National Obituary Review

Dead Person of the Day April 11 – Kurt Vonnegut

0 Comments 11 April 2012

And so it goes folks,

Today’s DPD is near and dear to the staff here at the NOR….and in particular to yours truly. When some people get sad they watch Dawson’s Creek or listen to Third Eye Blind. Me…when I get sad I read Kurt Vonnegut. If you happened to catch The Shade’s Top 10 Best American Authors you’d know why.


As The Guardian’s obit states Vonnegut managed to combine exceptional humanity with remarkably blasé pessimism. Its no doubt the poor bastard was pessimistic. Throughout his entire life he was faced with seemingly insurmountable sadness. His family was the victim of anti German sentiment following WWI. The looming Great Depression saw his father out of work constantly. After being away in the army Vonnegut returned home on Mother’s day in 1944 to find that his mother had committed suicide the night before – an event that haunted him for the rest of his life. In 1958 Vonnegut’s sister, and her husband, died within a day of each other – she of cancer and he in a train crash (Vonnegut adopted her 3 children). Then finally came what would prove to be an experience that inspired perhaps his best work.

Vonnegut was in Dresden, with the 106th infantry division, on February 13-14 1945 to experience the bombings in Dresden. During the bombing he sheltered in an underground meat store named Schlachthof Füaut;nf – Slaughterhouse Five.

Interestingly enough this event – while traditionally thought of as a necessary means for the Allied victory in WWII – fed into Vonnegut’s pessimism. In an interview with Martin Amis: after describing Dresden as “a beautiful city full of museums and zoos – man at his greatest”, and emphasising that the raid failed to shorten the war, weaken the German war effort, or free a single person from a death camp, he went on to explain that in the end only one person benefited. “And who was that?” asked Amis. “Me. I got several dollars for each person killed. Imagine.” Obviously not the typical American response to the event.

Shockingly Vonnegut is thought of as a voice of the Counter Culture of the 1960s and 70s. I always found this a bit perplexing. At the time the youth of America was restless. Despite the riots there seemed to be an underlying sense of optimism about the future if only the Powers That Be could be taken down. To me, Vonnegut had none of this. In fact Vonnegut once said “The idea that the human race is going anywhere is a childhood myth, like Santa Clause”.

After having a chardonnay and thinking about it for a spell the best theory I can come up with for Vonnegut being so popular with the movement is this: It was a complicated time in America’s history. The war in Vietnam was wildly unpopular and failing. There were still growing pains with the Civil Rights Movement and the general sense of well being that was so pervasive in the 1950s was rapidly fading. Contrasted with this complexity Vonnegut gave us a simplified version of human grace and kindness.

The title character from the 1965 novel “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” summed up his philosophy by saying:

“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. Its hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Its round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind’”

Amen Kurt.

Two more side notes before we get on with it. As the Guardian’s obit points out Vonnegut was once described by Gore Vidal as the worst writer in America. This illustrates that Norman Mailer was right all along….Vidal really was a condescending twat.

Lastly, its very interesting to compare and contrast Vonnegut’s obit in the Guardian vs. the NYT. For once I think the NYT actually does a more comprehensive job but, as always, the Guardians analysis of Vonnegut’s legacy is just sharper and much deeper.

Obits on a hump day

Kurt Vonnegut, Writer of Classics of the American Counterculture, Dies at 84


Published: April 11, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut, whose dark comic talent and urgent moral vision in novels like “Slaughterhouse-Five,” “Cat’s Cradle” and “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” caught the temper of his times and the imagination of a generation, died Wednesday night in Manhattan. He was 84 and had homes in Manhattan and in Sagaponack on Long Island. Continue

- who has written 512 posts on The Shade.

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