Discussing the book "Fates Worse Than Death: An Autobiographical Collage of the 1980s" with the author Kurt Vonnegut
BROADCAST: Jun. 14, 1991 | DURATION: 00:51:32
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Studs Terkel Kurt Vonnegut is a certain kind of writer. Somehow he is serious, and I think one of the aspects of our day is there's a lack of seriousness about almost anything. In fact, the trivialization of our country may be what it's all about. In fact, that's what many of his books are about, too, in his own witty fashion yet ascerbic fashion that one tells about ourselves. Hocus Pocus, his recent book, really talks about that, about one group taking over another group. One group happens to be a prison, the other group a college, and the first group should have taken over the other group long ago, anyway in Hocus Pocus. Kurt, I know you're in town for the Printers Row Book Fair, a gathering of a lot of writers in the Midwest and elsewhere, and you'll be talking and also reading from your book and taking part in a panel on censorship.
Kurt Vonnegut Yes.
Kurt Vonnegut Well I, yes, I, the fun part is talking about fundamentalists and, and hypocrites like Jesse Helms and so forth, and, and their skittishness about sex and, and that sort of thing. And everyone can congratulate himself or herself on, on being far more liberal and, and worldly than to welcome that sort of censorship. But there are sort of censorship that scares me a hell of a lot more, which is controlling the mood of the country, so that you dare not talk about some things. As you dare not criticize this great victory in, in the Persian Gulf! Because the people around you will get quite angry, and I've wondered how that censorship works, because you don't have to write a law to bring that about.
Studs Terkel Now, this is a remarkable event. The fact is that there was a, a very quick victory thanks to high technology, thanks to something called a Patriot that it's not a flesh and blood figure, but a thing, that beat their thing. And so we have soldiers who are good, hardworking young kids, many minorities being honored, but questioning the event.
Kurt Vonnegut Well, I hope they question, of, of course they're not allowed to question, is, what I'm, I'm a well-known pacifist and the country tolerates a certain number of freaks like that. It's about eight of us, I think, and I'm okay, so I can say anything I want. But most people are afraid to, to even think that maybe this was not such a marvelous event after all, and, and this unanimity I think is dumb. I think it's a technological accident, and I think it grows out of the nature of television. It rather looks as though he's trustworthy, as though he would tell you if anything was really wrong.
Studs Terkel Bush
Kurt Vonnegut Yeah, a Nuremberg rally, as, as some people have said, and you know, being allowed to say anything because of who I am. [laughing] I think this is very similar to Mussolini's Italy, which was as corrupt and as bankrupt as this country is now. And so what did he do to make the Italian people stand tall again? He knocked over Ethiopia, which is nowhere.
Studs Terkel Well, in thinking about this now. Something called the Vietnam Syndrome. We, that is, John Wayne, us, got a black eye from little guys in black pajamas. Now no one asked "What are we doing on their front porch?" But they run back to the front porch and we walking down, it's high noon, with a black eye or a bloody nose. How could that be? So we said, we gotta beat somebody. So there is Grenada. That's Woody Allen. That's Mohammed Ali knocking out Woody Allen. And so there's Grenada. Most of Americans never heard of Grenada! They only knew it was a Spanish folk song!
Kurt Vonnegut Yeah.
Kurt Vonnegut But the, but the baloney seems to satisfy the crowd, it, and it's too bad. And and, of course, Panama. We killed between 1000 and 2000 civilians, as people down there with rockets who went astray and all that, and that was supposedly quite wonderful, too. I think of my generation, I've said, you know we were a pacifistic generation because the United States was so disillusioned by World War I, and felt it had been suckered into that, so the public school system of Indianapolis and I'm sure Chicago's, too, trained its students to loathe war, and to be proud that we had no generals on the Cabinet or anything like that. And then we turned out to be pretty good soldiers as we fought all right, although we were raised that way. But we went to war with two fears, and they were equal: one that we might get killed, the other was that we might have to kill somebody. We dreaded those things equally, and in this book of mine that you've got there that's coming out in the fall, is Fates Worse Than Death, I confess a perfectly terrible thing is I have a combat infantryman's badge, I have a Purple Heart, and I never killed anybody. Can you imagine coming home from a war and admitting that?
