Kurt Vonnegut: The Great American Humanist
Before anyone writes a nasty comment at the end of this Hub, I want to make sure I clarify that the subject line of this Hub is a joke. It is the same joke Vonnegut made about Isaac Asimov, another great humanist, after his death. Vonnegut did not believe in heaven; neither did Asimov. Vonnegut believed we should treat human beings as valuable and beautiful because they are, not because of a reward coming in the afterlife for whomever stores up the most karma points. Humanists, like Vonnegut and Asimov, believe in serving and bettering humanity because they believe it is the right thing to do, not because of any imperative from a deity, or fear of eternal punishment if they do not.
Art By Kurt Vonnegut
This Hub is only peripherally about Humanism, because any Hub about the novels of Kurt Vonnegut is going to have to be somewhat about Humanism. Kurt Vonnegut was born on November 11, 1922, in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is considered one of the most influential American novelists of the twentieth century. His work combined elements of science fiction and humor into a literature of the absurd that somehow managed to still be important contemporary social commentary. In each of his novels, Vonnegut created unique worlds filled with zany events and characters that reveal things about our own crazy existence.
Vonnegut Artwork Slideshow, Click Below
The Madcap Professor Himself
Believe it or not you can order a Kilgore Trout book: Venus on the Half-Shell
The Novels of Kurt Vonnegut: The world is going to hell, but I still love you guys
When Kurt Vonnegut published his first novel, "Player Piano," in 1952, he wrote about corporate culture taking over in America. It was the end of WWII and Vonnegut, as a young novelist, wrote about a distant future where the corporate powers that were beginning to dominate the American landscape seized the opportunities presented by the fragile post-war economy. Today, 57 years later, Vonnegut's vision is much closer to reality than anyone browsing the "new fiction" secion in 1952 would accept.
The novel was not that well received, and it was not until his fourth novel, "Cat's Cradle," published in 1963, that he finally had his breakthrough. By then he had developed a more dry and sparse style than his debut novel. He never varied from this method of writing, no matter how many times he varied his subject, throughout his career. For the most part Vonnegut's style is memoirs, though the majority of his novels are fiction memoirs of characters whose lives have seen extraordinary events in the vein of social cataclysm, revolution, or discovery. For example, in one novel the world is destroyed by ice made in a laboratory, in another novel a 10 year period of history just repeats itself exactly. Therefore each of his novels becomes as much a record of a fictional historical event or happening as it is the personal memoirs of the lead, or narrating, character.
Vonnegut uses the vantage of his main characters to demonstrate and comment upon the effects of the dynamic events in his novels. It is within the consequences these characters endure because of these events and their stubbornly humanistically optimistic response to them that Vonnegut's genius finds its muse. The humor, the science-fiction, the drama, etc., all become tools by which Vonnegut displays the unfailing spirit of humanity: one that can somehow overcome all the brainless malarky human beings do to themselves, this planet, and others. Vonnegut will not cheer you unless you've already accepted we might blow this whole thing before we figure it out, exactly. But once you've realized the precariousness of man's situation in this existence, there is no more appropriate response than that of wry, nervous laughter and completely honest examinations of not only ourselves and our situation, but also where we are headed.
Read Kurt Vonnegut on Your New Kindle!
Vonnegut, despite the claims that his novels are not literary, or serious enough, provides a strong and enduring example of America's continuing response to possible pit-falls in our nation's future. That is a response that assumes responsibility, does not give up hope, strives to grow as we change, and never loses its ability to crack a joke. Vonnegut is a powerful example to a new generation of American writers. It is significant to note these writers find themselves in far different fields than Vonnegut did as a novelist. Today they work in television, film, video games, the internet, and in more and more diverse and varying fields where the skills of the storyteller find themselves strange bedfellows with engineers, technicians, and number crunchers. Rather than deplore the ease with which so many understand Vonnegut as a sign he is not literary enough, we should laud him for his ability to make literature relavent to a culture that has all but forgot how to open a book.
