Palm sunday an autobiogr.., p.1
Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage, p.1Kurt Vonnegut
AMERICA’S GREATEST SATIRIST
KURT VONNEGUT IS …
“UNIQUE … one of the writers who map our landscapes for us, who give names to the places we know best.”
The New York Times Book Review
“OUR FINEST BLACK-HUMORIST…. We laugh in self-defense.”
—The Atlantic Monthly
“AN UNIMITATIVE AND INIMITABLE SOCIAL SATIRIST.”
“A CAUSE FOR CELEBRATION.”
“A LAUGHING PROPHET OF DOOM.”
—The New York Times
BOOKS BY KURT VONNEGUT
Breakfast of Champions
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
The Sirens of Titan
Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons
Welcome to the Monkey House
Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to use the following material:
“An Account of the Ancestry of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., by an Ancient Friend of His Family” by John G. Rauch: Used by permission of William Rauch.
Excerpts from Indianapolis magazine used by permission.
“How to Write with Style” by Kurt Vonnegut: Reprinted by permission from International Paper Company’s “Power of the Printed Word” Program.
“Self-Interview” appeared originally in The Paris Review, Issue #69. Copyright 1977 by The Paris Review. Reprinted by permission of The Viking Press.
“Who in America Is Truly Happy?”: Reprinted from Politics Today, January 1979. Used by permission.
Review of SOMETHING HAPPENED by Joseph Heller: © 1974 by The New York Times Company. Reprinted by permission.
“Introduction” to WRITE IF YOU GET WORK: THE BEST OF BOB AND RAY by Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding: Used by permission of Random House, Inc.
“Class of ’57” by Harold Reid and Don Reid: © Copyright 1972 by House of Cash, Inc., Hendersonville, Tennessee 37075. Used by permission.
Viking Penguin, Inc. for “Louis-Ferdinand Céline” as the Introduction to the Penguin edition of CASTLE TO CASTLE, RIGADOON and NORTH by Louis-Ferdinand Céline.
“Dresden Revisited” was originally an introduction for the limited edition of SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE published by the Franklin Library and signed by the writer. The work is reprinted with the permission of the Franklin Library.
“Flowers on the Wall” by Lewis DeWitt: Copyright © 1965, 1966 by Southwind Music, Inc. Rights controlled by Unichappell Music, Inc. (Rightsong Music, Inc., Publisher). International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved.
Lines from “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg: Copyright © 1956, 1959 by Allen Ginsberg. Reprinted by permission of City Lights Books.
Acknowledgment is made to the following publications in whose pages these essays first appeared:
The New York Times for “Un-American Nonsense”; Again, Dangerous Visions edited by Harían Ellison for “The Big Space Fuck”; and The Nation for “Mark Twain” and “Palm Sunday” as “Hypocrites You Always Have With You.”
For my cousins the de St. Andrés everywhere. Who has the castle now?
TABLE OF CONTENTS (BITS OF THE COLLAGE)
1 THE FIRST AMENDMENT
“Dear Mr. McCarthy”—letter by KV to head of school committee in Drake, N.D., where his books were burned
“Un-American Nonsense”—essay for The New York Times by KV, about the banning of his books by the school committee of Island Trees, N.Y.
“God’s Law”—speech by KV at a fund raiser for the American Civil Liberties Union in Sands Point, N.Y.
“Dear Felix”—letter by KV to a Russian friend about the harassment of writers in the USSR
“An Account of the Ancestry of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., by an Ancient Friend of His Family”—formal essay by the late John G. Rauch of Indianapolis
3 WHEN I LOST MY INNOCENCE
“What I Liked about Cornell”—speech by KV to an annual banquet of The Cornell Daily Sun in Ithaca, N.Y.
“When I Lost My Innocence”—essay by KV for Aftonbladet, a Swedish newspaper
“I Am Embarrassed”—antinuke speech by KV at rally in Washington, D.C.
“How to Write with Style”—essay by KV for a campaign by the International Paper Company to encourage literacy
Replies by KV to questions put by himself for The Paris Review No. 69
6 THE PEOPLE ONE KNOWS
“Who in America Is Truly Happy?”—essay by KV on William F. Buckley, Jr., for Politics Today
“Something Happened”—review by KV for The New York Times Book Review of Joseph Heller’s second novel
“The Rocky Graziano of American Letters”—speech by KV at banquet in honor of Irwin Shaw at the Players’ Club, New York City
“The Best of Bob and Ray”—introduction by KV to book by the great comedians Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding
“James T. Farrell”—speech by KV at Farrell’s funeral in New York City
“Lavina Lyon”—speech by KV at the funeral of an old friend in Lexington, Ky.
