Teaching Vonnegut and Race: An Interview with S. G. Ellerhoff

Teaching Vonnegut and Race: An Interview with S. G. Ellerhoff

Over the past few years a renewed focus on the issue of race in America has entered the public conversation.  In 2021, writer S.G. Ellerhoff taught a class at the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library (KVML) on Vonnegut and race as part of KVML’s annual Teaching Vonnegut seminars.  Ellerhoff facilitated a lively discussion as the class, many of whom were teachers, explored how Vonnegut examined America’s troubling history of racism in works like Breakfast of Champions and Mother Night. 

Ellerhoff shared his thoughts on the experience with The Daily Vonnegut.  

DV:  In 2021, you taught a class at the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library (KVML) on Vonnegut and race.  What brought you to that topic? Did they ask you to address it or was it something that you had proposed?

S.G. Ellerhoff:

It was something that I proposed, and they were very receptive to it, which was really encouraging. I wanted to think about it because this goes back a little bit to my PhD work where I was looking at short stories by both Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury.

In the course of that work, I came across two stories by Ray Bradbury where he very explicitly dealt with racism, “Way in the Middle of the Air” and “The Other Foot.”  But it never fit into what I was doing on my PhD., and so I put that on the back burner.

After I finished, I had a chance to go back to those Bradbury stories. But since I had focused on both of those writers (Bradbury and Vonnegut) so much, they are paired within me in a strange way. So I wrote an article about those Bradbury stories, but hadn’t focused on Vonnegut’s approach to racism, which I wanted to do because as you know, there’s a lot there.  It was from wanting to do something about Vonnegut’s take on racism that made me think of asking the Vonnegut Library if we could talk about that in a Teaching Vonnegut seminar.

DV: Which books did you choose to focus on in your class?

S.G. Ellerhoff:

I wanted to run it as a seminar, and I wanted to get breakout rooms going so people could split into groups. I had handouts of different parts from different stories; some of the extracts were about Howard W. Campbell Jr., the white supremacist and fascist American (from Mother Night) who shows up in Slaughterhouse-Five.

We had extracts on Campbell, and an extract from Mother Night, the section with Dr. Lionel J.D. Jones, the dentist who publishes The White Christian Minute Man.

We also looked at Dwayne Hoover and Wayne Hoobler in Breakfast with Champions, and Mary Hoobler from Deadeye Dick as well. There were also some interesting bits out of God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, where Kurt goes to the afterlife and sees James Earl Ray, and then John Brown.

So, there were some interesting moments to explore. In the seminar, I did a little preamble before we split into groups, and the groups could pick which extract they wanted to focus on.  Then we all came back together and discussed what we had found or thought that we had.

There’s always a danger, I think, in these kinds of seminars to pat myself on the back for doing my part in talking about this difficult thing because it is such a deeply uncomfortable topic to discuss since so much pain and trauma comes out of it.  Nevertheless, I felt like it was really important to talk about, and talk about in groups as well. With the Bradbury article, for the most part, I was working on my own, then putting it through peer review. I had interactions at a remove with people as it was being crafted, and that felt weird in a way. There’s a desire to actually meet with other people and talk about the tough stuff.

DV: What were your thoughts about how the participants reacted to the material?

S.G. Ellerhoff:

I was so impressed. They were so thoughtful. Many of them were knowledgeable about Vonnegut and expressed that they wanted to talk about all of this. That was the feeling that I got from everybody, and people were from different locations around the country as well.  It was a great group. We were dispersed and there was a feeling that we could talk about racism in Vonnegut’s work, how he dealt with it, where he dealt with it, et cetera. I was absolutely impressed by them.

DV: Breakfast of Champions is one of the novels in which the issue of race is more prominent. What do you think Vonnegut was hoping to achieve? It’s mostly through the story of Wayne Hoobler that race comes to the forefront.

S.G. Ellerhoff:

I love Breakfast of Champions because your question plays out so well with that book in any number of directions. What was he hoping to achieve? It’s such a complicated work. Marc Leeds, beloved Vonnegut Studies Godfather to so many of us, said, “When exploring Vonnegut, don’t start with Breakfast of Champions; go through the other works, and then come to it last because there’s so much going on.”

Regarding racism in that book, one of the things that really interests me is that he flags right away that he’s talking about these two old white guys. He flags these people as being white in the very beginning. So, then when we do meet Wayne Hoobler and we find out that he’s Black, that lands in a different way.

What’s interesting about him coding the characters as white in the beginning is that, at that time, not many fiction writers seemed to do that. Toni Morrison had written about how whiteness was just assumed. Many literary scholars as well have been pointing this out more recently, and even to this day, there is just an assumed whiteness to the characters in so many works.  So, to see him right away flagging, “Oh, hey, this is about two aging white guys on a planet that’s dying fast.” It’s centering race right from the beginning. The contrast, obviously, in Breakfast with Champions, is between Dwayne Hoover and Wayne Hoobler. It’s an ongoing thread.

