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Influential Author Kurt Vonnegut Dies at Age 84

April 12, 2007 at 6:40 PM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: Kurt Vonnegut’s books, a reviewer once wrote, are “like nothing else on Earth.” Several generations of readers agreed.

Known for his dark humor and often compared to Mark Twain for his social bite, the mustachioed, chain-smoking Vonnegut created alternate, fantastic worlds for his characters, many based on his own life.

Beginning in 1952 with “Player Piano,” Vonnegut wrote 14 novels, including “Cat’s Cradle,” “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,” and “Breakfast of Champions.” The last, “Timequake,” was published in 1997. He also wrote plays and nonfiction.

Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis in 1922 and served in the Army during World War II. He was held as a prisoner in the German city of Dresden during the allied firebombing of the city in which many thousands were killed. It was an experience that shaped his strong anti-war views.

Vonnegut spoke on the NewsHour on the 40th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

ROBERT MACNEIL, Former NewsHour Host: Kurt Vonnegut, can you tell us where you were 40 years ago and what you thought about the bomb being dropped?

KURT VONNEGUT, Author: My brother was with me. And when we heard the news, he was able to gauge the enormity of this news because he was a physicist. He is Dr. Vonnegut.

And he understood immediately that a new, absolutely intolerable dimension of weapon had come into the world. And so he brought that home to me very quickly. And I had seen devastation, not at all on that order, but tending in that direction, of course, in the firebombing of Dresden.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Dresden experience also shaped the novel that catapulted Vonnegut to a kind of cult fame, “Slaughterhouse-Five,” the story of Billy Pilgrim, a young World War II POW. Published in 1969 to wide acclaim amid the Vietnam War, it was made into a movie in 1972.

Many of Vonnegut’s novels were bestsellers. Some were the target of attempted bans for alleged obscenity.

KURT VONNEGUT: It distresses me deeply that ideas are not to be circulated freely in this country if certain persons have their way. One of the things that was great about this country was that I could say anything and that everyone else could say anything and we would compare all possible ideas and arrive at opinions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Prone to bouts of severe depression, Vonnegut attempted suicide in 1984. His mother had taken her own life during World War II.

On the PBS program “Now” in 2005, Vonnegut talked about the search for happiness, as he described two characters in “Slaughterhouse-Five,” based on his uncles — one good, one bad — and what the good uncle thought humans were missing.

KURT VONNEGUT: What he found objectionable about human beings was they never noticed it when they were really happy.

So whenever he was really happy, you know, he could be sitting around in the shade, in the summertime, in the shade of an apple tree, and drinking lemonade and talking, you know, just sort of back-and-forth buzzing like honey bees. And Uncle Alex would all of a sudden say, “If this isn’t nice, what is?” And then we’d realize how happy we were, and we might have missed it.

And the bad Uncle Dan was when I came home from the war, which was quite painful. He clapped me on the back and said, “You’re a man now.” I wanted to kill him.

Vonnegut endured tragedies

Alan Cheuse
Novelist and Critic
I think there's a direct line between [Mark] Twain and Vonnegut. Born in the middle of the country, and I guess they looked at life a little bit more sharply than we did ... they looked a little more deeply at life.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kurt Vonnegut suffered brain injuries in a fall several weeks ago. He died in New York last night at age 84.

With me to discuss Kurt Vonnegut is writer and political satirist Christopher Buckley, author of 12 books, including "Thank You for Smoking" and his latest, "Boomsday." He's also won the Thurber Prize for American Humor.

And Alan Cheuse, long-time book critic for National Public Radio, he's also a novelist and teaches writing at George Mason University.

Well, Christopher Buckley, writing funny but saying something serious. How did Vonnegut do that?

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY, Author, "Boomsday": Well, you know, just listening to that very nice clip, he was a guy who endured terrible tragedies in his life.

His mother committed suicide. At the age of 23, was holed up in a basement in Dresden with 500,000 people dying around him. His sister was killed, and his brother-in-law died in a train crash the next day. His son had a nervous breakdown that he wrote about.

I was struck by not only how much he physically resembled Mark Twain, but how Mark Twain also had endured terrible personal tragedies in his life, and yet emerged with this comic voice.

So I think Vonnegut had those two components. He was an emblem of, I think, wounded humanity, and yet he somehow saw through it and was able to wink at it, which is really quite a triumph, when you think about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alan Cheuse, how do you account for his style and the power and appeal of his writing?

ALAN CHEUSE, Novelist and Critic: Well, it does go back to Twain, a Midwestern satirist of enormous talent, genius. I think there's a direct line between Twain and Vonnegut. Born in the middle of the country, and I guess they looked at life a little bit more sharply than we did, because perhaps there was less immediately to see, and so they looked a little more deeply at life. And he's continued that line of serious humor, funny seriousness.

"So it goes"

Christopher Buckley
Author
"So it goes" became a kind of a catchphrase during the time of Vietnam. Before we used the word mantras, it was kind of a mantra. I guess it was the "whatever" of its day.

JEFFREY BROWN: I was starting to re-read "Slaughterhouse-Five" this afternoon. A few things jumped out. One is the deceptive simplicity or ease of the writing. It's easy to read, but it also goes down hard.

