“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’ ”
I saw Kurt Vonnegut speak at the University of Nebraska’s Lied Center in 1991. This was shortly after the death of my Grandmother Souders, a minor transformational event in my life. He was brief but funny. He had been studying the oral literature of hunter-gatherers, or so he claimed. I had just taken my first Anthropology class, and was writing short stories at the time, so it all seemed to fit, y’know, cosmically.
Two friends-of-friends published, at that time, a weekly-slash-zine called (I think) the Great Red Shark, and somehow they scored an interview with Mr. Vonnegut. For the interview they took him to the Foxy Lady, a nudie bar on O St. This impressed him only a little. I remember nothing about the interview except they tried very hard to be irreverent. In response to one of those questions along the lines of “If you could be a tree, what kind of tree would you be?”, Mr. Vonnegut replied: “I don’t know, that’s a pretty stupid question.”
When I was that age (14 to maybe 21), Kurt Vonnegut seemed like the World’s Greatest Author. I particularly loved Slaughterhouse Five, but then, who doesn’t? You’d have to have ice in your marrow to be unmoved by that book.
I haven’t read a Vonnegut book since, I dunno, my 20s. I remember reading something of his during grad school and being unmoved. The same thing happened when I re-read Dharma Bums. I mean this as bright, not faint praise: books beloved by 20-year-olds are the best literature in the world, because at the very least they penetrate a 20-year-old’s Shield of Invulnerability.
I was shocked to read that Vonnegut was 84 years old. He’s the same age as the Important Men of my childhood and youth: my dad’s boss, the World War II vets who owned businesses, the guys at the Elks club, all my high school History teachers. These weren’t young guys, but they were still vital, and they still ran the world. They were younger then than our president is now. There will come a time, in my lifetime, and not too far away, when there will be no one left on Earth who fought against or for imperial fascism. It will cease to be living history and become Book History. This must be what America felt like around 1920, when the Civil War veterans were fading away. I wonder, are there any veterans of the First World War left?