Slaughterhouse-Five – 50th Anniversary

In 2019 The Daily Vonnegut will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five, “a novel somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore, where the flying saucers come from.  Peace.”

Over the next twelve months we’ll take a look at what different writers, critics, and scholars have had to say about the merits and impact of Vonnegut’s classic.  For starters, here’s an excerpt from the 1969 New York Times review by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, published March 31, 1969:

Kurt Vonnegut knows all the tricks of the writing game. So he has not even tried to describe the bombing. Instead he has written around it in a highly imaginative, often funny, nearly psychedelic story. The story is sandwiched between an autobiographical introduction and epilogue.

Lehmann-Haupt described the novel as “very tough and very funny; it is sad and delightful, and it works.”  The full review is available here:

Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade

For more, here’s a 2012 lecture by Michael Krasny, host of public radio’s KQED Forum, “Slaughterhouse-Five and Its Relevance to Our Time.”

Among other topics, Krasny addresses four ways to look at a work of literature along with Vonnegut’s reputation as a science fiction writer and how the novel’s sci-fi elements influenced its reception.

Gentle People Sharing a Common Bowl – Happy Holidays from The Daily Vonnegut

Though Kurt Vonnegut identified as a secular humanist, he often described himself as a “Christ-loving atheist,” and readers can find a wealth of reflections on Christ and Christianity within Vonnegut’s work.  Among The Daily Vonnegut’s favorites:

From Fates Worse Than Death:

“The first story of mine that got into trouble with the sincerely Christian far right was about time travelers who went back to Bible times and discovered that Jesus Christ was five feet, two inches tall.  I think I liked Jesus more than the story’s naysayers did, since I was asserting that I didn’t care how tall or short He was.”

From God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian:

“My great grandfather Clemens Vonnegut wrote, for example, ‘If what Jesus said was good, what can it matter whether he was God or not?'”

Also from God Bless  You, Dr. Kevorkian:

“I myself have written, ‘If it weren’t for the message of mercy and pity in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, I wouldn’t want to be a human being.  I would just as soon be a rattlesnake.”

And from the Playboy Interview, found in Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut:

“I admire Christianity more than anything–Christianity as symbolized by gentle people sharing a common bowl.”

For more, read Vonnegut’s friend Dan Wakefield’s essay from Image Journal, “Kurt Vonnegut, Christ-Loving Atheist.”

For trivia fans, the correct response to our last question was D.  Mary Kathleen O’Looney was the mysterious Mrs. Jack Graham in Jailbird.

Finally, here’s 1 1983 interview in which Vonnegut discusses his life and career.

Happy holidays from The Daily Vonnegut.

Vonnegut Trivia, A Century of Reading, and 86,000 copies of Slaughterhouse-Five

We begin this post with a trivia question from Kurt Vonnegut’s Jailbird, published in 1979.

Q:  In Jailbird, Walter F. Starbuck discovers that which of his former lovers is the notorious Mrs. Jack Graham, majority stockholder in the RAMJAC Corporation?

a) Sarah Wyatt

b) Alexandria McCone

c) Diana Moon Glampers

d) Mary Kathleen O’Looney

Check out our next post for the correct answer. .

The website Literary Hub recently published its “Century of Reading,” highlighting ten significant literary works from each decade starting with the 1910’s.  Slaughterhouse-Five is included among the ten major books published in the 1960’s.  Literary Hub‘s Emily Temple describes the novel as “a touchstone for young readers” and a “cult classic.”  While it’s always good to see Vonnegut’s work acknowledged for its lasting influence, its classification as an important work for “young readers” continues to frustrate, as if one must be young to appreciate Vonnegut’s masterful blend of history, science fiction, satire, and humanism.  Readers of any age can enjoy Vonnegut–it’s never too late to read Vonnegut for the first time.   The “Century of Reading” series, which is great fun and well worth reading, is available on the LitHub website.

A Century of Reading – The 1960’s

In a giving mood for the holidays?  The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library is looking to distribute 86,000 copies of Slaughterhouse-Five next year to Indiana high school students in celebration of the novel’s 50th anniversary.  A $5 donation will provide one student with a copy of the novel.  Contributions can be made here.



Happy Birthday, Kurt Vonnegut

On November 11, 1922, a peephole opened quite suddenly in Indianapolis.  Light and sound poured in, and the wisp of undifferentiated nothingness we now know as Kurt Vonnegut came into the world.  Happy Birthday, Kurt!

Wheelhouse Theater Company continues its lively revival of Vonnegut’s Happy Birthday, Wanda June at New York’s The Duke on 42nd Street.  Tickets are still available through November 29.  Purchase them here.

For more on Wanda June, check out the following from The New York Times.

