Vonnegut and Hemingway – An Interview with Lawrence R. Broer

While a surface reading of each man’s fiction might find little connection between Kurt Vonnegut and Ernest Hemingway beyond the trauma of war, as Lawrence R. Broer shows in Vonnegut & Hemingway: Writers at War (The University of South Carolina Press, 2011) the relationship between the two writers is deep and complex. Broer’s book  “maps the striking intersections of biography and artistry” between Vonnegut and Hemingway, exploring the ways in which they blend life and art.  It is well worth reading.


A long-time Vonnegut scholar, Broer’s earlier book, Sanity Plea: Schizophrenia in the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut, offered a broad psychoanalytic study of the author’s work, and was called by the Journal of Popular Culture “…among the very best in Vonnegut studies.”


Broer shared his thoughts with The Daily Vonnegut.


Q: In Vonnegut & Hemingway: Writers at War, you describe Hemingway as the “secret sharer” of Vonnegut’s literary imagination. How so?


A: I, of course, allude to Joseph Conrad’s wonderful novella, “The Secret Sharer,” about two sea Captains who represent opposing sides of the same individual, mankind’s impulse to cruelty and violence versus a capacity for self-awareness, control, and cooperation. Like Conrad, like Einstein and Freud, Vonnegut understood that unless human beings learn to understand and control their destructive tendencies, civilization is doomed. Vonnegut viewed Hemingway’s love of blood sports, killing big animals for pleasure, in this context. But just as in Conrad’s story where the protagonist’s bestial self is unconscious, I suspect Vonnegut was never fully aware of the deeper, more personal reason for his compulsive portrayal of Hemingway as his “bête noir,” a fatalistic self for whom suicide was forecast from an early age, and to which Vonnegut repeatedly refers in and out of his fiction, e.g., “I had recently turned seventy-three. My mother made it to seventy-two. Hemingway almost made it to sixty-two” (Timequake). I think Vonnegut believed that resisting the pull of his defeatist self was necessary not only to fulfilling his role as canary-bird-in-the-coal mine, but to life itself. As I wrote in Vonnegut and Hemingway: Writers at War, Hemingway joins Billy Pilgrim, Kilgore Trout, and Kurt Vonnegut Sr. as the author’s chief scapegoats, carrying his burden of trauma and despair.



Q: A legacy of family suicide is a major influence for both writers. How did this influence manifest in Vonnegut’s fiction?


A: Vonnegut and Hemingway’s uncanny similar experience as soldiers and as children of suicidal parents (Vonnegut’s mother, Hemingway’s father) made Vonnegut‘s darker identification with Hemingway inevitable. As was the case with Hemingway, Vonnegut told me, “I come from a family of depressives.” We know that Vonnegut admits to suicidal thoughts in Breakfast of Champions, and that he was hospitalized for depression. Off the top of my head I can think of a suicidal character in nearly every Vonnegut novel, if not all. Not sure about Player Piano, but Salo in Sirens of Titan essentially commits suicide when he dismantles himself to protest his robotic nature. Fred Rosewater kills himself in God Bless You Mr. Rosewater. There’s “Lover’s Leap” and death by Drano in Breakfast of Champions. Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five delivers himself to Paul Lazzaro knowing he will be killed. So it goes with Leon Trout’s mother and the Captain in Galapagos and Eliza in Slapstick, and Kilgore Trout tempts Leon to kill himself in Galapagos. Add Colonel Sam Wakefield (a Hemingway surrogate) and Hiroshi Matsumoto in Hocus Pocus. Resi Noth poisons herself in Mother Night and Campbell hangs himself. All are people so demoralized and will-less that like Paul Proteus in Player Piano, they fill with “lie down and die.” Hemingway’s suicide is more on Vonnegut’s mind than ever in his final novel, Timequake, where he creates a virtual litany of people—such as his mother and father, his sister Allie, and Hemingway—“who hated life and secretly wished for it to end.” He identifies Hemingway and himself as “polar depressives,” people convinced that only 17 percent of people on the planet have lives worth living, and links Vonnegut’s suicide mother and Hemingway in the same sentence.



Q: The book frequently references Vonnegut’s play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June, a work that is often overlooked. What place does Wanda June hold in Vonnegut’s body of work?


