Vonnegut on Why Common Ancestry Might Not Matter

Anyone who follows this blog knows that I have a tendency to quote Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.  He certainly had a way with words.  For example, in an earlier post about my feelings on the William Faulkner estate’s legal crusade to narrow “fair use” under copyright law (which I should retitle to: When Someone Quotes You, Say Thank You, Not “F-You”), I ended with a provocative Vonnegut quote.

I thought the genealogical detectives who visited earlier this week might be interested in another Vonnegut quote from that same compilation of interviews published in The Paris Review — described as “an interview conducted with himself, by himself” because of Vonnegut’s involvement in revisions — in which the legendary author shared some of his World War II experiences:

Interviewer: Did you speak any German?

Vonnegut: I had heard my parents speak it a lot.  They hadn’t taught me how to do it, since there had been such bitterness in America against all things German during the First World War.  I tried a few words I know on our captors, and they asked me if I was of German ancestry, and I said, “Yes.”  They wanted to know why I was making war against my brothers.

Interviewer: And you said–?

Vonnegut: I honestly found the question ignorant and comical.  My parents had separated me so thoroughly from my Germanic past that my captors might as well have been Bolivians or Tibetans, for all they meant to me.

Based on this quote, it seems Vonnegut didn’t feel like his shared ancestry and DNA with the Germans meant much in the absence of the accompanying cultural traditions. The fascinating part, to me, is the extent to which Vonnegut implies he could have felt a connection with the Germans — despite the war — if he had been raised with more of an eye towards his Germanic past. Finally, it’s interesting to see Vonnegut’s parents as an example of ethnic minorities sharply breaking with their past, perhaps as a coping mechanism to deal with the nativism around them, or perhaps as a genuine belief that the current culture in their ancestral homeland is incompatible with their personal beliefs.

12 thoughts on “Vonnegut on Why Common Ancestry Might Not Matter

  1. I have read and enjoyed much of Vonnegut’s fiction, though it’s been a few years. I most like his unique voice, the command and ease of his prose. Slaughterhouse 5 is good, but so much of his later work has an almost conversational tone that I enjoyed, too.

    1. He’s one of my favorite authors. I re-read Slaughterhouse-Five recently, around Banned Books Week in October, and found myself enjoying it even more than I did the first time I read it. It’s timeless and its messages felt especially relevant today. I also enjoy many of his other books. When I was younger, my favorite was Player Piano, but I can’t remember why now. I’m planning to re-read it soon (I’m going through each book again. I finished Welcome to the Monkey House last week).

      Thanks for commenting!

    1. I had heard of Vonnegut, but never read much of his works. I was busy with a 30 plus year career as an RN so I probably missed alot! I am retired now, so I am loving this blogging thing and learning so much from folks like you.
      I wanted to make a couple of points that hopefully will make sense to you.
      History shows us that German Americans as well as many immigrants were sharply discriminated against. For example, during some of my genealogy research for my husband’s family, I found newspaper clippings that “threatened” the Germans that had come to America with the ultimatum that you learn our language or else and you must do as we do. It was almost like forget your past , etc and your culture. In fact, My mother was born in Germany and did not teach me german because she had my school tell her not to. ( my mom’s story: http://alesiablogs.wordpress.com/2012/10/20/being-born-in-berlin-a-true-story/ )

      Fortunate for me though is she did teach me the wonderful German traditions in our home growing up. I was blessed in many ways. I will also say being positively influenced by a loving mother about my heritage mattered. It helped to make me the person I am today.

      On the other hand I decided to read up on Vonnegut’s life and it appears he did not grow up in the best circumstances. It seems his mom committed suicide and that he actually tried too also and his own son also suffered from mental issues. In regards to these issues family does matter but unfortunate for him it was a negative impact.

      Moving to America in the timeframe that Vonnegut’s family came over was for religious and political freedom. I am sure all this played a part in breaking away from the “ancestral” ties you bring up. Thanks for letting me blog on your blog!! Alesia

      1. Thanks for sharing your mother’s story! I love her series of last names (Heitzmann Jenkins McGinnis), showing the mixture through marriage of so many difficult cultures.

        My mother is Sri Lankan (Muslim) and raised us with a sense of our Sri Lankan identity, but having grown up in the US and having a mixed racial background, I can’t say that I felt defined by a single strand of my heritage. That is, until 9/11, when the perception of my Arabic first name, dark hair, and olive complexion turned me into an “Other” pretty quickly. So, to some extent, I can understand how German Americans may have felt during the early half of the 20th Century. However, unlike them, it’s harder for people who look like I do to “pass” as part of the majority group, no matter how hard they try to distance themselves from the cultural traditions of their ancestral homelands. I am pleased to say that the prejudicial attitudes in the years immediately following 9/11 have improved quite a bit (at least where I live).

        1. Thank you for sharing about that. My heart goes out to you with what you must have felt as a young woman. The good news I believe is that we are as a country healing. Time is the great healer. I say live in the moment, love your children, and be the best mom you can be, and ENJOY life to the fullest. BTW I can tell you have a BIG heart by your posts and your generous gift of knowledge you share with your readers. Alesia PS: I am sure we will talk again. Also I live in Seattle! It is a great place to live and I really think everyone here has opportunity no matter the color of their skin.

          1. That is nice of you to say. Thankfully, I suffered little direct discrimination, though I was acutely aware of what was going on around me. I did, however, feel compelled to stop flying between Philadelphia and Boston (between home and school) because I was searched every single time. It added a significant amount of time to my travel, and those were the days when a female security guard would feel you up in front of everyone. I’m glad the situation has largely improved since then.

  2. I am embarassed to admit that I am from Indianapolis and have never read a single Kurt book. Now Im going to have to ink this in on my New Year’s To Do list 🙂
    I am constantly perplexed by this “shame” of being born outside the US by so many of my ancestors!

    1. I highly recommend his work! My favorite is Slaughterhouse Five, but I like most of his books. In the composite interview I link to in this post, he has some funny things to say about the criticism he received for some of his work.

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