NOVEMBER 6 — NOVEMBER 12, 2022
Happy 100th birthday, Kurt Vonnegut!
On November 11, 1922, one of the all-time greatest American writers was born in Indianapolis: the hilarious, kind, and wise Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
“His early life shows the kind of aimless lateral peregrinations of someone who was in the process of inventing a kind of person that hadn’t really existed before,” wrote Lev Grossman in 2007. Vonnegut was a biochemistry major at Cornell before dropping out and enlisting in the army in 1943; after he was captured during the Battle of the Bulge, he was sent to a prison camp in Dresden. He was there when it was bombed by Allied forces and survived by sheltering in a meat locker in a slaughterhouse with the address Schlachthof 5—Slaughterhouse-Five. “On about February 14th the Americans came over, followed by the R.A.F. their combined labors killed 250,000 people in 24 hours and destroyed all of Dresden—possibly the world’s most beautiful city,” Vonnegut wrote. “But not me.”
Thank goodness. In 1952, he published his first novel, Player Piano, to positive reviews if relatively little fanfare, and published four more novels after that before 1969, when he published his “Dresden book”—and the book that would make him a household name: Slaughterhouse-Five. The novel became a bestseller, and continues to be considered one of the greatest anti-war novels ever written.
“Vonnegut’s sincerity, his willingness to scoff at received wisdom, is such that reading his work for the first time gives one the sense that everything else is rank hypocrisy,” wrote Grossman. “His opinion of human nature was low, and that low opinion applied to his heroes and his villains alike—he was endlessly disappointed in humanity and in himself, and he expressed that disappointment in a mixture of tar-black humor and deep despair. He could easily have become a crank, but he was too smart; he could have become a cynic, but there was something tender in his nature that he could never quite suppress; he could have become a bore, but even at his most despairing he had an endless willingness to entertain his readers: with drawings, jokes, sex, bizarre plot twists, science fiction, whatever it took.”
Again: thank goodness. Vonnegut died in New York City in 2007 at the age of 84, leaving behind more than 20 books, several generations of acolytes, and a changed American literary landscape. So it goes.
On the Scale of the World examines the reverberations of anticolonial ideas that spread across the Atlantic between the two world wars. From the 1920s to the 1940s, Black intellectuals in Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean established theories of colonialism and racism as structures that must be understood, and resisted, on a global scale. In this richly textured book, Musab Younis gathers the work of writers and poets, journalists and editors, historians and political theorists whose insights speak urgently to contemporary movements for liberation.
I think it can be tremendously refreshing if a creator of literature has something on his mind other than the history of literature so far. Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.
In other (old)
news this week
Genius social outcast George Eliot submits her first work of fiction, Scenes of Clerical Life, for publication (November 6, 1856) • Noted Post-Post-Modernist Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya premieres at the Moscow Art Theatre under the direction of Konstantin Stanislavski (November 7, 1899) • George Sand arrives on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, where she will spend an unpleasant winter with her lover, the consumptive composer Frédéric Chopin, in an abandoned monastery (November 8, 1838) • A 20-year-old Robert Frost’s first published poem “My Butterfly: An Elegy” appears in The Independent (November 8, 1894) • The first installment of original literary softboi Hans Christian Andersen’s New Fairy Tales, including “The Ugly Duckling,” is published in Denmark (November 11, 1843) • Classic sexy text Lady Chatterley’s Lover sells 200,000 copies in one day following its publication in the UK, after being banned since 1928 (November 10, 1960) • After 22 rejections, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is finally published (November 10, 1961) • 21st-century influencer James Baldwin boards a plane to Paris with $40 in his pocket (November 11, 1948)
“I’m not at all interested in the brave who fight against the odds and win. I am interested in those who accept their lot, as that is what many people in the world are doing. They do their best in ghastly conditions.”
“Saints have no moderation, nor do poets, just exuberance.”