Vonnegut in Cultural History Research Paper

Vonnegut in Cultural History

As a purveyor of American culture Kurt Vonnegut stands in an interesting position: camped on the ground of his socially progressive descendants he hails from the conservative, nostalgic America of the Great Depression, World War II, and the 50s. As such, he represents a bridge between the two worlds of American idealism and human idealism, of modernism and postmodernism, of faith and cynicism. Yet he remains solidly camped on one side, though a generation removed from the contemporaries of that side; a hero of the baby-boomer generation, Vonnegut was already in his late forties when his seminal, anti-war novel, Slaughterhouse Five — referent to his own experience in World War II — was hailed as visionary by the anti-war protestors of Vietnam as well as the hippy era at large. Vonnegut is a convert, one whose socio-psychological experience helped to ease the passage of America from the early 20th century into the later, one who taught America how to reflect on itself and cope with what it found therein primarily through the vehicles of satire and black humor; therefore the influence of Vonnegut on American culture must be regarded as transitionary, a bridge between modern America and postmodern America. “As an adolescent, he made my life bearable,” (Sullivan, MSNBC) reflects Jon Stewart, a modern day ideological descendant of the 60s liberals who, like Vonnegut, has placed himself in the position of bridging the gap between two generations.

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The strength of Vonnegut is in his unwavering compassion for humanity despite a deep cynicism about that humanity’s worthiness, always his cynicism and compassion are couched in the blackest humor and a fragmentary postmodern approach, devices which Vonnegut used to cope with that cynicism and compassion, and through which he influenced later generations of literature. for, it should seem that the central tenants of the author are in mutual exclusion and create a great tension between them: he does not believe in humanity, but he certainly has loved it. This paper intends to analyze the influence of that tension, in light of Vonnegut’s black humor and postmodernism, and the influence which the author’s devices, motivations, and style have had on the body of media — literature specifically — which postdated him.

Peter Barry, in Beginning Theory, differentiates modernism from postmodernism as such: “In a word, the modernist laments fragmentation while the postmodernist celebrates it,” (Barry, p.84). Essential to modernism, for Barry, is a nostalgia for the forms and faith of the past — of the pre-modern era — which the modernists look back to wishfully. Modernism, Barry asserts, is strongly ascetic — for moral and material reasons — and prefers the courage and goodness of a Charles Dickens character even though it, itself, can only produce the moral ambiguity of James Joyce. Yet the postmodernist looks not back but ahead; the postmodernist has embraced the loss of faith, the materialism, the fragmentation and pastiche, the cynicism of the new era and “celebrates” it. Invariably one is reminded of Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup images, as vivid a celebration of material, postmodern forms as visually exists. Barry goes on to say, “postmodernism rejects the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ art which was important in modernism,” (Barry, p.84), and here is seen a clear connection to Vonnegut and other of his contemporaries, like his close friend Joseph Heller. In Vonnegut slapstick science fiction and black humor is mixed with intelligent social commentary, just as Heller had mixed black humor with social commentary. A more recent example, descendant of this rejection of distinction between art forms, is the graphic novel Watchmen, published in the mid 80s and recently made into a major motion picture. The graphic novel presents deep and often disturbing ideas and commentary on the nature of humanity and free will, but does so in the form of a comic book complete with superheroes, kitschy masks, and bat mobiles. It is high art for the masses, just as Vonnegut’s work aimed to be and, so doing, taught literature to be.

There has always been some debate about whether Vonnegut is strictly a postmodern author, or whether modern overtones can be found lacing his work. Slaughterhouse Five certainly preserves an element of lamentation; one has the distinct feeling that the author — as well as Billy Pilgrim the main character — would wish to not have seen all that he’s seen. For Vonnegut what he might wish to un-see would be Dresden, but Billy Pilgrim seems more tortured by his visions of the past and future. Time-travel has destroyed Billy’s faith in human free will and thus humanity at large, and Dresden has done the same for Vonnegut. The loss of faith is a modern condition, however, the author’s compassion seems stronger in this novel than in his later works — compare Galapagos wherein “This was a very innocent planet, except for those great big [human] brains,” (Galapagos, p.9). Though it wanes in his later years, the very existence of that compassion requires that an attitude of lamentation must be posited.