A: The fact that the play is Vonnegut’s most direct and prolonged assault on Hemingway as hunter-killer, the part of Hemingway he says he detested, was critical to my exploration of Vonnegut’s on-going hostility toward Hemingway. In the guise of the bellicose Harold Ryan, Hemingway’s counterpart in the play, the Vonnegut personae Harold Woodly decries Ryan’s macho posturing, his demeaning of women, and his glorification of war as stupid and dehumanizing. Finding it disgusting and frightening that a killer should still be a respected member of society, he ridicules Ryan as a living fossil, as obsolete as cockroaches or horseshoe crabs. He asks Ryan, “Don’t you laugh even inwardly at the heroic balderdash you spew?” By contrast, Ryan accuses his sidekick Shuttle of unmanliness—“You’re hollow, like a woman.” He’s alarmed that men now wear beads and refuse to fight, puzzled that women adore them for it. When Harold equates a good life with fighting well, Harold’s wife tells him, “The old heroes are going to have to get used to this, Harold—the new heroes who refuse to fight. They’re trying to save the planet. There’s no time for battle, no point to battle anymore.” Sounding a bit Trump-like, Ryan declares that “America’s days of greatness are over.” It is clear from his work, and Vonnegut wrote to me about this, he saw Hemingway’s self-created machismo undermining Hemingway’s personal and artistic growth and contributing to his tragic death. Though the critique in Vonnegut’s play is directed at Hemingway’s work as a whole, it’s a great source for understanding Vonnegut’s sense of himself as “canary-bird-in-the-coalmine,” a sort of spiritual medicine man devoted to exposing the dangers of aggression and irresponsible mechanization, while shaping us a more benign and creative future. Articulating the author’s moral outcry from Payer Piano to Timequake, Woodly declares, “Gentleness must replace violence everywhere or we are doomed.”



Q: Vonnegut and Hemingway both suffered psychic wounds from their involvement with war. How did each man deal with these wounds, and how did it inform their work?


A: When I first addressed the question of “wounds,” I explained that while Vonnegut escaped Hemingway’s physical wounds, their career long efforts to deal with the psychic damage was very similar, the purging of which, as Frank McConnell says, allowed both writers to come to terms with their experience of “apocalypse.” In fact Charles Shields in his biography, And So it Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, shows us that Vonnegut’s wounds as a 20 years old prisoner of war were physical as well, not as permanent as Hemingway’s, but torturous enough. Not only did Vonnegut experience near death by starvation and frost bite, and constant waves of strafing and bombing, but was beaten and knocked unconscious for insubordination while standing up for abused fellow prisoners. What matters is that coupled with the traumas of childhood, family insanity, and battles with depression, each writer’s wounds were equally complex and psychologically damaging, conscious and unconscious. In Fates Worse Than Death, Vonnegut cites the plight of the sleepless soldier as his and Hemingway’s common foe, referring to Hemingway and others wounded or dead that are close to him—his sister, his first wife, Jane—as “now trying to get some sleep with the lights on.” It took years and successive attempts before either writer could face such experience directly, spread out over a lifetime. In Kilgore Trout’s words, “these were memories he could only exorcise by telling what they were.” Using their work as therapy and self-discovery, both writers make what Vonnegut calls in Slaughterhouse-Five his “duty dance with death,” a painstaking process of literary exorcism by which the authors become ever more open and courageous definers of embattled childhoods and traumatizing war.



Q: You write that at the midpoint of each writer’s career, both experienced a “spiritual crossroad.” Where did that crossroad lead Vonnegut, and how did his path differ from Hemingway’s?


A: Well of course Vonnegut refers literally to such a “crossroad” in Breakfast of Champions when he writes of “crossing the spine of a roof—having ascended one slope” and that he was writing as an act of “cleansing” and “renewal “for the very different sorts of years to come.” In an act of rebellion against his old, more pessimistic self, he determines to turn his fictional world on its head, dismantling the familiar trappings of his literary cosmos, including waving good-bye forever to all his old characters, “setting them free.” In a strikingly similar manner, Hemingway, acting as his own protagonist in Death in the Afternoon and Green Hills of Africa devises a new, more confident relationship to his world and a more bold set of rules for ordering the meaninglessness, the “nada” that cost him youthful ideals, and like Vonnegut left him vulnerable to the impersonal mechanisms of a godless universe that created the wounds of Fossalta and Dresden. While these respective manifestos solidify each author’s notion of what living “decently” or “humanly” in the modern world means–creating a hero, literally himself—who feels he has learned the correct way to live in the world that has crippled him, Vonnegut in an act of psychic breaking (Harold Bloom’s concept) adopts kindness and restraint as moral imperatives while the narrating Hemingway of Death in the Afternoon and Green Hills of Africa appears to advocate power and aggression as a right way to live in the world. It is in this more aggressive masculine persona we come to understand more fully the mystery of Hemingway as Vonnegut’s demonic self, the pessimistic, potentially suicidal self he was driven to purge. As Vonnegut’s letters to me confirm, rather than Hemingway reinventing himself in the manner of Harold Ryan in the surprising climax to Happy Birthday, Wanda June, Vonnegut saw the real-life Hemingway remaining as fatalistic as ever. He maintains that view of Hemingway to the end of his life, climaxing in Timequake where Trout, Kurt Senior, and Hemingway merge as one symbolic father figure, the voice of pessimism Vonnegut battles in himself throughout his career.



