On the Death of Kurt Vonnegut

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Writer Kurt Vonnegut died today. He was 94 years old.
I read a number of his novels while in high school, being told he was a “classic.” I remember reading him with mild amusement, and in the twenty five years since I have rarely thought of his books again. I remember over the past decade reading a newspaper article or two where in an interview Vonnegut decried the entire 20th and coming 21st century world as having no good to it. “Go ahead and die already then if you have outlived your time and hate it!” was my response at the time. It reminded me of Robinson Jeffers decrying WWII as a fight between nothing but villains and his hoping that all humans would kill themselves off so nature could start anew – a sort of misanthropic intellectualism taken to an extreme. As long ago as 1991 Vonnegut in his “Fates Worse Than Death: An Autobiographical Collage,” claimed that he “finally stopped laughing at his own agony and that of those around him. He denounced life on this planet as a crock. He died.”
Actually, Vonnegut lived in a sort of intellectual paralysis for 16 more years, and then he died. All are corrupt; all are villains — wipe out the race and start again. It is a form of escapism endemic to the elderly and disillusioned. It is also lazy and simplistic thinking. When looking the world fully in the face becomes too painful, one looks away and washes one’s hands of it. Another old man, British playwright Harold Pinter, back in 1985 similarly whined, “There’s no point, it’s hopeless. That’s my view. I believe there’s no chance of the world coming to other than a very grisly end in twenty-five years at the outside.” When it gets to that point, go ahead and die already! That is my attitude towards Harold Pinter and his sort.
And so I feel similarly towards Vonnegut, the man.
But what about as an artist? Vonnegut’s death prompts me to think back about his books and his literary output. An obituary in the local newspaper claimed that his novellas appealed to Baby Boomers who appreciated the themes that challenged authority and institutions. Supposedly no long-haired student radical trying to appear cool in 1970 would find himself far from his dog-eared copy of Cat’s Cradle. “A writer of his time among the Vietnam War and Watergate and the upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s,” an obituary writer claimed.
Perhaps. But I wonder if generations who do care less than we do about mid-20th century preoccupations will also love his books and consider them classics. Will History judge Vonnegut to be “canonical,” or not? Nathaniel Hawthorne, Leo Tolstoy, Stendahl, Victor Hugo, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, George Orwell, William Faulkner, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Charles Dickens, Marcel Proust … Kurt Vonnegut?
Upon reflection, this is my opinion: Vonnegut is overrated.
Vonnegut is a minor writer — a period-piece author. One reads Vonnegut to understand America in 1970, not humanity at all times. His current popularity is a result of academia and publishing houses being controlled by the large numbers of Baby Boomers and the concerns of the Boomers, and as they fade off the scene so will Vonnegut’s popularity and inclusion on reading lists.


One Comment

  • Daniel

    I’m sorry to say I’m not familiar with Vonnegut’s work. I just found him to be your typical anti-humanity defeatist that seems so popular among those that fancy themselves to be intellectuals and “rebels”. Yes, I deal with problems with my fellow human beings, with all the unfortunate anti-intellectualism and pseudo-intellectualism poisoning the West today. That being said, I see Vonnegut to be the kind of person who just simply in his mind responded with his own societal, political and possibly personal frustrations and just shrugged and said “to hell with it!” That to me does not show sophistication or intellect, but at best laziness and at worst moral cowardice. The fact that he was loved for it possibly made it difficult for the trend to reverse in his case. How sad.
    I can’t help of being reminded of Mark Twain’s supposedly hating his fellow man in the latter years of his life, according to one person who knew him (I forget the man’s name). When great or even mediocre minds are wasted on inaction towards making the world a better place, it hurts all of us. It also hurts the person who made the decision, as it greatly diminishes their character.
    Sadly, I think his attitude has turned me off from his output. I prefer those who can explore and at times admire humanity, not denigrate it relentlessly.