Christina Jarvis – Tilting the Axis: Kurt Vonnegut and the Environment

Even casual fans of Kurt Vonnegut’s work recognize him as a writer engaged with the issues of his time. Vonnegut’s range of interests was vast: the waste and futility of war, the dangers of excessive automation, the conflict between scientific progress and human welfare, gun violence, inequality, rampant pollution and the degradation of our beautiful planet Earth. While the latter is sometimes overlooked as an influence, environmental concerns are prominent in much of Vonnegut’s work. It’s an area of Vonnegut studies ripe for further study, and Christina Jarvis is up for the challenge. In her upcoming book, Jarvis, a professor at SUNY Fredonia, explores Vonnegut’s work through an environmentalist lens.

Professor Jarvis shared her thoughts with The Daily Vonnegut.

Q: What inspired you to write about the environmental aspects of Vonnegut’s work, or as you describe it, his “lessons in planetary thinking?”  

A: It’s hard to trace the project’s inspiration back to a singular moment, but one key event that stands out was coming across Vonnegut’s comments in a March 1969 New York Times interview about a working draft of Breakfast of Champions in which he had the Great Lakes disappear under Clorox bottles and excrement. This small detail resonated with me because I’d been leading Lake Erie beach cleanups for years, and plastics pollution is such a huge global environmental problem. While everyone knows from the opening lines of Breakfast of Champions that the novel addresses a host of environmental issues, I became intrigued by the idea that Vonnegut had intended to explore other topics. Anyway, the more I dug into Vonnegut’s manuscripts and my secondary research, I kept finding new examples of Vonnegut’s planetary citizenship—examples that went well beyond his late-career incessant warnings about climate change and unchecked fossil fuel consumption. We all know about Vonnegut’s important anti-war speeches and unflagging dedication to pacifist, humanist, and social justice ideas, but many people don’t know that Kurt spoke at the first Earth Day, participated in key anti-nuclear demonstrations, was an avid gardener and birder, etc. I suppose that popular images of him as a chain-smoking, apocalyptic prophet of doom probably don’t conjure up the label “environmentalist.” Key Vonnegut scholars, such as Peter Reed, Loree Rackstraw, Jerome Klinkowitz, Eric Sumner, Marc Leeds, Said Mentak, and Todd Davis, have long noted Kurt’s environmental commitments; however, there’s so much more to the story. That’s where my book project comes in.

Q: While Slaughterhouse-Five and Vonnegut’s experiences as a POW in Dresden take center stage in most appraisals of Vonnegut’s work, you propose some different ways to “tilt the axis” of his career and gain some new perspectives. Tell us about it.

A: I know it might seem blasphemous to some fans that I’m decentering Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut’s masterpiece, break-through novel, and most significant contribution to American war/anti-war literature. However, I think Slaughterhouse-Five’s canonical and cultural position often shifts attention away from other important threads and specific texts in the Vonnegut canon. In some ways Slaughterhouse-Five is becoming the Vonnegutian equivalent of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Aside from “Harrison Bergeron” or perhaps Cat’s Cradle, it’s the one text students are reading in school (which is kind of funny given the novel’s long history of being censored). Ultimately, though, very few of the students who take my Vonnegut classes or seminars would select Slaughterhouse-Five as their favorite or as Vonnegut’s most important work.

By tilting the axis of Vonnegut’s career to focus instead on his environmental commitments and engagements with sustainability, I hope to offer some new ways of thinking about specific works and the Vonnegut canon as a whole. I’ve tried to channel some of the “what if” experimentation Kurt attributes to his physicist brother Bernard and character Kilgore Trout in Timequake. What might Vonnegut’s career look like if we put his writings in dialogue with key environmental thinkers of his day such as Rachel Carson, Vance Packard, and Paul Ehrlich as well as more contemporary ones? What if we built on his famous “canary in the coalmine” theory of the arts to take seriously what Vonnegut thought about canaries and coalmines? What if, instead of focusing on Vonnegut’s wildly imaginative fictional locales like Tralfamadore and Ilium, we investigated his nonfictional writings and attachment to real places? What would it look like if we put all of his fictional apocalyptic landscapes side by side or read his Midland City novels together? What would happen if we didn’t just look at the published works, but at the stories behind those stories? What were some of the peculiar travel suggestions Vonnegut didn’t take in his compositional wanderings?