Q: The book examines how both writers struggled to balance the masculine and feminine in their interior lives. How did this influence each man’s fiction?


A: I should preface my answer here with the reminder that no two writers could be more similarly autobiographical—that each successive appearance of their protagonist becomes the sum of what has happened to them before and whose wounds and hopes for recovery are nearly always those of their creators. That said, two of the three meanings of my book’s subtitle, “Writers at War,” are obvious—writers sharing the horrors of literal battlefields, and writers at war with cold, unfulfilled, and depressed parents– alienation that Vonnegut says made his parents look like the “walking dead” and Michael Reynolds says turned the Hemingway household into a “bloody family battleground.” After reading my discussion of his portrayal of deeply repressed childhood experiences in his later fiction that had to be faced as he confronted the traumatic experiences of war in Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut told me he now understood why his work offended so many readers—that it was his violation of the commandment that we honor our mothers and fathers.


But it is the third meaning of my title that I believe goes to the deepest, most personal part of each writer’s work—the war within themselves in the ceaseless combat of anima and animus for control of their creative imagination. The common experience of their adolescent characters with unloving mothers and defeated, will-less fathers so cripples the protagonist’s ability to love it causes characters like Nick Adams and Vonnegut’s Rudy Waltz to curse life itself. But it is the coldness or absence of non-nurturing mothers that creates the protagonist’s most serious psychological wounds. What Kathryn Hume says of Edith Lieber Vonnegut applies equally to Grace Hall Hemingway—that Vonnegut’s mother so contaminated the author’s inner picture of women that the feminine in his early works becomes “an absence . . . through which a chill wind blows.” Mark Spilka describes Hemingway’s wounded feelings toward his mother as beginning in “passive resentment,” then hardening into permanent adolescent hatred. Vonnegut wrote to me that “My play {Wanda June} is about the decline of the ancient system of patriarchy in which women are the property of men.” The irony of Vonnegut’s critique of Hemingway’s perverse, overbearing masculine response to women in Wanda June is that he suffered the same feelings of vulnerability and impotence resulting in fear of women and flight from the female in himself that Jung calls “a mechanism of deprecation and denial.” Both writers and their maimed protagonists repress or submerge a caring, core self while presenting what Jung calls a false, desensitized self to the world. The outer mask—passive in Vonnegut’s case—is no more a successful response to the hero’s sexual wound than the aggression of the Hemingway persona Vonnegut so detests and scorns in the character of Harold Ryan.


Yet the redemptive achievement—the rescue of the masked, denied, or betrayed feminine, the feared or rejected mother–is exactly the same in the late works of both writers. The same empathetic, creative female force that inspires the evolving moral sense of Hemingway’s Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls, Colonel Cantwell in Across the River and into the Trees, and Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea aids the psychic integration and liberated creativity of Wilbur Swain, Walter Starbuck, Leon Trout, and Eugene Debs Hartke. A significant moment comes to Eugene, for instance, when he achieves what Carl Rogers calls “the striping away of false facades. “It was as if you took off a mask,” Muriel Sparks tells him. It’s about this time that Vonnegut declares, “How feminine I have become.” The instructive mother-nurturer figures in these works all help balance the author/hero’s complex sexual identify and feminize the hero’s character and art for the better. The names change, but as Jung’s “guiding star” their task is always the same—to direct and inspire the men in their lives to become more honest about their feelings, and more daring in their artistic expression.


My great regret is that if Vonnegut had read Hemingway’s posthumous novels and stories, which I’m convinced he had not, works, in which Hemingway faces masculine sins against the women in his life and the female in himself in a startling direct way, I am sure he would have seen that their quests for psychic healing and redemption, painstaking, psychotherapeutic work over a long period were exactly analogous—an increasingly open and honest conversation with the suppressed or denied feminine, a willingness to access what Jung called “dangerous knowledge” about themselves that allowed both writers’ protagonist to come to full strengths as artists.