DV: Dwayne Hoover’s original name is actually Hoobler.  The family changed it because they don’t want the association with the black residents of the city.

S.G. Ellerhoff:

That’s right. That’s the shame of white supremacy coming out in that character’s family history. Nowadays, one of the things we’re talking out in our culture is intergenerational trauma, and Breakfast with Champions definitely explores those elements.

DV: There’s a sentence to the effect that “color was everything” when he’s contrasting Dwayne and Wayne.  It carries so much weight because it’s an absurd statement, but it’s also true. That’s what makes it so powerful.

S.G. Ellerhoff:

Yes, totally. I used to show students the bit about 1492 in the opening chapters, about the sea pirates and the Indigenous people, and the passages about color.  Vonnegut uses such simple language to make it even more resonant.

DV: He uses the “N- word” quite a bit in Breakfast of Champions, which obviously is problematic now, but was also problematic in 1973, when it was published.  Do you think his use of the word creates a problem that might keep readers from engaging with the novel in 2022 and beyond?

S.G. Ellerhoff:

I think the “N-word” is always a problem, and unfortunately, it is a problem that persists. I see it as a situation where literature has an opportunity to portray what’s going on, what has happened and what could happen. Things like that slur exist, and one way of grappling with that is literary exploration.

I think it probably does pose a problem for Breakfast of Champions, and that’s okay.  Many people do understand this about the world we live in. There is literature of the way we would like things to be.  And there’s also literature of the way things seem to be. There’s room for all of it. That’s my own opinion. What is your take on his use of the “N-word”?

DV: I don’t want to try to get into Kurt’s head, but at the time, it was a legitimate, illegitimate word.  There was a large population that would have used that word quite casually. I’m not particularly young, but there was never a point in my life when that word was socially acceptable.  But for my parents’ generation, and Kurt’s generation, that was not true.  It was a word people would use as a noun.    

Vonnegut was of that generation where he would have heard that word used in that context. Perhaps, by using it, and I know certain artists will argue, that when you use a word not as a slur or in a hurtful way, you’re draining it of some of its power. So, maybe Kurt was trying to do something like that, showing the absurdity of it. 

I think it’s used to highlight the dehumanization of Wayne, but also an entire race of people.  If you wanted to focus on dehumanization, it’s a perfect word to use. Because Breakfast of Champions is all about dehumanization.  Everybody’s a robot except Dwayne Hoover.

 S.G. Ellerhoff:

I agree with that, and I like the way you put it. At that time, it was a legitimate, illegitimate word. It’s such a horrible word and its horribleness comes from all the damage that it has done and continues to do. Who knows what was going on, what was rattling around in Kurt Vonnegut’s mind?  But we do have a very good and very strong indicator that one of the most important people in his life was an early caretaker he had, who was a Black woman named Ida Young, who was the Vonnegut family’s cook in Indianapolis.

He spoke about her in 1970 to a group of college students. We have that on the record. In Indianapolis in 2007, which was being declared the Year of Vonnegut, he planned to talk about Ida Young, but he never delivered that speech because of his death.

He was coming back to Indianapolis, and he wanted to talk about how important she was to him, how lonely he was as a child, and how she had read to him as a child. The act of reading to a child, if you’ve been on the receiving end, or if you have been privileged to be able to read to children, it’s one of the most intimate, special things you can pass along to young people.

Kurt even remembered the name of the book that she would read to him from, which was called More Heart Throbs. And I have a copy of it. I tracked it down because I work in bookselling. It’s an interesting little book, about 447 pages long. It’s kind of a Chicken Soup for the Soul book. Lots of poems and pieces from newspapers.

He said so much of his sentimentality came from this book, which was read to him by Ida Young. It’s very clear that he loved her very much. It’s an interesting aspect of his upbringing and his identity as well, that he was very close as a child to a Black woman who worked in his home.

DV: He said something to the effect that she was more of a mother to him than his real mother.

S.G. Ellerhoff:

Yeah, absolutely. He spent more time with her than with his own parents, and that was by his own estimation.

DV: When we think of racism, particularly at this moment in the United States, we think of issues of white and black. But certainly, antisemitism plays into it, which brings us to Mother Night.  You included some Howard W. Campbell in your lesson. He’s a fascinating character, Howard W. Campbell, because the reader really isn’t sure what Campbell believes.  How did most people in the class interpret Campbell?

S.G. Ellerhoff:

That’s a great question. He’s like a QAnon Shaman.  I see him as this grotesque pathological expression of American nationalism that is still with us.  Today when I read Slaughterhouse-Five, where Campbell is dressed up in costume, I thought, “Oh, this variety of American has always existed.”  Kurt Vonnegut was aware of these things, which seem much more prevalent and out in the open currently.

