Kurt Vonnegut

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Since Bob Dylan was the surprise winner of this year’s Nobel Prize, those aghast at the announcement (mostly writers without Nobel Prizes) have taken comfort in Kevin P. Simonson’s 1991 Hustler interview with Kurt Vonnegut, in which the author labeled the songwriter the “worst poet alive.” This insult from the guy who turned out Slapstick!

In addition to being wrong about Dylan, Vonnegut’s hatred for the magazine’s infamous owner, Larry Flynt, also seems off-base. It’s not that the publisher was or is a charmer (he’s not), but his “literary output” proved much more influential than Vonnegut’s, with pornography today available on every phone in every pocket. He was right about human nature, whether we like it or not.

If you think that’s good or not depends on what you prefer: a repressed though less outwardly ugly society where things are hidden, or one in which there’s way too much information and everything may be revealed. The latter can be discombobulating, but I think the former is more dangerous.

Click on the exchange below to read a bigger version.


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Well, I hit the mother lode when I stumbled across 32 episodes of Good Night America, the 1973-75 ABC evening talk show (or “second-generation TV news magazine”) hosted by none other than Geraldo Rivera before the whole world knew he was yikes! It’s amazing in that it’s booked similarly to the classic Dick Cavett chat show with eclectic and often button-pushing guests. 

In this 1974 episode I’m linking to (can’t embed), Rivera’s then–father-in-law Kurt Vonnegut acts as the guest announcer at the show’s open and is interviewed at the 56-minute mark. He also reads from a work-in-progress called “Relatives,” which eventually became the god-awful Slapstick (the author’s least favorite of his novels). Additionally, Rivera visits Evel Knievel at Snake River Canyon prior to the daredevil’s ridonkulous stunt there, Bill Withers performs and Seals & Crofts sing their controversial anti-abortion song, “Unborn Child,” and discuss their belief in the Bahá’í Faith. Sweet Baby Jesus! Watch here.

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From Kurt Vonnegut’s 1988 missive to the people of 2088, via Letters of Note, the guidance wise political leaders would give to citizens in regards to Mother Nature:

  1. Reduce and stabilize your population.
  2. Stop poisoning the air, the water, and the topsoil.
  3. Stop preparing for war and start dealing with your real problems.
  4. Teach your kids, and yourselves, too, while you’re at it, how to inhabit a small planet without helping to kill it.
  5. Stop thinking science can fix anything if you give it a trillion dollars.
  6. Stop thinking your grandchildren will be OK no matter how wasteful or destructive you may be, since they can go to a nice new planet on a spaceship. That is really mean, and stupid.
  7. And so on. Or else.


Kurt Vonnegut, who was pained by the inequalities of life–both the natural and man-made varieties–raises the specter of mass extinction during a 2005 interview with Jon Stewart. 

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Before computing was portable, even pocket-sized, some feared it would create a physical distance among people. If anything, it has birthed an emotional alienation because of its virtual nature, the way it feeds, even encourages, narcissism. We’re more connected, but there are more disconnects. Via theody. net, Kurt Vonnegut, that coot, explaining in 1995 why he never made the switch to word processing:

“I work at home, and if I wanted to, I could have a computer right by my bed, and I’d never have to leave it. But I use a typewriter, and afterward I mark up the pages with a pencil. Then I call up this woman named Carol out in Woodstock and say, ‘Are you still doing typing?’ Sure she is, and her husband is trying to track bluebirds out there and not having much luck, and so we chitchat back and forth, and I say, ‘Okay, I’ll send you the pages.’ Then I go down the steps and my wife calls, ‘Where are you going?’ ‘Well,’ I say, ‘I’m going to buy an envelope.’ And she says, ‘You’re not a poor man. Why don’t you buy a thousand envelopes? They’ll deliver them, and you can put them in the closet.’ And I say, ‘Hush.’ So I go to this newsstand across the street where they sell magazines and lottery tickets and stationery. I have to get in line because there are people buying candy and all that sort of thing, and I talk to them. The woman behind the counter has a jewel between her eyes, and when it’s my turn, I ask her if there have been any big winners lately. I get my envelope and seal it up and go to the postal convenience center down the block at the corner of Forty-seventh Street and Second Avenue, where I’m secretly in love with the woman behind the counter. I keep absolutely poker-faced; I never let her know how I feel about her. One time I had my pocket picked in there and got to meet a cop and tell him about it. Anyway, I address the envelope to Carol in Woodstock. I stamp the envelope and mail it in a mailbox in front of the post office, and I go home. And I’ve had a hell of a good time. I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you any different.”


