Vonnegut in Cultural History as Research Paper

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A Vonnegut theme, however, is often hard to miss; especially since part of Vonnegut's style placed the author in a position where many readers could palpably feel him throughout the novel. Vonnegut seems to read alongside the reader and assist him; he seems to teach and guide -- gently -- as well as write. As such, Vonnegut helped re-define what high art, and the novel specifically, could be:

Irving, who went on to write "The World According to Garp" and "The Cider House Rules," remembered Vonnegut as a self-effacing presence who "didn't have an agenda about what 'the novel' should be." Vonnegut also appreciated that you didn't have to be in the classroom to get your work done (MSNBC, 2007).

South Park postmodernism seems to be endemic to recent generations, and, if so, the ideological roots of those generations must be traced back to Vonnegut and his contemporaries.

Some more direct, technical influences of Vonnegut can be found in literature. Martin Amis, the preeminent British author, published a work called Time's Arrow which follows the form of a passage in Slaughterhouse Five (BBC, 2005). In that passage time is subsumed and run backwards to tell the story of Dresden's firebombing in reverse -- it seems then to end happily with bombs being dismantled by women in American factories -- and Amis's novel has a similar plot. Nonetheless, Amis is known for a certain acerbity which Vonnegut's compassion would not permit; Vonnegut loved humanity despite his anger and depression whereas Amis seems to lash out. Furthermore, Amis is well-known for the prolixity of his style, whereas Vonnegut advocated accessibility. In Money, another of Amis's novels, Vonnegut himself appears as a character (BBC, 2005).

Through Vonnegut and his contemporaries -- Joseph Heller to name an important one -- it became acceptable to cope with the human condition through satire and black humor. "So it goes," repeats the author-narrator of Slaughterhouse Five in reference to every death the novel comes across. The attitude is not just blase but fatalist: the novel accepts the failure of free will -- and therefore the general human failure -- and in sorrow and courage moves on. "I had to laugh like hell," soliloquizes Lieutenant Colonel John Patton in Hocus Pocus, the implication being that if he did not laugh, he would have to cry. In 1984, battling sever depression, Vonnegut attempted suicide and failed. Shortly thereafter he was on record joking about the botched attempt (MSNBC, 2007). It has already been mentioned that black humor and satire are used in Vonnegut, and in his later descendants, to make 'high' material accessible to the common reader, but here it is also shown to be used as a coping mechanism. Jon Stewart referred to the tragedy, war, and terror during the most recent Middle Eastern conflict as a "Mess-O-Potamia," and taught his viewers about the socio-political failings of that conflict -- especially the American part in it -- while simultaneously giving them a mechanism by which to cope with it. Augusten Burroughs in Running with Scissors similarly uses black humor to teach his readers about the darkness of his childhood, while simultaneously providing a mechanism for both the author and reader to cope with that childhood. In fact, coping through humor -- especially black humor -- seems to be an indigenous trait of the South Park generation.

In the generations previous to Vonnegut, we find the chief satirist to be Mark Twain who used satire as a tool for understanding the human condition, but rarely went as far as to poke fun at events as terrible as Dresden. Twain was not precisely modernist, but can be placed into that camp, and may rightly be considered one of Vonnegut's own influences. If Twain then represents the transition from late 19th century realism into modernism, Vonnegut is his descendant who transformed his work for the use of postmodernism.

Vonnegut's position is most interesting for his retention in some ghostly aspect of many modernist ideals, despite his progress into postmodernism. Vonnegut was compassionate, this is central. Vonnegut had lost faith, yet he went on as if it still existed. By clinging to the modernist heritage Vonnegut eased the transition and also appropriated the devices and ideology of modernism for the postmodern culture. In fact, it remains that many critics have trouble demonstrating the exact line whereat modernism ends and postmodernism begins and this is because the two movements did not precisely start and end so much as blend into one another. Postmodernism took the lamentations of its modernist parents and converted it into something appropriate to the latest generation, a generation disillusioned with the simple black-white dualities of the realist past, a generation which had participated and even perpetrated the horrors of Vietnam and the cold war, a generation which was suddenly seeing through the ethereality of the American dream. As a guru of that generation, Vonnegut represents a bridge from the American, faith-based idealism of the 40s and 50s into the atheistic, humanist idealism of today. Through him and his contemporaries it was first possible to approach humane, moral living without any absolutes to rely on, without god or country as meters and only the wavering compasses of the human way to guide.

It is difficult, also, to decide at which point a man ceases to become a product of his times and the times begin to become a product of him. Certainly it must be accepted that Vonnegut never achieved the position of America's highest acclaimed authors, so it must be accepted that in some sense he was as much a product as a purveyor. Yet, it must also be recognized that Vonnegut was well ahead of his time. The first generation he influenced was twenty years younger than he, had lost its faith in Vietnam while he had lost his in World War II. As MSNBC writes, "Vonnegut was less a peer of the young rebels who loved such novels as "Cat's Cradle" and "Slaughterhouse-Five," than a wise, eccentric and cranky uncle," (MSNBC, 2007).


1. Vonnegut, Kurt.

a. Slaughterhouse Five. New York: Random House, 1969. Print

b. Glapagos. New York: Random House, 1985. Print.

c. Cat's Cradle. New York: Random House, 1963. Print.

2. Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995. Print.

3. Tally, Robert T. "A Postmodern Iconography: Vonnegut and the Great American Novel." (2008) Faculty Publications-English: Texas State University, Web. 4 May 2010 http://ecommons.txstate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1014&context=englfacp

4. MSNBC "Writers Praise the Influence of Kurt Vonnegut." Associated Press, 12 April 2007. Web. 4 May 2010. http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/18080112/

5. MSNBC "Novelist Kurt Vonnegut Dies at 84." Associated Press, 12 April 2007. Web. 4 May 2010. http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/18066068/ns/entertainment-arts_books_more/

6. Sullivan, James "Vonnegut Made this Ridiculous Life Bearable." MSNBC, 12 April 2007. Web. 4 May 2010. http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/18077559/ns/entertainment-arts_books_more/

7. "Kurt Vonnegut -- Author" BBC Edited Guide Entry. 16 March 2005. Web. 4 May 2010. http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A3724823

8. Tally, Robert T., "We are what we pretend to be': Existential Angst in Vonnegut's Mother Night" (2009). Faculty Publications-English: Texas State University, Web. 4 May…[continue]


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