A Man Without a Country
Kurt Vonnegut (2005, Seven Stories Press)
My Vonnegut-reading days seem very long ago; I read most of what I have read before I went to college, so I was interested to pick up this slim volume and see what he's thinking these days, in his own voice. He writes --as in some ways he always did-- as an old man looking back. One of his distinguishing marks is a long memory for American history: Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain and Eugene V. Debs also lived in parlous times, and I am glad to be reminded of what they had to say.
I think that Debs, in particular, ought to be more widely remembered for this: "As long as there is a lower class, I am in it. As long as there is a criminal element, I'm of it. As long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free." Nearly one hundred years later, where is the politician (let alone presidental candidate) who would stand up and say such a thing? Yet Debs won more than five per cent of the votes in the 1912 election, on the Socialist ticket.
These essays are a complex mix of anger and idealism. "It so happens that idealism enough for anyone is not made of perfumed pink clouds. It is the law! It is the U.S. Constitution. But I myself feel that our country, for whose Constitution I fought in a just war, might as well have been invaded by Martians and body snatchers. Sometimes I wish it had been." There's a chance, Vonnegut says, that he is running out of jokes, overwhelmed by the awfulness of life. "It may be that I have become rather grumpy because I've seen so many things that have offended me that I cannot deal with in terms of laughter."
But then--his humor has always been largely a matter of being willing to see things truthfully, which can be a generous and tender thing to do: his first ideas for a book about the incineration of Dresden was for the kind of book that becomes a John Wayne movie, until his friend's wife "...blew her stack. She said, 'You were nothing but babies then.' And that is true of soldiers. They are in fact babies.... They are not movie stars. And realizing that was the key, I was finally free to tell the truth." So Slaughterhouse Five bears the subtitle, "The Children's Crusade."
And he still believes in the public library and the post office, little miracles of the age. One of the tasks in this book of wrapping up a lifetime's work is answering some mail. Vonnegut makes a supremely humane response to a woman worrying about what kind of a world she was just about to bring a child into. His first thought is pessimistic--who knows what will happen? "But I replied that what made being alive almost worthwhile for me, besides music, was all the saints I met, who could be anywhere. By saints I meant people who behaved decently in a strikingly indecent society."
Amen, and hallelujah--
By email, May 2006