Biographies are too much, often, all the everyday dramas and difficulties, normally piled up in a thick volume. Even when there is a lot to tell, about the family and childhood pain and peer interaction and everything else, a biography is no substitute for the author’s own spirit, in his own words. Underneath all the cussing and cackling there was a sadness about Kurt Vonnegut, as well as a steady middle-American goodness. I miss him as I miss a handful of other patriarch novelists of my father’s generation.
In a 1976 Christian Century interview Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) said that after twenty years of writing he was “…looking around for something else to do”. He observed that other fiction writers seemed to have anger to draw on “to keep them going to the end”, but he did not have anger to harness for creative energy.
Vonnegut’s son Mark wrote of the contradictions in his father’s life: “He was like an extrovert who wanted to be an introvert, a very social guy who wanted to be a loner, a lucky person who would have preferred to be unlucky. An optimist posing as a pessimist…” I would add that Kurt Vonnegut seemed to me like a religious man who kept his distance from the creeds and folderol of American Protestantism. Throughout his life Vonnegut sailed just offshore from the docks and landings of the mainline churches. Free there, and unbound by denominations, he could still gaze approvingly at the teachings of Jesus and at the churches that “helped African-American citizens maintain their dignity and self-respect, despite their having been treated by white Americans…as though they were contemptible and loathsome, and even diseased”.
Vonnegut was a World War II prisoner of war who, at the end of his life, witnessed the tragic foolishness of the Iraq war. An American patriot from Indiana, rooted in the idea of civic responsibility, that war saddened him. Again, his son wrote of his father: “He couldn’t help thinking that all the money we were spending blowing up things and killing people so far away, making people around the world hate and fear us, would have been better spent on public education and libraries.”
Vonnegut was cynical and pessimistic. The heaviness of the world pounded down on him. He had an unhappy childhood but he found a friend in the family’s African-American housekeeper and cook, Ida. She read aloud to young Kurt, poems, verses and stories. A Methodist, she talked about the Bible. The attention she paid to Vonnegut when he was a boy stayed with the writer the rest of his life, in the form of a certain undercurrent of tenderness:
“There is an intolerable sentimentality in everything I write…Robert Scholes, the American critic once said that I put bitter coatings on sugar pills….At least I am aware of my origins–in a big, brick dream house designed by my architect father, where nobody was home for long periods of time, except for me and Ida Young.” (p. 18)
I heard Vonnegut speak one time. He talked about racism in America and the plot of Hamlet, and many other things. He took questions from a large audience. He told jokes and shot his fingers through his curly hair.
“If Jesus were alive today,” he wrote in the notes for what turned out to be his last public presentation, “we would kill him with lethal injection. I call that progress. We would have to kill him for the same reason he was killed the first time. His ideas are just too liberal.”
Kurt Vonnegut told us memorable, important stories about life and death in times of war and peace. He told a lot of jokes and swore a lot, to hide a lot of pain, I suppose. He was bothered by human cruelty and always wished we could try to be a little kinder to one another.