Kurt Vonnegut: A Canary In A Coal Mine Essay, Research Paper
Kurt Vonnegut Served as a sensitive cell in the organism of American Society during the 1960’s. His work alerted the public about the absurdity of modern warfare and an increasingly mechanized and impersonal society in which humans were essentially worthless and degenerated. The satirical tone and sardonic humor allowed people to read his works and laugh at their own misfortune.
Vonnegut was born on November 11, 1922, in Indianapolis, where he was reared. His father was an architect, as his grandfather had been. Though the family’s fortune was eroded during the Depression-his father went without an architectural commission from 1929 to 1940-they were well-to-do. Kurt attended Shortridge High School, where he was the editor of the nations oldest daily high school paper, the Echo. (((high school quote)))
Vonnegut was expected to become a scientist, and when he went to Cornell in 1940, he chose, at the urging of his father, to major in chemistry. (((college quote))) “Chemistry was everything then,” he said. “It was a magic word in the thirties. The Germans, of course, had chemistry, and they were going to take apart the universe and put it together again. At Cornell, he was the managing editor and columnist for its daily paper, the Sun. Among . Among ng and put it together again. At Cornell, he was the managing editor and columnist for its daily paper, the Sun. Among . Among ng and put it together again. At Cornell, he was the managing editor and columnist for its daily paper, the Sun. Among . Among ng and put it together again. At Cornell, he was the managing editor and columnist for its daily paper, the Sun. Among . Among ng and put it together again. At Cornell, he was the managing editor and columnist for its daily paper, the Sun. Among interned as a prisoner of war i!
n Dresden, Germany. It was here that he experienced what would later become the basis for one of his best-selling novels, Slaughterhouse-Five. “(Dresden) was the first fancy city I’d ever seen. Then a siren went off-it was February 13, 1945-and we went down two stories under the pavement into a big meat locker. It was cool there, with (animal) cadavers hanging all around. When we came up the city was gone.” This experience, or rather, disaster, was the Allied firebombing of Dresden in which over 130,000 people, mostly citizens, died for no apparent reason. Despite the horror of the incident, he maintains that the experience did not change his way of thinking, but rather gave him another viewpoint from which to observe the absurdity and cruelty of the human race. “The importance of Dresden in my life has been considerably exaggerated because my book about it became a best seller.” (p. 94 CWV)
Vonnegut returned to the United States determined tp be a writer, and to deal with the experience of Dresden, though it was nearly 25 years before he was able to do so. In May of 1945 he married Jane Marie Cox. His first book, Player Piano, was published in 1952. It is an account of life in the future in a town called Ilium, NY, modeled on Schenectady, where Vonnegut, in his late 20’s, worked as a public relations man for General Electric. The world that Player Piano envisions is run by computers, an idea which he came across while working at General Electric. Only those who can compete economically with the computers-those whose IQ qualifies them as managers or whose trades are not yet automated-are in any way free. Vonnegut was extremely opposed to this type of mechanization, which he saw as threatening and degrading to the dignity of the common man, and therefore, the human race as a whole. The novel’s hero, Paul Proteus, proclaims, “I deny that there is any natural or div!
ine law requiring that machines, efficiency, and organization should forever increase in scope, power and complexity…”
Doing the book was enough to liberate Vonnegut from his job at G.E., a job that he truly despised. He quit and moved to Cape Cod in 1950. Player Piano sold just 3,500 copies, so for the next few years he was forced to support himself with short stories and occasional articles sold mostly to what used to be called the slicks, magazines such as the Ladies’ Home Journal and Collier’s.. His short stories were written for a distinctly commercial audience, out of need of money. “There was a time when to be a slick writer was a disgusting thing to be, as though it were prostitution…I was scorned!” 6 (p. 4 CWV) This time in his career made it difficult to later break into the world of well-known authors, for many critics ignored his work entirely. Apparently, they were unwilling to ‘forgive’ him for having written patently commercial short stories in the beginning of his career.