If we’re wise, we play the odds, we take notice, we reduce risk. But some things are beyond our control, at birth and throughout our lives. Some of us get wicker furniture and some bubonic plague. From Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle:

“‘One time,’ said Castle, ‘when I was about fifteen, there was a mutiny near here on a Greek ship bound from Hong Kong to Havana with a load of wicker furniture. The mutineers got control of the ship, didn’t know how to run her, and smashed her up on the rocks near ‘Papa’ Monzano’s castle. Everybody drowned but the rats. The rats and the wicker furniture came ashore.’

That seemed to be the end of the story, but I couldn’t be sure. ‘So?’

‘So some people got free furniture, and some people got bubonic plague. At Father’s hospital, we had fourteen-hundred deaths inside of ten days. Have you ever seen anyone die of bubonic plague?’

‘That unhappiness has not been mine.’

‘The lymph glands in the groin and the armpits swell to the size of grapefruit.’

‘I can well believe it.’

‘After death, the body turns black–coals to Newcastle in the case of San Lorenzo. When the plague was having everything its own way, the House of Hope and Mercy in the Jungle looked like Auschwitz or Buchenwald. We had stacks of dead so deep and wide that a bulldozer actually stalled trying to shove them toward a common grave. Father worked without sleep for days, worked not only without sleep but without saving many lives, either.'”


I recall reading somehwere that Kurt Vonnegut had co-written a screenplay with the odd comedian Steven Wright. The script was unproduced, and I imagine Wright still has it. Anyhow, there’s a new biography of Vonnegut, by Charles J. Shields, which examines the many contradictions of the novelist’s life and his bitter later years. From Janet Maslin’s New York Times piece about the book:

“Mr. Shields is not shy about using the words ‘a definitive biography of an extraordinary man’ to describe his book. And So It Goes is quick to trumpet its biggest selling points. Mr. Shields means to separate image from perception: He depicts Vonnegut as an essentially conservative Midwesterner, proud of his German heritage and capitalist instincts, who developed an aura of radical chic. He also describes a World War II isolationist who aligned himself with Charles A. Lindbergh yet became an antiwar literary hero. And he finds a life-affirming humanist sensibility in a writer celebrated for black humor. How this man would eventually be recruited to brainstorm with the Jefferson Airplane and be hipper than his own children are among the mysteries on which Mr. Shields casts light.

And So It Goes also traces the paradoxes in Vonnegut’s personal life. He was widely regarded as a lovable patriarch, for instance, at a time when he had left his large family behind. He also sustained a populist reputation even when he developed a high social profile in New York with the photographer Jill Krementz, his second wife. Ms. Krementz, who is called ‘hard-wired to the bowels of hell’ by Vonnegut’s son, Mark, clearly did not cooperate with Mr. Shields. The book takes frequent whacks at her, holding her accountable for much of the unhappiness in Vonnegut’s last years.

Mr. Shields provides a good assessment of misconceptions about Vonnegut’s writing. Those impressions persisted throughout his later life, perhaps because the books that followed Cat’s Cradle, The Sirens of Titan, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and Slaughterhouse-Five became increasingly unreadable.

‘On the strength of Vonnegut’s reputation, Breakfast of Champions spent a year on the best-seller lists,’ Mr. Shields writes of that 1973 disappointment, ‘proving that he could indeed publish anything and make money.'”


“Hey, Kurt, you read lips?”:

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The Statler Brothers performing their 1965 ode to alienation, “Flowers on the Wall,” a favorite of Kurt Vonnegut (see: Palm Sunday) and Quentin Tarantino (see: Pulp Fiction).

