Thursday, April 12, 2007

God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut

The pang of sadness that I felt when I read this morning that Kurt Vonnegut had left this mortal coil was a bit deeper than the mere fact that like a lot of folks of my generation I went head over heels over everything this counterculture idol wrote.

As it is, I work in a rare book and manuscript library that includes the papers of Seymour Lawrence, Vonnegut's longtime literary agent and friend. I have been able to read first hand -- and share with visiting scholars -- the marvelous correspondence of these men as Vonnegut went from an unknown who was trying to get his first book published to a bestselling author and social critic who pondered the meaning of human existence with his distinctive pairing of humanist philosophy and trenchant wit, often through the science fiction genre.
I was going through the Lawrence papers one day when I stumbled upon a brief typewritten note from Vonnegut in which he said that a trip to Germany for a Playboy magazine article on European architecture had prompted him to consider writing a novel about his traumatic experiences at the end of World War II.

An advance scout, he was cut off from his battalion during the Battle of the Bulge and wandered alone behind enemy lines for several days until he was captured by German troops and sent to a prisoner of war camp in Dresden where he witnessed the infamous firebombing of that city.
That, of course, was the genesis of Slaughterhouse Five, his most famous novel, which was published in 1969 and became a must-read at the height of opposition to the Vietnam War. (And a pretty good movie, too.)

In an article about his experience, Vonnegut wrote that:
"The firebombing of Dresden was a work of art. . . . a tower of smoke and flame to commemorate the rage and heartbreak of so many who had had their lives warped or ruined by the indescribable greed and vanity and cruelty of Germany."
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, perhaps the most straightforward of Vonnegut's 14 books, has always been my favorite.

This comic masterpiece is about the life and times of Eliot Rosewater, a World War II veteran with a bad case of PTSD and volunteer fireman who heads the Rosewater Foundation, which lavishes his family's fortune on the misbegotten.

Rosewater's philosophy, which of course mirrored Vonnegut's, is simple:
"Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s 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.' "
I read the book when it was published in 1965, and to this day am tempted to answer a telephone call as Rosewater always does:
"Rosewater Foundation. How may we help you?"
Vonnegut was much in demand as a college commencement speaker, but his best known speech -- the legendary "Be sure to wear sunscreen" address to 1997 Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduates -- actually was an Internet hoax. (Kofi Annan was the actual speaker.) The hoax in turn led to the hit novelty pop song "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)" by Australian film director Baz Luhrmann.

The author had long battled depression and in 1985 attempted suicide, an experience that he later wrote about.

Vonnegut's wife, photographer Jill Kremetz (whose beautiful photograph of husband and hound on a Long Island beach adorns this appreciation), said he had fallen at their Manhattan home several weeks ago and suffered an irreversable brain injury. He was 84.

Looking back on life, Vonnegut once remarked:
"Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward."
So it goes.

* * * * *
Pete Abel notes over at Central Sanity that according to Technorati, more than 4,000 blog posts had been published on Vonnegut as of early afternoon today.

Writes Pete:
"What's truly amazing is that such a disparate range of individuals -- from the left, right, and middle of the political spectrum – could all have essentially the same heart-rending reaction to the news of Vonnegut's passing.

"Perhaps that should count among his greatest accomplishments: While we all knew or assumed what his politics were, we didn't care. He stubbornly transcended politics, reminding us to think as we should think: not about systems and structures and processes, but about people; individuals both like and unlike us, doing their damnedest to slug on from day to day, desperately pushing off the bad and bear-hugging the good."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read it last night before tunring in. I found myself remembering reading my first Vonnegut in high school and thinking "Wow. Writers can be this creative?"

An amazing literary voice, and a POV that resonates with me as I age.