Studs Terkel Now we come to that. Fates Worse Than Death, by the way, is an autobiographical collage, as called by Kurt. It's, these are remarkable pieces, essays, you want to call them that, and in fact I hope you can quote from some of the readings as we go along, is being published by Putnam, and it's a beauty. Everything we're talking about is talked about here in depth. These are some of the lectures you've given, some of the essays you've written, and you talked about the nature of war and us, how removed this country is from the horrendous aspects of war, since we ourselves, the only participant, major participant in World War II, neither bombed nor invaded. Every Axis and Allied country otherwise was, so therefore war to us is still something abstract, except for families that lost their children, they grieve.
Kurt Vonnegut Well, I, I, I think that the, that the Vietnam vet were shunned because they had seen what war really was. I think that is what was not liked about them. And I thought that why -- you know, I hope I never kill anybody, and I think most people are raised to say, "Gee, it'd be awful if I even accidentally killed somebody," and then you hear, hear our president casually kills a whole, has a whole lot of Panamanians killed, or a whole lot of Iraqis killed, or Grenadians killed and feels nothing, and I think that's because he was a pilot, and I, never saw, had to look at it on the ground. But the
Studs Terkel It's funny, it's funny, we call, what we call "terrorism." If somebody bombs another guy in our building, he's a terrorist and that's an actual, that's a realistic description. But if someone bombs from a distance of thousands of thousands of feet up above, he's not a terrorist. So the bombing of a city is not a terrorist act.
Kurt Vonnegut Well, Morley Safer wrote a very good book about Vietnam, which came out about a year ago, and he went and had a look at where the B-36s or were they B-52s I guess, had dropped from the stratosphere. I mean, these, these guys were way up there, perhaps invisible, and the stink of the, of the pieces of body splattered over trees and all that, and the pilots don't look at that sort of thing, and, and people on the ground do.
Studs Terkel Which leads to perhaps one of the sequences from Fates Worse Than Death, this most recent work of yours about to be on the shelves of bookstores, it's a speech you made at MIT. Here's the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that provides us with the greatest of our engineers and, and scientists, and it's a speech about that very problem of the unseriousness of the students and some of the faculty.
Kurt Vonnegut What, yeah, what I did there and I was quite excited, I, I told, I often make this mistake of, of thinking something wonderful is gonna happen on account of me, but I told my lecture agent, you know, we're gonna make news. And what I proposed was that all scientists take a version of the Hippocratic oath, is to say, you know, "I really don't want to hurt anybody, and if somebody asks me to hurt somebody else, I won't do it. I won't use this, this power at my disposal." And so I suggested that MIT work out this oath that every graduate in science should be glad to take, because doctors willingly take this thing and, afterwards no response whatsoever, is I, I thought there might be an editorial in the Daily Tech or whatever their paper is called, and nothing. I, I talked to some of the guys afterwards about Star Wars, about the ridiculous Reagan dream is with America, mirrors and, and all, all sorts of magical things which were gonna protect us from any sort of attack, and they all knew it was nonsense, and they were all gonna work on it. I didn't say so in the book, but a week later, I spoke at Carnegie Mellon, or, or, and same damn thing! They all knew it was ridiculous. It was a Rube Goldberg device, and they were all gonna work on it. And again, it was the only game in town, is a majority of the kids who graduated from MIT the year I spoke there, I forget what year it was, went into the armaments industry because that's
Studs Terkel This is what you have here. The whole point is, "I'll tell you what makes the students so unresponsive," says Kurt Vonnegut in his commencement or in his speech at MIT. "They know what I will never get through my head is that life is unserious". And then, "Why not make Caligula's horse a Consul?" Well you know, when I watched I, Claudius revived on Masterpiece Theatre, and there's Caligula, of course
Kurt Vonnegut Yeah.
Kurt Vonnegut Well, I find that, that, I tell audiences that George Bush could not have insulted them more, if he had spit in each of the faces of them, and he did when he made Dan Quayle the possible heir to our powers and hopes and destinies. That is a terrible insult, and the audience laughs. It's mere -- they do not feel insulted
Studs Terkel Wait a minute, want to come to the question after we take this break with Kurt Vonnegut, the question of how this came to be, this unseriousness, or as former Congressman Bob Eckhardt of Texas said, he was beaten by the oil interests finally, he said, "We have lost our sense of outrage," is the way he put it. Kurt Vonnegut is my guest, and a lot of the stuff you'll be hearing for the next part of the hour will be perhaps passages or reflections on his new book, Fates Worse Than Death, and published by Putnam. It'll be forthcoming and after this message, more of Kurt Vonnegut. [pause in recording] Resuming with Kurt Vonnegut, who's in Chicago. By the way, he won the Harold Washington Book Award, and that's for the writer of the year whose words have had a meaning and some impact we hope on the way we behave. Did you feel you've had an impact? You gotta talk about that.
