Kurt Vonnegut once said he wanted his novels to “catch people before they become generals and Senators and Presidents,” to “poison their minds with humanity. Encourage them to make a better world.” Here are seven ways he lived up to those aspirations.
In an obituary for writer Kurt Vonnegut published in the Los Angeles Times, Elaine Woo called Vonnegut “an American original, often compared to Mark Twain for a vision that combined social criticism, wildly black humor and a call to basic human decency.” She quotes Jay McInerney, who considered Vonnegut “a satirist with a heart, a moralist with a whoopee cushion.” For Woo, Vonnegut “was a public writer—one who directly addressed some of the most vexing issues of his day.”
Vonnegut is quoted in the obituary as having once said that his motives as a writer were political and that he urged all writers to be agents of change. Vonnegut wanted his novels to “catch people before they become generals and Senators and Presidents,” to “poison their minds with humanity. Encourage them to make a better world.” All artists, including writers, sound the alarm when society is being threatened, according to Vonnegut. They are the canaries in the coal mine, treasured as alarm systems.
It’s one thing to have such lofty intentions as a writer; it’s quite another to produce change in people’s mind and behavior with words. Yet Vonnegut did it with aplomb. This essay will explore the ways in which Kurt Vonnegut was able to “poison [readers’] minds with humanity,” how he acted as an agent of change and how other writers can do the same.
#1: By caring about humanity
Kurt Vonnegut cared. He was a humanist. More than just being an entertainer, he looked out for us—that is to say, mankind. Perhaps no genre allows a writer to envision a healthier future more than science fiction. Vonnegut often weaved science fiction elements into his novels, including time travel and futuristic technology, and in many ways, he used this flexible genre to keep humanity on the rails.
In the novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater Vonnegut’s reoccurring character, a science fiction writer named Kilgore Trout (clearly Vonnegut’s alter ego), crashes a convention for science fiction writers. Trout tells the other sci-fi writers:
I love you sons of bitches… you’re the only ones with guts enough to really care about the future, who really notice what machines do to us, what wars do to us, what cities do to us, what big, simple ideas do to us, what tremendous misunderstandings, mistakes, accidents and catastrophes do to us.
#2: By mixing dark humor and hope (gray humor)
In the essay “For the Boys: Masculinity, Gray Comedy, and the Vietnam War in Slaughterhouse-Five” writer Peter Kunze rejects the notion that Vonnegut was a black humorist, which he defines as a writer who handles traditionally serious topics such as war, sexuality and death by giving them irreverent treatment to depict the irrationality of modern life or the absurdity of existence. Rather, Kunze contends that Vonnegut’s fiction is “‘gray comedy,’ a blend of absurdist black humor with guarded sense of hope.” For Kunze, Vonnegut’s fiction displays “an optimism that aims to uplift, even encourage, the audience.”
In “Vonnegut’s Sense of Humor,” Kunze and coauthor Robert Tally write, “The humor is rooted in this sense of the absurd, depicting a world—the ‘end of the world,’ in fact—in which nearly everyone behaves badly and there is little to no hope for humanity.” They add: “Vonnegut instructs the reader through grim jokes, and the reader knowingly chuckles not because it is funny… but as a means of making sense of the absurdity and apparent hopelessness confronting us.” To sum it up, Kunze and Tally write, “His humor—sometimes immature, sometimes gloomy, always urgent—remains essential to his cautiously optimistic vision of the world and his hopes for a better future.”
In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut brings our attention to the absurdity of war by showing readers how wars destroy young men and dehumanize, rather than masculinize. In this way, Vonnegut “infects” readers who may have the unfortunate vocation of helping to wage wars or carrying them on.
According to Kunze, Slaughterhouse-Five revises “a fatal myth that war makes boys into men—that is, assuming they survive. By employing black humor, Vonnegut was able to underscore these issues and disturb his audience into paying attention and even into a new consciousness.” Vonnegut uses Slaughterhouse-Five to protect our youth from participating in the insanity of war, from self-destruction—and “to ease them into their birthright as leaders of the world by imbuing them with compassion, rationality and a sense of obligation to the community that does not override the integrity of their individuality.”
#3: By using a mock-serious tone
In Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut’s favorite novel he had written, the author’s gray humor has a mock-serious tone, as a more heavy-handed, self-righteous treatment of such serious topics may have put the reader off. In one scene, the hapless narrator John interviews a scientist. They discuss basic research— “pure research”—and its aim to expand knowledge with no attention paid to practical applications. They discuss scientific projects for the military. In a mock-serious tone, the scientist says that marines were sick of mud. Why couldn’t someone invent machinery or a pill that would rid soldiers of the burden of mud? This is ridiculous, of course, and we grin as we read. The mocking tone allows Vonnegut to slip truths past the readers’ defenses. In this case, the idea is that military men and the applied scientists who invent gadgets for them will go to great lengths to ensure their victories.
Cat’s Cradle revolves around one scientist’s attempt to create a capsule, called “Ice Nine,” that can freeze water and do away with mud once and for all. “And the United States Marines would rise from the swamp and march on.” The reader snickers while reading about the inventor of Ice Nine, a visionary scientist named Felix Hoenikker, who eats alone in the cafeteria every day. “It was a rule that no one was to sit with him, to interrupt his chain of thought.”
In addition to deploying a mock-serious tone, Vonnegut is often self-deprecating. In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut refers to his “famous” Dresden book as “lousy.” Through his narrator, he confesses to be a “trafficker in climaxes and thrills and characterizations and wonderful dialogue and suspense and confrontations.” Vonnegut may have made fun of himself in the novel because the book went through numerous fits and starts. He had tried many ways to write a story about his time as a prisoner of war, including straight reporting, without success. The narrator of the novel says, “I would hate to tell you that this lousy little book cost me in money and anxiety and time.”