David Cowart believes that Vonnegut represents a bridge between the modern and postmodern eras (Tally, 2008), and that is the stance which this paper takes. Robert Tally adds, however, that “it is also clear that Vonnegut’s work embodies a kind of postmodern sensibility, a fellow-feeling for its place and time, that marks it as postmodern in a recognizable way,” (Tally, 2008). Tally gives evidence for Vonnegut’s position within the postmodern camp, even though he might be a bridge: first, Vonnegut’s disconnection with the past; second, the subversion of time by space in Vonnegut; and, third, the fragmentary and pastiche nature of much of Vonnegut’s work (Tally, 2008). It can be added that, as Barry might have it, Vonnegut’s characters are not usually concerned with morality so much as practicality, marking him as a postmodern celebrator of the loss of faith rather than a modern lamenter of it. Faith is gone, Vonnegut seems to shout, yet the world turns on. There are no Stephen Dedaluses here, who worry about moral ambiguity, no Robert Jordans either, concerned with doing the right thing. Commonly, Vonnegut’s characters seem to be trying to save their own skins. Vonnegut is a transitory element from modernism to postmodernism, yet in camping firmly with the postmodernists, he became an agent of change, a hero of the revolution, rather than a pillar of the past.

The literary heritage of Vonnegut has been both illuminated and clouded by the author’s recent death in 2007, since which a slew of authors and media personalities have claimed his literary parentage. John Irving is a good, provable example, having studied under Vonnegut at the University of Iowa (MSNBC, 2007) before Vonnegut had even won much acclaim. Irving’s novels lack the fragmentation and collage of postmodernism, however, and are arguably realist. Nonetheless, Irving does incorporate a distant, dry sense of black humor in much of his work and the circumstances of his works are commonly engineered to have the same effect which elements of science fiction often did in Vonnegut. Science fiction in Vonnegut provided absurd or extreme situations through which social situations could better be observed; Cider House Rules is also a novel of extreme situations through which a social situation can be more lucidly examined.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone — the creators of the popular animated television series South Park — have also claimed Vonnegut’s parentage (MSNBC, 2007), and here the elements are even clearer. Black humor is a staple of South Park as well as the use of absurd, distorted, extreme situations used to highlight and lucidly examine modern social situations. It may also be argued that Vonnegut was one of the pioneers of the device of shock-media: consider that many of his novels include hand drawn images of genitalia, female breasts, etc. And were sometimes banned for these. Also, Vonnegut’s ability to use black humor against events like Dresden and the Vietnam War is a form of shock-media. South Park has taken shock media to the highest extreme permissible on network television, and sometimes beyond, and has spawned a number of descendants even raunchier than itself. Consider also Jon Stewart’s the Daily Show, which single-handedly revolutionized the news media especially in relation to the South Park generation. Jon Stewart, as quoted above, claims Vonnegut for his own, and makes prolific use of black humor as a vehicle for bringing ‘high’ politics down to the ‘popular’ level, just as Vonnegut brought ‘high’ art down for the masses. This South Park postmodernist approach of making the ‘highest’ accessible was part of Vonnegut’s philosophy — he was, after all, just a simple American GI with big ideas — and has proliferated extensively into today’s media. A popular show of today, ABC’s Lost, is a successful attempt to bring ‘high’ science fiction as well as ‘high’ philosophy down to the level of the masses. Accessibility is key: Joyce, for all his power, is hardly accessible to the untutored reader, and Hemingway, with his spare, sublime prose, can be easily overlooked by the unwary. A Vonnegut theme, however, is often hard to miss; especially since part of Vonnegut’s style placed the author in a position where many readers could palpably feel him throughout the novel. Vonnegut seems to read alongside the reader and assist him; he seems to teach and guide — gently — as well as write. As such, Vonnegut helped re-define what high art, and the novel specifically, could be:

Irving, who went on to write “The World According to Garp” and “The Cider House Rules,” remembered Vonnegut as a self-effacing presence who “didn’t have an agenda about what ‘the novel’ should be.” Vonnegut also appreciated that you didn’t have to be in the classroom to get your work done (MSNBC, 2007).

South Park postmodernism seems to be endemic to recent generations, and, if so, the ideological roots of those generations must be traced back to Vonnegut and his contemporaries.

Some more direct, technical influences of Vonnegut can be found in literature. Martin Amis, the preeminent British author, published a work called Time’s Arrow which follows the form of a passage in Slaughterhouse Five (BBC, 2005). In that passage time is subsumed and run backwards to tell the story of Dresden’s firebombing in reverse — it seems then to end happily with bombs being dismantled by women in American factories — and Amis’s novel has a similar plot. Nonetheless, Amis is known for a certain acerbity which Vonnegut’s compassion would not permit; Vonnegut loved humanity despite his anger and depression whereas Amis seems to lash out. Furthermore, Amis is well-known for the prolixity of his style, whereas Vonnegut advocated accessibility. In Money, another of Amis’s novels, Vonnegut himself appears as a character (BBC, 2005).