Kurt Vonnegut Well it, it's a, it's a lottery. As I, I've've said, our culture is created very much on this design of the World War I charts where at dawn people for miles go over the top, thousands attacking all at one time, and almost everybody winds up drowning in the bottom of a shell hole, or draped over the barbed wire, and a few people make it to the objective, and what? Thousands and thousands of people set out to be writers as I have, and as you have, may I say, and, you and I made it through, you know, [laughing] God knows why, it's just plain luck. But I, yeah, I've had some influence, I think, but it's certainly nothing like television and, and, and books are a minor, a minor cultural form now, influ--they are not influential, and I don't, as you were saying during the, the break there, is people are not, cannot be made indignant about anything.
Studs Terkel I would say that your body of work has had, played a role. The body of Kurt Vonnegut's work, where it leads us to, more than Slaughterhouse-Five your work, but to the fact that you had a certain experience in Dresden during World War II, and this connects with, again, the book Fates Worse Than Death, the speech you made in Washington for the Space -- what was that again? The Space?
Kurt Vonnegut Well, I had a serious of lectures called the The Legacy of Strategic Bombing, and Curtis LeMay was gonna follow me, but I was, I am, well, we were one week apart, so I didn't hear what he had to say. But I was asked to speak as -- I was the only speaker who had been strategically bombed. [laughing] I, I have been bombed by, I've been attacked by the Russian Air Force, the British Air Force, and the American Air Force.
Kurt Vonnegut All right, well, I was, I was at, I was captured during World War II in Germany and was made a prisoner of war and was sent to work in Dresden, which was a wedding-cake city like Paris. Beautiful, it was a world art treasure. And we worked there, it was, we were in a labor detail, doing factory work, nothing to do with weapons. The war was almost over, it was February, and the war was gonna end end in May, and the city had been untouched and there were no major war industries there. The Germans had very purposely kept it as a treasure, something they would have left after the war, and one night, well, one day the Americans came over and bombed it to make some kindling, and then that night the Brits came and scattered fire bombs all over it, and burned the whole city down, and it became one, it was a technological experiment, and it turned the city into one big column of flame, a firestorm, and it killed more people than were killed at Hiroshima. And I was underneath it. I was in a cellar, a very deep cellar and survived it. But a hell of a lot of people didn't. But that is what it, to be, I was on the ground, and after that, we had to carry corpses to huge common pyres. And so war really didn't look so great to me, and also the war I was in, is the enemy shot back, and they, they shot back so skillfully that my whole division was wiped out. There were Americans as far as you could see with their hands over their heads, so that when I saw those Iraqis, you know, it's thousands of them surrendering, I said, "Hey, hi, boys. [laughing] I know what it's like."
Studs Terkel Now we come to something, don't we, we see a crazy connection that you see, that we know there are about a, at least 150,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed. They were retreating, we discover now, and some of our guys called it a turkey shoot.
Kurt Vonnegut Yeah.
Kurt Vonnegut Yeah, whether this was, what, what happened in Iraq and, and I can say this, most people can't. It is like attacking a crowd leaving a high school football game on Saturday afternoon, as you zap the car in front, and this car in back, and then you go up and down the line and kill all these people there, you know, there were Palestinians, there were Pakistanis, there were all kinds of people there getting ground up. I think we've been dehumanized, and I think it's technology that did it, I don't think there's any villain there, but that television has, and movies, have taught us to be indifferent to killing. Now, the SS is the shock troops, the nastiest of the German troops, during their training, each man had to kill a cat with his bare hands while the others watched. And it turns out that this isn't really quite necessary, that all you have to do is watch movies and TV shows again and again and again, where there's a perfectly ordinary act to usually shoot somebody, and that people weren't sickened, that people didn't cry that, at this terrible crime committed in our name and with our money. What I do is, when I go around and lecture, I say, "Hey, I give you permission to have pity. It's okay. It's not treason."
