2019 marked the 50th anniversary of “Slaughterhouse-Five,” the best-selling novel by Kurt Vonnegut, considered a classic of its time for its groundbreaking genre-bending and countercultural leanings.
The New York Times celebrated the date with tributes and reminiscences. Surprisingly quiet here in Ithaca was Cornell University, where Vonnegut studied as an undergraduate and wrote for the school newspaper.
Or maybe not so surprisingly, for a couple of reasons.
First, Vonnegut didn’t graduate.
He didn’t do well at Cornell. While thriving at the Daily Sun, he flunked much of his coursework. He was put on academic probation in his sophomore year and subsequently dropped out.
Second, Vonnegut’s style is simple in syntax and playful in form, generally not qualities for university praise.
With the success of “Slaughterhouse-Five” media reviewers could not help but note his popularity, and found artistry in his work.
But the ivory towers are harder to reach. Vonnegut didn’t make it as some contemporaries did.
While critics and readers valued Vonnegut’s broad humor in the face of despair, academics preferred the more cryptic, morbid drollness of Samuel Beckett. Where Vonnegut’s direct moral conflicts pinpointed disarray and madness among us, scholars favored Thomas Pynchon, whose labyrinthian escapades deepened those problems rather than seek a way out. When Vonnegut delved into science fiction, as he did freely, he was criticized as cartoonish and unserious, especially compared with the more recondite “magic realism” of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges.
These intellectual predilections are not without merit. Vonnegut readily acknowledged his lack of literary pedigree, which he considered a consequence of his own insufficient study.
But with “Slaughterhouse-Five,” after years of near anonymity, Vonnegut became a near cult figure. His old books were revisited and new work eagerly sought.
Academic standing still largely eludes him. A place in popular literary history doesn’t. But what about the spot in between, continuing relevance?
Vonnegut died in 2007. Even his biggest fans would acknowledge that his best work was far behind him. The last of his 14 novels was published in 1997.
The popularity of “Slaughterhouse-Five” owed much to its time. It was published at the height of the war in Vietnam. Its title derives from the destruction of the German city of Dresden by Allied firebombing toward the end of World War Two, a militarily illicit attack on a non-strategic target which killed untold numbers of innocents and Vonnegut survived as a prisoner of war, taking refuge in an underground chamber in a slaughterhouse.
The book has no aspects of memoir, despite a lead character of roughly Vonnegut’s age and experience. It is not a book of historical fiction. Despite its realistic setting, it is barely real. It involves time travel, parallel lives, and other subjects of unfettered, even wild fantasy (the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is abducted by aliens and becomes “unstuck in time,” allowing him to see beyond mortal limits). But at its heart, for all its extravagances and side trips, it is a forthright examination of death and suffering, primarily as caused by human folly and its most horrific expression, war.
“Slaughterhouse-Five” was embraced by youth facing such horror in Vietnam. The book’s imagination was far-flung, but at a fevered time suggested that the real hallucinations were coming from the government and media. Many people knew it, but Vonnegut was foremost in expressing it.
On the book’s anniversary I re-read it, earnestly wanting to be awed by it now as I was then, as the New York Times still seems to be.
Alas, I wasn’t. I found some of the contrivances hard to take rather than supple or inspired. I wondered if, ironically, Vonnegut himself was now stuck in time.
But I’m pleased to say I didn’t quit. With the time provided by the pandemic this past year, I went back further to some of Vonnegut’s earlier books. (Our local library seems to honor Vonnegut’s legacy more than his old school does, with a good number of his books on its shelves.) They showed literary quality that seemed timeless to me.
Those earlier works were more conventional, and maybe it’s disappointing to think that novelty in novels might limit successful longevity. But it was rewarding to see what I then surmised, a continuum in Vonnegut’s work of fundamental fearlessness in imagination and scope, braced by humor, humility and humanity.
Vonnegut was humble both as a man and an artist, but iconoclastic always. In “Cat’s Cradle,” from 1963, he creates a character on a remote island who forms a successful religion based on writings he explicitly tells his followers are bald lies to make them happy. In the final sentence of his writings the character wishes a death for himself “lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who.”