Q: You’ve made several references to Vonnegut having written to you. What was your experience corresponding with him?


A: Even before Vonnegut and I began writing to one another, he replied to a letter one of my students wrote him in 1975 about my interest in Vonnegut’s fiction, concluding that “I think the guy who wants a government grant to enable him to examine my work is nice, but overboard.” I’ve thought of myself ever since as “The Overboard Professor,” probably not a stretch. As you might expect, Vonnegut’s letters to me responding to specific questions and to work in progress on my Sanity Plea book, ten of them between 1976 and 2005, were always kind and encouraging. Knowing for instance that I was particularly interested in his childhood, he thought to alert me of the upcoming publication of Palm Sunday, “which contains a lot of stuff about my ancestors and children and so on.” Reacting to a trial chapter I sent him, he said he wanted me to know that while he assumed I knew this, he never had genuinely schizophrenic episodes in his life. “I haven’t ever hallucinated, or been hospitalized or incapacitated for mental illness of any sort. I have been profoundly depressed, but have always been able to keep working somehow.


The medical school at the University of Iowa did a study of established writers at the Writers’ Workshop, myself included, and learned that we were all depressives—from families of depressives. There was scarcely an hallucinator in the lot.”


We know of course that Vonnegut in fact—I’m not sure the year—later committed himself to Bellevue for acute depression. For the record, I diagnosed Vonnegut’ protagonists as schizoid, not schizophrenic, and it was the imagery of schizophrenia, so ingeniously employed, that mainly interested me. While he was always positive about the work I sent him, glad to supply any facts I needed, always encouraging me to keep going, he added an interesting caveat, in effect sanctioning the creative subjectivity of interpretation—“I must, however, stay outside your work or the work of any critic. I can’t play along, and would be foolish to try. Your own energy and creativity would be crippled if you encouraged me to watch too closely. What we want now is Broer’s being Broer as he responds idiosyncratically to the Vonnegut who lives in books, or to whatever else happens to get him thinking what he must.” In another letter, sounding a bit like a disgruntled Kilgore Trout, he tells me he has given up public speaking because the people who see and hear him were almost invariably annoyed and disappointed: “As a West Point cadet said to me after a lecture by me: ‘You can’t be the man who wrote those books.’ It is probably impossible to be the man who wrote those books, whatever one may think of them. I have given up public speaking, and am now trying to give up drinking—for the same reasons. Crowds and booze encourage me to reveal anger and envy and other forms of unfriendliness which I would just as soon not have people know about. You Know?” There is again a bit of Trout’s sanguinity in his response to Sanity Plea. After I handed him a copy at the meeting of the Hemingway Society in Boise, Idaho in 1989, at which he was the Keynote speaker, he wrote immediately that he read it on the plane back to New York. Calling the book “a thunderclap” (an airplane metaphor?) and thanking me for “seeming proofs” that he had” not spent my life in lukewarm and shallow waters,” he cites his career long nemesis Chris Lehmann-Haupt who said to him a couple of years back that “he was sorry, but that he could no longer read me. As a consequence, my books are no longer reviewed in the daily New York Times. As far as the Times is concerned, and the Washington Post, too, I have nothing to mean.” He’s referring to an earlier remark in which he identifies with the sculptress Louse Nevelson who told him she was seventy years old before people realized “I really meant it.” People won’t pay attention,” she said, “until they realize that you really mean it.”