Space travel and runaway computers gave Vonnegut an early reputation as a “science fiction” writer, but it was never accurate, and Vonnegut’s books have always been more than just fanciful. For a long period of time, the first twenty years of his career, his novels had been ignored by the broad readership he desired, simply because his critics, who were uncertain quite how to categorize him, either dismissed him as a “science fiction” writer, or called him a “black humorist.” Vonnegut said, “I objected to this (science fiction) label because I thought it was narrowing my readership. People regard science-fiction writers as interchangeable with comic-strip writers.” (p. 4 CWV) In response to his involuntary classification as a “black humorist,” Vonnegut said, “One day…this enormous bell jar was lowered over me and I managed to read the label. It said, ‘Black Humor by Bruce Jay Friedman.’ I find the label very mystifying.” (p. 4 CWV) When asked what, amid all the confusion as!
to how to classify him, he would like to be known as, he answered simply, “George Orwell.” (p. 4 CWV)
-impatient humanitarian and disappointed-but-constant optimist
-”whose shirt stories and novels since 1961 have reflected an admirable-if not sinister-blending of H.G. Wells and Mark Twain.” 1 (p. 3 CWV) science + satire
-He found the cultish attention which was given to him by university students during the 1960’s to be “very gratifying.” 2 (p. 3 CWV) On another occasion, he made it clear that despite his success in college bookstores, he does not “have any loyalty to the ‘college crowd.’” 3 (p. 140 CWV)
-As a possible explanation as to why he is so popular among college students, Vonnegut states plainly, “Only kids read books.” (p 139 CWV)
-When asked why he writes, he answered, “My motives are political. I agree…that the writer should serve his society. Mainly, I think they should be-and biologically have to be-agents of change…All artists should be treasures as alarm systems. You know, all artists are paranoid.” (p. 76,77 CWV) In keeping with this idea of political motives, Vonnegut has stated that he deliberately keeps his books short because he wants to be read by men in power, and he knows politicians have neither the time nor the inclination to read thick books.
-Two messages recur through all of Vonnegut’s writing. The first is Be Kind; the second is God doesn’t care whether you are or not. (((quote from GBYMR)))
-”All writers are going to have to learn more about science, simply because the scientific method is such an important part of their environment.” (p. 7 CWV) He goes on to cite that H.L. Mencken and H.G. Wells, two writers for whom he has great respect, started out as chemists.
-”I?ve stayed fairly loyal to the Midwest in my work.” (p. 8 CWV)
-”I don’t plot my books rigidly, follow a preconceived structure. A novel mustn’t be a closed system-it’s a quest.” (p. 9 CWV)
-He was a relentless pacifist long before it was fashionable, and he distrusts institutions as though he were a college student.
-Vonnegut believes that the only thing humor can do is comfort people. (12)
“And besides,” he says, “People need good lies. There are too many bad ones.” (p. 12 CWV)
-Although his war experiences, which form the basis of Slaughterhouse-Five, were a harrowing exercise in absurdity, he is still able to find some humor amid the wreckage. “The fire-bombing of a city is a terrible thing for the son of an architect to see.” (p. 12 CWV)
-Vonnegut does not come across as a literary man in the usual sense. He claims to have learned his trade from manuals on magazine writing. Also, he says that he still isn’t especially fond of writing and wouldn’t mind if he had to give it up tomorrow. When asked about his favorite authors, he responds, without much enthusiasm, “Conrad, Orwell, John O’Hara, and Mark Twain, one of the great short-story writers.” (p. 13 CWV)
-What he is, most profoundly, is an American humorist. He says, rather modestly, “Well, I’m screamingly funny, you know, I really am in the books. I think so.” He is oppressed by the hopelessness of most people’s lives, and wishes that everybody had the mind-blowing opportunities of the rich. Throughout his novels, he attempts to elevate the condition of the unfortunate through humor and through kindness. (((quote from GBYMR)))
-Through his writing, Vonnegut hopes to give people information that will make them kinder. (p. 19 CWV) When Eliot Rosewater, hero of God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, baptizes the twins of a friend, he says, simply: “Hello babies. Welcome to the Earth…There’s only one rule that I know of, babies. God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
-”Unfortunately, military successes are seen as a proof of moral or racial superiority.” (p. 20,21 CWV)
