All Vonnegut fans should be familiar with the work of Jerome Klinkowitz, whose many books include the recent The Vonnegut Effect and Kurt Vonnegut’s America. He is currently University Distinguished Scholar and Professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa. An early supporter of KV’s work, Klinkowitz’s writing exhibits a deep understanding of the Vonnegut oeuvre and an ability to place that work in the social and literary landscape of its time.
Klinkowitz recently responded to several questions from The Daily Vonnegut:
Q: You’ve written extensively about Kurt Vonnegut throughout your career. What first drew you to his work?
A: It was early in 1966, and I’d just mired myself in a very traditional MA program in English Literature. Languishing in a Chaucer seminar, I pleaded with a Philosophy grad student for something good to read. He was a great iconoclast and malcontent, and so when he said, “Kurt Vonnegut” I guessed this was just what I needed, especially as the guy was funny as hell.
Q: You’ve been publishing books about Vonnegut since the 1970’s. How has your view of his work changed over time?
A: Over time my views of KV haven’t really changed, as I caught onto him with the 1966 edition (second, first hardcover) of Mother Night, to which he had added the autobiographical preface. This is where he found his fictive method of putting himself into his work, which he exploited ever afterwards. So I found him just as he’d discovered himself, a method that remained consistent throughout his career, expanding only when he began using the same method (fiction=fact=fiction) for his personal journalism, which is as good as his fiction for this same reason.
Q: Many of Kurt’s later novels (Deadeye Dick, Galapagos, Bluebeard, Hocus Pocus) don’t receive the same level of attention that his work from the 1960’s and early 1970’s receives. Where do you think those later novels stand in the Vonnegut canon?
A: Kurt’s later novels do seem to fall off. He himself graded Slapstick as a D-. I sensed a decline as early as Breakfast of Champions, where he’d encountered much trouble writing (for the first time) as a famous author whose every word would be heeded as gospel. Who needs that, except an egomaniac, which is the opposite of what Kurt was.
Q: You knew Kurt Vonnegut personally. Did your relationship with him provide any insights that helped you better understand his work?
A: Knowing Kurt personally simply reaffirmed that the man himself was exactly like his books. Kurt has said that when people heard him speak (as did Granville Hicks at Notre Dame in the mid-1960’s) they tended to understand and like his work better. It’s that vernacular voice, much like Twain’s, that does the trick, both on the page and in person. By “voice” I mean the entire attitude and basis of value.
Q: Was there anything about Vonnegut that surprised you over the years?
A: What surprised me about Kurt? That he’d spend time with me. Of course, I was a fellow Midwesterner (a high value), had “stayed home” (an even higher value), and was a colleague and friend of his very close friend Loree Rackstraw. But then he was pretty nice to everyone, except when his blood sugar would plummet and for a moment he’d get crabby, like Jesus on the cross at the end. But even Jesus recovered his cool, and pardoned the thief. That’s my mantra: one thief was saved.
Q: Which do you think are his three strongest novels?
A: Mother Night, Cat’s Cradle, Timequake, and Slaughterhouse-Five. I need four. Beware three’s.
Q: If God Were Alive Today was abandoned by Kurt and clearly not meant for publication. Yet it was published in 2012 as part of We are What We Pretend to Be. What do you think of the work that’s been published posthumously?
A: I deplore the posthumous publications, as they were rejected three (whoops!) times: by Kurt’s agents, by his magazine editors, and by himself, who did three (!!!) reharvestings over the years. As weak writing, they give ammunition to his irrationally hateful detractors.
Q: Do you have any future Vonnegut projects in the works?
A: My future: a book on posthumous Vonnegut, sorting it all out. Dan Wakefield’s work, for instance, has been brilliant, and supports the true picture of KV.