I keep hearin’ you’re concerned about my happiness
But all that thought you’re givin’ me is conscience I guess
If I were walkin’ in your shoes I wouldn’t worry none
While you and your friends’re worryin’ bout me I’m havin’ lots of fun 

Countin’ flowers on the wall that don’t bother me at all
Playin’ solitare till dawn with a deck of fifty one
Smokin’ cigarettes and watchin’ Captain Kangaroo
Now don’t tell me I’ve nothing to do

Last night I dressed in tails pretended I was on the town
As long as I can dream it’s hard to slow this swinger down
So please don’t give a thought to me I’m really doin’ fine
You can always find me here I’m havin’ quite a time

Countin’ flowers on the wall that don’t bother me at all
Playin’ solitare till dawn with a deck of fifty one
Smokin’ cigarettes and watchin’ Captain Kangaroo
Now don’t tell me I’ve nothing to do

It’s good to see you I must go I know I look a fright
Anyway my eyes are not accustomed to this light
And my shoes are not accustomed to this hard concrete
So I must go back to my room and make my day complete

Countin’ flowers on the wall that don’t bother me at all
Playin’ solitare till dawn with a deck of fifty one
Smokin’ cigarettes and watchin’ Captain Kangaroo
Now don’t tell me I’ve nothing to do

Don’t tell me I’ve nothing to do

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"He is also loaded with facile junk, as all personal journalists have to be."

In 1965, when he was still known as Kurt Vonnegut Jr., the sci-fi novelist wrote, “Infarcted! Tabescent!” for the New York Times, a review of Tom Wolfe’s The Kandy-Colored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby. An excerpt:

“Wolfe comes on like a barbarian (as Mark Twain did), like a sixth Beatle (Murray the K being the fifth), but he is entitled to call himself ‘Doctor Wolfe,’ if he wants to. He has a Ph.D. in American studies from Yale, and he knows everything. I do not mean he thinks he knows everything. He knows all the stuff that Arthur Schlesinger Jr., knows, keeps picking up brand new, ultra-contemporary stuff that nobody else knows, and arrives at zonky conclusions couched in scholarly terms. I wish he had headed the Warren Commission. We might then have caught a glimpse of our nation.

He is also loaded with facile junk, as all personal journalists have to be–otherwise, how can they write so amusingly and fast? His language is admired, but a Wolfe chrestomathy would drive one nuts with repetitions, with glissandi and tin drummings that don’t help much. The words ‘tabescent’ and ‘infarcted’ appear again and again, and, upon investigation, turn out to be not especially useful or piquant. Young breasts (‘Mary Poppins’)–point upward again and again like antiaircraft batteries, and women’s eyes are very often like decals, and transistors are very often plugged into skulls; and feet very often wear winkle-picker shoes.

Then again, America is like that. And maybe the only sort of person who can tell us the truth about it any more is a Ph.D. who barks and struts himself like Murray the K, the most offensive of all disk jockeys, while feeding us information. Advanced persons in religion have been trying this approach for some time. Who can complain if journalists follow?”


Vonnegut profiled in the 1970s:

More Tom Wolfe posts:


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An excerpt from the 2009 GQ article, “Tent City, U.S.A.” an eyewitness account of a latter-day Hooverville in Fresno, California, by George Saunders, the fiercely humanistic short story writer who uses humor the way Twain and Vonnegut did:

“OH, LOTS OF PEOPLE die in here.

The Ho man died. Gladys died. Ferdinand over here died. A guy by the name of Tupac got ran over by a train right here. Richard died, the guy they called the Birdman. He got hit by a train, just back in January, January 31. Because the Mission denied him to stay overnight, he got a blanket from a friend and stayed behind one of the train cars, and lo and behold, they were switching at night, and he was asleep, and evidently they just popped him like a strawberry basically. Really a super guy. But mentally challenged. He would shoot birds, thinking they were there. Very strange fellow. Not with an actual gun, no. Just with his fingers.