There’s this strange tackiness to what he calls patriotism. It reminds me of President Trump’s inauguration, where Kellyanne Conway had on this red, white, and blue outfit, and the buttons on her jacket had kitty cat faces on them.  It’s a hodgepodge of iconography in dress to signify that we’re very proud to be American citizens. It just seems to be alive and well. Obviously, Vonnegut was taking all of it to task, calling it out. But Campbell is mercurial, and we never quite get a definite read on the guy.  In some ways, that’s the most troubling thing about that character, and maybe, in some ways, a troubling aspect about white supremacy and racism.  It’s very hard to get a hold on it and identify exactly what it’s doing.

DV: I see Campbell as a guy who’s playing a role and in getting caught up in the roleplaying, it brings out aspects of his character that perhaps he was not aware of to the forefront. Suddenly, he becomes that character.  It’s right there in the Introduction, the famous line about being careful who you pretend to be.

I see Trump as a very Campbell-like character, a guy who doesn’t really believe in anything except himself.  He saw an opening and he played a role, and now he believes that role, with great destructive effect.

S.G. Ellerhoff:

Absolutely. I hear people talking about this all the time. What does Trump actually believe? And it very well could be just like you say, he doesn’t believe any of it. It’s just that the part has overtaken him. He’s trapped himself. I’m sure you have wondered, as I have, what would Kurt Vonnegut be saying nowadays?

In some ways, I felt, “Oh, thank God he didn’t live to see the Trump administration.”  But to see how he went after Bush and Cheney in A Man Without a Country, he was so politically invested. In Jailbird, he went after Nixon and McCarthyism.  So, I have wondered what Vonnegut books we might have gotten out of the Trump era.

 DV: He believed in the promise of America. It’s woven throughout his work. At the moment, that promise seems fairly dark.  I think Kurt’s response would have been one of great sadness.

S.G. Ellerhoff:

Yeah, I think you’re right. Everything he did points to that. It’s funny how he could hold so much sorrow and yet tell these dynamic stories with characters who will make you laugh out loud.

He found a way of doing a thing that only he could do. And for a writer, that’s the highest achievement one can hope for.

DV: For your seminar at KVML, the audience was mostly teachers and not traditionally aged college students. You’ve taught at the college level.  How do you think a younger group might have responded about this topic?

S.G. Ellerhoff:

I was very lucky to get a glimpse of what that might be like. I taught American literature at a community college, and one of the books that we read was Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. That book is very wrapped up with the problem of racism and slavery and Lincoln, and the students completely lapped it up, they loved it.  It was their favorite book of the semester, and it was really fun.  I was fortunate to be teaching at a time when students were ready and eager to talk about those issues and were bringing in examples of things that had just happened.

I had a student who’s from Vietnam tell us that he’d just come from psychology class and a student in there, a white student, very proudly said, “I’m racist, I guess, because I was brought up to believe that white people are better than everybody else. And I just happen to believe that’s true. That’s just how I see the world, and I guess other people see things differently.” Nobody knew what to say. The psychology instructor didn’t know what to say, and so they didn’t say anything.

In our class, “American Literature Since the Civil War”, we ended up talking about it, in “American Literature Since the Civil War.”  I have heard there are people who are very reluctant to bring any of this up in a college class, but my experience working with college students has been that they were very ready to talk about it and have mature conversations.

DV: That’s great to hear, as this is certainly a time when we need mature conversations.  They seem in limited supply. 

Let’s talk about your short story, “Shooter in Residence”, recently published by Granfalloon.  Vonnegut fans should appreciate it as a spiritual cousin to his story “Harrison Bergeron.”  Please tell us about it.

S.G. Ellerhoff:

Thank you for asking. I came back to the United States from living in Ireland for four years, and I realized after I’d been back for a little while, that I had awareness of certain potentialities in my day-to-day living that I had not carried with me as I lived those years in Ireland.

Ireland, of course, has a very complicated past with terrorism, yet despite that, never once did I fear at all about a mass shooting happening while I lived there.

Yet, when I came back home, I was very aware that this was possible. I found it all dismaying. I was in Ireland when Sandy Hook happened. I had already been disgusted by all of that, basically all of my life.

And so, I found myself in a position where I was able to imagine what might happen in the future if this occurs at every school? And what if there was one school left where it didn’t happen, and what if the people at that school felt left out and wanted to make it happen.  The fact that I could imagine such a thing was very disturbing, and I decided to try and write a story from there.

DV: You certainly pulled it off and I hope it gets the attention it deserves. Thank you for writing it, and thanks for sharing your thoughts about Kurt Vonnegut.

Note: “Shooter in Residence” was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. 

 S.G. Ellerhoff’s previous interview with The Daily Vonnegut on the importance of myth in Vonnegut’s work has can be read here.

  • Marc Leeds
    Posted at 07:56h, 30 November Reply

    Humbled as I am by Dr. Ellerhoff’s kind words, your discussion with him touched upon what Vonnegut would think of Trump and I did that in a 2017 article that can be found at https://lithub.com/what-would-kurt-vonnegut-think-of-donald-trump/

    • Chuck Augello
      Posted at 13:57h, 30 November Reply

      Thank you for sharing the link, Marc. It’s well worth reading.

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