14 Feb Citizen Kurt – An Interview with Christina Jarvis, author of Lucky Mud & Other Foma: A Field Guide to Kurt Vonnegut’s Environmentalism and Planetary Citizenship
For Kurt Vonnegut, writing was an act of good citizenship, his way of “poisoning the minds of young people” with humanity. In Lucky Mud & Other Foma: A Field Guide to Kurt Vonnegut’s Environmentalism and Planetary Citizenship (Seven Stories Press), Christina Jarvis explores how Vonnegut addressed myriad social and environmental problems, from pollution, racial and economic injustice, and war to dehumanizing technologies and ecological collapse. It’s a tour de force of research and synthesis that will teach even hardcore readers new things about Vonnegut’s life and work. Purchase your copy here.
Q: Lucky Mud & Other Foma is described as a “Field Guide to Kurt Vonnegut’s Environmentalism and Planetary Citizenship.” How would you describe “planetary citizenship?” Was this a term that Vonnegut used?
Vonnegut often used the term “planetary citizen” to refer to artists, writers, and cosmopolitan thinkers whose work exceeded national boundaries—figures like William Shakespeare, Toni Morison, Pablo Picasso, and the Beatles, who influenced people all around the world. But he also used the term to highlight our status as Earthlings, beings connected by the health of our planet’s shared living systems, our atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and geosphere. Whether railing against failures to curb our fossil fuel addictions, offering fictional views of our “Rare Earth” from Titan and Tralfamadore, or exploring ideas of the Anthropocene in Galápagos, Vonnegut’s writings ask us to think on planetary scales and to focus on our shared humanity.
In the book, though, I use “planetary citizenship” more broadly to examine Vonnegut’s environmental and social justice engagements in both his writings and real life. While I think Vonnegut fans are familiar with his late-career climate grief or the obvious references to environmental, social, and racial poisonings in Breakfast of Champions, many people don’t know that Vonnegut spoke at the first Earth Day, participated in anti-nuclear rallies, or wrote place-based essays on landscapes and communities that were sacred to him. So, I explore Vonnegut’s planetary citizenship broadly. Lucky Mud & Other Foma traces the origins of his environmental stewardship, investigates the ways his biology, chemistry and anthropology studies shaped his planetary thinking, and, ultimately, reframes Vonnegut’s entire writing career from an environmental and social justice perspective.
Q: What inspired you to write this book?
It’s honestly hard to pinpoint a specific moment that launched me on the long Sirens-esque journey of researching and writing this book. There were many vin-dits, sinookas, and peculiar travel suggestions that would take too long to recount here. However, a key moment of curiosity and inspiration was coming across a March 1969 New York Times interview where Vonnegut discussed drafts of Breakfast of Champions and mentioned a scene where the Great Lakes disappeared under plastic pollution. That detail really stuck with me on a personal level because I had been leading local beach cleanups on Lake Erie for years, seeing firsthand the impacts of our global plastic pollution epidemic. But it also stood out because Breakfast of Champions, despite its obvious environmental themes, doesn’t include any scenes about the Great Lakes covered in Clorox bottles and excrement. I realized that there might be fascinating stories behind the stories in Vonnegut’s manuscript drafts—not just for Breakfast of Champions, but perhaps all his novels.
Anyway, back in 2014, having already taught several courses focused on Vonnegut’s work and having come up with the idea of exploring Vonnegut’s writings through an environmental lens, I made my first research visit to the Lilly Library to work with his manuscripts. That first two-week visit helped me discover that there were many important stories about Vonnegut’s work begging to be told, and that (like Kilgore Trout in Timequake) it was my job to give those stories wings. Ultimately, I wound up returning to the Lilly Library four additional times to work with Vonnegut’s papers and several other Vonnegut-related collections there along with visiting a dozen or so different archives, museums, libraries, and locations important to Vonnegut’s life and career. Along the way, I developed ORD (Obsessive Research Disorder), but I also met so many secular saints and members of Kurt’s karass that the whole research and writing journey turned into a long, joyous, humorous labor of love.
Q: Vonnegut’s passion for the environment goes back to his childhood. What were some early experiences that had a strong influence on his later writings?
