1922 ~ 2007
American Humanist Association honorary President Kurt Vonnegut died on April 11, 2007 of a head injury suffered in a fall. Vonnegut was a prolific author whose work served as a conscience to humankind. His work was grounded in the humanist principle of recognizing the value of everyone; he abhorred war and especially the popular media’s glamorization of armed conflict. His definitive work, Slaughterhouse Five, The Children’s Crusade, is among the most stinging criticisms of war ever published. The final line of the book refers to what birds will say in response to a slaughter, “poo tee weet.”
Here is a list of Vonnegut’s books that have reviews posted on this website
God Bless You Mr. Rosewater; or Pearls Before Swine
Slapstick; or Lonesome no More
God Bless You Dr. Kevorkian
When Kurt Vonnegut died a couple of months ago, I decided to reread some of his novels. Some kind of serendipity kicked in when I chose Jailbird. You see, I’m 56 years old and Vonnegut begins the book pointing out that he was 56 at the time he wrote the novel. Furthermore, the genesis for the thematic ideas was a luncheon he had with, among others, his father when the senior Vonnegut was 56. In fact, numbers are so important in this work that they are all spelled out, even years such as this is Two Thousand Seven.
Walter F. Starbuck, the protagonist of the story, lives a rags, to riches, to jail, to rags, to riches, to jail life. As a young boy and son of a chauffer to a rich industrialist, Starbuck witnesses the beginnings of the labor movement and the injustices suffered by working people. However, as a favorite of one of the company owners, he earns himself a scholarship to Harvard. Is there really anyone more important that a Harvard alumnus?
After graduating from Harvard, Starbuck secures a position at the White House as the advisor on Student Affairs to President Richard Nixon. His office is in the basement and virtually forgotten by everyone in the executive branch. However, after the Watergate break in, some illicit funds are secreted away in his office which are found by the authorities. Hence, it is off to prison for Walter.
After his release he accidentally comes across one of the four women that he ever really loved. She doesn’t look like much now, but she has a huge secret that ends up giving Starbuck great wealth and power. Will he be able to hold it?
This novel is a vehicle to Vonnegut’s belief that every human has value. The true life story of Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants that were executed by the state on trumped up murder charges, is presented in detail. What they were guilty of was organizing the labor movement. However, they were killed in an electric chair along with a third criminal who, at the last minute, confessed to the murder they stood accused of.
This is a bitter-sweet story that is very typical of the Vonnegut genre.
This novel by Kurt Vonnegut combines several familiar techniques that make it vintage Vonnegut. The story is told by a prisoner awaiting trial or sentencing reminiscent of Mother Night. Eugene Debs Hartke, the narrator and protagonist of the story, has spent his life trying to make the best of the bad situations he finds himself in. In the beginning he is recruited to attend West Point because his father breaks the rules of a high school science fair.
In Vietnam, Hartke does his job as a soldier and indeed is one of the last Americans to leave the political fiasco that was the Vietnam War. He returns to the revile and the loathing that many Vietnam era veterans found themselves subject to. He is recruited to teach in an upscale private university for rich children who have learning disabilities. This unnaturally leads to working in a prison across the lake from the school when he is framed for his socialist ideas. The prison is run by the invading horde of Japanese that has taken over the United States. It is not a military coup, but rather an assault by suited occupants who overtake American business and supply us with services that we can no longer provide for ourselves. Managing prisons is a good example, we have so many of our population incarcerated that it becomes impossible to manage the prisons!
The humanist value of equality of all is central to this work. Indeed, the book is dedicated to the memory of Eugene Victor Debs, 1855-1926, who famously said, “While there is a lower class, I am in it. While there is a criminal element, I am of it. While there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” Debs was the Socialist Party candidate for President of the United States five times, including once from prison. Both his wife and mother-in-law are afflicted with an hereditary form of mental illness. He spends much of his time and effort trying to be human to everyone be they mentally challenged, ill, downtrodden, or whatever. Humans are important to Hartke.
Other common Vonnegut devices include a science fiction story of a superior race to pontificate on the human condition. Also included is a debasing of numbers, they are all represented by digits to indicate that numbers are not important enough to be actual words. Vonnegut had been roundly criticized for some rough language in some earlier books. He strikes back in Hocus Pocus by refusing to use any vulgate language, even though a significant portion of the dialog is among soldiers, it is written with euphemisms instead of literal language. Vonnegut uses his own methods to make his points.
I recently returned from the 66th Annual Conference of the American Humanist Assoication. Attending a conference for four full days is quite an experience. It is exhilarating, interesting, informative, and when it was over, I was quite exhausted. One thing that happened to me was that I wanted to attend so many of the sessions (and did) that I wore myself out. On two of the days, sessions started at 8 or 9 in the morning with a banquet ending at 10 in the evening.
In addition to all the good stuff that the AHA presents, there is the added bonus of being around and having discussions with the many like-minded conference attendees from all around the country.
I have come back with some ideas I hope we can use with our chapter and some reassurances from other chapter leaders that they face the same challenges we face here at Humanists of Utah, namely, growing the chapter and promoting humanism.
I collected a small mountain of handouts and notes on the many sessions I attended. I will have more to say about these sessions when I have had more time to digest all the information and have discussed it with other board members.
A piece of good news I received at the conference is that our chapter was given a thousand dollar check from Ron Renard of the AHA Chapter Assembly for our grant application to assist in our efforts to attract young people, and people in general, to the cause. We will likely use it to sponsor more debates and forums like the “Is God Necessary for Ethics” debate we co-hosted at the University of Utah.
Back here in Utah, we had an enjoyable evening on June 21, the Summer Solstice, watching The Gods Must be Crazy. Although we are having a summer recess, some of us find it hard not to have some kind of humanist activity. Movie night helps fill that need. We will be having movie nights every so often; and I enjoy them as a way to get together, relax and watch a classic movie. Suggestions for what to watch are always welcome. I was amused when an individual who attended said he would join our chapter if we showed The Hospital with George C. Scott. If we do show it, I plan to hold him to his word.
I want to remind you to mark your calendar and attend our Picnic/BBQ on August 9, when we kick off our new season of events. I hope to see you then.