Vonnegut on himself, art and humanity

April 15, 2007|By Larry Williams | Larry Williams,Ideas Editor

Kurt Vonnegut, the gentle humanist who challenged Americans to be true to themselves and mistrust technology, wealth and the arrogance of power, died last week, possibly with a bemused appreciation of the fact that all of the ugliest aspects of popular culture he challenged for more than half a century appeared to be thriving.

The author of 19 novels and an array of plays and short stories, he struggled to make a living as a writer of science fiction until the success in 1969 of Slaughterhouse-Five, a fictional treatment of his survival as a prisoner of war during the tragic and senseless Allied bombing of Dresden late in World War II. An estimated 135,000 people died in the Dresden firestorm. The book captured the imagination of a generation disillusioned by the Vietnam War and won widespread critical praise. It has been selected by Modern Library as one of the 100 best American novels of the 20th Century.

Other best-sellers followed but Vonnegut remained suspicious of success. His frequently tangled plots were satirically humorous, his protagonists, bumbling losers, and the enemy was, to borrow from "Pogo," us.

Vonnegut shunned organized religion and battled tirelessly against censorship when he wasn't struggling with repeated bouts of depression. A heavy smoker, he once jokingly threatened to sue a tobacco company for failing to kill him.

"We probably could have saved ourselves, but we were too damned lazy to try very hard ... and too damn cheap," he once suggested as a memorial for the human race to be left for future alien visitors to read.

- Larry Williams

Other thoughts on the human condition from Kurt Vonnegut: "When I think about my own death, I don't console myself with the idea that my descendants and my books and all that will live on. Anybody with any sense knows that the whole solar system will go up like a celluloid collar by-and-by. I honestly believe, though, that we are wrong to think that moments go away, never to be seen again. This moment and every moment lasts forever." Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons, 1974 "You cannot be a good writer of serious fiction if you are not depressed." Undated speech to the American Psychiatric Association

"I do think ... that public speaking is almost the only way a poet or a novelist or a playwright can have any political effectiveness in his creative prime. If he tries to put his politics into a work of the imagination, he will foul up his work beyond all recognition." Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons, 1974

"Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn't well-connected." Slaughterhouse-Five, 1969

"The main business of humanity is to do a good job of being human beings, not to serve as appendages to machines, institutions and systems." Player Piano, 1952

"Poverty is a relatively mild disease ... but uselessness will kill strong and weak souls alike." God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, 1965.

"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." Mother Night, 1962

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