Studs Terkel Which leads, of course, to a question. You say television. Televi-- you point out that nature is good and bad. Television, to be good and bad, depends who controls it and who use it toward what end. The media, the medium itself, is not evil, is not evil per se.
Kurt Vonnegut No.
Kurt Vonnegut Well, I, I blame my own trade a good deal, as we had no idea how influential we were, as, as, as hacks, and I'm a hack, I've, I've written TV scripts, I've written for slick magazines, all kinds of stuff. The way to end a short story if it can only go 20 pages, or to end a TV show if it can last only 30 minutes, is you kill somebody. [laughing] You know, you have a shoot-out in front of the Silver Dollar Saloon.
Studs Terkel I think you're blaming the creative spirit, the writer, yourself and others, too much. Is there -- but the fact is, who controls it? A while, we opened this conversation talking about censorship. There's another kind of censorship, isn't it? You know, the free press is free, as to paraphrase Liebling, "Especially the one who owns it."
Kurt Vonnegut Yeah.
Studs Terkel So who owns it? Isn't there a thing called self-censorship? And the ones you were talking about, in the coverage of, say, the Persian Gulf War? Self-censorship. Would they know what to say and what not to say, or else they'll be out on their fanny.
Kurt Vonnegut All right. Suppose a paper did what The Nation does, what The Nation is a tiny publication with a circulation of about 100,000, which has criticized the war and, and the yellow ribbons and all that and all the jingoism. Suppose the Chicago Tribune or The Washington Post were to take that same attitude. I think they, they would be punished immediately by the general public, wouldn't they? Wouldn't the public be outraged?
Studs Terkel That's a question. That's a big one. Then you're saying, who conditioned the public and how, what is it that made the public think the way it is? Now, I'm not, I'm not immunizing the public from blame if that's the word. I'm, I'm not exempting them from blame. But what made these young kids lose their sense of outrage or our contemporaries do so?
Kurt Vonnegut Well, I think, I think television is life. I think television has become life. And, and so people believe it and respond to it. You know, Ray Bradbury's story, is it Fahrenheit 459, but the fireman's wife in there is very discontented because they have television screens on only three walls of the living room there, and you can't afford the fourth wall, and so she sits in the middle here, and she's part of the family. But every so often something happens on this missing wall, and she can't respond to it, but I think television is life for most people, and maybe for me, too.
Studs Terkel Want to come back to the matter of, of, of your book Fates Worse Than Death and some of the other, they're all reflections on the one theme, as to what has happened to us, and something Norman Corwin has called "the trivializing of America."
Kurt Vonnegut Yeah.
Studs Terkel And overwhelmed by trivia, a serious, it's a very, well, I have a theory that the average American who voted for Ronald Reagan knew he'd never be confused with Albert Einstein. You know, they knew he's pretty dumb, and it's okay. Because the president is dumb, I can be dumb, too. And so if some guy comes up to me, gets serious and heavy talking about the poor Cambodians who were bombed out or the poor Guatemalan exiles, I can say, "Oh, go to hell. I want to talk about the Bears or about Joan Collins or something". The president can't, why can't I -- see, the, the object lesson I have is it's okay to be dumb.
Kurt Vonnegut Yeah, and, and of course, the politicians love it that the electorate is so dumb, and, and of course they're not gonna put money into education. [laughing] I've got one theory is, is, you know, I've been a minor part of the peace movement, that I mean, I come out and through several wars now, and I think that there are so few of us because most people don't care if life stops. I think they are so embarrassed because they don't dance well enough or they don't make love as well as, as they think they should, or they can't play any sport very well or, you know, it's, their teeth are uneven, and this, are so embarrassed they want to die. And I think that people hate life so much. That's the reason the ecologists gets so little support in all that, is actually, you know, the Thoreau thing about "The mass of men lead lives of quiet
Studs Terkel [Laughing] Now, it's possible that Kurt Vonnegut is being ironic right now, too, at this moment. Sometimes I suppose you have to, to awaken someone sometimes you have to say something. As, some would say what you said just now is outrageous.
Kurt Vonnegut Well, I, I, Bill Buckley quoted, I was on his show one time, and he quoted a line back to me, and demanded that I, demanded that I defend it, and he thought it was a terrible thing, and I forgot I had said it, and I still don't know in what context I said it, but I said that my purpose was to destroy the United States Army as an effective fighting force. [laughing]
Kurt Vonnegut Yeah.
