Monday, 20 May 2024

Kurt Vonnegut Jr.: A Writer For All Seasons

I've been weeping ever since I opened my morning paper Thursday. I hope you are too.


Forget about Paris Hilton and her sidekick Nicole; instead, I offer this tribute to our national conscience, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who died this past week at age 84.


Vonnegut came to Milwaukee's Centennial Hall on Oct. 17, 1985, on the occasion of the 100th Anniversary of the Milwaukee Public Library. There, he gave a speech titled "How To Get A Job Like Mine" to 719 people.


He told of his beginnings as a short story writer. His first short story sold for $750, his second, for $850. "Pretty soon money was piling up in a corner of the house, but this opportunity has dried up," he continued. "People used to pay for their babies by writing short stories."


Later, he taught at the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, where he offered this advice to students who were having trouble with a piece of fiction:


"1. Throw away the first three pages and you will have a high energy beginning.


"2. You're one character short. That character is Iago. Without Iago everybody is going to sit around like lumps on toast. Iago gets everybody jazzed up."


Vonnegut did not hold out false hopes to those who wish to become professional writers: "Maybe 20 people in this room can make it if they really work hard. But there are no jobs waiting. There are fewer successful writers in a year than there are ball players or active admirals."


After his first book, "Player Piano," sold 100,000 paperback copies to only 7,000 in hard cover, Vonnegut started writing original paperbacks "because you could get your money right away." The rest is literary history. He went on to touch on many subjects.


On how to get money to write a book: "Marry well. Mark Twain did. He lived in swell houses."


On reading: "Reading is a superb meditation, far superior to Eastern forms. The Maharishi taught me the latter for $85, a handkerchief and an apple. It is like scuba diving in bouillon."


On the recent banning of his book, "Slaughterhouse Five," in Racine, WI: "It usually happens in small towns. But Racine, with 100,000 people; that's the biggest town that ever did anything so stupid. When I was a kid, communities burned people. Now, they're burning books. That's progress. We're making progress. I want to send them my collected works and some kerosene. We've come a long way."


He was funny. He was compassionate. He was all the things anyone who's read him would expect him to be. And, in the final segment of his talk, reading another speech he'd given at New York's Cathedral of St. John The Divine, he was brilliant.


It was called "The Worst Imaginable Consequences Of Doing Without The Hydrogen Bomb." But, first he established that dead is dead whether you get there by nuclear annihilation or burning at the stake. "But are there fates worse than death?" he continued, only establishing one crucifixion.


"I don't believe we are about to be crucified," he dispensed of that one. "No enemy we face has enough carpenters."


He ended with a dream.


"I dreamed last night of our descendants a thousand years from now, that is to say, all humanity ... I asked them how humanity managed, against all odds, to keep going another millennium. They told me that they and their ancestors did it by preferring life over death for themselves and others at every opportunity."


E-mail Gary Peterson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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