Author and fellow hoosier Dan Wakefield was a longtime friend of Kurt Vonnegut. He edited If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?, a collection of quirky, insightful and refreshing commencement speeches Vonnegut has delivered over the years. Dan joins us to reflect on the amazing staying power of Vonnegut’s prose and the lasting appeal of his grouchy charm to new generations of readers.
Kurt Vonnegut’s humor, honesty, and fresh ways of seeing things have always made him a favorite of young people. I remember back in the late sixties, before Slaughterhouse Five made him rich and famous, college students were carrying around dog-eared copies of Cat’s Cradle, a novel in which he playfully invents a fictitious new religion, foresees a way the world could end, and introduces new words that strike a chord of satiric truth (a “Granfalloon” is a proud and meaningless association of people; examples cited are The Communist Party, The Daughters of the American Revolution, and General Electric.)
Few writers are able — or willing — to take on the most serious issues (e.g. the end of the world) and write about them with humor as well as insight. Puzzling over the “big issues” is part of a young person’s coming of age, and young people not only find in Vonnegut a humorous and satirical approach that they find congenial, they also discover a refusal to shirk from the dark side of human nature. Memorializing the death of children killed in war in Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut’s orator says “…we might best spend the day despising what killed them; which is to say, the stupidity and viciousness of all mankind.”
As young people come of age they are discovering that, as Vonnegut says, the truth is often shocking “because we hear it so seldom.” Vonnegut is a truth-teller, the one who points out the elephant in the room, the one who speaks the unspeakable, expressing the thought that we may be too timid to say ourselves. When Kurt and I and our publisher, Sam Lawrence, were invited to visit one of the first communes, back in the late sixties, the young man who founded it explained that he and his friends were learning to “live off the land” because “we want to be the last people on earth.” Vonnegut asked him, “Isn’t that kind of a stuck-up kind of thing to want to be?” Just as in his writing, Vonnegut in his daily life could not help asking the impertinent questions, the ones that make us think.
Vonnegut is sometimes mislabeled as a “Counter-Culture” figure, and though he was a hero to the hippies, he was in fact a critic of much of their world. He satirized Maharishi Mahesh Yoga, guru to The Beatles and a covey of movie stars, in an article called “Yes, We Have No Nirvanas.” When Zen meditation became a fad, Vonnegut pointed out that Western culture also has a technique for slowing the heart-rate and clearing the mind — it’s called “reading short stories.” He labeled that practice “Buddhist catnaps.” He wrote that he once smoked a joint with Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead “to be sociable,” but he didn’t get anything out of it and never tried again.
Vonnegut’s stories and books don’t seem to age as those of other authors do. His short story “Harrison Bergeron,” first published in the 1950s, is taught in many high schools today and is a favorite of students. It takes place in a time in the future when the government requires that everyone be equal, and weights and handicaps are placed on talented people to eliminate their advantages. But Harrison Bergeron rebels, strips off his weights, and shows the world what it can be like to be free and express yourself fully. Little wonder he is a hero to new generations.
Vonnegut was a popular graduation speaker from the 1970s until a few years before his death in 2007. His talks, like his novels, stories and essays, were full of humor (“whoever named near-beer was a poor judge of distance”), practical advice (“Eat lots of bran. . .Never stick anything in your ear”), and appreciation (“How many of you have had a teacher at any stage of your education from the first grade until this day in May who made you happier to be alive, prouder to be alive, than you had previously believed possible?”) After that last question, he asked everyone in the audience to turn to the person next to them and say the name of that teacher. That is Vonnegut in action, prompting others to recall particular people who have enhanced their life, to stop and savor the memory, and in that moment ask yourself “If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?”