Kurt Vonnegut: Humane Idealist

I love Kurt Vonnegut. I’ve read everything he’s written at least once, and many of his books a half a dozen times. Whenever I’m in a funk, I know I can pick up Breakfast of Champions or Timequake or Man without a Country and feel all right. Lots of people have gone through a Kurt Vonnegut phase. For me, the Kurt Vonnegut phase has been my entire life.

Vonnegut deconstructed the novel, but somehow his style of deconstruction only made his writing more digestible and easy to read. For most artists, deconstruction makes the art stick out like a sore elbow from easy-to-digest art. But Vonnegut’s deconstruction made his work more intimate, human, and approachable. His words are simple expressions of humane tenderness. There’s no mystery or obfuscation. It’s just one person’s experience and stories, laid bare.

I think many equate Vonnegut’s work with a sophomoric stage of development.

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Vonnegut is to the college reader what Salinger is to the high-school reader. He was the anti-Kissinger. The opposite of realpolitik. He maintained a 20-year-old’s vision of idealistic humanism into his 80s, and perhaps that’s why he’s always resonated so well with a college audience.

But unlike many artists who produce idealistic art while eschewing responsibility in their personal lives, Vonnegut lived an awfully serious and heavy life. His mother committed suicide when he was 21. He was a POW at 22. He had his first child at 26. At 36, he adopted his sister’s three children after she had died of cancer, leaving him to raise six children under the age of 15 as a struggling writer.

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How the heck do you write consistently while raising six young children? That he persevered through that time to produce his best work of his career in his 40s and 50s is a testament to his enormous resolve.

Vonnegut may have been idealistic, but it’s unfair to look at his life and accuse him of being naïve or unfamiliar with pain. He suffered as much as anyone, yet he held fast to idealism in the face of it.

And that’s why I admire Kurt Vonnegut.