Vonnegut’s Teachers (and Mine!)

“Mister Vonnegut, where did you get your radical ideas?” a radio interviewer asked the author of Slaughterhouse Five and The Man Without a Country.

Kurt Vonnegut answered without hesitation: “The Public Schools of Indianapolis.”

I loved his answer, for I felt the same way. I was reminded of Miss Louise McCarthy, my seventh grade history teacher at School #80. She was telling our class about America taking the Philippines, and we were shocked at the revelations of ruthless conquest (Mark Twain wrote that “We have pacified some thousands of the islanders and buried them, destroyed their fields, burned their villages, turned their widows and orphans out-of-doors. . .”) Miss McCarthy broke our historical virginity by asking “Do you think America is always right, seventh-graders?’ Wagging a finger back and forth in our wide-eyed faces she said “Not at all, seventh-graders, not at all!”

(I thought of Miss McCarthy during the Vietnam War, the First Gulf War, The Iraq War, the War in Afghanistan…)

If This Isn't Nice What Is?

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Vonnegut often spoke of his teachers in the popular graduation speeches and talks on other occasions (collected in If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?) like his address to The Indiana Civil Liberties Union when he said “Our chemistry teachers were first and foremost chemists. Our teacher of ancient history, Minnie Lloyd, should have been wearing medals for all she did at The Battle of Thermopylae. Our English teachers were very commonly serious writers.”

He reported that one of his English teachers, Marguerite Young, “went on to write the definitive biography of Indiana’s own Eugene V. Debs, the middle-class labor leader and socialist candidate for President of the United States.” Ms. Young also went on to gain literary acclaim for her novel Miss Macintosh, My Darling.

Though Kurt didn’t mention it in that particular talk, he often spoke with pride of another writer who graduated from Shortridge two years before him, who he knew when they both were in the Literary Club, Madeline Pugh. Ms. Pugh became the first head writer of the “I Love Lucy” show, television’s first popular sitcom.

Vonnegut had a question he liked to ask at the end of his talks (or sometimes at the beginning.) This is how he put it in his address to the graduating class of Agnes Scott College:

“How many of you have had a teacher at any level of your education who made you more excited to be alive, prouder to be alive, than you had previously thought possible? Hold up your hands, please. Now take down your hands and say the name of that teacher to someone else and tell them what that teacher did for you.”

Now let’s ask our legislators to ask themselves that question and tell the name of that teacher to a fellow elected official and ask them to do the same, as they decide to invest tax dollars in our teachers.

“All done?” Vonnegut asked. “If this isn’t nice, what is?”


James Baldwin’s “Blues”

I had the great good fortune of meeting James Baldwin in The White Horse Tavern in 1957 when I was starting out as a writer and Baldwin was one of my heroes. I recognized him from the photograph of his face that was on the cover of a new paperback of his first book of essays Notes of a Native Son, and there he was, in the flesh, having a beer. The “Autobiographical Notes” that introduced his book ended with a sentence that seemed to me like beacon, a guide: “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.”

One of the White Horse “regulars” introduced me to Jimmy (the name he called himself and wanted to be called by) and when I told him I was working on my first book, about Spanish Harlem (Island in the City), he invited me to join him, and later to come by his apartment on Horatio Street, where we talked, and drank bourbon and listened to Bessie Smith records. All that came back to me when I read his powerful essay “The Uses of the Blues” in The Cross of Redemption, a book that’s a treasure-house of his previously uncollected writing.

He tells us at the beginning of his essay on the blues that it “does not refer to music: I don’t know anything about music. It does refer to the experience of life, or the state of being, out of which the blues come.” He says he might have just as well titled his essay “The Uses of Anguish” or “The Uses of Pain.” The blues, he says, are about “work, love, death, floods, lynchings. . . ‘Facts of Life.’”

That is in fact what all of Baldwin’s stunning and resonant work is about, whether in novels like Go Tell It on the Mountain or book-length essays that awaken people to the reality of their society and where it’s headed as in The Fire Next Time, or on the stage, with “Blues for Mister Charlie” or in short stories such as “Sonny’s Blues.”

The blues, he reminds us, began “on the auction block,” and are “rooted in the slave songs,” and all of us who are alive, no matter what our state or estate or lack of it, we are going to suffer. Hopefully, we will survive whatever pain is inflicted on us (or that we inflict on ourselves), and move on, in the spirit that Bessie Smith describes with such plain and gut-hitting words: “picked up my bag, baby, and I tried it again.”


Poetry from a Favorite Novelist

I didn’t know that one of my favorite novelists wrote poetry until I received Lynn Sharon Schwartz’ new book of poems, No Way Out But Through (University of Pittsburgh Press.) Ms. Schwartz’ novels include Leaving Brooklyn, which tells of the life-changing experience of a teenage girl from Brooklyn making her first forays into Manhattan (where the sky looks bluer than in her own home borough), and Disturbances in the Field, that follows a group of Barnard graduates into their later lives.

Her poems have the wit and grace of her prose, and one of them, “Collecting Myself,” got me laughing out loud. The poet asks what “flawed vision” prompted her to buy a book of bilingual Russian stories –

. . .page three turned down
a year now, something by Gogol –
traveler, inn, horse, the rest a blur. . .

Those few lines seemed to sum up for me every story written by a 19th century Russian – Gogol, Gorky, Turgenev, Chekov – all their stories seemed to have those elements. I also recognized the books I’ve bought that I thought would “be good for me,” or  “improve my mind,” or “teach me more about writing,” or some other noble goal, but I never finished.

There are also insightful and witty poems about relationships, as in “First Loves,” when she tells of marrying the first boy she met who read books and could converse about them, and later thinks “It was like buying the first house that you see. . .”  Happily, she realizes  “. . .sometimes that works out quite well,” and concludes that there are times when “it seems a stroke of luck, miraculous.”

There is real wisdom in these poems, though they are never didactic and always entertaining, holding you in the spell of language, each word sounding the right note. The title of the book is itself a meaningful message, reminding us that in every challenge, no matter how we try to skirt around it, in the end, there is “No Way But Through.”



Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield