The Vonnegut Effect at 100: On the Promises of Humanism in 2022

Kurt Vonnegut himself would likely burst into a raspy laugh, a smoker’s laugh, at the arbitrary importance associated with today being the 100th year from his date of birth, 11 November 1922.

This was a man who stumbled through WWII, but somehow not only survived the war but also rose out of the ashes of the fire bombing of Dresden, an experience that would serve as the basis for his most celebrated novel, Slaughterhouse-Five.

That novel helped Vonnegut rise once again, but this time out of obscurity, a struggling writer and former POW who chose art as his vocation after returning to his post-war life. His anti-war message resonated with what would become his foundational base of readers, college-aged students, then a time of heightened anti-war sentiment around Vietnam.

Yes, Vonnegut gradually became another old white man of the canon, and he appealed often to young white men of a certain privilege (a contemporary of sorts with J.D. Salinger with whom Vonnegut likely shared many ardent fans).

And yes, as the curtain was pulled back, Vonnegut had many of the flaws white men with power seem unable to avoid.

But the dark humor combined with the deceptively simple idealism of his novels, short stories, and essays have continued to resonate. In my opinion, his work justifies that Vonnegut still matters—or better phrased, that Vonnegut should still matter. And here, again deceptively simple, are three reasons why:

Vonnegut confesses in the blurring of genres that were his novels—autobiography quilted with fiction—that being anti-war was nearly as futile as being anti-glacier, that begging for kindness mostly fell on deaf ears, and that evoking Jesus to make his arguments even as he rejected God and religion failed to convert those flush with missionary zeal.

Yet, he persisted.

Like George Carlin, however, Vonnegut became increasingly cynical and angry as he aged.

Turning to essays mostly in his later years, Vonnegut wrote snarling political rants that none the less had the same allure of his fiction. He had little patience for Republicans or most Americans’ careless disregard for how humans are slowly but surely destroying the only planet that we have.

Again, I remain convinced we should heed Vonnegut’s many valuable warnings and messages—notably the ones above. But possibly most important of all is this from his opening chapter, The First Amendment, of Palm Sunday:

Republicans across the U.S. in 2022 are invoking God, claiming they were chosen by God, while they ban books and curriculum to control what students can and cannot learn.

This is the fate Vonnegut warned us about.

I can’t imagine anything other than biting anger from Vonnegut about Republican governors and of course the greatest stain on the country now, Trump.

Vonnegut is not looking down on our carelessness from above; as he noted often, God and heaven are human concoctions, evidence of our frailties.

Corporeally, Vonnegut is gone, mere dust.

We are left here in a crumbling democracy, watching the end of freedoms because more people have missionary zeal for a nonexistent afterlife than for the very real people walking around beside us.

More so than even our children.

And that, I think, would rouse Vonnegut’s greatest ire at our negligence, foolishness, and sad, bitter hatred.

Today, 100 years from Vonnegut’s birth, is a horribly sad day that continues to remind me of yet another old white man, William Butler Yeats:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

“We have met the enemy and they are us.”

God bless you, Kurt Vonnegut, and rest in peace.