Steve Gronert Ellerhoff – Vonnegut and Myth

While Kurt Vonnegut’s signature blend of post-modernism, Twain-style humor, and Indianapolis-bred Americana might seem distant from the structures of classic myth, writer and scholar Steve Gronert Ellerhoff thinks differently. In Golden Apples of the Monkey House: A Post-Jungian Interpretation of Myth in the Short Stories of Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury, soon to be published by Routledge, Ellerhoff explores Vonnegut’s early short fiction and its connection to themes found in myth.

It’s a fascinating study, and in the interview below, Ellerhoff, who earned his Phd. at Trinity College in Dublin, provides insight into his work. For more, visit his website at www.stevegronertellerhoff.net.

Q: Your dissertation, Golden Apples of the Monkey House, is sub-titled: A Post-Jungian Interpretation of Myth in the short stories of Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury. How would you describe a “post-Jungian interpretation” for those unfamiliar with the term?

A: Thank you for this question because to me it’s at the heart of this work. In literary criticism there have been comings and goings of psychoanalytic theory in the interpretation of literature, much of the work having been conducted from a Freudian perspective. The work of analytical psychologist C. G. Jung, with articulations on archetypes, the collective unconscious, and subjective analysis of impersonal dream contents, has always appealed to me more as a theoretical basis. After Jung died in 1961, there was a seemingly inevitable reshuffling of his ideas (It seems to me every thinker that sprouts a following undergoes this.), with new psychologists reacting to, criticizing, and expanding upon them. James Hillman is the most obvious ringleader, encouraging the organization of a field of studies called archetypal psychology from the 1970s up to his death in 2011. So any work deemed post-Jungian—and there is so much out there, and it is remarkably diverse for a field already in the minority—is that which has grown from a Jungian basis while diverging enough to not be overshadowed by it. There are also those who would like to see the field extend beyond the “cult” of Jung, taking issue with tying a psychology connected to ancient traditions of thought to one modern person. One scholar who fits in as a post-Jungian is comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), whose theories of myth became the most popular in American thought during the second half of the twentieth century. His work post-1968 deeply influenced my own perspective.

Q: How did you come to write about Vonnegut in relation to myth? 

A: I came to Mr. Vonnegut later (and Mr. Bradbury even later than that) than most readers. What happened was he spoke at the University of Iowa in 2001 and I was an undergraduate student and friends had been pushing his work on me since I was about sixteen. I’d not read it yet, but his visit spurred me on and I inhaled Cat’s Cradle in time to see him talk. Seeing him enthralled me. I was sitting in the front row next to the president of a nearby community college who brought a crisp, unread copy of Slaughterhouse-Five and was none too impressed by an out-the-starting-gate crass joke that made most others gathered hoot. Seeing an elder get away with what he got away with that evening pitched me into his work. From the beginning, the science fiction motifs and tropes simply spoke to me as being mythic. It seemed he was using these elements in a way similar to Homer’s use of monsters and gods and numinous accoutrements. What I had to do in writing the dissertation was take that sense that Vonnegut and Bradbury were mythmakers and find out, as best I could, how their stories behave like myths and what the historical and archetypal implications of that are for readers.

Q: Why did you choose to focus on Vonnegut’s short fiction instead of the novels?

A: Vonnegut studies has really come into its own in recent years. Despite a few stick-in-the-mud academics out there who will claim off the cuff that Vonnegut is irrelevant, it seems more work is being done than ever before (I was told this by an English Americanist when trying to find where I wanted to go for the Ph.D., and a colleague, another Vonnegutian, was told the same thing in grad school in the United States by an advisor—luckily this attitude, while out there, is not prevalent.). The Kurt Vonnegut Society, which meets annually at the American Literature Association’s conference, and the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library are doing great work. There’s a Vonnegut panel at the NeMLA’s conference in Toronto in May that I get to be a part of—Vonnegut studies is alive and well. For all that, very little work has been done on his short fiction. Apart from Peter Reed’s 1997 book, The Short Fiction of Kurt Vonnegut, and scattered articles, they haven’t been taken all that seriously. Now you can go to the Lilly Library at Indiana University in Bloomington and go through Mr. Vonnegut’s private papers, search his drafts in three large boxes of the short stories he wrote. It’s a similar story in Bradbury studies, though Jonathan Eller has done astounding work in setting up the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at the Institute for American Thought in Indianapolis and editing critical editions of Bradbury’s short stories. Also, the field of short fiction studies is growing and gaining speed and I wanted to be involved in that. So I saw a gap in the scholarship, which is dominated by a focus on the novels, and set about making my own contribution toward filling it.

