Kurt Vonnegut, a critical study. Chapter 1: America through the eyes of Kurt Vonnegut

The America in which Kurt Vonnegut finds himself is a country of broken promises. His great grandfather, like millions of other people, emigrated to America to escape poverty, encouraged by the hope of a new way of life, epitomised by the American Dream. This is the dominant philosophy in American society, that if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything that you want to. Vonnegut’s novels express a dissatisfaction with this view, a desire for a more realistic and useful approach to life.

when you came over here on a boat or whatever, you abandoned your culture
(P282, Playboy Interview, Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons).

Vonnegut points to an intrinsic fault in the structure of America. It is a country composed almost entirely of immigrants, from a vast cross section of cultures. But rather than drawing on all these different cultures, they have been mangled and distorted to form the America of today. The various cultures have been left behind, in favour of a new identity, a strong part of which is the American Dream. Success in America is supposed to be dependent on hard work. Success for characters in Vonnegut’s novels is more likely to come about from what he terms ‘dumb luck’ and life is ruled by more random principles. He sees a country where the desires and needs of people have been taken over by those of business and government; what he desires is a return to the basic needs of people.

In looking at his life, it can be seen that his own life has been strongly affected by the dumb luck of which he writes. He was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on 11 November 1922, the son of a successful architect. His family were badly hit by the Great Depression and were forced to move from a mansion home to much smaller dwellings. This drop in status also meant that Vonnegut did not go to private school like his older brother and sister.

It was this change in fortune that provided his first significant writing opportunity, when at high school he became editor of the school’s daily newspaper. He also acquired this position at college, while studying chemistry and biology between 1940 and 1943.

He never finished the course as he spent some time in hospital with pneumonia and lost his draft deferment. He enlisted in the United States army and soon after starting service overseas, was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. As a prisoner of war, he was sent to work in the city of Dresden. This supposed non-military target was firebombed on 13th February 1945 by the allied forces of Britain and America, resulting in casualties of between 135,000 and 250,000. Vonnegut and his fellow workers escaped injury as they were quartered in a meat locker deep underground. They served as corps miners for three months before being discovered by American forces.

On returning to America, Vonnegut studied anthropology at the University of Chicago, before taking a job as a publicist for General Electric. Here he witnessed several of the first American experiments with automation and robotics. Finding this job unsatisfactory, he turned increasingly towards writing. In 1950 he sold his first short story and gave up full time work. 1952 saw the publication of his first novel, Player Piano. He gradually crossed over from writing short-stories to novels by the end of the 1950s, building a base of readers during the sixties. His most successful work, Slaughterhouse Five, was published in 1969, capturing the mood of an increasingly anti-war public. This success established his reputation as a writer with both the public and the critical establishment. Since then he has published a string of books which have been met with differing critical opinion, but have strengthened his popularity with readers.

Kurt Vonnegut’s novels constantly refer back to the first half of his life. He had lived through the Depression and experienced at close-quarters the Second World War. These were important events for him to draw on in his writing. He drew particularly on his experiences in Dresden, which formed the background to Slaughterhouse Five. It was however, his attitudes towards life, that were formed by these events, that are especially distinctive in his work. They created the lens through which he viewed this and other worlds.

In Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons, Vonnegut talks about the influence of the Great Depression on him:

(It) has more to do with the American character than any war. People felt so useless for so long. The machines fired everybody. It was as though they had no interest in human beings anymore. So when I was a little kid, getting my empty head filled up with this and that, I saw and listened to thousands of people who couldn’t follow their trades anymore, who couldn’t feed their families…They wanted to die because they were so embarrassed. I think young people detest that dislike for life my generation often learned from our parents during the Great Depression. It gives them the creeps. (p.282)

This dislike of, and detachment from life is fundamental to both Vonnegut’s characters and his attitudes towards their respective worlds. In his first book, Player Piano, he tells the story of an America where all jobs have been automated, an obvious simile for the Depression. An early scene has the main character Paul Proteus being asked by a man in a bar what his son could do. After Proteus suggests he opens a repair shop:

The man exhaled, slumped dejectedly. “Repair shop,” he sighed. “Repair shop, he says. How many repair shops you think Ilium can support, eh? Repair shop, sure! I was going to open one when I got laid off. So was Joe, so was Sam, so was Alf. We’re all clever with our hands, so we’ll all open repair shops. One repairman for every broken article in Ilium.” (p.34)

This kind of dejection sits as easily in the future as it would in a story of the Depression. It depicts a disillusionment with authority, brought about through broken promises. The man has been a cog in the machinery of a society which he has helped to build, until it reached a point where he was surplus to its requirements, and was accordingly rejected. This is just the same experience suffered by those who were unemployed during the Depression giving them a sense of dehumanisation.

