Kevin Brown – Harmful Untruths

One of Kurt Vonnegut’s most enduring phrases is foma, harmless untruths that can make life easier. Yet Vonnegut also explored the opposite—harmful untruths, lies people believe which create havoc for individuals and society. Professor Kevin Brown, in an essay titled “No All Untruths are Harmless: Minor Characters’ Narratives in Slaughterhouse-Five,” examined how Vonnegut brought these harmful untruths to life in his classic novel.  Brown presented the essay to the Kurt Vonnegut Society at the American Literature Association conference in 2017.


Brown shared his thoughts with The Daily Vonnegut.



Q: There are two dominant critical interpretations of Billy Pilgrim’s creation of Tralfamadore in Slaughterhouse-Five. One sees it as a coping mechanism, the other as a means of escape. Which interpretation do you argue in your essay?  


A: I argue that Billy’s creation of Tralfamadore is a means of escape, that he is unable to cope with what he saw in Dresden and the emptiness of his life otherwise. I can understand how other critics view Tralfamadore as a creative and productive reaction for Billy, I just don’t see enough evidence in the novel that Billy ever copes with what he has experienced. His acceptance of the Tralfamadorian philosophy of fatalism (or quietism, as some say) seems to go against everything else Vonnegut seems to be doing in this novel and in his other works.



Q: The essay explores how Vonnegut uses minor characters throughout the novel to demonstrate the impact of “harmful untruths.” One of these characters is Edgar Derby, the soldier who is eventually executed for stealing a teapot . Which harmful untruths does Edgar Derby embrace?


A: Derby embraces the idea of unthinking patriotism that leads countries into war in the first place, but also encourages the young (or not young, in Derby’s case) into those wars as soldiers. While Derby appears heroic in his speech to Howard W. Campbell, that speech is cut off by the bombing, a reminder that the war that such unthinking patriotism leads to will always dominate our world. While most of the other American soldiers question such patriotism, Derby embodies it, which is why the British soldiers want him to be the American soldiers’ leader while they’re prisoners of war. It’s no surprise that Derby is reading Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, as he is similar to Henry Fleming in that others believe Derby is a soldier other soldiers should emulate.



Q: Billy’s wife Valencia provides another example. Tell us about it.


A: Valencia represents a couple different “harmful untruths” in the novel. First, she has accepted society’s narrative about beauty. She repeatedly talks about losing weight, not for herself or for her health, but for Billy. She believes she needs to look a certain way for Billy to be able to love her. More importantly, Valencia reinforces the myth of masculinity and war, connecting those to sexuality. After Billy and Valencia first have sex, she asks to hear his war stories; she believes war is sexy and that Billy will want to tell such stories in an intimate setting. Vonnegut reinforces that connection by pointing out that their having sex for the first time will lead to their son, Robert, who will become a Green Beret, continuing the tradition of young men going to fight in wars.



Q: The British soldiers in the POW camp also exhibit a belief in harmful untruths. How does Vonnegut depict this?      


A: The British soldiers reinforce Vonnegut’s idea of self-generating war fictions. Because they haven’t truly experienced the war, as the Germans captured them early in the fighting, they have created an image of the war and the soldiers fighting it. They forget that young men are fighting the war and how long and awful it has been. Their production of Cinderella shows they have a fairy tale view of the war, one that will have conflict, but will end happily for all involved. Also, it’s their library that has The Red Badge of Courage, which Edgar Derby later reads.



Q: How did you first become interested in Vonnegut’s work?


A: I stumbled on Vonnegut when I first became an English major. I didn’t have much background in literature, so I spent part of a summer trying to read through an anthology of short fiction one of my professors assigned in a Humanities class. I started going in order in the anthology, which was alphabetical, but I hit a long story in the Bs that I didn’t find very interesting; thus, I started from the back and went forwards. I found Vonnegut’s “Report on the Barnhouse Effect,” which I later found out was his first published short story. It was the first time I ever felt like a story said something that truly resonated with me. I was a budding pacifist, so having someone else in the world believe something similar and convey that in fiction made me feel less alone. It reminds me of Vonnegut’s quote: “Still and all, why bother? Here’s my answer. Many people need desperately to receive this message: I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.”



Q: Do you have any plans for future Vonnegut projects?


A: I don’t currently. I haven’t taught Vonnegut for a couple of years for a variety of reasons, so I haven’t dipped back into his work lately. However, I usually come up with an idea for a Vonnegut paper every few years, so perhaps that will change in the near future.



Q: Finally, why do you think Vonnegut’s work continues to find both an academic and a popular audience?


A: I think Vonnegut’s popular because he says what a number of people think and feel, but either don’t have the words to express or the means to express those ideas or feelings. He remains popular among high school and college students because, like them, he will state unpleasant truths, something we always need in our lives. Academically, what impresses me about Vonnegut is that his works are superficially simplistic (he often reinforced that impression by talking about his supposed lack of knowledge of classic literature, something he disproves in his work on a regular basis), but have much more depth the more time one spend with them. I’ve read Slaughterhouse-Five a good twenty times or so, and I continually find new ways to talk about it. The combination of Vonnegut’s popular and academic appeal is what makes him really interesting, as few authors have the ability to span that gap, especially over the course of decades.



Kevin Brown is a Professor at Lee University. He has published a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels, in addition to articles on Kurt Vonnegut, David Mitchell, John Barth, and Ralph Ellison.  Additionally, he has published three books of poetry—Liturgical Calendar: Poems (Wipf and Stock); A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press); and Exit Lines (Plain View Press)—and a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again.