Through Vonnegut and his contemporaries — Joseph Heller to name an important one — it became acceptable to cope with the human condition through satire and black humor. “So it goes,” repeats the author-narrator of Slaughterhouse Five in reference to every death the novel comes across. The attitude is not just blase but fatalist: the novel accepts the failure of free will — and therefore the general human failure — and in sorrow and courage moves on. “I had to laugh like hell,” soliloquizes Lieutenant Colonel John Patton in Hocus Pocus, the implication being that if he did not laugh, he would have to cry. In 1984, battling sever depression, Vonnegut attempted suicide and failed. Shortly thereafter he was on record joking about the botched attempt (MSNBC, 2007). It has already been mentioned that black humor and satire are used in Vonnegut, and in his later descendants, to make ‘high’ material accessible to the common reader, but here it is also shown to be used as a coping mechanism. Jon Stewart referred to the tragedy, war, and terror during the most recent Middle Eastern conflict as a “Mess-O-Potamia,” and taught his viewers about the socio-political failings of that conflict — especially the American part in it — while simultaneously giving them a mechanism by which to cope with it. Augusten Burroughs in Running with Scissors similarly uses black humor to teach his readers about the darkness of his childhood, while simultaneously providing a mechanism for both the author and reader to cope with that childhood. In fact, coping through humor — especially black humor — seems to be an indigenous trait of the South Park generation.

In the generations previous to Vonnegut, we find the chief satirist to be Mark Twain who used satire as a tool for understanding the human condition, but rarely went as far as to poke fun at events as terrible as Dresden. Twain was not precisely modernist, but can be placed into that camp, and may rightly be considered one of Vonnegut’s own influences. If Twain then represents the transition from late 19th century realism into modernism, Vonnegut is his descendant who transformed his work for the use of postmodernism.

Vonnegut’s position is most interesting for his retention in some ghostly aspect of many modernist ideals, despite his progress into postmodernism. Vonnegut was compassionate, this is central. Vonnegut had lost faith, yet he went on as if it still existed. By clinging to the modernist heritage Vonnegut eased the transition and also appropriated the devices and ideology of modernism for the postmodern culture. In fact, it remains that many critics have trouble demonstrating the exact line whereat modernism ends and postmodernism begins and this is because the two movements did not precisely start and end so much as blend into one another. Postmodernism took the lamentations of its modernist parents and converted it into something appropriate to the latest generation, a generation disillusioned with the simple black-white dualities of the realist past, a generation which had participated and even perpetrated the horrors of Vietnam and the cold war, a generation which was suddenly seeing through the ethereality of the American dream. As a guru of that generation, Vonnegut represents a bridge from the American, faith-based idealism of the 40s and 50s into the atheistic, humanist idealism of today. Through him and his contemporaries it was first possible to approach humane, moral living without any absolutes to rely on, without god or country as meters and only the wavering compasses of the human way to guide.

It is difficult, also, to decide at which point a man ceases to become a product of his times and the times begin to become a product of him. Certainly it must be accepted that Vonnegut never achieved the position of America’s highest acclaimed authors, so it must be accepted that in some sense he was as much a product as a purveyor. Yet, it must also be recognized that Vonnegut was well ahead of his time. The first generation he influenced was twenty years younger than he, had lost its faith in Vietnam while he had lost his in World War II. As MSNBC writes, “Vonnegut was less a peer of the young rebels who loved such novels as “Cat’s Cradle” and “Slaughterhouse-Five,” than a wise, eccentric and cranky uncle,” (MSNBC, 2007).


1. Vonnegut, Kurt.

a. Slaughterhouse Five. New York: Random House, 1969. Print

b. Glapagos. New York: Random House, 1985. Print.

c. Cat’s Cradle. New York: Random House, 1963. Print.

2. Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995. Print.

3. Tally, Robert T. “A Postmodern Iconography: Vonnegut and the Great American Novel.” (2008) Faculty Publications-English: Texas State University, Web. 4 May 2010 http://ecommons.txstate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1014&context=englfacp

4. MSNBC “Writers Praise the Influence of Kurt Vonnegut.” Associated Press, 12 April 2007. Web. 4 May 2010. http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/18080112/

5. MSNBC “Novelist Kurt Vonnegut Dies at 84.” Associated Press, 12 April 2007. Web. 4 May 2010. http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/18066068/ns/entertainment-arts_books_more/

6. Sullivan, James “Vonnegut Made this Ridiculous Life Bearable.” MSNBC, 12 April 2007. Web. 4 May 2010. http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/18077559/ns/entertainment-arts_books_more/

7. “Kurt Vonnegut — Author” BBC Edited Guide Entry. 16 March 2005. Web. 4 May 2010. http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A3724823

8. Tally, Robert T., “We are what we pretend to be’: Existential Angst in Vonnegut’s Mother Night” (2009). Faculty Publications-English: Texas State University, Web. 4 May 2010. http://ecommons.txstate.edu/englfacp/20

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