But talk about “thunderclaps,” Vonnegut wrote some months later that while he dared not give Sanity Plea full attention with a novel in the works (Hocus Pocus) since “it is no help to understand what one is really doing,” a “more careful reading” showed I had him “dead to rights”: “It seems to me that you have solved what has long been to me a mystery: why my work is so offensive to some readers. I have said that getting mad at a work of art is like getting mad at a banana split. I thought maybe the issue was my quite conventional religious skepticism or my undying love for the National Recovery Act. Thanks to you, I now understand that it is my violation of the commandment that we honor our fathers and mothers. So be it.” For obvious reasons Vonnegut’s direct responses in later letters to questions about his hostility toward Hemingway were invaluable. The first is a reply to the story I sent him by Ray Bradbury, called “The Kilimanjaro Device,” a response he repeats in Fates Worse Than Death. The story focuses on a person with a magic jeep who encounters a grizzled, terminally ill Hemingway along a wilderness road near Ketchum, Idaho, who offers Hemingway a lift to a better death than the one he was headed for. Vonnegut says the Bradbury story brought “a lump to my throat,” that he realized now that he saw Hemingway “as a good man who blundered into a forest, and never out again. Booze must have had a lot to do with it.” In my view, which Vonnegut obviously shared, the forest was also Hemingway’s self-created machismo, the rigid and aggressively male persona represented by Harold Ryan in Happy Birthday, Wanda June. Vonnegut’s last letter to me details his impression of Hemingway as a brutalized and artistically diminished writer whose life and work were essentially done by the writing of The Old Man and the Sea. In his view too much manly posing and two-fisted-drinking had turned Hemingway into “a Shakespearian buffoon of hyperventilating manliness.” Vonnegut suggests Hemingway’s conspicuous shows of virulence were not only an effort “to prove his unfeminine nature,” but perhaps to disguise “homo-sexual panic” he felt for Fitzgerald. Vonnegut sent me a postcard the very next day that reads in bold print, “PLEASE FORGIVE MY LETTER. I HAVE OBVIOUSLY GONE BANANAS.” My son said to me, “You know why he did that, don’t you Papa? His wife read the letter and said, ‘Are you crazy, that guy’s going to print that.’” But as I argue in Writers at War, Hemingway, as we see in the posthumous works, did escape that “forest of machismo,” doing exactly what Vonnegut does, accepting the feminine creative principle within himself that enables both writers to create a new, more humane, and artistically daring career. It remains a great regret that I did not encourage Vonnegut to read Islands in the Stream, The Garden of Eden, and Under Kilimanjaro before he died. I’m convinced they would have changed or at least softened his view of Hemingway’s late life and work.



Q: When did you first start reading Vonnegut’s work? Do you have a favorite among his novels? 


A: My reading of Vonnegut started with Slaughterhouse Five, which as I explained earlier I read as entirely pessimistic. But then I read Happy Birthday Wanda June when a colleague asked me to talk about it in his Humanities class. I was staggered by the contrasting palpable optimism of the play. How could the author of so pessimistic a work as Slaughterhouse have also written the buoyantly life-affirming Wanda June? Which was the “real” Kurt Vonnegut? It was with Vonnegut’s declaration in Breakfast of Champions that, “I was very sick. I pronounced the word ‘Schizophrenia,” that I began to explore the two Vonnegut’s and essentially formulate the overview of his work that constitutes my book, Sanity Plea: Schizophrenia in the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut. I saw that not only were there two voices in Vonnegut– a voice that denies versus one that affirms– but that schizophrenia offered a major understanding of the tragic division within his characters. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve since related this to Bakhtin’s concept of dialogic “double voicing,” a strategy of competing texts whose meanings are on-going and require the reader’s own creativity. This led me to understand how wrong-headed my view of Slaughterhouse-Five had been. A more careful reading showed me that rather than fatalistic, the novel he called his “duty dance with death” was his repudiation of fatalism, not its affirmation. There were all sorts of tip offs I missed in my initial reading, such as Vonnegut’s personal appearance in the novel that differentiates him from Billy Pilgrim, and more importantly understanding that the infamously violent, authoritarian, and fatalistic Tralfamadorians do not, as numerous scholars conclude, speak for the author. It was one of my students who in discovering Tralfamadore as anagram (“or fatal dream”) sealed the deal—Vonnegut’s warnings of Pilgrim’s lunatic fantasies of helplessness in the face of authoritarian control as the death of will and humanity.


As to a favorite, that’s hard to pin down. Probably whichever one I’m reading at the time. The novels are so interdependent that you are bound to miss something important from any one of them if you overlook its importance to the whole. In that respect I’d say Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions are the most important because they look both backwards and forwards to his creative and spiritual evolution. And they are great works on their own. Sirens of Titan and Cat’s Cradle have psychological depth and amazing subtlety of craft easily missed by the outwardly simple style. Vonnegut in Deadeye Dick perfects ingenious metafictional strategies that define his work the rest of the way. Bluebeard is simply exquisite, for me the most aesthetically pleasing of all. Okay, if I were exiled to a desert island the rest of my life with only one Vonnegut’s book to read, it would be God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Not exactly sure why. I think Vonnegut said Eliot was his favorite character; mine, too, probably.



Q: Why do you think Vonnegut’s work continues to resonate with readers?