There are so many experiences I could mention, from his summers at the family cottage on Lake Maxinkuckee to his time as a member on the junior board of the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, but the experiences with his Orchard School nature teacher, Hillis Howie, were especially critical in shaping Vonnegut’s planetary citizenship. Vonnegut dedicated Galápagos, his most explicitly environmental novel, to Howie, but he wrote in a June 7, 1982 letter to the recently widowed Elizabeth Howie: “The value system under which I try to operate relative to animals and plants and the earth and persons with cultures different from mine is the one I learned from him.”
One of the things I was really excited to share in Lucky Mud & Other Foma was a portrait of Hillis Howie and the amazing place-based, student-led, sustainability-minded lessons he taught both at the Orchard School and on the Prairie Treks he led. I do a bit of a deep dive on these experiences in the book, but I think readers will be fascinated by the two-month, 6,000-mile journey that a 14-year-old Vonnegut and other boys took in 1937. Not only is the adventure itself extraordinary, but so many ideas, places, and values that are sacred to Vonnegut’s work can be traced back to that experience.
Q: A young Kurt Vonnegut wrote an essay called “The Rover Boys in the American Southwest.” How did you come across this work and why is it important?
You bring up yet another important Tralfamadorian bead of amber! After Vonnegut completed the 1937 Prairie Trek with Howie, he wanted to return to the Southwest the following summer. Those plans didn’t work out, but in the summer of 1939, he embarked on a monthlong, 4,500-mile road trip with two of his buddies, George Jeffrey and Bryant “Bud” Gillespie. Vonnegut wrote dispatches home from the adventure and then revised it into a 38-page, single-spaced manuscript, “The Rover Boys in the American Southwest.”
I discovered this archival gem at the Lilly Library during my first visit and was blown away by how much it foreshadows elements of Vonnegut’s style and catalogs key places and values that show up later in his fiction. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Ginger Strand had discovered it first, and I was happy to draw on her two great essays about the trip in my chapter. But it’s such a rich, important piece of Vonnegut’s early writing that there’s lots to explore. In Lucky Mud & Other Foma, I focus on Kurt’s visits to national parks, his naturalist and archaeological interests, and, of course, the ways the trip shaped his planetary thinking. Vonnegut fans will be excited to unlock these early Tralfamadorian beads of amber; young Kurt is fun, snarky, sensitive, and thoughtful beyond his years.
Q: After WW2, Vonnegut was a graduate student in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. How did this influence his thinking as a planetary citizen?
First of all, I think Vonnegut’s background in cultural anthropology is one of the “secret ingredients” in his writing as a whole. If you look at his manuscripts, it’s always the moment he adds defamiliarizing perspectives to his cultural critiques or invented religions or cultural systems that his novels gain their Vonnegutian zest. And obviously his ideas about folk societies, artificial extended families, and cultural relativity can be traced back to his studies at Chicago.
Beyond adding these “secret ingredients,” Vonnegut’s anthropology studies refined his criticisms of weapons technologies and the new global planetary-minded worldview unleashed by the nuclear age. His time at Chicago also helped him to ask the really big questions that are a hallmark of his writings. Where have we come from? What does it mean to be human? What’s “sacred” in human cultures? What type of species are we? These are all important planetary questions—especially for us now in the unofficially named but widely acknowledged new epoch of the Anthropocene.
Q: Though he lives his adult life in other states, Indiana holds a prominent place in Vonnegut’s writing. Why was being a Hoosier so important to his identity?
You’d probably have to ask Hazel Crosby or another Hoosier to get the best answer. I’m still working on my honorary Hoosier status…Vonnegut himself famously said, “All my jokes are Indianapolis. All my attitudes are Indianapolis. My adenoids are Indianapolis. If I ever severed myself from Indianapolis, I would be out of business. What people like about me is Indianapolis.”
But, as Vonnegut also writes in “The Lake,” his 1988 essay about Lake Maxinkuckee, those sacred places in Indiana were literally where he made his first mental maps of the world, where he discovered “his deepest understanding of time and place.” He also frequently identified himself as a “fresh water” person and as a Midwesterner. Those early locales not only shaped ways of navigating the world, but they served as important starting points for key places in his fictional cosmos. Although Midland City ultimately becomes an everyplace and nonplace (and the “asshole of the universe”) in Breakfast of Champions and Deadeye Dick, manuscript drafts reveal that Vonnegut initially based the fictional city on Indianapolis. His experiences growing up in a segregated city and witnessing the environmental, cultural, and social “poisonings” from Indy’s urban renewal all shaped his critiques of those topics in his Midland City novels.