Kurt Vonnegut But you know, about the homecoming now? You know, homecoming from the Second World War, we didn't get parades and we didn't want 'em, we just wanted to get home and get jobs and get our families going again, and this business of giving returning soldiers parades is taken from movies, as I guess that maybe the history of the fighting 69th in the First World War is that regiment got a ticker-tape parade, but everybody comes home from war sick. It's as though it were a disease that you're finally over. It's like getting out of a hospital.
Studs Terkel We gotta come back to the whole subject of how this came to be. This change, has it always been so, when did the change take place, the role of the Cold War perhaps, World War II aftermath. So much, but more of that also in the, in this forthcoming book of Kurt Vonnegut, Fates Worse Than Death, and the, the publishers are your regular ones, aren't they, Putnam?
Kurt Vonnegut Yes.
Studs Terkel Forthcoming. More of Kurt Vonnegut. Un momento. [pause in recording] And so resuming with Kurt Vonnegut and the whole subject, "What's happened to us?" Admiral Gene La Rocque retired. I mention the fact that he's an admiral just to offer his credentials, so he's not quote unquote "peacenik." He, he analyzes and dissects, and is tremendous in, in, in, in analyzing the American military, Pentagon budgets and expenditures and the purpose. He says that we have engaged in more world wars, more wars, United States, elsewhere, and that's the important thing, elsewhere, than any country in the history of human, of warfare. And as a result, he says, we've become inured to it because we hardly feel it except for the families who have suffered. Then he goes on to say at the end of World War II, the department, the Cabinet names changed. Department of War. Remember we learned as a kid St. Wapniacl: State, Treasury, War, Attorney General, Postmaster General, Navy, Interior -- words
Studs Terkel Never -- St. Wapniacl, named all the Cabinets, and finally ends, niacl, Commerce, Labor. Department of War, and it was changed to Department of Defense. Now, you can always challenge war, you can attack the concept of war, but you cannot attack defense. So it became Department of Defense! As you point out in your essays, Armistice Day, which I remember November 11th as a kid, became Veterans Day, armistice meaning "the end"! Became something else.
Kurt Vonnegut Who do you suppose did that? Because it's the act of one man finally, if somebody put it in the suggestion box. So much goes on, that is, we'll never know how it happened. As, Eisenhower, of course, put "under God" on the dollar, on our currency, as one nation under God, or, and into the Pledge of Allegiances, we know who did that.
Studs Terkel Well, this was pre-Eisenhower. This is the end of the war so it's Truman time when it happened. So perhaps the Cold War. Now we have something crazy; the Cold War that is stopping communism, right, became the sine qua non for any military buildup. Whether it be Vietnam, or whether it be Cuba, whether it be anywhere. But now that it's stone-cold dead in the market, that is, Soviet Union, we've got to find new kinds of enemies, don't we?
Studs Terkel Well, now you talk in your, in your essay, one of your essays in Fates Worse than Death about addiction. There's Alcoholics Anonymous to help people fighting booze, addiction, isn't it, even a group called Nicotinic Nobodies.
Kurt Vonnegut Well, I -- explaining the mystery of, of our putting more and more money into weapons all the time, which we don't need and all that, and I finally decided that it was addictive problem that these people got drunk in effect, got a, a, a short-lived high from, you know, ordering a whole lot of tanks or ordering rockets on choo-choo trains and that sort of thing, and that they were ill, and that they ought to kick the habit so that we can spend the money on something else. You know, I, I hardly ever meet anybody in the weapons industry, do you?
Studs Terkel No.
Studs Terkel Well, why should they see, why should they see you and me when [laughing] when if their lobbying they gotta fete somebody, whether cabinet member or a congressman, dinner. What do you and I got to do with them?
