See also John Leonard’s tribute to Vonnegut, and two of Kurt Vonnegut’s articles for The Nation: “The Worst Addiction of Them All,” from the December 31, 1983, issue, and “The Necessary Mile,” from July 7, 1979.
Reading about the death of Kurt Vonnegut, who contributed essays, reviews and speeches to this magazine over the past thirty years, we reflexively said, “So it goes.” Slaughterhouse-Five, we were repeatedly told in the obits, was popular with young people, but it’s misleading to consign Vonnegut’s work to the 1968 counterculture. It’s no disgrace to touch young hearts.
Vonnegut’s best novels were as profound as any writing ever was that deals with ultimate questions, such as death and the end of the world. He wrote in a kind of simpleminded style because what he had to tell, drawing on his own experience, was so dark and bleak that he had to wrap it in sardonic humor. He was the simpleton who knows the prince is really a frog living in a polluted swamp.
War was a form of human stupidity that aroused his anger because he’d fought in one and witnessed horrors no kid from Indiana should ever have to witness. Such as the firebombing of Dresden. He suspected, though, that humans were addicted to war. In these pages (December 31, 1983) he wrote that arms addicts who got high on preparing for World War III were as “repulsively addicted as any stockbroker passed out with his head in a toilet in the Port Authority bus terminal.”
He shared Mark Twain’s pessimism about the slipshod way the universe was run, but also called himself a “Christ-worshiping agnostic,” who thought Jesus’ call for mercy in the Sermon on the Mount was the best idea our civilization has yet produced. He wrote in his last book, A Man Without a Country, “And if I should ever die, God Forbid, I hope you will say, ‘Kurt is up in heaven now.’ That’s my favorite joke.”
Kurt is up in heaven now.