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.
I entered college at Indiana State University in 2008 as an English major masquerading as an expert in literature. I don’t know how many books I had read by age eighteen. It was more than the average high school senior, but certainly less than I pretended. Someone would ask if I had read a particular book, and I would nod, although I had, at most, seen the movie or encountered enough allusions to the work in question that I could simulate knowledge. Furthermore, what would seem most astonishing to anyone who has gotten to know me since 2009 is that there wasn’t a single Vonnegut entry on the actual list of previously read books. Born out of adolescent insecurity, this feigned experience and very real youthful arrogance was emblematic of my whole identity at that age, and it would prove nearly fatal to my college career.
My first college course was a writing class. I didn’t do well. Most of my other classes followed suit. I wasn’t attending sessions or turning homework in, and yet I didn’t feel like any of this was my fault. I ended my first semester with two F’s, one D, one C, and one B, and I was placed on academic probation. I still hadn’t read any Vonnegut. This is where the story turns, you may be thinking but, alas, no. The roots of youthful arrogance and insecurity can run deep. I took academic probation as an insult instead of a wake-up call, and I did even worse in the following term. Two D’s and two F’s that semester. The next email I got from the registrar had a letter attached, informing me that I had been academically dismissed. I went to the registrar, humiliated but not yet humbled, and begged them to allow me to come back the following semester. A worker in the office pulled up my record, explaining as she did that the school sometimes makes exemptions if the student in question showed progress and is close to the 2.0 threshold. A pit grew in my stomach. The woman’s face darkened, despite the screen of her computer splashing light upon it.
“Oh,” she said. “I’m afraid you, uh…you don’t qualify.”
“Am I close?”
“Uh…no. You have a 0.16 GPA.” No amount of spin could change that reality, so I thanked her for the help and walked out of the office.
I bumbled around a community college for a while. Some things didn’t change – I still wasn’t really going to class or turning things in – but others did. I started drinking, which revealed a shared illness that Vonnegut and I both had of drunkenly calling old friends at night. I didn’t know we shared this affliction at the time, as I still hadn’t read any Vonnegut. One morning after a particularly vicious episode of this illness the night before, I woke up feeling like a worn out pair of shoes, and I knew I had a decision to make. I could keep pretending I was an intelligent, hardworking individual, or I could actually try to be one. I looked at the clock. I was already late for class at the community college, but if I left now I could make it before it was over. I rushed out of the door without a shower and made it to class, late but present.
Things got better. I started going to class regularly. I turned homework in. I applied to Indiana State for readmission and was accepted, but a year away didn’t erase that 0.16 GPA. My first semester back I registered for all the classes I had failed to replace the Fs on my transcript, but this time I took the writing course with Dr. Steven Connelly. As chance or fate would have it, Dr. Connelly assigned three Vonnegut novels that semester. The first on the schedule was Slaughterhouse-Five. Even just a few months before that, I may have read the first chapter of an assigned book and then faked my way through the connected assignments. I can’t even definitively state that wouldn’t have still been the case if Dr. Connelly had assigned some other author. But Vonnegut only needed a few pages.
I skimmed the first couple paragraphs, where I discovered that connection Vonnegut and I shared: “I have this disease late at night sometimes, involving alcohol and the telephone. I get drunk […] I ask the telephone operators to connect me with this friend or that one, from whom I have not heard in years” (Slaughterhouse-Five). This connection is not necessarily what kept me reading, as it remains a common habit of many drinkers of any age, but Vonnegut books have a habit of turning the pages of their own volition, with little input from the reader required. Dr. Connelly assigned a third of the novel for the first class. I read the whole thing. In the first lecture, the professor spent forty minutes talking about one sentence in the novel: “This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt.” I understand that forty minutes spent on seventeen words of prose sounds like an absolute nightmare to many, but I was enthralled. It changed how I read. It changed how I thought about literature. I reread the novel, scrawling paragraphs in the margins discussing seemingly off-hand comments by the author. This book and lecture had been a bolt of lightning, and I didn’t know it at the time, but the thunder was coming, as well.