Q: While researching Lucky Mud & Other Foma, you spent time at the Vonnegut archives at Indiana University. What did you find in your research that surprised you the most?
Wow! That’s a hard question! It’s impossible to point to just one thing, but I guess my overall answer would be how long, messy, and multi-genre the creative process was in drafting various novels. We all know that it took Vonnegut more than two decades to write Slaughterhouse-Five, but most people don’t realize how complex the compositional process was for other novels. Cat’s Cradle, for example, had a 13-year gestation period, with four distinct phases, and in most of the drafts, the ice-nine apocalypse doesn’t happen. Some of the alternate versions and ending of the novel drafts are mind blowing.
One of the things that surprised me most, though, early on was how much Vonnegut’s creative process differed from the stories he told about it in interviews. He always identified as a “basher,” someone who typed introductory pages and chapters over and over again until he got them right. And he generally was a basher. But Vonnegut also “swooped” at times and would switch from fiction to poetry to drama to television scripts if an idea or “peculiar travel suggestion” took him in a new direction. His creative process was also beautifully messy, taking the form of long scrolls collaged together and drafts with as many drawings and handwritten notes as they did typed pages.
I should also note, though, that manuscript drafts are missing for certain novels, and there are many rare gems, drafts, unexpected finds, unpublished essays, and all sorts of art, media, and other materials in Vonnegut’s papers at the Lilly. There’s enough there to keep Vonnegut scholars very busy for years to come.
Q: The final chapter is titled “What Are People For?” It’s a question that repeats throughout Vonnegut’s work. What is Kurt’s answer?
I honestly don’t think that Kurt came up with a definitive answer in his own writings, but he suggested in the epigraph to Bluebeard and elsewhere that we should embrace his son’s, Dr. Mark Vonnegut’s, answer: “We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”
Personally, I love that Kurt kept revisiting that question throughout his career and that he wanted his readers to keep asking and exploring it. It’s probably one of the most important questions we should be asking in the Anthropocene. Whether we’re here to be secular saints, planetary citizens, kind extended family members, creators of art, or growers of souls, I think it’s clear that Vonnegut wanted us to build vibrant human communities—both on the local level and on a planetary scale—and to work on healing rather than destroying our environments.
Q: When we spoke several years ago, you mentioned working on a book about Vonnegut and the environment. What were some of the challenges in writing this book?
During the long research phase, the biggest challenge was finding all the parts of a given manuscript and piecing together and reordering drafts. But while time-consuming, that detective work was a lot of fun.
What was challenging was resisting the academic urge to tell the reader everything I discovered. I wound up cutting a lot before I sent the manuscript to Seven Stories, and then I had to trim an additional 20,000 words. I did get to keep many of my favorite archival Easter eggs, which are in the notes, but there’s a lot of the book that only exists in the fourth dimension.
Q: How might Lucky Mud contribute to a new appreciation of Vonnegut’s work?
I hope readers will appreciate both the breadth and depth of Vonnegut’s planetary citizenship and see how prescient Kurt was in addressing many of the environmental and social justice issues we’re still grappling with. Here was someone who critiqued American consumerism in 1952, experienced climate grief in 1971, and grasped the weight of the Anthropocene in 1985!
But I also hope to inspire Vonnegut fans to return to his writings with fresh eyes and to appreciate some of his lesser known and sometimes maligned works. I don’t think many people know how great Vonnegut’s nonfiction is, and some people avoid titles like Slapstick or Happy Birthday, Wanda June because of the low grades Kurt gave them. But there’s a lot more going on in both works than meets the eye, and they’re important within different threads of his career.
Lastly, I hope readers will appreciate how hard Vonnegut labored on his writing—both to make things easy on his readers and because he cared deeply about human beings and our “Rare Earth.” And if Lucky Mud fails to do these things, feel free to say of me what Leon Trout might, “Oh well, she was never going to write Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony anyway.”
Christina Jarvis is a professor of English at State University of New York at Fredonia, where she teaches courses in sustainability and twentieth-century American literature and culture, including several major author seminars on Kurt Vonnegut. She is the author of The Male Body at War: American Masculinity during World War II, and has contributed to Women’s Studies, The Southern Quarterly, The Journal of Men’s Studies, and War, Literature, and the Arts, among other publications. She lives near the shores of Lake Erie in Western New York.