Many of Vonnegut’s novels deal with the Second World War. When he first started writing after the war, he wanted to write about his experiences:

I thought it would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden, since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen. And I thought too, that it would be a masterpiece or at least make me a lot of money, since the subject was so big.
(Slaughterhouse Five, p. 10)

It was not that easy. It took over twenty-three years for him to write Slaughterhouse Five, which was not simply a straightforward account of the fire bombing. Whilst some of his novels reflected his strong feelings towards war in general, his first novel featuring World War Two specifically, was Mother Night.

This is the fictional autobiography of Howard W. Campbell, written whilst awaiting trial for war crimes. Enlisted to work for the American secret service whilst a playwright in wartime Germany, the job he is assigned is to infiltrate the Nazi movement and send other agents’ reports back to the C.I.A. He is eventually, as a creative man, given the important post of writer of propaganda. He records many speeches which are broadcast to the American people from Germany. These report the war from the Nazi point of view, and re-affirm their views of the Jewish race. These broadcasts are, however, written in such a way that they allow coded messages from the American agents to be sent directly to America and the C.I.A.

After the war he is brought back to America without ceremony or any token of appreciation, and is assigned a new identity. Fifteen years on, his former identity is discovered, and after much harassment from Neo-Nazis, veterans and war investigators, he hands himself over to the Israeli authorities to face trial. His own government denies his existence, and even when evidence to clear him finally appears, he is so exhausted and sickened by life, he commits suicide. Campbell can no longer face life, because of what it has done to him. Perversely, he was treated much better by the Nazis, than by his own government.

Distrust and disillusionment with authority pervades the text, as do the effects of an irrational and ironic fate. Campbell’s propaganda work is praised by the Nazis at the highest level, and the Neo-Nazis at home, whilst he is working against them for the American government. He is afforded a luxurious lifestyle, whilst his American home is a small flat in New York city. Success and failure are random in nature in Vonnegut’s worlds. Reason and sense have no part to play.

It was in Slaughterhouse Five that Kurt Vonnegut finally managed to deal with his own experiences of war. It was not the straightforward account of the destruction of Dresden he intended to write. Instead it told the story of a soldier, Billy Pilgrim becoming “unstuck in time.” He used it to draw together many characters from his earlier books, in such a way that it appeared to be a conclusion to a major chapter in his life. The only character to survive beyond this chapter is the ubiquitous Kilgore Trout, who sometimes serves as Vonnegut’s alter-ego. The others are brought together only to be washed away in a cathartic statement of intent to move on from his first period of writing.

In his introduction he proclaims:

People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it any more. I’ve finished my war book now. The next one I write is going to be fun. (p.23)

The act of freeing Billy Pilgrim from the constraints of time is also a freedom for Vonnegut. Pilgrim flashes from moment to moment, achieving an overview of his life by experiencing it without chronological order. This approach also reflects Vonnegut’s attitude to war, and his acceptance of the futility of making definitive statements about it. The novel concludes with Pilgrim in Dresden the day after the end of the war.

Birds were talking. One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, ‘Poo-tee-weet?’ (p.160)

As Vonnegut says himself, “Poo-tee-weet” is all there is to be said after a massacre. It makes as much sense as any other attempt at explanation. Obviously there is also a sense of regeneration to come , but that is to come later , and just as Vonnegut took a long time to find his words to describe Dresden , so the regeneration will take its time.

This kind of helplessness is similar to that of those who suffered the Great Depression. Vonnegut finds himself just as much at the mercy of the indecipherable ways of Government. The horrors of war he experienced were judged “necessary” to win the war, yet he felt no joy in the victory. This atrocity made him as ill at ease with his government as his creation Campbell was with his.

Jailbird chronicles the life of Walter F. Starbuck, whose random success in some ways echoes that of Howard W. Campbell. After a chance meeting with an old girlfriend, he becomes a vice-president in one of America’s largest companies, the RAMJAC Corporation. This follows his involvement in the McCarthy trials, where he implicated a friend, and a jail sentence from the Watergate affair. Two high profile events which revealed the essential corruption in American public life and the country’s desire to expose its faults publicly.

