If you had wanted someone to play a modern Mark Twain you would be hard pressed to find someone better than Kurt Vonnegut. Not only, like Twain, is Vonnegut the pre-eminent humorist of his time – he even looks the part (see a picture of Mark Twain and one of Kurt Vonnegut).
I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano in my first political science class – it has been a touchstone for understanding the problem of technology and human dignity ever since. I have read almost all of Vonnegut’s other books, some of his short stories and articles, and the tremendous body of work has strongly affected my thinking. Kurt Vonnegut died yesterday. America lost a great, funny, moral teacher and social commentator – one of our best.
Kurt Vonnegut’s writing has a generosity of spirit, an irreverence for human foibles mixed with a reverence for humanity. A former anthropology graduate student at the University of Chicago (whose exceptional novel Cat’s Cradle was later accepted as his Master’s thesis), Kurt Vonnegut understood human ways and needs, treating them with humor and kindness. To take one example, Vonnegut believed in leveling pride, but not ability. While conservatives hearken to his short story “Harrison Bergeron” collected in Welcome to the Monkey House as a example of the absurdity of leveling ability (by blinding and weighing down the gifted – literally) – a better understanding combines that with his reflections on the limits of pride and human nature. Here are two examples.
“We went back last July for the funeral of our Uncle Alex Vonnegut, the younger brother of our late father – almost the last of our old-style relatives, of the native American patriots who did not fear God, and who had souls that were European.
He was eighty-seven years old. He was childless. He was a graduate of Harvard. He was a retired life insurance agent. He was a co-founder of the Indianapolis Chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous.
His obituary in the Indianapolis Star said that he himself was not an alcoholic.
This denial was at least partly a nice-Nellyism from the past, I think. He used to drink, I know, although alcohol never seriously damaged his work or made him wild. And then he stopped cold. And he surely must have introduced himself at meetings of A.A. as all members must, with the name – followed by this brave confession: ‘I’m an alcoholic.’
Yes, and the paper’s genteel denial of his ever having had trouble with alcohol had the old-fashioned intent of preserving from taint all the rest of us who had the same last name.
We would all have a harder time making good Indianapolis marriages or getting good Indianapolis jobs, if it were known for certain that we had had relatives who were once drunkards, or who, like my mother and my son, had gone at least temporarily insane.
It was even a secret that my paternal grandmother died of cancer.
Think of that.
I will guess, too, that it was loneliness as much as it was a dread of alcoholic poisoning which shepherded him into A.A. As his relatives died off or wandered away, or simply became interchangeable parts in the American machine, he went looking for new brothers and sisters and nephews and nieces and uncles and aunts, and so on. Which he found in A.A.”
This is a wonderful illustration of how human social need trumps individual vanity, among other lessons.
The second Vonnegut example, a joke about the social nature of pride, is one I remember hearing from Professor Cary McWilliams (if my memory is not faulty) and I have never found the source. If my memory errs here, either completely or in the paraphrase, it is nonetheless an anecdote that fits the spirit of Vonnegut (and if you know the source please contact me).
A person dies and goes to heaven. Upon meeting St. Peter he asks to see the greatest writer of all time. He gets introduced to some guy from Indiana who he’s never heard of, and asks St. Peter how this person could be a greater writer than Shakespeare, etc. St. Peter tells him that the writer from Indiana never published.
Kurt Vonnegut did publish – and for that gift to America and the world we all should be tremendously thankful. Get one of his books. Read it. Laugh and learn.