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Grass spider, Cottonwood Creek Wetland Development Unit, Mannford, OK, Sept. 15, 2020
by David Gerard
Kurt Vonnegut’s novels are not for the faint-hearted. He was a troubled man, troubled by an incomprehensible, cruel world, and troubled by his own identity struggles. But Vonnegut always was a dedicated humanitarian, concerned that selfish behavior could eventually be turned to alleviate suffering and initiate justice.
We grew up with dystopian novels in the 1960s. Common required secondary readings included Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Animal Farm, and A Canticle for Leibowitz, among others.
So Kurt Vonnegut’s novels naturally attracted many people to them, including me. I didn’t know who Vonnegut was until nearly twenty years after he began writing. My older brother introduced me to Vonnegut’s novels, giving me a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five.
It was easy to identify with Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut’s protagonist in that work, his most popular. Pilgrim was a man who walked into a maelstrom, which was somewhat akin to being a young person in the 1960s with its civil rights struggles, assassinations, and political and social turmoil.
Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim is a World War II American soldier captured by the Germans near the end of the conflict. Pilgrim survives his capture and the Allied firebombing of Dresden to be forced into digging the bodies of civilians out of the rubble. The inhumanity and senselessness of the bombing, and the world war, weighs heavily on Pilgrim, who is a fragile character to begin with.
From that brief summary, it is easy to see the appeal Slaughterhouse-Five made on a generation struggling with the Vietnam conflict, which spread to two other countries and included inhumane bombings. More than 7 million tons of bombs, three and a half times what the US dropped during World War II, were dropped during the Vietnam conflict, leading to the deaths of 3 million people.
Of course, it is easy to say, “Well, they were the enemy.”
It’s harder to say, “Still, they were people, people whose lives were just as important as ours,” and that is, in part, Vonnegut’s point.
Following his writing success with Slaughterhouse -Five, Vonnegut became a leading humanitarian spokesman, a task he accepted even though he probably was not the “most qualified.” Vonnegut could be very pessimistic, which is found in his novels. He accepted an inevitably of depravity among humans reflected in one of his most popular, and oft-repeated, sayings, “So it goes.”
At the same time, Vonnegut promoted kindness and humility, values that softened the blows of the dark humor in his books. That was hard for some people to see. They said Vonnegut was crude and anti-American. Several school districts in the United States banned his books, which eventually led to a Supreme Court decision that books cannot be removed from a library just because a school board does not like their ideas. The court also stated that boards could not prescribe orthodoxy.
Unorthodox probably best describes Vonnegut and his writings. His plots and characters were some of the most bewildering and disoriented plots and characters invented, definitely not for the faint-hearted.
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