And funnily enough, when I began this work, I didn’t even like Mr. Vonnegut’s short stories. I thought they were rather superficial, not as exciting or funny or insightful as his later work. But when I got tucked into the material, I fell hard for the relevancy and significance of his short stories. When we unpack them, they tell us so much about white American middle class dreams and fears between WWII and the Kennedy assassinations.

Q: You write that the American trinity of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” comes under scrutiny in Vonnegut’s short fiction. “Harrison Bergeron” is one such story. You write: The story is not “about” rights being taken away; it depicts the fear of rights being taken away in the process of extending them to all members of society.” This was an interesting observation that I hadn’t really considered before. Later you apply this idea to current issues like marriage equality and the Affordable Care Act. Can you discuss this further? Do you think most readers at the time picked up on that idea in “Harrison Bergeron?”

A: “Harrison Bergeron” is such a marvelously slippery story when it comes to how people have read it. It appeared first in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (Oct. 1961) and then was reprinted in National Review by William F. Buckley, Jr. (16 Nov. 1965) before being widely anthologized and taught to high school students across America—an astounding life cycle for a short story. The varying audiences those publications attract make gauging its reception difficult, but it seems a lot of people I’ve talked to take the story at face value. The way its imagined future U.S. government “handicaps” those characters possessing traits considered to be above average has certainly been read as a fable that warns against constant ever-lurking dangers to American liberties. However, there is another layer to this story, perhaps masked by the simplicity of the prose—I’m not sure exactly. The absurdity of the situation, of the “handicapping” weights and devices, of Harrison’s towering stature and ceiling-jumping prowess, direct us more toward the cartoons than a stark Orwellian vision of something that might actually come to pass. That and any piece of fiction worrying over rights in the early and middle 1960s ought to remind us, in context, of the Civil Rights Movement. These characters are all white Americans, they’ve had their innate “gifts” “handicapped” by an oppressive government, and they’re shown to suffer to stupefaction in a truly nonsensical scenario—it’s all hyperbole of fears white Americans had at the time about extending the rights they enjoyed to groups of people that had previously gone unrecognized and worse. That Buckley reprinted it is bizarre, but again, most people seem to read it as an easy warning about governmental overreach. I presented my work on this story at National University of Ireland, Galway to the Irish Association for American Studies and was on a panel with Adam Kelly who asked, “Does satire work?” It’s a great question, especially with regard to “Harrison Bergeron.” I don’t think many people have read it the way I do, but surely some must have.

Q: In “The Euphio Question” a character states that “People ought to be happy.” You point out that the word “ought” suggests obligation, which creates a number of issues. Can you discuss that idea further?

A: I try to use “ought” sparingly (having just attempted to use it thoughtfully in the previous answer…). If “Harrison Bergeron” is hiding some of its cards, I think “The Euphio Question” is really quite straightforward. It was one of his earliest published stories and its premise of a bliss-inducing frequency from outer space is straight out of Greek myth’s Land of the Lotus-Eaters. That said, there’s something sophisticated in the way he handles this constant urge in Americans to be happy. Here, constant happiness is shown to atrophy the experience of being alive. The characters are all rendered useless and without any ability to take care of themselves when high on happiness. Mr. Vonnegut wrote and spoke openly of depression in his life and his work is privileged by his own initiation and experiences with despair. It seems to me there’s a real benefit, a public service, in how—and even that he addressed these aspects of life which are painful. The American myth of the pursuit of happiness, both foundational and cliché, creates a sense of happiness as an ultimate destination in life, when happiness, for most folks, comes and goes over the course of any given day. Jung’s view was that emotions happen to us. And so what is the point of prioritizing one feeling over the rest, especially when what makes one person happy makes another utterly miserable? This sense is present in “Euphio,” which brings that old Lotus-Eater lollygagging myth into the American radio era.

Q: Your dissertation includes many of the original illustrations that accompanied the stories, most of which I had never seen. Was it difficult to obtain them?

A: This was one of the real joys of researching the short stories and thank you for bringing them up because the illustrations absolutely have an effect on how the stories were first read. A few of them were difficult to track down, but I had some luck and help, too, from others. Chris Lafave, curator of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, pointed me in the right direction for several texts. John Anthony Miller, who was friends with Ray Bradbury, actually sent me rare texts—an astounding and much appreciated gesture. Jonathan Eller, when I visited the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies, opened his banks of filing cabinets and got me everything I needed and more—he even got me that first publication of “Harrison Bergeron”—Vonnegut found at the Bradbury Center! So I’m very much indebted to him. I also found the Collier’s stories bound in massive volumes of the magazine at the Des Moines Public Library, which I visited on my Christmas visits home from Ireland. Actually, yes, finding the initial publications while studying in Ireland was a geographical hurdle, but eBay came through on plenty of the magazines and I was able to build my own collection of nearly all of the stories I analyzed in the dissertation. And the artwork, so often, is beautiful. Collier’s paired Vonnegut’s work with a painter named Tran Mawicke, whose two-page spreads are worth our attention. In so many cases it’s a real shame that this art has gone largely unseen since these initial publications.

