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

Vonnegut Trivia – Week of December 10, 2017

This week’s question is from Cat’s Cradle, first published in 1963.

What is the name of the small island nation on which much of the novel is set?

a) San Marcos

b) St. Sebastian

c) San Lorenzo

d) San Simeon

Check back next week for the correct response.  The answer to last week’s question was Utopia-14, the alternative title under which Player Piano was once published.

In Vonnegut news, Variety has reported that a series based on Slaughterhouse-Five is now in development.  For more, read here.

The Many Vonneguts – An Interview with Zachary Perdieu

In 2016, Zachary Perdieu, co-Vice President of the Kurt Vonnegut Society, delivered a paper at the American Literature Association’s annual conference titled “’That was I. That was me.’ The Many Vonneguts and Their Relationship with Fiction.” In the following interview, Perdieu shares his thoughts on “the many Vonneguts” and how Vonnegut’s fiction may have predicted his own death.

Q: Vonnegut is well-known for inserting himself into his fiction, perhaps most prominently in Breakfast of Champions. In your research you found evidence of this approach in a much earlier work, Cat’s Cradle. What did you find?

A: In Jerome Klinkowitz’s book Vonnegut In Fact (1998), Klinkowitz explains that Vonnegut attempted to insert his surname, at the very least, into the narrative of Cat’s Cradle (1963). Funnily enough, Vonnegut had already blatantly placed a “Kurt Vonnegut” character in Mother Night that came out two years before Cat’s Cradle, but this character was presented as the editor of Howard W. Campbell Jr.’s memoir manuscript. This manuscript was fictional, of course, so the “editor” character Vonnegut presented was also a fictional projection of the author, himself. Apparently, this particular presentation of a Vonnegut-character was accepted by editors, but the idea of the author’s last name entering Cat’s Cradle two years later was viewed as literary malpractice, as Klinkowitz goes on to write, “Editors talked Vonnegut out of the idea as being too radical” when Vonnegut made this attempt in Cat’s Cradle because it would be seen as “violating the aesthetic distance that critics assume must exist between reality and the fictive” (111).

So Vonnegut was “present” as an editor-character in Mother Night in 1961, and then showed up again in 1969 in Chapter 1 of Slaughterhouse-Five and a few other places in the book. As you mentioned, Vonnegut as an author/character shows up most prominently in Breakfast of Champions in 1973, where the character is interacting and manipulating with the fictional universe around him. Simply put, in the book immediately preceding Cat’s Cradle and the two that followed in publication order, representations of Vonnegut as a character are all over the place. Despite this, his editors had censored this stylistic inclination out of Cat’s Cradle.

I was at Indiana University’s Lilly Library doing research in the Vonnegut archive for my master’s thesis, and on my final day I decided to look for evidence of Klinkowitz’s claim that Vonnegut had attempted to place himself in the work in an early draft of Cat’s Cradle that was present in the archive.

Read the entire interview here.

What I Pretended to Be – by Zachary Perdieu

Zachary Perdieu is co-Vice President of the Kurt Vonnegut essay.  In the following essay, he shares how Vonnegut’s work helped shape his future academic career.  

What I Pretended to Be

Ask any friend of mine to provide a few details about me, and my affinity for Kurt Vonnegut would never slip past the third listed item. Despite this, I was late to the clambake, so to speak, relative to many other Vonnegut fans and scholars. A common story among Vonnegut fans involves youthfully stumbling upon one of the author’s novels on a parent’s or older sibling’s bookshelf, or perhaps being assigned “Harrison Bergeron” in high school, and, from that young age, the fan carried Vonnegut into adulthood. My story isn’t so different, I suppose, but I would venture to paint it as a bit more dramatic.

Continue reading:

What I Pretended to Be by Zachary Perdieu