ALAN CHEUSE: Yes. I think that's -- when you see a novel that seems so simple and so transparent, you know, there's a tremendous genius at work there. I think it sort of hobbles along, and it keeps your interest from sentence to sentence. You know, you have a sentence that's made up of -- a paragraph that's made up of one sentence or two sentences, and then you go onto the next. It seems simple, but he pulls you in that way.

JEFFREY BROWN: And those phrases, like "so it goes," that became emblematic.

ALAN CHEUSE: "So it goes," yes, it becomes almost biblical the way he repeats it, especially at the end of the Dresden bombing.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: "So it goes" became a kind of a catchphrase during the time of Vietnam. Before we used the word mantras, it was kind of a mantra. I guess it was the "whatever" of its day.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, you raise an interesting thing because, to put him in his context, time and place, it was interesting. In all the obituaries today, it always said -- it had a phrase something like "required reading for the counterculture." But that was true, wasn't it? It really became something that people had to read at a certain time.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: Well, if it's fair to say that his big novel was "Slaughterhouse-Five," it came out, I believe, in 1969, which was just about the peak disillusionment year of the Vietnam War, a time when all the college campuses were having -- where the university administration was being taken over. So there was sort of a confluence there.

It's curious to note, Jeff, one of his great friends and neighbors was Joseph Heller. They lived not far from each other in the Hamptons. Joe Heller's -- they were both veterans.

Joe Heller saw the war in Europe from 15,000 feet as a navigator of a B-17. He flew...

JEFFREY BROWN: And who wrote "Catch-22," among others.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: Kurt Vonnegut, curiously, was underneath all that, quite literally. Heller's "Catch-22," arguably the great comic novel of World War II, came out in 1961. Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five" came out in '69. They both, these two World War II veterans who knew each other, became literary titans of that event, bracketed the '60s.

Poisoning minds with humanity

Alan Cheuse
Novelist and Critic
He seems to just lope along, and lope along, and before you know it, you're immersed in this book.

JEFFREY BROWN: One other thing I noticed, he seemed to accept this public role of a writer. There was a quote that caught my eye. He said, "His goal in writing novels was to catch people before they become generals and senators and presidents and poison their minds with humanity." You know that one?

ALAN CHEUSE: Poison their minds, right.

Yes. Yes. Every writer has, I think, at least three lives, their ordinary life -- and in this case, as Chris pointed out, a life filled with all sorts of turmoil and tragedy, a private life.

Then he has the public life, and this was where he waded into the public argument, putting these books out and hoping that they would affect the minds and the hearts of one generation, two generations. I mean, we've got another war on our hands, and this book seems appropriate, also.

JEFFREY BROWN: You told me you were re-reading it today.

ALAN CHEUSE: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And?

ALAN CHEUSE: And it works beautifully. It works beautifully. I want to go back and re-read it again.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: We were talking about this earlier. That copy of "Slaughterhouse-Five," how many printings has that book been through?

ALAN CHEUSE: Ninety-four.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: Ninety-four. Well, I don't think we need to discuss whether or not Kurt Vonnegut will last. I think the indications are that he's lasting.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, one of the things we were talking about earlier even in our office here, it is read in high school. "Cat's Cradle" is read; "Slaughterhouse-Five" is still read in high schools.

ALAN CHEUSE: That's where the deceptively simple style comes in. I think it seems quite democratic. The high-minded readers can enjoy it; the people who are just trying to grasp a book from sentence to sentence can read it.

But I think that's very clearly a strategy on his part. He seems to just lope along, and lope along, and before you know it, you're immersed in this book.

Young people's literature

Christopher Buckley
Author
[W]ill he be remembered as an author of juvenile fiction? Maybe. But so I'll name you a couple of other authors of juvenile fiction: Robert Louis Stevenson and, again, to return, Mark Twain.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does that in a way, though, put him into a different box, you know, the young people's literature?

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: The author of juvenile fiction? Well, we were talking earlier about, when Alan and I last or when you last read his books, to be utterly honest, I think the last time I read Kurt Vonnegut was in the '70s, about when I was in college.

But if you're asking, will he be remembered as an author of juvenile fiction? Maybe. But so I'll name you a couple of other authors of juvenile fiction: Robert Louis Stevenson and, again, to return, Mark Twain. So...

ALAN CHEUSE: And Swift.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: And Swift, sure. So that's not such a bad thing to be remembered as. I'll take it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Pretty good company, huh?

Alan, you told me he wrote his own epitaph? We have a few seconds here.

ALAN CHEUSE: In "Man Without a Country," he wrote his own epitaph. He said, "If I should ever die, god forbid, let this be my epitaph: The only proof that he needed for the existence of God was music."

JEFFREY BROWN: If I should ever die, god forbid.

ALAN CHEUSE: Surprising from this irreverent character.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: You remember Swift's, Jonathan Swift's epitaph that he did -- I'll have to improvise slightly -- but, "He is now beyond the reach of the world's capacity to lacerate his indignant heart." And I think that's probably also a fitting epitaph for Kurt Vonnegut.

ALAN CHEUSE: This is the third life of the writer, his reputation that goes on after he's in the ground. I think he will go on.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, Alan Cheuse, Christopher Buckley, thanks both very much.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: Pleasure.