A: I cannot imagine a writer who gives us us a more rational, caring, and informed critique of our troubled times than Kurt Vonnegut. Given the dangerous, chaotic state of world affairs, and what Vonnegut would have called the greatest PP (pathological personality) of them all at the helm of the “Bahia de Darwin” (Vonnegut’s symbolic ship of state steered by a mad Captain in Galapagos), Vonnegut’s persistent warnings about the erosions of democratic freedoms, fanatical religions, nationalistic fervor, the avarice of corporate America, indifference to the environment, the suffering of those without wealth or influence, robotic machines taking over human functions, and the apathy of millions of Americans like those who failed to vote in the last election, could not be more salient. It was with this in mind that I entitled my first Vonnegut book Sanity Plea: Schizophrenia in the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut: my overview of his work as a plea for less greed and aggression and more rationality and respect. Thinking of the mindless aggression of terrorism across the globe and the madness of North Korea’s nuclear experimentation, the chances of the fatal rocket set off in Galapagos that ends the world have quadrupled since Vonnegut left us. Could Vonnegut’s oft referenced “Sermon on the Mount,” the heart of his plea for common decency, be more timely in light of a narcissistic President who, in Howard Campbell’s words in Mother Night had no ability to imagine the “cruel consequences of his lies,” and a cowardly Republican congress determined to dismantle democracy’s safeguards and further disenfranchise the poor and reward the rich?


“Without consciences,” Vonnegut says, “without senses of pity or shame,” these psychopathic personalities threaten to “disconnect all the burglar alarms prescribed by the Constitution, which is to say The House and Senate, and the Supreme Court.” Vonnegut explains that PPs are “fully aware of how much suffering their actions will inflict on others but do not care. They cannot care . . . An American PP at the head of a corporation, for example, could enrich himself by ruining his employees and investors and still feel pure as the driven snow. A PP, should he attain a post near the top of our federal government might feel that taking the country into an endless war with casualties in the millions was simply something decisive to do today.” Vonnegut said this 10 years ago. It might have been yesterday. “Unlike normal people,” he says, “PPs are never filled with doubts for the simple reason that they cannot care what happens next . . . Privatize the public schools! Attack Iraq! Cut health care! Tap everybody’s telephone. Cut taxes to the rich? Fuck Habeas corpus and the Sierra Club . . . and kiss my ass.” Faced with the daunting prospect that his country was now headed by C- students whom he calls “boisterous guessers,” “haters of information who knew no history or geography, and, worse, who were “pitiless war-lovers” with appallingly powerful weaponry, Vonnegut asks, “Do you know why Bush is so pissed off at Arabs? They brought us Algebra.”


Vonnegut’s portrait of the amoral lawyer Norman Mushari in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater anticipates yesterday’s headline about how the Super-Rich hide their wealth from measurement and taxation by professional wealth managers, often working in private family offices to “facilitate and lubricate” the family’s fortune. Most pertinent of all Vonnegut’s warnings, he repeats the alarm from Galapagos that apathy, not “giving a damn what happened next,” bred by feelings of powerlessness, had become our national sickness. “Here’s the truth,” he says in A Man Without A Country, ”We have squandered our planet’s resources, including air and water, as though there were no tomorrow, so now there isn’t going to be one . . . I don’t think people give a damn whether the planet goes or not.” Vonnegut proposes that the planet’s epitaph should read: “The Good Earth—We could have saved it, but we were too damn cheap and lazy.” Thus it is that the characters of Galapagos are steered into an apocalyptic nightmare by military madmen. The question I tried to answer in an essay for the Mailer Review ,“Identity Crisis: A State of the Union Address ” (Fall 2008), is whether such despair had not tipped for the worse that delicate balance between optimism and pessimism in Vonnegut, those “battling voices” I refer to, compromising his determination to serve as a healer and agent of change. I am reminded of Vonnegut’s declaration in Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons that regards his “canary-bird-in-the-coal-mine theory of the arts, he and his fellow artists “chirped and chirped” about Vietnam though it made no difference. Nobody important cared. “But I continue,” he says, “to think that artists—all artists—should be treasured as alarm systems . . . devoted to improving the human condition. Our minds are certainly up to that.”


However strong his gloom in A Man Without A Country, however disappointed in the economic and physical violence of his society, Vonnegut was still not ready to stop trying to protect nature or to end his attempts to slow down at least a little bit crimes against “those Jesus Christ said should inherit the Earth someday.” At a time when our morale is lowest and we need him the most, we have only to return to the massive intelligence of his essays and books for belief in the power of creative intelligence to steer us in more sane and humane directions.