While having tea at my parents’ house yesterday afternoon, my father shared with me some unsettling news about the undergraduate and graduate students in his screen-directing class: They have never heard of Kurt Vonnegut, a subject that comes up after they watch “Who Am I This Time?,” starring Christopher Walken and Susan Sarandon. It’s based on a wonderful Vonnegut short story with the same title in Welcome to the Monkey House (1968). It wasn’t just one class that came up wanting, but a few classes over the last two or three years.
Flabbergasted by this anecdote, I replied, “What is the world coming to?”
As I’ve written on this blog before, I am a person who tends to roll my eyes at others who proclaim society to be in cultural decline, but if there were ever any indication that we’re in such a downfall, then this has to be it. I’m kidding, of course, but only sort of.
For good measure, just in case American culture really is in decline, I encourage everyone to read at least one Kurt Vonnegut book. Try it out. If you don’t like it, that’s fine; no book will please everyone, but give it a fair shot.
My favorite Vonnegut book, one of my favorite books of all time, is Slaughterhouse-Five, which I re-visited last fall, as I discussed in my post, Banned Books: The Politics Behind Censorship. Slaughterhouse-Five was one of the books at the heart of our last U.S. Supreme Court case on book banning, Board of Education v. Pico (1982). This work of fiction stems from Vonnegut’s World War II experience as a POW during the firebombing of Dresden, Germany. Its timeless themes resonate as much now, considering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as it did when it was published in 1969, during the Vietnam War era.
Recently, I also finished reading Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (2012),** which was a birthday present from my husband. It is a fascinating look at Vonnegut through his personal correspondence over 60 years, from 1945 until 2007. In one letter from 1981, a biting response to Anatole Broyard, a “literary critic with credentials” from the New York Times, Vonnegut writes:
I thank you for your comments on how slowly my literary reputation is dying. Part of the problem, surely, is that all my books remain in print, and people continue to give me credit for having written them.
That was 32 years ago. Vonnegut’s books remain in print today, and there is the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis, Vonnegut’s hometown. Dan Wakefield, the editor of the letters and Vonnegut’s friend, writes in the introduction to the chapter on the 2000s, “From all indications, there will be many more ‘years of Vonnegut,’ not only in Indianapolis,” also noting among the indicators Vonnegut’s appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in 2005.
As a fan of The Daily Show, let me say that I hope with all my heart that it is a good indication of cultural relevance, even if Vonnegut’s appearance was eight years ago, two years before his death at age 84. My father’s students are a more recent indication of the future of Vonnegut’s literary reputation, but let’s hope that they — as talented as they may be in filmmaking — aren’t representative of the next generation on this issue.
The minute Kurt Vonnegut’s books lose their place in literature is the moment I will feel like an old woman and, dare I say it, I may well find myself starting a diatribe with, “Kids these days…” Let’s hope it never comes to that.
**Right now (4/1/13), it’s priced at $19.66 for the hardcover and $17.99 for the ebook on Amazon and Barnes & Noble