There was Edson. He was alcoholic, a good man, but mind you, his son was a professional baseball player. He could have lived differently, but he chose to be out here drinking. There was a lady got hit on the freeway couple months ago. She was crossing the 99, wasn’t paying attention. We’ve had overdoses, stabbings. One homeless guy got burned in his blankets. Some juveniles poured gas on him. We had two people shot here in the past three months. One of them, I was sitting right here when I heard five sharp pops from under the bridge. Then here came this little gal, racing by, shrieking, I told you I’d do it! I told you I’d do it! And she disappeared from Tent City and was never seen again, and the guy she shot in the face died.” (Thanks Longform.)


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A five-minute writing lesson from Kurt Vonnegut, the Mark Twain of our lifetimes. So it goes. (Thanks Open Culture.)

A 1970 Vonnegut commencement address, as covered by Time magazine:

“Like his novels, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s message to the graduating class of Bennington College was by turns desolately winsome, merely bleak and utterly but almost gaily despondent. Confessing to congenital pessimism, Vonnegut told the graduates: ‘Everything is going to become unimaginably worse and never get better again.’

Still, Vonnegut had some suggestions: ‘We would be a lot safer if the Government would take its money out of science and put it into astrology and the reading of palms. I used to think that science would save us. But only in superstition is there hope. I beg you to believe in the most ridiculous superstition of all: that humanity is at the center of the universe, the fulfiller or the frustrater of the grandest dreams of God Almighty. If you can believe that and make others believe it, human beings might stop treating each other like garbage.’

Vonnegut also asked the graduates to take advantage of some of youth’s prerogatives. A ‘great swindle of our time,’ he said, ‘is that people your age are supposed to save the world. I was a graduation speaker at a little preparatory school for girls on Cape Cod a couple of weeks ago. I told the girls that they were much too young to save the world and that after they got their diplomas, they should go swimming and sailing and walking, and just fool around.'”


Michael Silverblatt: “Joan, please pardon me if I cry during this interview." (Image by David Shankbone.)

Michael Silverblatt, host of KCRW’s Bookworm program, is interviewed in the latest issue of The Believer about the many writers he’s conversed with over the years. It’s a fun read. A couple of excerpts follow.


Michael Silverblatt: I was really, really afraid of Joan Didion, simply because she’s a no-nonsense type. She has a mind that aggressively finds the flaws in an argument and the places where you’re trying to burnish your weakness with pretty words. And her attitude is “Everybody’s lying and life is the story we’re telling ourselves in order to stay alive. And an artist sees through the story. Sees through the fakeness of the story to the very bare and difficult impossibilities of the coping mechanism functioning in a true situation of devastation.” I was very scared, and that fear did not lessen, as it usually does with subsequent interviews. In fact, when The Year of Magical Thinking came out, about her husband’s death—that was a really hard interview to do! To talk to someone about the book about the death of her husband just after her daughter had died as well? And she had been talking about it all around the country, giving public readings. I’m in the position of someone extending meaningless condolence. If I don’t extend it, I seem like a jerk, but if I ask tough questions I also seem like a jerk. How was I going to do this interview? I was scared of her subject. Also of having at that time my own parents dealing with illnesses. I said to her, “Joan, please pardon me if I cry during this interview. And I’m very nervous about being unable to speak, because this is a subject that you’ve been handling that I don’t handle very well.” And she took my hand and she said, “I’ll get you through it.”


The Believer: Do you ever become friends with your guests?

Michael Silverblatt: Kurt [Vonnegut] didn’t sign books, he didn’t stay on, he was escorted into a car immediately through a back door, but he said, “Give me your book,” and drew a picture of himself and a bubble coming out of his mouth saying, “Would you be my friend?” and gave me his phone number and he looked at me and said, “I’m so lonely.” I had started reading him before he was discovered, around the time of Mother Night. He meant a lot to me. I had a hunger verging on addiction to enjoy how funny and inventive he was. He wasn’t Pynchon, he wasn’t Barth, he wasn’t Barthelme, he wasn’t the writers he was grouped with, but he had his finger on an American zaniness that hadn’t really been seen since Mark Twain. We began a phone relationship and saw each other several more times before his death.

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