Palm Sunday

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

A native of Indianapolis, Kurt Vonnegut grew up in the heart of “middle America” and has been characterized as “good old Dad from Indiana.” Age fifty-six when Palm Sunday was published, he is looking back on a long life and looking around at the life that is the lot of Americans. He finds the values of middle American ways a distortion of life as it should be lived. In this respect, he is a descendent of Henry David Thoreau; and perhaps for that reason and the fact that his writing is always engaging and even humorous, he has served as a culture hero for the young from the early 1960’s when his work was widely read among college students. In an interview, he has said that he writes out of wanting his readers “to stop hating and start thinking.” He thinks the planet is in danger and wants to create “an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep.” His contribution to American life has been to entertain his readers with a simple-sounding yet wise and ironic voice that highlights the blunders and major blemishes of our culture. His views, if adopted, would supply his readers with a humane and enduring vision of life for an uncertain future. This is why his mordant wit is popular. At root, his effect is positive.

Vonnegut says he has a “stubborn simplicity.” Simple he might seem, but he is preoccupied with helping people survive with dignity and sanity in a world that often seems hell-bent on destroying itself—with inventions, with money, with anti-Communist wrath, with atomic science, or with unreasoned violence—and even hiding from the harsh facts of life through the use of needlessly polite language. He has observed that “it is dangerous to believe that there are enormous new truths, dangerous to imagine that we can stand outside the universe. So I argue for the ordinariness of life, the familiarity of love.” This is not “simple”; rather, heroic. These themes—and others, such as the blight of loneliness among Americans—preoccupy him in Palm Sunday as well as his other work. Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), his best and most famous work, is never so direct and forthright as the Vonnegut readers will find Palm Sunday.

This book, a collage of nineteen sections consisting of autobiographical material readers have seen for the first time, a story (“The Big Space Fuck”) and a musical comedy (The Chemistry Professor, an updating of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), and numerous essays, letters, and speeches, is a bit “clumsy” and “raw,” as Vonnegut admits in his Introduction; but for the millions who find his kind of simplicity wise and entertaining, the book is a mine of gems. He reminds the reader that he is among “America’s last generation of novelists”—along with J. D. Salinger, Edward Lewis Wallant, and James Jones. He is “angered and sickened and saddened” that his Slaughterhouse-Five was burned in a furnace by order of a school board in North Dakota, in 1973, and that books by Bernard Malamud, James Dickey, and Joseph Heller, among others, are regularly thrown out of public school libraries by school board members, who “commonly say that they have not actually read the books, but that they have it on good authority that the books are bad for children.” For a novelist who wants to create “an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep,” to improve the quality of American life, such behavior by adults is “disgusting.” Vonnegut puts it simply in a letter to the Drake, North Dakota, School Board Chairman: “The news from Drake indicates to me that books and writers are very unreal to you people.”

As Vonnegut points out, probably in vain, his books “. . . beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are.” He also points out that the coarse language of some of his characters comes from the coarse language that people use in real life—“especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that.” The words “didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.” These sentiments are among his most repeated themes. He likes to remind the citizens of communities where books are banned that they are members of American civilization and that the public outcry against them indicates that “your fellow Americans” feel they have “behaved in . . . an uncivilized way.” Stated most boldly, Vonnegut says, “If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.” He is right; but his books are still being banned here and there by “good citizens” who still do not read or understand well what they do read.

If anyone can defend the use of obscenity, when used wisely and deliberately in literature, Vonnegut can. He is truly impatient with the book “banners,” for he intends to say only this to them: “’Have somebody read the First Amendment to the United States Constitution out loud to you, you . . . fool!” Vonnegut is quite careful where he places his coarse language. In a chapter on “Obscenity,” he argues that the “nice manners” of social class victimize their users. Because people of “class” protect themselves by manners, they lack the “simple and practical vocabularies” for “their excretory and reproductive systems” and for “treachery and hypocrisy.” “Good manners had made them defenseless against predatory members of their own class.” He tells how his parents were victimized financially by friends of theirs in this way. And Queen Victoria? She had “created arbitrary rules,” manners, at the “outermost edge to warn her of the approach of anyone so crude” as to bring to her attention the suffering of the Irish and other cruelties in everyday life. “If she would not even acknowledge that human beings sometimes farted, how could she be expected to hear without swooning of these other things.” She had,...

(The entire section is 2447 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

The Atlantic Monthly. CCXLVII, April, 1981, p. 124.

Business Week. XI, March 8, 1981, p. 6.

Choice. XIX, September, 1981, p. 84.

Library Journal. CVI, February 15, 1981, p. 454.

Nation. CCXXXII, March 21, 1981, p. 346.

National Review. XXXIII, May 1, 1981, p. 499.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, March 15, 1981, p. 3.

Saturday Review. VIII, March, 1981, p. 77.

Times Literary Supplement. June 19, 1981, p. 692.

Virginia Quarterly Review. LVII, Summer, 1981, p. 98.