One need look no further than Vonnegut's own "Bluebeard" where characters discuss the relevance and irrelevance of literature in the culture of, as Vonnegut coined them, "bubble-gum philosophers." While his characters never reconcile their difference on the position of literature in the world, I think it is high-time we come to the realization that Vonnegut is important and relevant in a way that traditional literature is increasingly not. This may indeed mean that he is not "literary" enough for scholarly minded elitists who desire a sort of literary purity that seems rash and reactionary to post-modernism's embracing of diversity. History has proved that elitist tendency in humans is at best a base one, and we should, as Vonnegut would encourage us to do, turn our eyes away from silly squabbles towards the things that mean something in life: humanity and its continual trials and triumphs.
If there is one continual theme throughout all of Vonnegut's work, it is the indomitability of the human spirit in the face of events that we should in no way have any hope to overcome. If you find yourself looking for humor, life, love, inspiration, or maybe just a friend, pick up a Vonnegut book today. He will not insult you for what you don't know. He will not reject you for how you have ruined everything, he will simply remind you what we most often forget: that if life isn't nice, well, we don't know what is.
Below I posted some links to books of his with very short reviews. I will continue to add to this list so you guys can read Vonnegut yourself if you would like.
Buy Kurt Vonnegut Online Now
A Note from Kurt...
Kurt Vonnegut in Print
Kurt Vonnegut Stories Made Into Film
More Hubs on Vonnegut and other American Authors
- Kurt Vonnegut's Bluebeard: Writing About Writing For People Who Don't Read
Kurt Vonnegut, one of the most prolific if not best American writers of the second half of the twentieth century, first earned a reputation for himself as a science-fictionist with his early works, The Sirens...
- The Great American Anti-Hero: Faulkner's Thomas Sutpen as the Uniquely American Version of Joseph Ca
We have a few old mouth-to-mouth tales; we exhume from old trunks and boxes and drawers letters without salutation or signature, in which men and women who once lived and breathed are now merely initials...
- American Literature Classics: Interpreting the Climax of Edgar Allen Poe's Fall of the House of Ushe
In his The Philosophy of Composition Poe tells us that he begins writing with the consideration of an effect (1598). Almost all of Poes poetry and fiction give evidence to support Poes...
- How to win a Nobel Prize for Literature even if you can't sell a book: Reflecting on William Faulkne
When William Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949, his works in the United States had been out of print for almost a decade. While writers like Steinbeck and Hemingway dominated the...
- Literature You Should Own, But Probably Don't. Part 2: 20th Century American Literature: Postmodern
This is part two in a continuing series of hubs all of which are designed to inform and guide anyone who might want to know a little bit more about the rich tradition of art, letters and philosophy we have...
Blinx from Winston-Salem, North Carolina on August 24, 2011:
What a wonderful desciption of one of the most interesting writers of the 20th century. His books opened my mind in so many ways I could not describe. Mother Night is my favorite with Sirens of Titan second on the list. I hope everyone who loves fiction gets a chance to read his novels.
I have read everything he has published with the exception of bluebeard, player piano, timequake, happy birthday Wanda June and his most recent short fiction. It's truly a shame he isn't still here with us.
Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on November 01, 2010:
Kurt Vonnegut was great because he is able to change the way that the reader thinks. He opens your mind to crazy possibility and opens your heart to humanity. (Love the photo)
ltfawkes from NE Ohio on July 30, 2010:
Ho-lee . . . that letter "roaring drunk on petroleum" . . . so in addition to being a creative genius, he was also a prophet.
So it goes.
el oso on April 09, 2009:
I was severely influenced by the V....good pic of him.....Breakfast the best book with Cat's Cradle as a close second. loved the man and very annoyed that I never got to meet or hear him speak.
amyh on April 09, 2009:
Love the picture of Vonnegut. He really is an amazing and revolutionary writer. Slaughterhouse Five was the first of his novels that I read (after reading 2 of his short stories), and after that, I was addicted. I have now read Cat's Cradle, Bluebeard, and A Man Without a Country. I have Breakfast of Champions up next in the queue and, from what I hear, I think I'll enjoy that one as well. You did a great job of summing up the books and Vonnegut's life/career.
Before actually reading Vonnegut, I had heard he was good, but never fully understood what "good" meant until opening up one of his novels. Great, incredible, and addicting would be better adjectives to describe this man's talent. Reading one (or more) of his novels should be on everyone's bucket list.