I ploughed through the next two assigned novels (God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and Cat’s Cradle) but didn’t stop there. I spoke with Dr. Connelly, and he suggested I look into Mother Night. I picked it and a few others up at the library. Despite my professor’s suggestion, I began flipping through Palm Sunday first. I reached the point where Vonnegut delivered a self-graded report card of his novels, and all I could think at the time was, “That’s a hell of a lot better than my own transcript, buddy.” The author had given Mother Night an A, however, so I heeded my professor’s advice and dove in to that one next. Vonnegut famously states the moral of his story in Mother Night, and I couldn’t imagine an individual more receptive to such a message than a slightly aimless nineteen-year-old. “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be,” Vonnegut writes in Mother Night. I reflected on what I pretended to be. Well-read, I supposed, but why? “Well-read” was my youthful identity, but it was for the wrong reasons, I realized. It wasn’t about what I had learned or absorbed from the books I read, but simply about the fact that I had read them, or at least pretended to. I decided it was time to start pretending to be something better, and the decision was already made for me. A curious and critical mind was beginning to shake out the cob webs of a long slumber, and I heard thunder rumble in the distance. I wanted to learn. And I wanted to share what I had learned. I wanted to spend forty minutes talking to a room full of people about a seventeen word passage.
Every lecture became a twofold lesson for me then. First, I absorbed the content of the lesson in a way I never had. Second, I observed my professors like an apprentice smith watching a master forge chainmail. I’d reflect on what I had learned, and how I had learned it. I ended that semester with three A’s and one B. I received two emails back to back. The first told me that I was on the dean’s list, the second that, despite my grades that semester, I was still on academic probation, and if I didn’t reach the needed 2.0 GPA by the end of next semester I would be academically dismissed (again). I didn’t care. I had purpose now. Grades only mattered in that they reflected the knowledge I had gained, and that they would help me to the next stage of my plan. I replaced every F and D on my transcript. I got off academic probation. I stayed on the dean’s list. I applied to a graduate program and was accepted. I read Vonnegut. I read many others, as well, and I stopped pretending to have read the ones I hadn’t.
I pursued a master’s degree in literature at Texas State University, and my reading of Vonnegut turned from fanboy appreciation to literary criticism. Vonnegut grew up with me, as the author’s readability was paired with an inherent receptiveness to the application of literary and social theory. I completed a master’s thesis on Vonnegut and social normalization under the guidance of Robert T. Tally, Jr. I presented papers at literary conferences on the author, and I became involved with the Kurt Vonnegut Society. I was admitted to the University of Georgia’s PhD program in literature. I was still reading Vonnegut.
My scholarly pursuits are many now, but they all owe a debt to Kurt Vonnegut and that first forty minute lecture on a short passage of Slaughterhouse-Five. Sometimes I wonder what I’d be doing if Dr. Connelly hadn’t assigned three Vonnegut books for that class, or if I had passed my first college writing course. I am not willing to call it an act of zah-mah-ki-bo (a Bokononist term meaning fate or destiny from Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle). Vonnegut was a Hoosier, after all, and I was attending school in an Indiana city that was the hometown of Eugene V. Debs, who was a frequently discussed hero of the author, so it may be described as unsurprising that a teacher would assign Slaughterhouse-Five in such a locale. In any event, I am thankful for this delayed exposure to Vonnegut’s work. Vonnegut made me a better student. He has made me a better teacher. He was the first writer to make me a literary scholar. I can’t tell you Vonnegut made me a better person – age, experience, and the humbling nature of adulthood had a say on that score – but I can tell you that I wouldn’t be the person I am today without his work. I certainly wouldn’t be reading and teaching books for a living. After struggling to discover my identity, as so many college students do, Vonnegut helped turn me into what I should have always pretended to be – a voracious reader with a critical and curious mind, eager to share anything I discovered. I might be late, but I am present. I’m here for the clambake.
And no, I haven’t read Robinson Crusoe or Anna Karenina. Maybe someday.