Studs Terkel But you and I went, about this matter of, and, and this, should addicts, the question Kurt Vonnegut asked, I'm sure the question would throw Buckley again, would take him literally in everything, should addicts of any sort hold high office in this or any other country? We know what happened to a couple of people when they were caught with marijuana. We know bad things happened to the guy who was -- Ginsburg, who were nominated for the Supreme Court. What happened to Gary Hart for another sort of addiction. But here is, should addicts, you're talking about war addiction. Should addicts of any sort hold high offices, quoting Vonnegut, "In this or any other country? Absolutely not. For the first priority will always be to satisfy their addiction, no matter how terrible the consequences may be, even to themselves. Should we -- suppose we had an alcoholic President who still had not hit bottom, but whose chief companions were drunks like himself. Suppose it were a fact made absolutely clear to him, that if he took just one more drink, the whole planet would blow up". And so well, naturally, we'd say, "Get out! Impeach him." But you're saying if a guy's addicted to war preparation
Kurt Vonnegut He may be excited, and it, it may be, you know, it may be profoundly Freudian, and, and this man, maybe these people addicted this way. I said that as sort of a joke. But these people who are addicted to buying more and more weapons we don't need, may, may indeed be trying to increase the size of their sexual organs or whatever. Ah, I don't know, but the consequences are certainly very unpleasant, as, and we're broke now, as we've bought all this crap, and I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry about so much. But I, then I think I take it too seriously. [laughing]
Studs Terkel But do you really feel that? I mean, or do you feel that people really don't give a damn or they've been, they've been condit-- I, I suppose I'm using the word "conditioning" a lot. Have been conditioned by one form or another of hysteria or hype, whether it be Cold War, or what follows it, or a love of high technology, doesn't it all play a role in molding that person, the way that person
Kurt Vonnegut Yeah, and it's very touching, too, because people want to believe that their country is the greatest country in the world, just as the, you know, they want to believe that their dad and their mom are the greatest parents in the world, if ever, if possible, and so, yes, they're going to love and trust George Bush as much as they can, because he's all they've got.
Studs Terkel I, I know what I wanna bring up. It's in, it's in, it's in the works these days, the phrase "politically correct" is used as a pejorative, a put-down phrase for those people who want more courses in cultures other than Western, and it's considered, it's looked upon as a threat to the great books of the world, of the Western world. "Politically correct" is used as a put-down for those who say, "Wait a minute, there's a difference between free speech and verbal assault." This all goes on, of course, and it occurred to me, the same people who use "PC" politically correct as a put-down, including George Bush, by the way, in a recent speech, are the very ones who always opposed any change in status quo, and this was so in the '60s, when they used "radical chic," the phrase Tom Wolfe used in reference to Leonard Bernstein's party for the Black Panth-- no one ever used the phrase "conservative chic," which is far more pervasive, or "indifference chic," or as you would say, "unserious chic." That's never been used! Isn't that funny?
Kurt Vonnegut Yes
Kurt Vonnegut Of course, who was a great clown in the best sense of the word in speaking truth to power, in his way, will you? And also perhaps a word about your father, the architect because of a personal experience I had in a movie, after this break. [pause in recording] So resuming for the last, it's the last lap, the last round, the last inning with Kurt Vonnegut who's in town by the way under the auspices of the Printer's Row Book Fair and it's, this is Friday night, tomorrow and Sunday in the whole area, Printers Row, it's on Dearborn Street and Polk and around there, whole area. All sorts of writers will be there, including Vonnegut of course, and, and Alex Kotlowitz with a marvelous book called and There Are No Children Here, and Lisel Mueller the poet will be there, Madeline L 'Engle. But Kurt will be there, and making a speech I believe on Saturday night
Kurt Vonnegut Yes, ah well I got to know him, I, I don't, I had known him for a long time, surely not as well as you had, but then we wound up at the University of Iowa at the same time and, and so we spent a year there together and I got to know him quite well. And then I got to know him again at the very end of his life out in Sag Harbor New York where Stein, John Steinbeck is buried incidentally and Nelsen Algren also. But he was, well he was like James Joyce, I don't think he had exile from his own land. And, I don't think he needed to be that, did he Studs?
