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Vonnegut, the Non-Jewish Writer, Dies

Kurt Vonnegut, called one of America's best writers by the likes of Graham Greene, John Irving, and Tom Wolfe, died last night — apparently due to complications from brain injuries sustained during a recent fall. You can read about it in … Read More

By / April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut, called one of America's best writers by the likes of Graham Greene, John Irving, and Tom Wolfe, died last night — apparently due to complications from brain injuries sustained during a recent fall. You can read about it in the Times. Some of his best-known works include Cat's Cradle (1963), The Sirens of Titan (1959), Slaughterhouse Five (1969), and Breakfast of Champions (1973). Vonnegut was one of those lucky writers whose work made into both mainstream and academic venues — I actually read my first Vonnegut book as an undergrad in a class called Metafiction, and was surprised to learn that even some of my non-college-bound friends had also read Vonnegut and thought Slaughterhouse Five was rad.

I was planning to go hear him read and give a talk on April 27 here in Indiana — at Butler University in Indianapolis, Vonnegut's home town. Vonnegut is one of Indiana's claims to fame. I'm living in Indiana right now (very temporarily), and one thing I've noticed is that people here are fiercely loyal to anyone from the state. They also go nuts if they're in a bar and Tom Petty's "Mary Jane's Last Dance" song starts to play (First verse: "She grew up in an Indiana town / Had a good lookin' momma who never was around / But she grew up tall and she grew up right / With them Indiana boys on an Indiana night"). It's no joke — I was once in a campus bar called Harry's Chocolate Shop, and though it was packed with wall-to-wall people, when that song came on every single person in there (excluding me) jumped to their feet and began singing the lyrics. I feared they might riot. Or that there would be a stoning of people not from Indiana. So I joined in.

My point being: Indiana loves Vonnegut, so it's a sad day here.

But I learned something new about an hour ago. In talking to a friend of mine who is a scholar of Jewish-American and other literatures, I got into a conversation about Slaughterhouse Five, which is really about Vonnegut's own experience with the WWII Dresden bombing. My friend said he has always been slightly bothered by the book — that it feels slightly anti-Semitic, though not in any overt way (anti-Semitic because it completely ignores the Holocaust, and focuses only on other WWII events, which does feel a bit strange). "But Vonnegut was Jewish, wasn't he?" I asked. No. Apparently he was not. This whole time I thought Vonnegut was a Jewish writer who didn't write about Jewish things — like Joseph Heller (good friend of Vonnegut) or Norman Mailer or Paul Auster or Nathaniel West. The reason I thought this: a good friend of mine, who also happens to be a fairly well-known novelist in the Jewish-American literary world, told me so!

So was Vonnegut anti-Semitic? I don't know. I don't think so, but I do find the omission of the Holocaust in Slaughterhouse to be kind of creepy. Then again, in looking back at Breakfast of Champions a few minutes ago, a picture of a flag with a swastika on it caught my eye. Above the flag, Vonnegut writes:

Dwayne certainly wasn't alone, as far as having bad chemicals inside of him was concerned. He had plenty of company throughout all history. In his own lifetime, for instance, the people in a country called Germany were so full of bad chemicals for a while that they actually built factories whose only purpose was to kill people by the millions. The people were delivered by railroad trains. When the Germans were full of bad chemicals, their flag looked like this:

Of course, on the next page Vonnegut includes a picture of today's German flag, and writes: "Here is what their flag looked like after they got well again." But the last part of this section is my favorite — Vonnegut writes about the "cheap and durable [German] automobile" that became popular all over the world after the war (the Volkswagen Beetle). He includes a drawing of the beetle insect, and writes underneath it: "The mechanical beetle was made by Germans. The real beetle was made by the Creator of the Universe." Pretty profound, don't you think, particularly in the wake of Nazi Germany's efforts to play God . . .

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