Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night, originally published as a paperback original in 1961, continues to resonate with its times. Professor Susan Farrell, in an essay presented at the American Literature Association Conference in 2016, explored the relationship between the assorted fascists connected to Howard W. Campbell Jr. and several figures from American history.
Professor Farrell shared her thoughts with The Daily Vonnegut.
Q: In “American Fascism and Mother Night,” you draw connections between the characters in the novel and several historical figures from the 1930’s and 1940’s. With the exception of Father Coughlin, these relatively obscure American fascists have faded from historical view. Tell us about your research and how you came to write the essay.
A: I first became interested in writing the essay because I happened to read something about Sufi Abdul Hamid, a religious mystic and political activist who lived in Harlem during the 1930s, and who served as the historical model for Robert Sterling Wilson in the novel. Both men were known as the “Black Fuhrer of Harlem.” I was immediately intrigued. Vonnegut’s character seemed so cartoonish and outlandish that it was hard to believe he had an actual historical counterpart.
Q: In several interviews, Vonnegut mentioned that Howard W. Campbell was modeled after Lord Haw-Haw. Who was Lord Haw-Haw?
A: Lord Haw-Haw was the nickname of William Joyce, a real-life Nazi radio propagandist during World War Two. Born in the U.S. to Irish parents, Joyce moved back to Ireland when he was three, where his Catholic family remained loyal to Britain and staunchly anti-Republican. When his family moved to England after the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, Joyce became deeply involved in fascist politics. He moved to Berlin at the outbreak of war, where he got a job working for German radio’s English service. During the war years, he also worked to help recruit British prisoners-of-war into a unit called the British Free Corps. Joyce was captured near the end of the war and executed for treason in England in January of 1946.
Q: In your view, what effect does Vonnegut achieve for Mother Night by surrounding Campbell with this disturbing but ultimately absurd crew of fascists?
A: I might switch your question around a bit—so that the fascists in Mother Night are considered absurd but ultimately disturbing. Similar to what he does later in Slaughterhouse-Five, I think he was trying to undo perceptions of World War Two as the “good war” to a certain extent, a war with clear-cut villains and heroes. I think Vonnegut was trying to show that bad ideas and racist and/or anti-Semitic people are not limited by national borders. The novel seems to me quite anti-nationalistic. The absurdity of these characters certainly points to the absurd nature of the ideas they espouse. But the war also shows the dangers that arise when absurd ideas are taken seriously.
Q: Along with Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle, Mother Night still generates a fair amount of attention. Why do you think it continues to resonate with readers?
A: I think one reason the novel continues to resonate because it asks such important, contemporary-seeming questions about human identity. The “moral” of the novel, identified by Vonnegut in his 1966 introduction, is one of his most quoted quips: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” The idea of constructed identity is important to postmodern thinking, and I think Vonnegut is playing with that idea early on. Do we have an eternal, “true” self somewhere deep inside, or are we “truly” a summation of the roles we play in society? I also think the novel’s blending of fiction and history continues to fascinate readers. The novel depicts actual historical figures like Adolf Eichmann interacting with fictional characters, many of whom are based on historical figures, but some of whom are completely invented. Finally, the novel asks basic questions about the nature of evil in the world, which I think have long intrigued readers. The philosopher Hannah Arendt’s ideas about the banality of evil seem especially relevant here as the book tries to understand how an ordinary human being comes to perform unspeakable acts. The book’s complex moral outlook, juxtaposed with its easy readability and nearly cartoonish characters, give it an aura of originality that I think resonates with readers as well.
Q: You’ve also written about Mother Night and the falsification of memory. What was the focus of that essay?
A: That essay focused especially on the Adolf Eichmann trials and some of the similarities between Eichmann and Campbell. The essay argues that Campbell might have invented the whole scenario of serving as a U.S. double-agent during the war to make himself look better for posterity. His confessions, after all, will be preserved at the Haifa Institute as an important historical document. In addition, as Vonnegut tells us in the Editor’s Note, Campbell is a playwright and playwrights are notorious liars. The essay also looks at what Holocaust theorists such as Primo Levi have said about traumatic memory and how former Nazis who could not face their own actions reshaped their memories in ways to make themselves appear less villainous.
Q: How did you first become interested in Vonnegut’s work?
A: The first Vonnegut novel I read was Breakfast of Champions when I was a junior in high school—it was a book that happened to be in my parents’ bookshelves. I read several other Vonnegut novels in college. My interest in Vonnegut really became cemented when I began teaching Slaughterhouse-Five in a contemporary American fiction class that I developed at the College of Charleston. I became very knowledgeable about Vonnegut when I wrote a Facts on File reference book about him: Critical Companion to Kurt Vonnegut: A Literary Reference to his Life and Work.
Q: Sadly, “American fascism” has become a common topic of discussion over the last year. How might Mother Night help readers make sense of current times?
A: Yes, the novel seems particularly relevant today. Many Americans see the current administration as absurd—an almost cartoonish bunch who at least flirt with fascism. I suppose the novel can show readers that such absurd figures have long existed in American history and that the country has managed to survive. But the novel also points out the real possibility and danger of drifting into fascism, if, as Vonnegut says, we serve evil too openly and good too secretly, like Campbell did in the novel.
Susan Farrell is an English professor at the College of Charleston. She teaches courses on American literature, with specialties in contemporary American fiction, war writing, and women writers. She’s published books on Jane Smiley, Kurt Vonnegut, and Tim O’Brien. Her newest book, Imagining Home: American War Fiction from Hemingway to 9/11, will be published by Camden House Press in fall of 2017