Vonnegut scholar Robert Tally heralded a “golden age of Vonnegut Studies” in his introduction to Critical Insights, and I really think he’s right. There are whole new galaxies to the Vonnegut cosmos awaiting exploration in the Lilly Library’s archives.

Q: Vonnegut participated in a rally in New York on the first Earth Day in 1970. At the time, he referred to the environmental movement as “a big soppy pillow.” What did he mean by that?

A: In characteristic Vonnegut fashion, he tempered his hopes for a new era of environmental engagement with fears about the new movement’s efficacy and sustainability. He called the environmental movement “a big soppy pillow” in a Village Voice interview because, he predicted, “Nobody’s going to do anything.” He was afraid that Earth Day might be a feel-good day of small individual actions without the sweeping legislation needed to make lasting change. In his Earth Day speech itself, for example, he raised fears about Nixon’s refusal to take action and about corporate green washing via anti-litter campaigns. He was, of course, famously wrong about Earth Day’s effectiveness. As historian Adam Rome argues, Earth Day helped create the first “green generation” in U.S. history, and it prompted the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, bans on DDT and leaded gasoline, and landmark legislation such as the Clean Water Act (1972) and Endangered Species Act (1973). It also had a direct impact on Vonnegut, who made his environmental engagements even more explicit after 1970.

Q: Around the time of the first Earth Day, Vonnegut was working on his play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June. Do you see his involvement with environmental thinking influencing the play?

A: Absolutely. I’ve actually been tracing the decade-long manuscript history of the play for another project, and I can pinpoint numerous key changes. The most significant environmentally related revisions from that period are connected to Norbert Woodly’s character. Not only did Vonnegut use Woodly to address the Vietnam War and civil rights issues more explicitly, but he also added lines to make comments about planet-level thinking. He also added the ghost characters and heaven scenes that summer, which include some of von Koningwald’s interactions with “guys from other planets” that help him realize that their “planets weren’t anywhere as nice as Earth.” (HB 78)

Incidentally, Vonnegut continued to connect Woodly to key environmental messages even after its initial 1970-71 run. For example, in April 1977, Vonnegut wrote a new ending for Duffy Hughes’ production of the play for the Bush Theatre in London. In that version Woodly’s final lines not only defeat the outdated, hyper aggressive Harold Ryan, but also raise concerns about our dependence on fossil fuels, predicting a Slapstick-like post-oil future in a decade.

Q: Vonnegut’s last published short story, “The Big Space Fuck,” describes a degraded Earth and an attempt to extend human population deep into the cosmos. It also plays with the idea of generational responsibility. How does this story fit into the Vonnegut canon?

A: I’m really glad you brought up this story because I think it’s a gem, and it often gets overlooked. Although Vonnegut includes “The Big Space Fuck” in Palm Sunday’s chapter on “Obscenity,” it really was a timely environmental piece in 1972. It addresses the Bald Eagle’s endangered status, invasive species issues, the rampant industrial pollution and eutrophication of Lake Erie, excessive consumption and waste, and the larger “ecocatastrophe” of treating Earth like “a piece of shit.” Within the Vonnegut canon, though, the story is the fourth and final installment of pieces dealing with human population growth and its various social, environmental, and ethical impacts. Viewed through the lens of environmental sustainability, it’s clear that Vonnegut was grappling with the complex impacts of “too many people” from “The Big Trip Up Yonder” (1954) to “2BO2B” (1962) to “Welcome to the Monkey House” (1968); the “Big Space Fuck” is the most scathing and outrageous part of that short story cycle.

Q: Vonnegut gave many public speeches over the years, and in the later part of his career, devoted much time and energy to his speaking engagements. Your work builds on Jerome Klinkowitz’s study of Vonnegut’s “public spokesmanship.” What can we learn by approaching Vonnegut’s work through this lens?  