#4: By letting your imagination run wild
When you read a novel like Cat’s Cradle, especially from a writer’s perspective, you are reminded that you can do just about anything in fiction. You can be zany or bizarre, absurdly serious or seriously absurd—let your imagination roam. Writing is a craft, there are principles, but whether there are rules is debatable. Vonnegut’s artistic choices inspire writers to experiment with style, tone, plot, character or structure—anything and everything. No element of craft is off-limits.
Nearly every admirer of Vonnegut’s work praises the author’s imagination. American novelist John Irving said he was our “most stubbornly imaginative [writer].” In an obituary published in The Guardian, Alex Clark quoted writer Gore Vidal, who said, “[Vonnegut] was imaginative; our generation of writers didn’t go in for imagination very much. Literary realism was the general style. Those of us who came out of the war in the 1940s made it sort of the official American prose, and it was often a bit on the dull side. Kurt was never dull.”
Vonnegut was a true original, an inventor, an artist. In “Vonnegut’s Melancholy,” Kathryn Hume writes, “Chance accidents, unforeseeable consequences of minor actions, frequent reversals and wild, unmotivated swings of fortune are always part of a Vonnegut novel.” Alex Clark (2007) writes that “Slaughterhouse-Five… rejects a conventional narrative, presenting its episodes in deliberately jumbled and fragmentary fashion.” Vonnegut also mixed fantasy and realism in his work. “Most of the novels have a spacey quality that defamiliarizes the historical settings and locates all the actions in Vonnegut-land.”
#5: By using utopias and dystopias
Many of Vonnegut’s plots contain utopian or dystopian features. In “Vonnegut’s Melancholy,” Hume writes, “Vonnegut’s novels show utopian leanings: he presents serious social problems and wants to find answers.”
Apocalypse is most evident in Galápagos and Cat’s Cradle. In Cat’s Cradle, Ice Nine is a doomsday device. The futuristic technology doesn’t only freeze mud, it freezes the rivers and streams, the seas and oceans, all the world’s water. Hume writes, “The three Hoenikker children in Cat’s Cradle drift without friends or real work, so they try to control their lives by buying love and jobs with their slivers of Ice Nine.” In Galápagos, the narrator humorously contends that human brains are too big for their own good, a fatal defect in the evolution of the human race. Our supreme thinking power, while responsible for great works of art and missions to the moon, also get us into trouble. “Our planet was innocent, except for those great big brains.”
Hume writes that Vonnegut’s utopian or dystopian elements are “Vonnegut’s attempts to solve social problems and make society better and more just than it is. … Given that his utopias do not blossom into ideal societies, these plot elements add their bit to the pessimistic nature of his vision.”
#6: By writing with style
It doesn’t matter how funny you are on the page or how noble your intentions may be before you put pen to paper. If a reader can’t understand your prose, the battle is lost. One cannot poison a reader’s mind with humanity if the reader tosses your book across the room in disgust.
Vonnegut’s prose is clean and unpretentious, pregnant with “true sentences,” in the Hemmingway sense. A commonsense thinker, Vonnegut was a self-described straight-talker who wrote collegially, the way folks from his hometown of Indianapolis spoke: “Where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin,” Vonnegut said in his essay “How to Write with Style,” which appeared in the book, How to Use the Power of the Printed Word.
In this essay, Vonnegut urges the writer to respect the reader. “If you scribble your thoughts any which way, your readers will surely feel that you care nothing about them. They will mark you down as an egomaniac or a chowderhead—or, worse, they will stop reading you.” This way of approaching any piece of writing is generous. A reader could be doing any number of other activities, but they have chosen to spend time with you and your ideas. Vonnegut knew that the reader made a choice to read his book, and he never took that for granted.
In the same vein, Vonnegut urges writers not to waste the reader’s time. One way of doing this is to write about things you care about. He wrote about race, social justice and the role of institutions, among many things. He cared deeply about these topics; readers sensed this and were riveted. Another way to avoid wasting a readers’ time is to remove anything superfluous in one’s work. Vonnegut respected the reader by having the guts to delete what wasn’t working in his writing. Great writing is often less about what you put in and more about what you leave out. Vonnegut had no attachment to his beautiful sentences, and he deleted boring or unintelligible sentences before reader had a chance to pass over them.
Vonnegut also urges writers to commit to simplicity. He made a conscious decision to write with simple language, citing the “two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, [who] wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound.” For example, in the famous Shakespeare line “to be or not to be,” Vonnegut notes that “the longest word is three letters long.” Vonnegut attributed the simplicity of his writing to his training as a journalist, a career in which it’s important to be brief.
#7: By making your own soul grow
Vonnegut sent a letter to students, instructing them to write a poem as best as they could and not tell anyone about what they had written. After they wrote their poems, he told the students to tear the paper into many pieces and throw it away in different trash cans. In The Huffington Post article “Kurt Vonnegut Once Sent This Amazing Letter To A High School,” Rebecca Klein quotes from the letter Vonnegut wrote to the students. “You will find that you already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.”
The idea is that such self-examination may engender compassion and empathy for other human beings, who aren’t that different from you. If you write enough poems, do enough art—in whatever form that may be—you might just stumble upon the most precious prize of all: forgiveness—that rare capacity to forgive people for their ignorance, stupidity, self-interest or wickedness. Because after all, we’re all just trying our best in this crazy hill of beans.
Kurt Vonnegut began Galápagos with a quote from Anne Frank: “In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart,” but perhaps Vonnegut put it best in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater:
“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
Originally Published on Writer’s Digest
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