“Kurt Vonnegut’s Vietnam-Era Play Lands with a Gasp.”

For those who missed it, here’s The Daily Vonnegut‘s interview with Wheelhouse founding members Jeffrey Wise and Matt Harrington.

“Wheelhouse Theater Company presents Happy Birthday, Wanda June – An Interview with Jeffrey Wise and Matt Harrington.”

Thinking about celebrating Kurt’s birthday with a tattoo?  There’s no shortage of Vonnegut-inspired tattoos on display online.  Here’s one featuring a classic Vonnegut quote.

Tattoo 2

Finally, a quote from Kurt’s Aunt Irma, from Charles J. Shields’s Vonnegut biography, And So It Goes.  Aunt Irma (Kurt Sr.’s sister), describing baby Kurt:

“A beautiful boy with curly hair–an exceptionally beautiful child, really.”

Vonnegut Trivia – Week of July 1, 2018

For this week’s question, we visit Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut’s first published novel.

Q:  Which city is the main location for Player Piano?

a) Midland City, Ohio

b) Ilium, New York

c) San Marcos, Florida

d) Rosewater, Indiana

Check back next week for the correct response.  The answer to our last questions was B – Kurt Vonnegut Sr.’s occupation was architect.

For more, here’s a 1989 appearance by Kurt on The Dick Cavett Show.  Vonnegut discusses his recent travels to Mozambique.

Vonnegut on Guns

With another school shooting in the news last week, it’s worth revisiting some of Kurt Vonengut’s writing about guns.  In Fates Worst than Death, Vonnegut writes:

  “When Charlton Heston (a movie actor who once played Jesus with shaved armpits) tells me in TV commercials about all the good work the National Rifle Association (to which Father and I both belonged when I was a kid) is doing, and how glad I should be that civilians can and do keep military weapons in their homes or vehicles or places of work, I feel exactly as though he were praising the germs of some loathsome disease, since guns in civilian hands, whether accidentally or on purpose, kill so many of us day after day.”        Fates Worse Than Death, pages 80-81

His strongest statement on guns can be found in Deadeye Dick, in which Rudy Waltz earns his nickname by firing a rifle out the window of his home, accidentally killing a pregnant woman.  In response, George Metzger, the woman’s husband, makes the following statement:

     “My wife has been killed by a machine which should never have come into the hands of any human being.  It is called a firearm.  It makes the blackest of all human wishes come true at once, at a distance: that something die.  There is evil for you.  We cannot get rid of mankind’s fleetingly wicked wishes.  We can get rid of the machines that make them come true.  I give you a holy word: DISARM.”   Deadeye Dick, page 87

Finally, from Fates Worse Than Death, page 81:

“I used to be very good with guns, was maybe the best shot in my company when I was a PFC.  But I wouldn’t have one of the motherfuckers in my house for anything.”




Vonnegut scholar Lawrence Broer on the evolution of Kilgore Trout

In a 2017 interview with The Daily Vonnegut, Professor Lawrence Broer discussed his 2011 book Vonnegut & Hemingway – Writers at War.  In the following excerpt, not included in last year’s interview, Broer discusses the evolution of Vonnegut’s most famous character, Kilgore Trout:

Q: How does the role of Vonnegut’s most famous character, Kilgore Trout, evolve from the early work to Trout’s final appearance in Timequake? 

A: Clearly Trout is Vonnegut’s most complex and intriguing fictional persona. His early appearance in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is to me ambiguous, neither wholly positive nor negative. On the one hand Trout’s condemnation of corporate greed and cruelty is vintage Vonnegut. Serving as advisor to Eliot’s father in preparation for Eliot’s sanity hearing, Trout argues the importance of valuing people without wealth or influence, eschewing the nonsensical notion that people are poor for the lack of trying. He praises Eliot’s devotion to volunteer firemen for the exemplary unselfishness that Eliot wants to emulate. On the other hand Trout gets a fifty thousand dollar consultant fee, and I find his speech about Eliot’s concept of “uncritical love” rhetorically pompous in contrast to Eliot’s personal and immediate suffering.

Vonnegut’s more ambitious plans for Trout as his own more bitter and cynical Trout-self become clear in Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions where Trout is described as that “unhappy failure” who represents all the artists who searched for truth and beauty without finding “doodly-squat!” We learn in Breakfast that Trout’s idea of the purpose of human life and, presumably, of his own artistic mission has been to be the eyes and ears and conscience of God, but that years of neglect and a growing sense of a life not worth living have made him temperamentally unfit for the task. He no longer harbors ideas about how things should be on earth, pouring his pessimism into books so demoralizing they drive readers like Dwayne Hoover crazy. Trout’s science fiction novel Now It Can Be Told convinces Dwayne people are nothing more than machines incapable of thinking, feeling, or making choices, so as machines he might as well treat them as inhumanely as he pleases. He subsequently embarks on a rampage that sends eleven people to the hospital.

