God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut


Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.


Not quite a year ago (April 27, 2007), we lost Kurt Vonnegut. Somehow, Vonnegut always had the right word for the right moment. In his speeches, his novels, his essays, and even in his drawings, he made us laugh at ourselves and forced us to probe deeper into politics, sex, and literature. Some people remember Vonnegut best for his quasi-science fiction tale of Billy Pilgrim, Montana Wildhack, Tralfamadore, and Dresden (Slaughter-House Five, 1969). Others remember him for his apocalyptic tale of Newt Hoenikker, the new religion of Bokononism, and ice-nine. Still others recall Vonnegut the aphorist and essayist, who could deliver anti-war and political zingers in rapid-fire fashion.

I first read Vonnegut in college in the early ‘70s. Like many of my friends, I was protesting a completely immoral war, working to save the Everglades, and as politically active as I could be at a small Southern Baptist college in South Florida. My friend, Glenn, who looked a little like a cross between Johnny Winter and Peter Frampton, first turned me on to Mr. Vonnegut. Glenn talked rapturously and constantly about this guy, mostly about The Sirens of Titan (1959). Since I had never been a big science fiction fan, I didn’t rush out to buy that novel immediately. About six months later, though, I picked up Cat’s Cradle (1963), and I couldn’t put it down. Vonnegut spoke to me in ways that fired my imagination. Here’s a guy, I thought, who has the ability to see right to the heart of the matter but whose generous sense of irony and humor deflects the rabid dogmatism of those who disagree with him. Besides, Vonnegut was writing fiction, and many of his opponents simply dismissed him. Yet, in this one novel Vonnegut shook to the foundations the prevailing culture’s cherished beliefs about religion and the value of science. In Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut uses the story of little Newt Hoenikker to reveal the illusion that science possesses answers to all the woes of humanity. In fact, as Newt discovers, science possesses instead the power to bring the world to an end and, in the wrong hands (and at the time of the novel those wrong hands belonged to the United States), science was more threat than promise. Newt’s father, Felix Hoenikker, is the inventor of ice-nine, a compound that in the wrong hands can bring an end to the world. Newt realizes the hollowness of his father’s teachings and the illusions associated with all truth, however, when he considers the child’s string game, cat’s cradle, which his father played continually with him. Felix would always ask Newt, “See the cat? See the cradle?” as he dangles the strings in front of Newt’s face. In the end, Newt proclaims that there is “no damn cat, no damn cradle”; truth is simply an illusion.

Although Cat’s Cradle cuts deeply to the bones of the nature of truth, the novel also announces Vonnegut’s magnanimous humanism. Newt discovers the religion of Bokononism and its tenets. In fact, the title page of the book announces not only one of the key ideas of Bokononism but also introduces the emphasis on humanity that the religion fosters. “Nothing in this book is true. ‘Live by the foma that makes you brave and kind and healthy and happy.” Early in the book, though, Newt proclaims a theme that pervades this otherwise blackly apocalyptic novel. “We Bokononists believe that humanity is organized into teams, teams that do God’s Will without ever discovering what they are doing.” Vonnegut will pick up this theme late in Slapstick; or Lonesome No More! (1976) where individuals identify with other through their middle names: the name of an animal or plant or mineral that is joined together with a number from one to twenty; thus, the protagonist’s middle name is Daffodil-11.

Being kind to one another and helping each other through hell and high water are, of course, two of the major themes of Vonnegut’s writings. In God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965), which appeared just two years after Cat’s Cradle, Eliot Rosewater learns and teaches that “people can use all the uncritical love they can get . . . If one man can do it, perhaps others can do it, too. It means that our hatred of useless human beings and the cruelties we inflict upon them for their own good need not be parts of human nature. Thanks to the example of Eliot Rosewater, millions upon millions of people may learn to love and help whomever they see.”

For several years, I read every new Vonnegut that appeared. Vonnegut was a bit like Hermann Hesse (about whom Vonnegut writes in Wampeters, Foma, and Grandfallons, 1974) for me. Hesse captured eloquently my own experience of the struggle between the spirit and the flesh, the yearning for solitude and spiritual wisdom and the powerful urge to jump the monastery walls for a night with that voluptuous blonde woman on the city streets. Vonnegut showed me that you could truly be wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove when confronting political subjects. He taught me that political discourse need not be heavy-handed and that the best way to accomplish your ends was through the use of humor.

I did have the opportunity to attend the memorial service for Vonnegut in NYC at the Society for Ethical Culture, the day before BookExpo America. The room was packed, of course, to hear folks like Howard Zinn talk about their friendships with Vonnegut. Clearly, he is still missed.

I’ve been reflecting on Vonnegut lately because a new book of his unpublished writings will be published in April: Kurt Vonnegut: Armageddon in Retrospect (Putnam, $24.95). Introduced by his son, Mark, these writings dwell on war and peace, especially the firebombing of Dresden, a subject to which Vonnegut returns over and over in the stories collected here. The volume opens with a poignant 1945 letter from Pfc. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. to his father in Indianapolis in which the son presents a vivid portrait of his harrowing escape from Dresden. Full of his characteristic humor, the fiction in the collection includes stories about time travel and the impossibility of peace in the world (“Great Day”), and three soldiers who while away their POW experience salivating over the meals they will eat when they are freed (“Guns Before Butter”). In “Armageddon in Retrospect,” a kind of mock Paradise Lost, Dr. Lucifer Mephisto teaches his charges about the insidious nature of evil and the impossibility of good ever triumphing over evil. In his final speech, Vonnegut lets go some of his usual zingers: Jazz is “safe sex of the highest order.” At the end of his speech, Vonnegut does what always did best, tell the truth through jokes: “And how should we behave during the Apocalypse? 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.”

The book also contains Vonnegut’s sketches, which readers familiar with him will know fill his novels anyway. In addition, each selection is introduced by a little aphorism. In the most telling proverb in the book, Vonnegut talks about his writing life. “Where do I get my ideas from? You might as well have asked that of Beethoven. He was goofing around in Germany like everybody else, and all of a sudden this stuff came gushing out of him. It was music. I was goofing around like everybody else in Indiana, and all of a sudden stuff came gushing out. It was disgust with civilization.”

Although we miss his cantankerous and joyous voice, this new volume brings his voice back to us in all its glory. “And tell them their father loves them, no matter what they turn out to be. Poo-tee-weet?”

Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became
Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it  

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