Q: “Welcome to the Monkey House” was published in Playboy in 1968. You write that on one level the story satirizes the magazine in which it was published. How so?

A: “Welcome to the Monkey House” really is a mess of a story. I continue to struggle in finding ways of talking about it. There’s the way Nancy’s rape is handled—that’s really difficult—but it all needs to be discussed. It’s a privilege to struggle with a story. Vonnegut seems to have been approached about contributing to Playboy with this one, which is interesting because an earlier story also featuring ethical suicide parlors and suicide hostesses, “2BR02B,” was rejected by Playboy. Mr. Vonnegut seems to have resurrected those motifs from the earlier rejected story for this one. An interesting change is how the hostesses in “2BR02B” are masculinized with mustaches while those in “Monkey House” are hyper-sexualized in their uniforms and appearances. That in itself seems to poke fun at the magazine; the exaggeration is comic or reads as though it is intended to be. Billy the Poet, meanwhile, walks around the Kennedy Compound smoking a cigar in silk dragon pajamas: a caricature of the swinging sixties libertine playboy. He also rapes Nancy with the assistance of his followers, who hold her down with a gun to her head. Hugh Hefner’s costume is both lampooned and the attitudes he represents are shown to be dangerous. But the at-times flippant tone doesn’t quite harmonize with the story’s elements. The aims of male sexual domination over women that is inherent in patriarchy seem to be presented as liberating in a men’s magazine whose aims included cracking American Puritanical holdovers regarding sexuality. I think it’s all there in the label on the birth control pill bottle Billy the Poet leaves with Nancy: Welcome to the Monkey House. That isn’t liberation. That’s a return to the enclosure in the zoo where, previously mentioned in the story, primates pass the time masturbating. He says he offers freedom with those pills but really he’s offering a regression to the patriarchy of his forefathers. More control, women kept for the sexual gratification of men—it all reads like it’s satirizing Playboy, but then the flippancy makes it difficult to tell where that begins and ends.

Q: In writing about “Report on the Barnhouse Effect,” you write that an “aspect of psychological cleansing simmers between the lines of the report.” Can you discuss that further?

A: So this story was the first one Vonnegut had published and it’s almost like an overture to his career in the literary arts. We have the clever framing structure of everything being told as an official report to the government. We’ve got two veterans who did not enjoy the war and are not hopeful about international stability in the world. We’ve also got dynamophyschism, which is what we would call psychokinesis, which takes the story in a metaphysical direction. The cleansing present here is in the friendship formed between the narrator and Professor Barnhouse, who suffers the tell-tale signs of post-traumatic stress. It’s interesting what the narrator divulges and what he withholds. Ultimately, the report is an act of protection, of standing up for his mentor and friend who has gone missing, and whose disappearance, we are told at the end, is being followed by the narrator. These are two individuals who are striving to live as human beings in a society that actively wants to use them as weapons. The achievement is that they strike a living balance by retreating from exploitation. That sense that the narrator is saying far less than he could, which is difficult to achieve in fiction, attests to this. All this and more in Mr. Vonnegut’s very first published story. Amazing!

Q: Why did you choose Vonnegut (and Ray Bradbury) as the focus of your scholarly work?

A: I may have been unabashedly selfish in this decision. See, I’d managed a cinema for a year and a half and then was the Director of Wind-Up Toys at a toy store for five years before I went back to school, as they say. I didn’t feel ready in that time to conduct a years-long study, but the distance from academia gave me time to consider seriously what I would like to do. And when I was twenty-nine I thought, “You know, really tucking into stories by those guys sure would be fun and I don’t think it’d drive me batty.” The idea, too, of focusing on their short fiction was another selfish act; while many scholars will spend four, five, six years on a single novel when writing their dissertation, I haven’t got that in me. Studying short stories is great for a long study because it’s almost like building yourself a playlist for the upcoming years. You get to hop around track to track if you want, you can hit repeat on one story until you know it front to back, and you don’t have to linger on something if it’s a bit heavy. The variation in stories ended up keeping the process fresh and new like I’d hoped it would. Beyond that, I saw the neglected works of two writers deserving of attention, crossed my fingers about the post-Jungian approach being new and compelling to others, and found a fantastic supervisor who told me I could do it; Philip Coleman at Trinity College, Dublin, with encouragement and a professional invitation to study under him, changed the entire course of my life by okaying this work when it was only an ambition.