Studs Terkel No,
Studs Terkel No I, I think, if, if I could just correct, he was not ostracized on the contrar -- in his early days he had a tough time with some of the books, Never Come Morning," and the community was objecting to the book. But after he was not, that was Nelson's own, own crazy hang-ups of which he had a number. But you knew him, but you, you point out that he, he had, he was eccentric in a quite marvelous way. What's that phrase he used when you introduced him to a Chilean friend of
Kurt Vonnegut Oh, yes. Well, this is, I, I, writers in real life are so seldom funny, but we all -- at the start of a semester there at the University of Iowa, we in the Writer's Workshop were part of the English Department, so we had to go to the English department meeting and we were coming down afterwards, and we were all new there, it was myself and there was Jose Donoso, the Chilean novelist, and Nelson. And I knew Donoso some, and I knew Algren some, and so I introduced Donoso to Algren, and I, I said, "He, he is from Chile." And Nelson thought for a while and finally turned to Donoso and said, "I think it would be nice to come from a country that long and narrow." [laughing]
Kurt Vonnegut Well, yes, there's people like Faulkner and Hemingway got this thing, and, and only our greatest writers, and it's, it's only given every four or five years, I forget. American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters honors our greatest writers, and so I proposed Nelson for this medal, which he surely deserved. And, so he got it. And I mean, the committee said, "Yeah, he's got the medal," and, and so I wrote the citation and everything and called up Nelson and, and said, "Hey, come on and get this medal, it's at the spring meeting there. It's a very nice ceremony, very important ceremony," and he said, "No, no," 'cause he had to speak to a garden club [laughing] that afternoon, and he did not come. He did-I, I said, "Look, you've gotta, you gotta have a response. I'll read your response, too. What is it?" And, and so it was an attack on Time magazine, which made [laughing] which made no sense at all, and I -- out there in Sag Harbor I had dinner with him shortly before he died, and I said, "Nelson, what the hell happened to the medal? Did you hock it or what? Because it's somewhat valuable." And he said, "I think it rolled under the couch." Ah, he would, but he, he felt he had not gotten the recognition he deserved, and it was too damn late.
Kurt Vonnegut Yeah.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Kurt Vonnegut Yeah.
Studs Terkel Yeah,
Kurt Vonnegut Yeah.
Studs Terkel Stickman's Laughter, and he blows his paycheck, comes home to his wife who, really understands it, but it's very moving, see in the middle of all the craziness this tremendous, I hate to use that overused word "compassion," but you're saying wouldn't it be something if the kid, if, if this country showed a little compassion for some of the people we played a role in knocking off or observed?
Kurt Vonnegut Well, one thing, Nelson said, did, which George Bernard Shaw did not have nerve enough to do, and Charles Dickens did not have enough to do, is to say that poor people can be really mean and dumb. [laughing] You know, and I appreciated then is, a, a lot of people in his story have been brutalized by poverty, and, uh, should probably be shot, they're the scum of the Earth, and he had nerve enough to say that, nobody else
Studs Terkel You speak of something I guess we call the human comedy, anyway, which is what you do in your surreal, want to use the word "surreal" fashion, when you do in Hocus Pocus, for one thing, very definitely. Hocus Pocus is a book that hasn't received enough attention. I say this not because you're here, because it hasn't received enough it, it is a funny book and a very insightful book, and you say there's no, people say "How come you got no person who's a central figure?" You say, "There is one! Imperialism!"
Kurt Vonnegut Yeah, well, I, I think we are still recovering from European imperialism, it is extraordinary and of course it was armed robbery on a huge scale all over the world, and so the whole planet is sickened by it.
Studs Terkel So before we say goodbye, I think we have to, I have to ask you about your father, the architect in Indianapolis, for a certain personal reason, because in the making, John Sayles, in directing and writing the screenplay for Eight Men Out, that fine baseball book by Eliot Asinof about the White Sox/Black Sox scandal, he had me in it, and we had a scene there that's supposed to be a Cincinnati hotel in 1919 before the series and the gamblers at work. But the locale, we did it in Indianapolis. The locale was this wonderful place.
Kurt Vonnegut Yes, he was. And it was The German House, and during World War I as the windows were smashed and yellow paint was thrown over the front of this, so they changed the name to The Athenaeum. Yeah, it is a, a national landmark of some kind, and is my grandfather's masterpiece. And, and I'm, I'm quite pleased that you saw
Kurt Vonnegut Yeah, well, I, I made John Updike, who was lecturing out in Indianapolis and asked me what kind of a town it is, and I said, "Well, you got to go see my grandfather's masterpiece," and he did, and he wrote me
Kurt Vonnegut Yeah, well, my father and grandfather were partners, and, yeah, yeah. My grandfather was the first licensed architect in Indiana and one of the things I'm sad about it is I didn't become an architect in Indianapolis, and it would have been a dynasty, you know, and I think I could have done it.
Kurt Vonnegut Yeah, and, but my father was so discouraged about architecture and about the arts in general, he was a very cultivated man and, his interest became rather thuggish after a while, [laughing] he figured that the arts were, were effeminate and, and no way to make money and everything, so he told me I could go to college only if I studied chemistry, which I did.
