible goals for action; things move in a particular direction. In Slaughterhouse V they do not; things move in cycles; there is no progress. (pp. 24-6)

[Another difference is that] while Heller preaches the ethic of action, involvement, and responsibility, Vonnegut preaches the ethic of passivity, tolerance, and love.

A large part of this difference stems from the different angles of vision employed by the two men. Heller's vision...

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Eric Homberger

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Jailbird] Vonnegut's manner, as usual, is jokey and faux naïf. He writes about serious matters—labour massacres and judicial murder in America—without the slightest risk of earnestness. Yet underneath the comedy, Vonnegut is still indignant at capitalism and bitter over the murder of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927, wondering a little ruefully why the story of their martyrdom has been forgotten…. Vonnegut's voice does not falter; like the master raconteur he is, the story is always entertaining. Jailbird's texture is occasionally bland …, but the jokes are good….

Jailbird is a neat fable for the post-Watergate age. Since Slaughterhouse-5 Vonnegut has tried to use the freedom of fantasy and science fiction to grapple with the social and historical reality of our times. Only the sombre anecdotes, such as the detailed description of the Sacco and Vanzetti case, and the much briefer description of the Wyatt Clock contract (fifty women in Brockton, Mass., who died from radiation poisoning …), stick somewhat awkwardly in the throat as the witty laid-back smoothness of Vonnegut's prose goes down.

Eric Homberger, "The People's Friend," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1979; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4003, December 7, 1979, p. 86.

David A. Myers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kurt Vonnegut's latest work, Jailbird, continues the trend of his two preceding works, Breakfast of Champions and Slapstick, away from sci fi entertainment towards satiric antinovels set in the sordid present and saturated with world-weary despair…. [Jailbird] opens with a rambling, autobiographical segment…. [But it becomes] a parodistic fairy tale spiced for grown ups with Dadaistic phantasies and with a moral dictated by black humor.

In Jailbird Vonnegut operates as a satirical surgeon on the festering sores of North America's power-hungry plutocracy. His diagnosis is based on historical studies of the cruelty and injustice done to the workers of the world by American capitalists from 1890 to 1978. He holds his historical diagnosis together chronologically by tracing parallels between three quasi-revolutions of the little man: the great union strikes of the 1890's to obtain justice and tolerable living conditions for the workers; the similar strikes organized in the 1930's depression; and finally the surreal scheme of Mary Kathleen O'Looney to bring about "a peaceful economic revolution" … in the 1970's. All these quasi-revolutions end in martyrdom for the idealistic socialist leaders of the time…. (p. 159)

Jailbird is a scathing reductio ad absurdum of American capitalism's attempt to substitute the worship of Mammon and property as a guiding dream in place of Christ's Sermon on the Mount. Vonnegut discards the salvation theology of Christianity and secularizes and politicizes Christ's gospel. With this ideal of...

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Richard E. Ziegfeld

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the Autumn of 1973, English teacher Bruce Severy ordered Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five for use in one of his classes in Drake, North Dakota. On 7 November, on orders from the Board of Education, Mrs. Sheldon Summers, school custodian, burned 32 copies of the book because the Board members had decided that it was pornographic. After reading a brief article in the New York Times on the incident (16 November 1973), Vonnegut wrote to Charles McCarthy (head of the Drake Board of Education). His letter … presents an unsual approach to censorship, it illuminates a feature of Vonnegut's character that many readers overlook when reading his books: his moral intent. (p. 631)


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Allen Belkind

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Beneath the absurd comedy of [Jailbird] with its chance encounters and unlikely coincidences exists a dark undertone of satiric comment on the loneliness, corruption and impersonality of American society. RAMJAC and Watergate are central symbols of our existing economic and political evils. Vonnegut's heroes are the little people like Mary Kathleen and such political martyrs as Sacco and Vanzetti (reminding one of Dos Passos's U.S.A., a probable influence on Vonnegut). As Mary Kathleen says about our lonely crowds: "They all look so mean to me…. I don't see anybody being kind to anybody anymore." And Starbuck, comparing his own moral deficiencies with individual acts of kindness he has received, says: "I've never been a serious man…. I never risked my life or even my comfort in the service of mankind." Vonnegut's main theme seems to be our need to rehumanize the world with love, concern and responsibility for our fellowman.

Allen Belkind, "English: 'Jailbird'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1981 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 55, No. 1, Winter, 1981, p. 104.

Richard Giannone

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Even from the experience of the modern century, which has already witnessed the killing of over one hundred million people in wars and death camps, political philosophers cannot conceive of a system of rule organized and sustained through violence. "No government based exclusively on the means of violence has ever existed," writes Hannah Arendt. It is a startling observation and one carrying the authority of Arendt's rich historical knowledge deepened by philosophical generosity. The assertion gives one pause because the grimness of the historical record seems to challenge Arendt's trust in human governance. To each event that did question her belief, Arendt responded with renewed conviction in the faculty of...

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Edward Hoagland

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[An] imaginary young tiger of a novelist, fresh out of one of the writing programs where Mr. Vonnegut has taught, could turn ["Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage"] into a gorgeous tour-de-force. The key to it would be to make the autobiographical musings more detailed and revealing than Mr. Vonnegut's, and the reflections, confidences and orations not copied from genuine letters and speeches, but invented and better….