“The Class of ’57”—song by Don and Harold Reid of the Statler Brothers, a country-music quartet
“The Noodle Factory”—speech by KV at the dedication of the new library at the University of Connecticut, New London
8 MARK TWAIN
“Mark Twain”—speech by KV at the one-hundredth anniversary celebration of the completion of Mark Twain’s fanciful residence in Hartford, Conn.
9 FUNNIER ON PAPER THAN MOST PEOPLE
“How Jokes Work”—commencement address by KV at Fredonia College, Fredonia, N.Y.
“Do Not Mourn!”—speech written by KV’s great-grandfather, Clemens Vonnegut, to be read at his own funeral
“Thoughts of a Free Thinker”—commencement address by KV at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, N.Y.
“William Ellery Charming”—speech by KV on the 200th anniversary of the birth of the great Unitarian minister, First Parish Church, Cambridge, Mass.
“The Big Space Fuck”—short story by KV
“Fear and Loathing in Morristown, NJ.”—speech by KV to the Mental Health Association of New Jersey
“Dear Mr. X”—letter by Nanette Vonnegut, waitress, to disgruntled restaurant customer
14 JONATHAN SWIFT MISPERCEIVED
“Jonathan Swift”—rejected introduction by KV to new edition of Gulliver’s Travels
15 JEKYLL AND HYDE UPDATED
The Chemistry Professor—treatment by KV for a musical comedy based on Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
16 A NAZI SYMPATHIZER DEFENDED AT SOME COST
“Louis-Ferdinand Céline”—introduction by KV to paperback editions of the controversial author’s last three novels
17 A NAZI CITY MOURNED AT SOME PROFIT
“Dresden Revisited”—introduction by KV to new edition of Slaughterhouse- Five
18 THE SEXUAL REVOLUTION
“Flowers on the Wall”—song by Lew De Witt of the Statler Brothers
19 IN THE CAPITAL OF THE WORLD
“Palm Sunday”—sermon delivered by KV at St. Clement’s Church, New
THIS IS a very great book by an American genius. I have worked so hard on this masterpiece for the past six years. I have groaned and banged my head on radiators. I have walked through every hotel lobby in New York, thinking about this book and weeping, and driving my fist into the guts of grandfather clocks.
It is a marvelous new literary form. This book combines the tidal power of a major novel with the bone-rattling immediacy of front-line journalism—which is old stuff now, God knows, God knows. But I have also intertwined the flashy enthusiasms of musical theater, the lethal left jab of the short story, the sachet of personal letters, the oompah of American history, and oratory in the bow-wow style.
This book is so broad and deep that it reminds me of my brother Bernard’s early experiments with radio. He built a transmitter of his own invention, and he hooked it up to a telegraph key, and he turned it on. He called up our cousin Richard, about two miles away, and he told Richard to listen to his radio, to tune it back and forth across the band, to see if he could pick up my brother’s signals anywhere. They were both about fifteen.
My brother tapped out an easily recognizable message, sending it again and again and again. It was “SOS.” This was in Indianapolis, the world’s largest city not on a navigable waterway.
Cousin Richard telephoned back. He was thrilled. He said that Bernard’s signals were loud and clear simply everywhere on the radio band, drowning out music or news or drama, or whatever the commercial stations were putting out at the time.
• • •
This is certainly that kind of masterpiece, and a new name should be created for such an all-frequencies assault on the sensibilities. I propose the name blivit. This is a word which during my adolescence was defined by peers as “two pounds of shit in a one-pound bag.”
I would not mind if books simpler than this one, but combining fiction and fact, were also called blivits. This would encourage The New York Times Book Review to establish a third category for best sellers, one long needed, in my opinion. If there were a separate list for blivits, then authors of blivits could stop stepping in the faces of mere novelists and historians and so on.
Until that happy day, however, I insist, as only a great author can, that this book be ranked in both the fiction and nonfiction competitions. As for the Pulitzer prizes: this book should be eligible for a mega-grand slam, sweeping fiction, drama, history, biography, and journalism. We will wait and see.
• • •
This book is not only a blivit but a collage. It began with my wish to collect in one volume most of the reviews and speeches and essays I had written since the publication of a similar collection, Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons, in 1974. But as I arranged those fragments in this order and then that one, I saw that they formed a sort of autobiography, especially if I felt free to include some pieces not written by me. To give life to such a golem, however, I would have to write much new connective tissue. This I have done.
The reader should expect me to chat about this and that, and then to include a speech or a letter or a song or whatever, and then to chat some more.
I do not really consider this to be a masterpiece. I find it clumsy. I find it raw. It has some value, I think, as a confrontation between an American novelist and his own stubborn simplicity. I was dumb in school. Whatever the nature of that dumbness, it is with me still.