Kurt Vonnegut Well, it certainly didn't get in the way, because I've forgotten everything I ever knew about chemistry. [laughing] I know what it, I'll tell you what was good. Two really great things happened to me, is I was always at the bottom of my classes 'cause I never should have been studying calculus and physics and chemistry because I had no interest in them, and then the army made me a private for three years. And boy, that did me a lot of good, because I wouldn't change that for anything.
Kurt Vonnegut It made me like the people at the very bottom and to feel brotherhood with them, and what, I had three years of college and I was an editor of the Cornell Sun and all that, and a reasonably good IQ. I should have gone into OCS the minute I got in the Army, but there were too many, too many officers by the time they got me. But I would have learned how to intimidate and scorn [laughing] people of no
Studs Terkel I'm thinking about how we need the irony of Kurt Vonnegut very much. Maybe that might be a sort of a, splash of cold water on the face, I don't know. But what does it take? What do you think it will take for, to get out of this? Whatever the stage is we're in, a phase here, whatever it
Kurt Vonnegut Well, I, I think, I've praised Alcoholics Anonymous in this book. It's a great American invention, as I'm not an alcoholic but I admire that scheme. And, one thing is America, America must hit bottom.
Kurt Vonnegut If any, any addict must hit bottom before any remedy will be taken. And I think of the example of the Chicago Fire, and the way Americans recovered from that. And after we've hit bottom, I would like to see that sort of energy brought to building a decent educational system and decent public health system.
Kurt Vonnegut Yeah.
Studs Terkel Well, it's a depression. We use the word "recession" and the, we love as you know, we love euphemisms. So we say recession, which is a more softer word than the millions of steelworkers you've passed, South East Chicago, Gary Indiana, Pittsburgh, the suburban steel-mined, steel mill towns, family farmer, you go down Iowa, you pass through Iowa, Minnesota, ghost towns reminiscent of Grapes of Wrath days, that's a depression now. And yet there was a headline the other day, it said, "Unemployment Increasing, Optimism Tops." Figure that one out.
Kurt Vonnegut Well, I, I would like to balkanize the United States, and, the little countries are the best ones, there's Holland and Denmark and all that. And I, and, I, I would like to, to belong to a manageable little society.
Kurt Vonnegut Yeah.
Kurt Vonnegut Yeah, well, it, it was a sermon I gave at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. They had a bunch of peaceniks there, as preaching on, on sequential Sundays. And I pointed out the consequences if, of what would happen to us if we did not arm and did not protect ourselves and if we were conquered, and so I list all the things that might be worse than death, and I just, I, the enemy'd come over here and and enslave us, but then I realized that Americans had, in fact survived slavery, and the only thing I could come up with was that maybe the enemy'd come over here and crucify us, because that's very painful, except I didn't think any country had enough carpenters to [laughing] crucify us, as, and I was trying to figure out why we had hydrogen bombs, you know, it is, what is the worst thing that could happen to us, and they've already happened to us. As, imagine the enemy came over here and drove us off our land and into the swamps and into the desert. Well, Americans have survived that and still wanted life to go on, and
Kurt Vonnegut He said the suicide rate among slave owners per capita was much higher than among slaves, and he said that he thought this was because of the music, because of the blues in particular that the Black people knew remedies for depression, and the white people are helpless victims of depression, there's nothing they can do about it, but that the blues, in fact, would comfort you.
Studs Terkel By the way, that, that, that, all this is in the, might just say this, Fates Worse Than Death, but that's his speech, Kurt Vonnegut's before in the, in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and it's Putnam, the publishers. But mostly, it's great having you around.
Kurt Vonnegut Well.
Studs Terkel Stick around, do some more, say some more, and maybe some way or other, you can just give us that needle that would awaken us. Printers Row Book Fair is featuring Kurt Vonnegut among many other writers, Chicago and outsiders, too. Saturday, tomorrow, and Sunday. All day, there'll be all sorts of panels, too. Kurt Vonnegut. The Printers Row Book Fair that features Kurt Vonnegut among many other writers, Lisel Mueller the poet, Madeleine L'Engle and Alex Kotlowitz and scores of others is at Dearborn Street from Congress to Polk, it's from 10 o'clock in the morning until dark, Saturday and Sunday.