What I had not sufficiently noticed before you got me re-reading was that the books by Trout that Eliot Rosewater introduces Billy Pilgrim to in Slaughterhouse-Five are all similarly cynical and despairing. Billy doesn’t just become Trout’s biggest fan, novels interwoven throughout Slaughterhouse-Five like Maniacs in the Fourth Dimension and The Gospel from Outer Space, about time travel and visitors from outer space shaped like Tralfamadorians (“by the way”) appear to inspire Billy’s lunatic fantasy of Tralfamadore where he comes to believe there is no such thing as free will and therefore no ability to influence his own life. It’s understanding this, I think, that when Billy’ asks his daughter who she would like to kill, she responds, “That wrier Kilgore Trout.”

While Trout appears cynical and even mean spirited in Slaughterhouse-Five, his appearance in Galapagos is outright sinister. Presaged in Breakfast of Champions, where we’re told Trout’s pessimism “destroyed his three marriages, and drove Leo, his son, away from home,” the life hating Trout of Galapagos encourages his son to kill himself, calling Leo’s curiosity about life foolish. When Leo says he wants more time to complete his research into the human mind and heart and into dehumanizing mechanistic structures, Trout tells him he is nothing better than a machine himself, that the more he learns about people, the more disgusted he will become. Yet in Timequake, Trout undergoes the most startling character transformation in Vonnegut’s work. While the novel opens with a list of the living dead, which once would have included “the cracked Messiah” Trout as Vonnegut calls him in Slaughterhouse-Five, and the author himself, it is the spirit of Jesus Christ and the Sermon on the Mount that comes to the fore, Trout as artist-shaman, offering a prayer for mercy and respect: “For Christ’s sake, let’s help more of our frightened people get through this thing, whatever it is.”

Vonnegut’s long suffering, most volatile literary figure finds himself the sole person not only to understand the destructive nature of “timequakes”—a psychic phenomenon that causes people to relive past experiences on “auto-pilot,” will-less and destined to make the same mistakes over again—but to oppose it in dramatic fashion by harnessing the power of language to battle timequake will-lessness and despair. He explains to those afflicted with will-lessness, “You were sick, but now you’re well and there’s work to do.” We read that poisoned with “Post Time Quake” apathy, Hemingway and Vonnegut’s mother may have killed themselves, “but not Kilgore Trout.” Vonnegut declares, “His “indestructible self-respect is what I loved most about Kilgore Trout.”

Trout is taken to the writer’s retreat at Xanadu where he is given the Ernest Hemingway suite, in which he lives out his final days as a healer battling the effect of PTA—post timequake inertia. Notably it is on Hemingway’s bed that Trout at first continues writing stories that threaten to infect his readers with his own disillusionment causing them to believe they can no more feel or reason than grandfather clocks. It’s Trout’s role as an irresponsible author that explains Vonnegut’s view of Hemingway as a writer like himself who has harmed readers with his own pessimistic belief that human beings are no better than robots in a meaningless world, fostering apathy that in turn fosters aggression. We recall for instance Jake Barnes’ cynicism as the close of The Sun Also Rises, Frederic Henry’s feelings of futility at the end of A Farewell to Arms, and Howard Campbell’s despairing realization in Mother Night that his Nazi broadcasts have given “shape and direction” to his listeners, turning them into homicidal monsters. Vonnegut sees how natural it would be for people to behave abominably after reading about people such a Frederic Henry or Dwayne Hoover in books. But with a nod to Rabo Karabekian’s awareness-making art in Bluebeard, Trout’s literary metamorphosis re-directs him to write stories combing traditional humanism with the openness and philosophical pluralism of Pablo Picasso’s paintings in the Museum of Modern Art. He expresses his contempt for “cruel inventions,” “irresistible forces in nature” and fictions with absolute moral codes, closed scripts that privilege masculine authority and contain romantic plots such as Vonnegut decries in A Farewell To Arms. If Vonnegut and Trout are still susceptible to the potentially fatal pull of PTA it is their hopeful voice inspired by their faith in the inviolability of human awareness the prevails in Timequake. 

Evoking the image of Trout in Slaughterhouse-Five as a “cracked Messiah, “and Trout’s existence as a fragment of Vonnegut’s own dived psyche, Vonnegut makes good on his promise in Breakfast of Champions to make Trout whole. “I have broken your mind to pieces,” he tells Trout. “I want to make it whole. I want you to feel a wholeness and inner harmony such as I have never allowed you to feel before.”

For more, read the entire 2017 interview with Broer:

Vonnegut and Hemingway – An Interview with Lawrence Broer