In very top form [Mr. Vonnegut] has reminded me of Günter Grass, who is a writer of genius. I don't know whether Mr. Grass started out with more talent, but Mr. Grass has manipulated the talent he has with relentless logic and daring. Mr. Vonnegut, by contrast, is always turning aside (as, again, he confesses) to pop a quick joke, from what seems faint-heartedness, or else will bring himself up short with one of his trivializing signature phrases: "Hi-Ho," "Peace" or "So it goes." Even in "Slaughterhouse-Five," he quickly ducks into the incongruous sci-fi world of Tralfamadore whenever fright at the scenery of World War II overtakes him. A kind of congenital irresolution threatens to bring him down soon—as has happened with so many American writers before him—to a last couple of books which declare openly that he has failed to follow his premises through to a conclusion. (p. 33)

Edward Hoagland, "Kurt Vonnegut Singing in the Bath," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 15, 1981, pp. 3, 33.

Michael Malone

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kurt Vonnegut is the Danny Kaye of American Letters, a world-famous jester whose sweet and zany style has never been sealed by the academy as the high art of a Chaplin or a Keaton, who continues over the years to swoop up devotees without shaking off disdainers. Palm Sunday is not likely to send deserters scrambling from either side….

Palm Sunday is "an autobiographical collage," a literary bag lady—not your run-of-the-street bag lady but a Mary Kathleen O'Looney. In Jailbird, O'Looney turns out to be president of RAMJAC, an international conglomerate that owns everything in the world. According to the copyright, RAMJAC owns Palm Sunday, too. Imagine that. And so on....

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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage" [is] a race down to the wire between the good stuff and the bad stuff, in which the good stuff wins by a nose.

One of the drawbacks to a collection of this sort is that it requires the use of material in which certain gags are repeated. This gets to be such a habit in "Palm Sunday" that Mr. Vonnegut starts repeating himself even when he doesn't have to….

The other drawback to "Palm Sunday" is Mr. Vonnegut's charm. The main ingredient of this charm is a facility for saying it before you can, for calling "Palm Sunday" a "blivet" before you can call it a piece of junk, of giving it a C on the report card of his life's work before you can...

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John Mills

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What we have in Jailbird is an extremely closely woven narrative built up of ironic juxtapositions and incongruities stated and counterpointed as in an elaborate symphony. The development of character in terms of psychological realism is not important to Vonnegut (though a Dickensian presentation of idiosyncracy is) and in fact some of his characters' names are close anagrams of one another—Leland Clewes/Cleveland Lawes; Arpad Lean/Delmar Peale—as though to suggest that their personalities are accidental and that in essence they are the same—strange machines making weird noises and doing odd things to one another, whose actions in the world always turn out contrary to what they intend…. Human beings, in...

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Valentine Cunningham

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kurt Vonnegut—public clown, master of disguises, wizard of the ironic approach, self-parodist, sender-up of his self-sending-up—gives the reader of Palm Sunday plenty of warning. Writing, he says, is playing practical jokes on readers: "If you make people laugh or cry about little black marks on sheets of white paper, what is that but a practical joke? All the great story lines are great practical jokes."…

["Somebody thought" is] the sort of response Palm Sunday engagingly invites to its offered collage of bits and pieces. But the presence of irony is a great mongerer of scepticism, especially when it's signalled so loudly….

Vonnegut busily undoes his own book,...

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The Virginia Quarterly Review

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In this patchwork of literary remnants [Palm Sunday],… Vonnegut reasserts his simple, perennial theme: most human behavior is innocent. Slaughterhouse Five exposed the banality of evil underlying the bombing of Dresden by the United States; Jailbird argued that both HUAC and Watergate stem from the same fumbling stupidity. Unfortunately, Vonnegut once again deliberately blurs facts and genres to turn his sound argument for civil liberties into one more strained appeal for beatific laughter. Rather than analyze the genuine roots of the social loneliness and civil repression he so deplores, Vonnegut acquiesces to the madness and depravity of everyday reality—he is content to confess, smile, and...

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William Boyd

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In 1975 Kurt Vonnegut published a collection of reviews, articles and speeches under the annoying title of Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons. Now, six years later, he has done much the same in Palm Sunday. He calls the book a collage…. The result is far more effective than the earlier book. Indeed were it not for the 'connective tissue' Palm Sunday would be dangerously inconclusive and slight…. [Some] of the pieces included here are clearly no more than padding. There can be no other reason for reprinting his short story 'The Big Space Fuck' or subjecting us to a truly appalling libretto for a musical version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—which the producers quite rightly turned down....

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Chris Tucker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like his fellow humorist Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut attains his main strength as a writer in his grasp of persona. Wear the right mask, he knows, and you can say anything. Critics are disarmed by this approach, not knowing which voice is that of the "real' Vonnegut and which only an illusion…. Thus, the typical Vonnegut book is endearing, puzzling, and infuriating, as is Palm Sunday, a book which should make Vonnecultists of the four or five Americans who still are not. Try, but it's hard to dislike Palm Sunday. (pp. 57-8)

Not one, but three Kurt Vonneguts inhabit the pages of Palm Sunday. In the quasi-scientific language he seems to love, they are KV-1, KV-2, and KV-3, or the...

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