Sunday, April 15, 2007

Listen: A Vonnegut Meta-Tribute

When I learned of Kurt Vonnegut’s passing away, I dashed of a quick tribute. I was not alone in that reaction. Several of my blogfriends and either mentioned the death or came to my blog to offer condolences. Madame Courtney Whiny Complainy Pants, Esq. actually beat me to the publish button in addition leaving a nice message to me. Bob Braughler also thought of me in his post. Flasshe with typical impeccable musical taste posted the Al Stewart “Sirens of Titan” song. So many others left comments that they thought of me when they head the news. I thank all of you for your sympathy.

I kept my post short and personal because I knew there would be many more much more extensive retrospectives by others much more talented than me. And I was right. By mid-morning Joel Achenbach had posted an appreciation in the Achenblog. In particular, he mentioned a thesis that would be repeated several other places, but not as cleverly as Joel’s take:

His books were teenager books, really: To fully appreciate them, it probably helped to perceive yourself as an alien being, forced by Fate to survive on a completely demented planet. To be 16 years old, in other words.

While Vonnegut is a frequent topic in the boodle, Joel's post led to an outpouring of memories and discussion in the comments section that stayed amazingly on topic, particularly by boodle standards. The day ended up being a virtual cyberwake for a great writer. Many of the links I have used in this post came from boodle-mining there.

The Washington Post had several other great features. In addition to the formal obituary, they published an online photo gallery and book critic Michael Dirda held a hastily arranged online discussion. Later, Bob Thompson used his interview from when A Man Without A Country came out to put together another insightful essay.

I’m also active in the Wonkette and Gawker commenter communities where I made contributions to each of their surprisingly reverent posts. Although I really have no idea what the point of this follow-up post was.

Vonnegut’s death was covered by all the major most news agencies, but most places used the excellent New York Times obiturary by Dinitia Smith. Being the newspaper of record, the Times also put together a comprehensive retrospective that includes links to NYT reviews of most of his novels as well as reviews written by him. NYT also opened up comments for people to tell what their favorite book was. That thread now has several hundred responses.

NPR’s Morning Edition led each news summary that morning with news and they also put together a full page of links to previous interviews and profiles. Fresh Air used a very poignant interview from 1986 about Vonnegut’s days in the Dresden firebombing. Unfortunately, many of the older NPR clips are only available in RealPlayer, which does not play well with others on my computer.

The Charlie Rose Show also put together a retrospective on their April 12 show. The Vonnegut clips begin about 45 minutes in. The clips came from longer interviews that are available on Google Video. One was from when he was promoting the film version of Mother Night. The Vonnegut interview begins about 14:28 into the show and includes a good clip of Nick Nolte and John Goodman from the movie. The other was for the release of Bagombo Snuff Box. This interview begins 27 minutes in and has some great self-deprecating commentary on how his skills have declined. There is also a roundtable discussion with other writers about the process of screenplay adaptations.

Another long audio interview is available from one he did for The Infinite Mind on Second Life. If you can get used to a cartoon version of Kurt lounging around, it is an interesting recap of his vies on technology and the internet.

Some other papers had their own memorials including the UK Guardian. even had an obituary that didn't get published. As a college student, he wrote for the Cornell Sun, and even though none of the current staff were gleams in their parents’ eye when he wrote there, they work under his watchful eye.

On the web nothing dies and interviews from before his death are still available, like the beginning of this one by Douglas Brinkley in Rolling Stone which has the best version of his mock diatribe against the cigarette companies:

The lying bastards! On the package Brown & Williamson promised to kill me. Instead, their cigarettes didn't work. Now I'm forced to suffer leaders with names like Bush and Dick and, up until recently, 'Colon.'

That quote illustrates the increasingly curmudgeonly voice he had in later years. His more incendiary essays were written for In These Times, a socially and politically activist magazine. They have their own tribute page of the essays he wrote for them.

All of Vonnegut’s books are in print and can be bought inexpensively in your local new or used bookstore or online. This doesn’t keep people from trying to find his words for free. The high school lit class staple “Harrison Bergeron” is available here. Trying to pick among his books is a popular parlor game. Salon had Dave Eggers put together a great guide to the novels that includes icons that indicate which of his major themes are addressed. Vonnegut famously graded his own books. For the Achenblog Boodle, I put together my own grouping of the relative importance of his works. That spurred a debate on whether to start at the top or save the best for last. I recommended Cat's Cradle to newcomers, but don't avoid Slaughterhouse Five, which Time magazine named one of the hundred best modern novels.

I have read nearly every word Vonnegut has written, often more than once and frequently in multiple places. Going through all these tender reminisces can result in bon mot fatigue. In addition to the many allusions to his catch phrases (of which yours truly is a serial offender), several anecdotes keep re-appearing including his quip on the occasion of Isaac Asimov’s death with a tongue-in-cheek reference to his own passing.

And there will always be the silly stuff. He will be dogged with the hoax sunscreen speech forever (a real commencement speech can be found here) as well his feud over Venus On The Half Shell by Phillip Jose Farmer. His cameo in Back To School has a funny punchline, but it also gets to the heart of an interesting meta-comment on his works. Who really does understand an authors words? Every time I read one of his books, I find a new angle or an overlooked irony. You should too.

Blatant Link Mongering™: This is perhaps the linkiest post I have ever written. I intend to update and add to it as I find new items of interest. Feel free to add Vonnegut related links of your own in the comments.

Update (3/17/07): Drink at Work linked to this poignant video montage.


Anonymous said...

I took a little poll around my office, I said to people, "Have you heard of 'Kurt Vonnegut?'" Six out of seven answered exactly the same: "Who?" "No." The seventh insisted she had heard of him, but she couldn't name any of his books. I stopped asking at that point, except the next day, one of the IT guys passed by and I asked him, because I thought there might be better odds in that department (I'm in the Sales Dept.) IT guy: "No."

So it's a real comfort to be able to visit my online communities and find people who understand Vonnegut's importance. Thank you, yellojkt. Those are the words I should have been able to find days ago: Thank you.


Anglophile said...

Beautiful post!

Jeff and Charli Lee said...

I can always count on you to pull all the pieces of an important story or issue together. Nice work.

Anonymous said...

... so Don Imus makes politically incorrect remarks? ... so does Vonnegut! Maybe they both use satire, saying backhanded things they don't really mean to provide scope for the things they really do mean.

I had to dig out an old spirit copy of a lecture Vonnegut gave at St. John the Divine in NYC in 1982. (I wasn't there, but I must've picked up the transcript in Indianapolis about that time.) Then I had to find out where it was published. I believe this is in the public domain:

o Vonnegut, Kurt. "Fates Worse Than Death." North American Review Vol. 267.4 (Dec. 1982): 46-49. Transcript of lecture. St. John the Divine, New York. 23 May 1982. 16 Apr. 2007 <>.

sex shop said...

Really effective info, thanks so much for the post.