In a fine essay published by The New Yorker, Salman Rushdie offers his thoughts on Slaughterhouse-Five. Comparisons to Catch-22 and War andPeace are mixed with reflections on Vonnegut’s exploration of free will and the cheerfulness at the core of Vonnegut’s work. The essay is adapted from a speech Rushdie delivered in Indianapolis marking the 50th anniversary of the novel’s publication. Read the full essay here:
It’s been fifty years since Delacorte Press first published Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five, on March 31, 1969. The novel’s popularity and influence continue to this day, and though Vonnegut, in the book’s long introduction, described it as “a failure, and it had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt,” Slaughterhouse-Five remains Vonnegut’s ultimate achievement, a unique blending of time, tragedy, and trauma with the tropes of science fiction and the steady beats of black comedy. As Todd F. Davis writes in Kurt Vonnegut’s Crusade: Or, How a Postmodern Harlequin Preached a New Kind of Humanism: “Slaughterhouse-Five, born out of one man’s honest and human response to the carnage of our brutality, out of his rage against the sickness of war, endures as a paragon of post-modern morality.”
In celebration of the novel’s 50th anniversary, Literary Hub recently featured the best 50 covers from around the word. A personal favorite is the giraffe from the Dutch edition published in 1970. Thanks to Literary Hub’s Emily Temple for tracking down the covers.
A new book by David O. Dowling, A Delicate Aggression: Savagery and Survival in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (Yale University Press), includes a chapter on Vonnegut’s tenure teaching in the workshop. It was during this time that Vonnegut worked on Slaughterhouse-Five, and Dowling explores how Vonnegut’s inclusion in this elite environment, after so many years as a “genre hack,” influenced the writing of his future classic. The New York Times featured a recent review.
Lastly, a few words from Vonnegut scholar supreme Jerome Klinkowitz, from his 2009 book Kurt Vonnegut’s America (The University of South Carolina Press.)
“Slaughterhouse-Five, published in March 1969, was not only a best seller, but established its author as a celebrity spokesman for key issues of the day. This shows how the book had to wait for the right times to come along before the writer could expect acceptance. An anti-war novel would not have done so well much earlier–not until the Tet Offensive of 1968 showed Americans how badly the war in Vietnam was going. A novel about an atrocity such as the firebombing of Dresden would not have been received as open-mindedly had not the recent revelations of U.S. atrocities in the Vietnam War, such as the My Lai massacre and the indiscriminate use of napalm, alerted readers to the fact that our side was not always above such things…Not before had the country as a whole questioned its basic ideals, its sense of reality. Because Kurt Vonnegut’s new novel raised these issues, it was the perfect book for the times …”
For more, here’s Vonnegut from 2004, from a lecture at Case Western Reserve University.
In Sanity Plea: Schizophrenia in the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut (1989, University of Alabama Press), Lawrence R. Broer writes: “A striking paradox of Slaughterhouse-Five is that it presents us with Vonnegut’s most completely demoralized protagonist while making what is to this point the most affirmative statement of Vonnegut’s career.” Broer describes Billy Pilgrim as Vonnegut’s “scapegoat,” a character who carries Vonnegut’s heaviest burdens of trauma and despair, but whose sacrifice “makes possible Vonnegut’s own rebirth.” According to Broer, Vonnegut distances himself from Billy with references such as “I was there” and “that was me,” informing the reader of Vonnegut’s own presence within scenes featuring Billy.
Broer’s chapter on Vonnegut’s classic explores how the author pushes against the perceived fatalism of Billy and the Tralfamadorians. “Those who confuse Vonnegut with Billy Pilgrim or mistake the author as a defeatist … miss the predominantly affirmative thrust of Slaughterhouse-Five and Vonnegut’s career as a whole.”
Broer writes, “If settling into his womb-like Tralfamadorian environment, closing his eyes to any unpleasantness in the world, Billy Pilgrim becomes more than ever the playthings of those enormous forces at work on him throughout his life, Kurt Vonnegut may have saved his own sanity through the therapeutic processes of art, climaxed by an act of symbolic amputation: the severing of the Billy Pilgrim within himself, poisoned with existential gangrene. That this is as much Kurt Vonnegut’s baptism by fire as it is the story of Billy’s madness may be the overriding truth of Slaughterhouse-Five.”
For more from Lawrence R. Broer, visit The Daily Vonnegut archives for this interview, in which Professor explorers the connections between Vonnegut and Ernest Hemingway.
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:
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.
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.”
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.
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.