Kurt Vonnegut, the Clintons, and Me


b. traven

In June 1996 Kurt Vonnegut, the author of Slaughterhouse Five and other novels, wrote the following to a friend:

Politics? I will vote Democratic because that is the most humane of the two parties, but not by much.  The Clintons are shallow, opportunistic, Yuppies but they are the only game in town. Doesn’t Dole (Bob Dole, the Republican presidential candidate of the era) make you ashamed to be a WW II vet?  What a crabby old poop.

Vonnegut was a very popular writer in the late 50’s, and into the 60’s and 70’s. I had tried reading his works when I was younger then, particularly, since as a veteran, I knew that as a POW he had lived through the horrific firebombing of Dresden by American and British air forces. I found his writing very direct but difficult to follow for my simple mind. It was like a bad Hollywood movie cutting back between fantasy and reality so that the characters never became real.

In old age, being a child of the Great Depression and a veteran of that war I couldn’t pass up a book of Vonnegut’s letters offered in a sidewalk sale for pennies. I knew he was opposed to all of our wars and hoped I would find more about him that might change my mind about this written works. Well, that insightful comment above, about BOTH Clintons, softened my heart and about his writing and I tackled Slaughterhouse again.

I learned from this book of letters more about Vonnegut, including things that established a bond between us.  Vonnegut was a fellow Indianan, though from Central Indiana, Indianapolis, instead of Gary. After the war both of us went into the Social Science graduate program at the University of Chicago.  We were there at the same time, 1946-47, under the GI bill. Vonnegut was about two years older than me, but we both went straight from the army into the graduate program without an undergraduate degrees.

At that time, the University of Chicago offered veterans credit for army special education. Before being shipped as a replacement infantryman to Europe, Vonnegut had been in the ASTP (Army Special Training Program) at Carnegie Tech, while I had been in the Air Corps cadet program at Clemson College. Those programs, on top of a couple prewar semesters in college, opened the doors to University of Chicago graduate programs.

Vonnegut was sent from the classroom into the 106th frontline Division in the Battle of the Bulge. He claims they were set up as sitting ducks for the main German offensive. Coincidence again. One of my best friends who was just 18 at the time, younger than Vonnegut and I, was sent as a raw recruit with the 106th and was also captured at Malmedy in that Battle. While Vonnegut was sent to Dresden to work in what was designated an “open city” (no bombing allowed) Mike, my friend, who was Jewish, was sent to a concentration camp. Both lived through horrible experiences.

So Vonnegut’s insightful comment about the Clinton’s got me to learn more about him and our common paths through those times, but after forcing myself to reread Slaughterhouse Five, I still find it a difficult read.

7 thoughts on “Kurt Vonnegut, the Clintons, and Me

  1. I read quite a bit of Twain before reading any Vonnegut, who for some reason was outside my little orb of awareness until college. I almost instantly thought of them as two authors writing not just with style similarities, but who also viewed humans, America, and the world from a similar perspective. I think this is a highly subjective opinion, though.

    A Vonnegut quote (paraphrased from untrustworthy memory) has always stayed with me from an essay/article he wrote published in the ’70’s (I think; long enough ago to make memory even more untrustworthy):

    When asked by a caller on the other end of the telephone line what he was up to these days, Vonnegut replied: “Committing suicide by cigarette.”

    • Vonnegut had an incredibly funny sense of humor. Your quote from him is an excellent example. In the book of his letters is a copy of a “contract” he wrote with his new wife who was constantly berating him for being messy and not helping with chores. It is something most men go through and his contract is hilarious.

  2. “And so it goes” Just saw an old Kurt Vonnegut Interview on Dick Cavett on my Antenna TV Channel He was also very skeptical of the Bush’s, and Funding “The Freedom Fighters” of Somalia back then…!Gore Vidal I believe called him “Americas Worst Writer”, and I believe he sold Saabs on Cape Cod before hitting it big with Slaughter House… He had a memorable bit part in Rodney Dangerfield” Back to School” in the Eighties appearing as himself being hyper critical of a pompous ass of a Literary Professor!.When He died we all lost a irreplaceable genius…

  3. “traven”–By another coincidence, I very recently finally got around to reading “Slaughterhouse Five” (i.e. for the first time). Then I rented the 1972 movie (directed by George Roy Hill), which I hadn’t watched since its original release. Though I now found the movie pretty well done, being able to compare and contrast with the novel, I noted with displeasure that “Vietnam” was not mentioned once in the movie. Billy Pilgrim’s son appears in his Green Beret uniform briefly, and in the context of 1972 the viewer could have assumed he’d been sent to ‘Nam, or was about to be. But the protagonist/narrator in the novel is specifically critical of that war. I guess the studio heads at Universal Pictures felt it would have been unwise to follow that line. I found the introduction to the novel, disguised as Chapter 1, quite unique, in that the author tells us how the story will end!

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