Q: When did you first start reading Vonnegut? Do you have a favorite novel or story?

A: I came to his work late! Like I said, I was an undergraduate—twenty-one. But I came to Mr. Bradbury even later. I was somehow twenty-seven before I read anything by him, which is appalling to me. I think it also changed the way I relate to their work though. I didn’t consume them when I was a teenager like so many readers do. I was missing out, but I’ve worked hard to catch up.

As far as a favorite Vonnegut novel or story, it’s liable to change on any given day. I was just asked this question with fellow Vonnegutian Sarah Smith at the Night of Vonnegut dinner in Indianapolis on Sunday. We had a great bunch of people at our table and got to talking favorites. I said Bluebeard there for novels but after going through his first draft of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater at the Lilly Library on Monday with Sarah, I think today it’s that one. There’s so much he cut from it! A whole Ph.D. is waiting to be written on that!

And favorite short story…oh heck, the one with the rudest title: “The Big Space Fuck” (1972). It’s the last short story he wrote and it synthesizes so many of the types of characters and scenarios present in his short fiction spanning the first two decades of his career in the literary arts. I read it as his swan song to the form. It also seems to anticipate the rise of The Muppet Show with the way those mutant lamprey eels devour the characters as they leave the house. There’s something about big things eating not-as-big things that shouldn’t be funny at all, but the odd stylist can really make that a bellyacher of a situation.

Q: You’re a fiction writer as well. How would you describe your fiction? Is Vonnegut an influence on your creative work?

A: Mr. Vonnegut is absolutely an influence on the creative side of things, yes. I think the big thing in finding him and Ray Bradbury was finding Midwestern voices so much like my own doing the sorts of imaginative pirouettes I would love to achieve someday. Both authors were of my grandparents’ generation and I’ve always been drawn to that generation of writers, having been so close to my grandparents. So reading them sort of feels like I found some great uncles I didn’t know I had. And the way they don’t hold themselves to a single genre appeals, writing everything from smushy love stories to space adventures to serious war stories to comic farces. I’d already been writing fiction for some time before I read them, and my own tendencies skip across genres, too. So perhaps their work showed me I was another descendant of a storytelling heritage or tradition. And of course, being so attentive and focused on the craft, they set the standard high for those who would come later. And thank goodness for their having done that.

Q: Any future plans for scholarly or creative work? Do you think you’ll continue to write about Vonnegut or move on to different authors?

A: I’m bringing out two more books of fiction this year. One is a collection of short stories called Tales from the Internet and the other is a novel called The Hedgehog’s Dilemma. As far as scholarly work goes, I’m working right now on a research monograph that is growing out of my dissertation. Of course I hope this work I’m doing on Mr. Vonnegut’s and Mr. Bradbury’s short fiction will contribute to the discourse surrounding them as important authors. I’m also co-editing a critical collection of essays on George Saunders with Philip Coleman, my former supervisor—an exciting project because it is set to be the first book on Mr. Saunders, which seems impossible to us, his work being so significant in our own time. I am also building up a collection-worth of essays on Star Wars. And I’ve got designs on something to do with Thomas Hardy’s romances and I’d love to shine some light on what Ron Currie, Jr,’s been doing, but those projects are early days yet. I can certainly see myself returning again and again to Mr. Vonnegut in the future though. His work is worth engaging with, always will be, and don’t let anybody tell you any different.

Thank you so much for reading my dissertation and asking these great questions. It’s a great pleasure to be invited to talk about Mr. Vonnegut’s work on the Daily Vonnegut.

Steve Gronert Ellerhoff earned his Ph.D. in English at Trinity College, Dublin, in 2014. He just accepted Routledge’s offer to publish a research monograph based upon his dissertation in their ‘Research in Analytical Psychology and Jungian Studies’ series, to be titled Post-Jungian Psychology and the Short Stories of Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut: Golden Apples of the Monkey House. Other critical work underway includes co-editing the first collection of essays on American short story writer George Saunders with Philip Coleman of Trinity College, Dublin, for Palgrave Macmillan.”   He is also the author of Time’s Laughingstocks, a novel, and his short stories have appeared in The Flexible Persona, Fourteen Hills, The Adroit Journal, Stimulus Respond, Pantheon, and other fine publications. He is currently at work on The Hedgehog’s Dilemma: A Sketch of a Temperament, a novel, and Tales from the Internet, a collection of stories. Links to his fiction may be found at www.stevegronertellerhoff.net