13 April 2007

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr: 1922-2007.

As Americans, we have inherited no nobility, no centuries of conflict, no riches of a previous day. We are better minds for this lacking.

When I look back on the ways literature shaped me, I know it first got under my skin when I started chasing an ideal of American humor. A way with words in spite of ourselves, to speak eloquence to the authority that does not expect any. I've known this for a long long time now. I know the American humorists and all the pretenders. I know William Dean Howells and David Sedaris, Bret Harte and Nathaniel West, George Plimpton and Dorothy Parker. I know nearly all the names that for a time capture our imagination, who color our language with wit and charm. But I know too that there are writers who loom large in our canon. When we look to humor in literature, as a way to separate ourselves from every culture on the planet, staring plainfaced at the mess of society we've tried to construct and to say something, anything to silence the onslaught of ourselves, four voices rise above the rest. Benjamin Franklin. Washington Irving. Mark Twain. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

It is not that we lack funny men. We've had Groucho, Woody, Buster and Pryor. But our literature gives us men with peculiar senses of humor who carry us through peculiarly dark times. We are lifted toward great stories on the ease of a page read. I know that humor needs no single art form to define itself. But the writers have had the jump start, the early lead. And when I first read Mark Twain, I thought to myself, He knows that literature is the ultimate form, that his language is the centerpiece of his culture. Twain used anecdote to cultivate American humor. We didn't need to be convinced of his cultural worth. He believed it for us.

Vonnegut's first novel, a book he wrote while working in Schenectady for GE, was released in 1952. He was 30 years old. In 1928, GE began transmitting the first regularly scheduled television broadcasts from Schenectady. Vonnegut was 6 years old.

To write during the rise of television required a patience with the form that extended beyond the everyday reactions of newsmen, comics, slapstick artists, and critics. John Updike has a line, "When there are too few monks among us, something of the monk enters all of us." The American public had a writer who ignored the competition from other forms. Vonnegut told stories that could never be told on celluloid - the Tralfamador-Dresden hopping joyride of Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions Ohio to a Berlin Zoo park bench in Mother Night - that monkish delight of the strange and beautiful place one wishes to inhabit but does not long to see.

These moments do not require a great writer to tell them faithfully. These moments are invented by great writers. It is almost as if America knew, shortly after World War II, that we needed a writer to write Kurt Vonnegut novels. As if we'd convinced ourselves the last century knew Mark Twain novels weren't going to write themselves. Otherwise, we'd have a grainy picture in a box that talked a mean game but could never convey what Whitman wrote: "I was the man. I suffered. I was there."

Fortunately, for the hundred-thousand other impressionable minds I meet all too infrequently, we had Kurt Vonnegut.