-”I want scientists to be more moral.” (p. 21 CWV)
-”Life soon appears to be a game, and it isn’t. In games the object is to win, but in life the object is not to win…I’ve never written a story with a villain.” (p. 22 CWV)
-”I think everybody’s programmed, and can’t help what they do, but I still oppose the rich and powerful: that’s the way I’ve been programmed.” (p. 22 CWV)
-Near the beginning of his career, Vonnegut sold his books, one for only $500, to support himself and his family. “Publishers always explained very carefully that I wasn’t worth any money. They would publish me almost as they did poetry-as a public service. Now that I’ve got a lot of money, there’s nothing I want.” (p. 24 CWV) He’s actually offended by the amount of money he now makes. “It’s silly, not gratifying.” (p. 28 CWV)
present publisher: Seymore Lawrence
-”I want to go into the slums and help the people who are really being screwed by society. You can’t comfort the poor with a play or a novel.” (p. 27 CWV)
-”Doing a play is so entertaining, so much fun. All the people! There’s no one else in my study on the Cape (Cod).” (p. 24 CWV)
-Humanitarian: “I beg you to believe in the most ridiculous superstition of all: That humanity is at the center of the universe.” (p. 28 CWV)
-The great popular comedians of the American 1930’s gave Vonnegut the basis for his artistic style, and his central beliefs can be seen as coming from an equally humble source: the lessons of his parents and schoolteachers from the same period. In disagreeing with a Playboy interviewer, who said that Vonnegut was a radical, he claims, “Everything I believe I was taught in junior civics during the Great Depression.” (p. 11 VIA)
-Vonnegut has constructed his own personal mythology for dealing with the world.
-Vonnegut is the compassionate satirist who does not have to make us seem worse than we are to make us laugh at ourselves, and who, understanding us, reminds us that the proper study of mankind is still man. (((quote about humanity at the center of the universe))) Vonnegut seems to be there in his fiction with a tolerant and reassuring irony to tell us that it is somehow all right, that humanity remains the most worth caring about. No matter how evil, stupid, or inept we become as a culture or as a people, Vonnegut is there in his fiction reminding us not to give up on the human race. He is forever prompting us to recall that common humanity, a sense of decency, and good manners are the basis of civilized behavior, and civilized behavior is within almost everybody’s capabilities. At heart, therefore, to see Vonnegut as a humanist as well as a humorist is to see him in true relation to his times and his culture.
-It was only in 1969, after nearly 20 years of writing, that Vonnegut achiever widespread critical recognition. It was Slaughterhouse Five which did it for him. The experience at the center of the novel is the World War II fire-bombing of Dresden, which the young Vonnegut survived as a prisoner of war. Vonnegut’s persona in the book is Billy Pilgrim, a meek optometrist who in mid-career loses interest in helping people to see physically and begins to try to make them see according to his own light. Pilgrim is a veteran of Dresden, and his mind flashes from recollections of the bombing and its aftermath to the banality of his life in Ilium, N.Y., to his time-warp trips to the imagined planet of Tralfamadore, which he discusses before millions of viewers on an all-night talk show. The devise of the book is to increase the horror of the bombing by its juxtaposition with comedy and fantasy. Throughout the novel, the descriptions of the destroyed city are stark and spare: “There we!
re hundreds of corpse mines operating by and by. They didn’t smell bad at first, were wax museums. But then the bodies rotted and liquefied, and the stink was like roses and mustard gas.
“So it goes.” So it goes, the shrugging expression that follows every mention of death, is the refrain of the book.
-In a perfect description of Vonnegut’s quizzical relationship with critics, Robert Scholes said of Slaughterhouse Five in a front-page review in The New York Times Book Review: “Serious critics have shown some reluctance to acknowledge that Vonnegut is among the best writers of his generation. He is, I suspect, both too funny and too intelligent for many, who confuse muddles earnestness with profundity. Vonnegut is not confused. He sees all too clearly.” (p. 32 CWV)
-The success of Slaughterhouse Five made Vonnegut rich, and changed him. But it was not the money that changed him. “It was a therapeutic thing. I’m a different sort of person now. I got rid of a lot of crap. Interestingly, I am in a dangerous position now (in 1971). I can sell anything I write.” (p. 32 CWV)