This novel is a blend of fiction with important real events. Vonnegut uses this as an opportunity to recount the history of the Sacco/Vanzetti trial, which he feels has been ignored for many years. Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco were Italian immigrants, who became involved in trade unions. After a friend died in the custody of federal agents, they organized a meeting to demand an investigation of his death. They were arrested on the grounds of “dangerous radical activities”, which were in fact nothing more than the possession of leaflets advertising the meeting. They were however also charged with the murders of two guards in a robbery, and Vanzetti with an additional robbery.

During his trial for this crime, Judge Webster Thayer said of him,

This man although he may not have actually committed the crime attributed to him, is nevertheless morally culpable, because he is the enemy of our existing institutions. (p.218)

They both received death sentences for the murders. There was a prolonged campaign for their release, both in America and in Europe, but to no avail. In his last statement in court Vanzetti re-iterated his innocence and said,

…if you could execute me two times, and if I could be reborn two other times, I would live again to do what I have done already.

(Document of American History, p. 219)

The imagery of the crucifixion is further developed by this idea of resurrection. Just before the two men were executed, another prisoner sentenced to death on the same day, Celastino Madeiros, admitted that he had committed the murders for which Sacco and Vanzetti were about to die. It was to no avail, on August 23rd, 1927, all three men were executed.

When I was a young man, I expected the story of Sacco and Vanzetti to be retold as often and as movingly, to be as irresistible, as the story of Jesus Christ some day. (Jailbird p.212).

In the execution of the three men he finds a reflection of the crucifixion, only on this occasion there were two innocent and one guilty. This miscarriage of justice infuriated many to the point of despair and anger. John Dos Passos wrote,

All right you have won, you will kill the brave men our friends tonight…All right we are two nations (The Big Money)

It is this kind of spirit of desire for change that Vonnegut wishes could be revitalised. He recognises its power, as did Upton Sinclair.

Don’t you see the glory of this case? It kills off the Liberals. (Boston)

When such an injustice takes place , the indignation can create no middle ground , no liberalism . It sets the oppressed firmly and even more united against their oppressors, their government. But what Vonnegut can also see with the benefit of hindsight is the loss of impetus, the loss of desire to make the nation great. This story, the motivation and unity which resulted from it have long since been forgotten and superceded by the desire for individual motivation and success .The need to uphold the justice and liberty that American Dream calls for was ignored.

Vonnegut wishes people could have remembered this too, and seen the importance of the good of the community rather than the advantages of capitalism. Vonnegut’s America is one which has had the opportunity to establish itself as a great nation of people, and instead had chosen to establish itself as a great business. His novels reflect some of his frustration at this choice and outline some of his desires.

Vonnegut’s reputation as a writer was established in the genre of Science Fiction. He seems to have found the form a valuable means of expressing his desires for the way in which an ideal society could function. In particular, he uses the world of Tralfamadore as one of his utopias.

In both Sirens of Titan and Slaughterhouse Five, he presents a society with a different perception of time to our own. Past, present and future are seen as existing concurrently, and fate is seen as the ruling force that determines life. They know that they will end the Universe in an experiment with a new fuel for a spaceship, and that they are helpless to prevent it. In Slaughterhouse Five, Billy Pilgrim asks them why:

‘If you know this,’ said Billy, ‘isn’t there some way you can prevent it? Can’t you keep the pilot from pressing the button?’ ‘He has always pressed it, and he always will. We always let him and we always will let him. The moment is structured that way.’ (Slaughterhouse Five p91)

Their society’s fatalism is tempered by their attitude towards life. Their perception of time leads them to see life as a randomly strewn collection of moments, rather than a logical series of events following on from each other. To the Tralfamadorians nobody ever dies, as their moments are ever present. They rejoice in the best moments:

We have wars as horrible as any you’ve ever seen or read about. There isn’t anything we can do about them, so we simply don’t look at them. We ignore them. We spend eternity looking at present moments. (Slaughterhouse Five p. 97)

Clearly Vonnegut is not so much creating a new philosophy which will change humanity for the better, but suggesting a way to deal with the life humanity has created for itself. The Tralfamadorians’ views are shared by Vonnegut, they are at once fatalistic and survivalist. Whilst being able to see the mistakes and horrors , they should be tempered by valuing the best moments. This is how he copes with the America in which he finds himself.