Kurt Vonnegut was in a mood to talk about writing yesterday. That was a good thing, since seated around him were about 30 students in the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars -- and nearly all could not find a single question to ask one of America's esteemed men of letters.
There was a time, maybe 20 years ago, when college students would have peppered him with questions about the writing of his classic novel "Slaughter-House Five," about his mordant short-story collection "Welcome to the Monkey House," about his satirical style or his observations on America's cultural decline.
But it was 1991, and Mr. Vonnegut, 69, no longer is a campus icon, nor is he in current literary fashion. Yesterday, save some prodding from Writing Seminars professors John Barth and Stephen Dixon, and a reticent question or two from a few students, it was an hour punctuated by awkward silences.
"This happens sometimes," Mr. Barth acknowledged afterward. "I don't know if the students get shy or whatever, but a big-name writer will come in and they just clam up."
But this seemed to bother Mr. Vonnegut not a whit. He was the picture of low-key charm: Rumpled and sleepy-eyed, he stretched out comfortably on the couch, looking bemused and somehow finding the ironic and the quirky in just about everything. He went on genially and wittily about the differences between male and female writers, the role of writing schools, why he doesn't write short stories any more, and What He Really Wishes He Had Done With His Life.
That last question came from Mr. Barth, himself a successful novelist. He wondered if Mr. Vonnegut perhaps had a few woulda-coulda's locked away in his psyche.
"I've achieved all I could possibly have wanted," Mr. Vonnegut answered cheerfully before giving the question a moment's thought. "I wish I had given the world Sherlock Holmes. I wish I had given the world 'The Wizard of Oz.' I wish I had given the world 'Treasure Island.' But I do have to be content with what I have done."
Mr. Vonnegut was in Baltimore for a speech last night at Hopkins, the final speech in the Eisenhower Symposium Series, which has dealt with the topic "The Imprisonment of Ideas: The First Amendment in Crisis." Mr. Vonnegut was to have spoken on "The Importance of Free Speech: Thoughts by an Author," but he dismissed that topic with a few comments -- "I do not think that literature has much impact except as entertainment" -- and, in a free-wheeling detour that was sometimes dead serious, sometimes hilarious, he went on to other matters.
They included the impact of television and his dislike of the war in the Persian Gulf.
Referring to what he called "the slaughter of Iraqi soldiers," he told the overflow crowd at Shriver Hall: "America didn't used to be gleeful about enemy soldiers dying. We didn't celebrate the Japanese dying in World War II, or the SS. It was decent to mourn the enemies. It is television that has made us inhumane . . . without pity. Something terrible has happened to America."
Noting that "Slaughter-House Five" has frequently been banned in this country, he told the audience, "I get letters from the Soviet Union -- I'm pretty big over there, you know. And the people say that they had heard that my books were burned in America, and they were offering them to anybody over here who wanted to read them."
This was quintessential Vonnegut, showing his reputation as a serious, and at times extremely pessimistic, observer of American society (in his last novel, 1990's "Hocus Pocus," he depicts a United States that is financially and spiritually bankrupt).
But during his session with the students, talk veered toward the less philosophical. There was, for instance, this pronouncement
about how male and female writers differ:
"Women can write about almost anything. Men have to do it a couple of streets away -- they use science fiction, cowboy books, mysteries and the like."
Chuckles came from the group. "That's an egregious statement," Mr. Barth told him teasingly.
Mr. Vonnegut smiled. "Women are discussing life all the time," he answered. "Look at high school -- even then, the girls are talking about what is really going on.
"As for the boys, they put on these helmets with holes around the ears" -- he placed his hands around his own ears to illustrate, and he indeed looked quite goofy -- "and they run up and down the field with people yelling at them. That's what I mean." It was an odd illustration but an effective one, judging from the appreciative laughter in the room.
"I really like his generosity, his decency and his humor -- which isn't a sweet humor but somehow doesn't take away from the first two qualities," said Andy Markham, 27, a graduate student in the Writing Seminars who was one of Mr. Vonnegut's few questioners.
Naturally, someone in the group did wonder how helpful a university writing school could be to a struggling author.