A: Vonnegut scholars have long noted Kurt’s important role as a public intellectual and cultural icon, but I’m finding that Vonnegut’s nonfiction is especially appealing to my students and other young people right now. For one thing, so many of his ideas and political critiques are still relevant. However, what seems to really resonate with students is Vonnegut’s underlying optimism and hope despite the bleak, often apocalyptic topics he addressed. Many of my students have become cynical, numbed, or paralyzed by the 24/7 news stream of stories about gun violence, racial injustice, war, climate change, disasters, political corruption, and economic disparities. Vonnegut addressed a lot of these topics, too, but he often did it through humor and gave us sweetness beneath those bitter pills. Vonnegut’s closeted optimism, humanism, and unwavering belief in the arts really come through in his public spokesmanship, and I think those messages are especially timely.

Q: Tell us about your experiences in the archives at the Lilly Library. Did you find anything that surprised you?  

Working with Vonnegut’s manuscripts and the many related collections (i.e., Wakefield, Farber, Fiene, Harris) at the Lilly Library has been incredible. Where do I even begin? Perhaps the most surprising thing was discovering how complex and messy Vonnegut’s compositional process actually was. For example, he generally “bashed” away, retyping introductory pages and chapters over again until he got it right; however, Vonnegut also “swooped” at times and would switch from fiction to poetry to drama to television scripts if an idea beguiled him in that direction. His beautifully messy creative process also burst forth in different ways—from epically long scrolls collaged together with tape, staples and paperclips to drafts that included as many drawings and hand-written notes as they did typed pages. Even the gestation processes of particular works were much longer than I ever imagined, with parts spread out in the Lilly Library’s archives in multiple collections, under various titles and in different genres.

There were, of course, lots of charming individual discoveries that I won’t give away here. To entice people to read my book, though, I will note a few extra special finds: Salo’s original message, alternate endings to Cat’s Cradle, deleted Kilgore Trout stories from Rosewater drafts, a huge section of Breakfast set in the Holiday Inn’s cocktail lounge cut in the final editing stages, and a very different version of Montana Wildhack. Another favorite find was Vonnegut narrative of his 1939 epic Western road trip, “The Rover Boys,” which Ginger Strand has written so brilliantly about. There’s just so much great stuff there!

Q: How did you become interested in Vonnegut? What was your introduction to his work?

It actually took many vin-dits to put me on the path to becoming a Vonnegut scholar, but I’ll just hit the highlights. I first read God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions when I was in high school. My mother was big Vonnegut fan, and I would steal her first-edition paperbacks and read them on my own. Something about Vonnegut’s writings touched me deeply, but I honestly didn’t fully appreciate them at the time. As a serious (and probably somewhat pretentious) English major at Rutgers, I didn’t read Vonnegut in any of my college classes or on my own. It wasn’t until I was a grad student at Penn State that I got back into Vonnegut’s writings. I wound up leading an informal independent study with one of my post-1865 American literature survey students, and that steered me back to Slaughterhouse-Five, which I wrote about in my first WLA article. Then at SUNY Fredonia, another student saw how much I loved teaching Cat’s Cradle, and she encouraged me to teach a major author class on Vonnegut’s writings. So I guess you can say that student interest along with Marc Leeds’ invitation to join the Kurt Vonnegut Society in 2008 ultimately served as key vin-dits. Like Newt Hoenikker, I’m entirely self-taught. I can say, however, that the path to becoming a Vonnegut scholar has been filled with peculiar travel suggestions in the finest sense.

Christina Jarvis is Professor of English at SUNY Fredonia, where she teaches courses in 20th-century American literature and culture, including several different major author seminars on Kurt Vonnegut. She is the author of the book The Male Body at War: American Masculinity during World War II, and has published articles on gender, war and embodiment in journals such as Women’s StudiesThe Southern QuarterlyThe Journal of Men’s Studies, and War, Literature & the Arts. In addition to her published essays on Slaughterhouse-Five and Hocus Pocus, she is currently finishing a book about environmental aspects of Vonnegut’s writings.