I have dedicated this book to the de St. Andrés. I am a de St. André, since that was the maiden name of a maternal great-grandmother of mine. My mother believed that this meant that she was descended from nobles of some kind.
This was an innocent belief, and so should not be mocked or scorned. Or so I say. My books so far have argued that most human behavior, no matter how ghastly or ludicrous or glorious or whatever, is innocent. And here seems as good a place as any to include a statement made to me by Marsha Mason, the superb actress who once did me the honor of starring in a play of mine. She, too, is from the Middle West, from St. Louis.
“You know what the trouble is with New York?” she asked me.
“No,” I said.
“Nobody here,” she said, “believes that there is such a thing as innocence.”
Whoever entertains liberal views
and chooses a consort that is captured
by superstition risks his liberty
and his happiness.
Instruction in Morals
(The Hollenbeck Press, Indianapolis, 1900)
THE FIRST AMENDMENT
I AM A MEMBER of what I believe to be the last recognizable generation of full-time, life-time American novelists. We appear to be standing more or less in a row. It was the Great Depression which made us similarly edgy and watchful. It was World War II which lined us up so nicely, whether we were men or women, whether we were ever in uniform or not. It was an era of romantic anarchy in publishing which gave us money and mentors, willy-nilly, when we were young—while we learned our craft. Words printed on pages were still the principal form of long-distance communication and stored information in America when we were young.
Nor are there many publishers and editors and agents left who are eager to find some way to get money and other forms of encouragement to young writers who write as clumsily as members of my literary generation did when we started out. The wild and wonderful and expensive guess was made back then that, we might acquire some wisdom and learn how to write halfway decently by and by. Writers were needed that much back then.
It was an amusing and instructive time for writers—for hundreds of them.
Television wrecked the short-story branch of the industry, and now accountants and business school graduates dominate book publishing. They feel that money spent on someone’s first novel is good money down a rat hole. They are right. It almost always is.
So, as I say, I think I belong to America’s last generation of novelists. Novelists will come one by one from now on, not in seeming families, and will perhaps write only one or two novels, and let it go at that. Many will have inherited or married money.
The most influential of my bunch, in my opinion, is still J. D. Salinger, although he has been silent for years. The most promising was perhaps Edward Lewis Wallant, who died so young. And it is my thinking about the death of James Jones two years ago, who was not all that young, who was almost exactly my age, which accounts for the autumnal mood of this book. There have been other reminders of my own mortality, to be sure, but the death of Jones is central—perhaps because I see his widow Gloria so often and because he, too, was a self-educated midwesterner, and because he, too, in a major adventure for all of us, which was the Second World War, had been an enlisted man. And let it here be noted that the best-known members of my literary generation, if they wrote about war, almost unanimously despised officers and made heroes of sketchily educated, aggressively unaristocratic enlisted men.
• • •
James Jones told me one time that his publisher and Ernest Hemingway’s, Charles Scribner’s Sons, had once hoped to get Jones and Hemingway together—so that they could enjoy each other’s company as old warriors.
Jones declined, by his own account, because he did not regard Hemingway as a fellow soldier. He said Hemingway in wartime was free to come and go from the fighting as pleased, and to take time off for a fine meal or woman or whatever. Real soldiers, according to Jones, damn well had to stay where they were told, or go where they were told, and eat swill, and take the worst the enemy had to throw at them day after day, week after week.
• • •
It may be that the most striking thing about members of my literary generation in retrospect will be that we were allowed to say absolutely anything without fear of punishment. Our American heirs may find it incredible, as most foreigners do right now, that a nation would want to enforce as a law something which sounds more like a dream, which reads as follows:
How could a nation with such a law raise its children in an atmosphere of decency? It couldn’t—it can’t. So the law will surely be repealed soon for the sake of children.
And even now my books, along with books by Bernard Malamud and James Dickey and Joseph Heller and many other first-rate patriots, are regularly thrown out of public-school libraries by school board members, who commonly say that they have not actually read the books, but that they have it on good authority that the books are bad for children.
• • •
My novel Slaughterhouse-Five was actually burned in a furnace by a school janitor in Drake, North Dakota, on instructions from the school committee there, and the school board made public statements about the unwholesomeness of the book. Even by the standards of Queen Victoria, the only offensive line in the entire novel is this: “Get out of the road, you dumb motherfucker.” This is spoken by an American antitank gunner to an unarmed American chaplain’s assistant during the Battle of the Bulge in Europe in December 1944, the largest single defeat of American arms (the Confederacy excluded) in history. The chaplain’s assistant had attracted enemy fire.
So on November 16, 1973, I wrote as follows to Charles McCarthy of Drake, North Dakota:
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