The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 14, 2018

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The Regionalist: Vonnegut’s Cradle
Bill Kauffman - 01/21/09

A nice gesture, that. Tarkington was a great American novelist whose Growth trilogy, the centerpiece of which is his masterpiece The Magnificent Ambersons (1918), is as out of fashion as the pince-nez and the Tenth Amendment. His rediscovery, if only—especially—in his native ground, would be a blessing. But Vonnegut’s conjuration of his literary landsman raises a prickly point.

To wit: In his last interview, with the leftist magazine In These Times, Vonnegut said,

[E]veryone needs an extended family. The great American disease is loneliness. We no longer have extended family. But I had one. . . . I was surrounded by relatives all of the time. You know, cousins, uncles and aunts. It was heaven. And that has since been dispersed.

The passive voice here carries the hint of self-exculpation. Vonnegut chose to spend his adulthood in Cape Cod and then on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a celebrity in precincts quite alien to his native ground. His hero Tarkington, by contrast, had stayed in Indianapolis. One wonders—at least I wonder—if the marked inferiority of Vonnegut’s later work was due, in part, to his immurement in that gilt sepulcher of American fiction, that anti-Indianapolis, Manhattan.

Though uprooted, Vonnegut at his best charted his course using the lodestars of his boyhood. Indianapolis-bred Gregory Sumner, who is writing a Vonnegut biography, quotes his subject:

[E]verything I believe I was taught in junior civics during the Great Depression—at School 43 in Indianapolis, with full approval of the school board . . . America was an idealistic, pacifistic nation at that time. I was taught in the sixth grade to be proud that we had a standing Army of just over a hundred thousand men and that the generals had nothing to say about what was done in Washington. I was taught to be proud of that and to pity Europe for having more than a million men and tanks. I simply never unlearned junior civics. I still believe in it. I got a very good grade.

That ingrained antimilitarism perfuses Armageddon in Retrospect, whose first piece is a May 29, 1945, letter from the author to his family, explaining that “I’ve been a prisoner of war since December 19th, 1944.” For once there are no jokes, only a terse narrative of his boxcar trip to the POW camp: “The Germans herded us through scalding delousing showers. Many men died from shock in the showers after ten days of starvation, thirst and exposure. But I didn’t.”

Prisoner Vonnegut endured the trip only to witness the February 1945 destruction of Dresden by Allied bombs, an experience on which he would draw to write Slaughterhouse-Five and other fiction, including pieces in this book. In Dresden, writes Vonnegut, “were the symbols of the good life; pleasant, honest, intelligent. In the Swastika’s shadow those symbols of the dignity and hope of mankind stood waiting, monuments to truth. The accumulated treasure of hundreds of years, Dresden spoke eloquently of those things excellent in European civilization wherein our debt lies deep. I was a prisoner, hungry, dirty, and full of hate for our captors, but I loved that city and saw the blessed wonder of her past and the rich promise of her future.”

Private Vonnegut survived the bombing in a slaughterhouse meat locker. In its aftermath, he and his fellow captives were ordered to wade ankle deep in “an unsavory broth” of viscera searching out the dead, whom they found in charred pieces. “Civilians cursed us and threw rocks as we carried bodies to huge funeral pyres in the city,” he writes, until the impossibility of transporting that many corpses and limbs became apparent and the job was turned over to men with flamethrowers who “cremated them where they lay.”

This didn’t square with those civics lessons learned in the public schools of Indianapolis. Without ever losing sight of the evil of the Nazi regime, Vonnegut declares, “The killing of children—‘Jerry’ children or ‘Jap’ children, or whatever enemies the future may hold for us—can never be justified.”

(Not included in this volume is a prewar editorial from the Cornell Daily Sun in which Vonnegut, true to his Midwestern pacifist roots, defended the most controversial isolationist of the day: “Charles A. Lindbergh is one helluva swell egg, and we’re willing to fight for him in our own quaint way . . . The mud-slingers are good. They’d have to be to get people hating a loyal and sincere patriot. On second thought, Lindbergh is no patriot—to hell with the word, it lost it’s [sic] meaning after the Revolutionary War . . . The United States is a democracy, that’s what they say we’ll be fighting for. What a prize monument to that ideal is a cry to smother Lindy.”)

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