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December 13, 2017

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

Several of the stories in Armageddon in Retrospect concern American POWs in 1945 Germany: Vonnegut territory. Typical is the character who is so hungry that “if Betty Grable had showed up and said she was all mine, I would have told her to make me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.” These are, for the most part, decent men, believers in the verities, who find themselves in a topsy-turvy world in which collaborators and snitches are the top rails. What’s an Indiana Boy Scout to do? Refuse. Resist. Laugh. Vonnegut said that his afflatus—the reason “stuff came gushing out” of him—was “disgust with civilization.” But he was not a misanthrope, just a man who never lost his capacity for righteous outrage. Wars, he believed till the end of his life, are hell and the negation of all that Jesus taught. The draft-dodgers and chickenhawks who lie and drag us into them should be boiled in that viscera broth.

About Jesus. Descended of a long line of freethinkers, Vonnegut, a self-described “Christ-worshipping agnostic,” was a nonbeliever who respected, even praised, varieties of religious belief. He knew that sniping at religion can become tiresome. You need village atheists—you just don’t want atheist villages. Vonnegut’s doodles and doggerel decorate the book; among them is this apercu, above a skull and crossbones: “Darwin gave the cachet of science to war and genocide.”

Vonnegut sometimes called himself a socialist. My late friend Barber B. Conable Jr., long-time ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, told me that every now and then his old Cornell classmate lobbied him for better tax-law treatment of authors. Even socialists resent the IRS, I guess.

On that note, the collection includes an amusing anarchist fable (“The Unicorn Trap”) about an honest serf and his harpy wife arguing over the husband’s potential elevation to tax collector for Robert the Horrible. Their exchange:

“If a body gets stuck in the ruling classes through no fault of their own,” she said, “they got to rule or have folks just lose all respect for government.” She scratched herself daintily.
“To their sorrow,” said Elmer.
“Folks got to be protected,” said Ivy, “and armor and castles don’t come cheap.”

They still don’t, Ivy.

***********

Vonnegut once asked his son Mark, “Does anyone out of high school still read me?”

I hadn’t in many years. As a teenager I played the usual Slaughterhouse-Five to Breakfast of Champions to Player Piano/Cat’s Cradle combination, after which the enthusiasm fizzles. Happy Birthday, Wanda June? Slapstick? I cringe to recall. Vonnegut wrote some bad books, but he wrote some very good ones, too. In our age of an America perpetually at war, he is, perhaps, more necessary than ever.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq, writes Mark, “broke his heart not because he gave a damn about Iraq but because he loved America.” His crest fell; didn’t anyone else believe those civics lessons? “It wasn’t until the Iraq War and the end of his life that he became sincerely gloomy.”

The last piece of advice Kurt Vonnegut ever offered was this: “We should be unusually kind to one another, certainly. But we should also stop being so serious. Jokes help a lot. And get a dog, if you don’t already have one.”

You got a better idea?

The Regionalist is the regular column of Bill Kauffman. Kauffman’s most recent books are Ain’t My America (Holt) and Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin (ISI Books).

To learn more, visit our short course on the American Experience.

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