I was asked by the director of the Middletown (PA) public library to answer questions from his readers about the work of Kurt Vonnegut. Since I have edited and written introductions to three books of Vonnegut’s works, and I had the pleasure of knowing him for more than forty years, it was assumed I would know all the answers. I didn’t. There was one answer I felt good about, though. It was the last question I was asked, by John Grayshaw, director of the library. He asked
“Why do you think Vonnegut’s works are still so popular? What is their staying power?”
This is what came out of my head in response:
Other contemporary writers of his era seem “dated,” like Updike and Roth, who were writing of their time – Vonnegut was writing of past, present and future. Young people are not interested in the suburban life of the 1950s. Vonnegut transcended that.
He gave people hope. He showed he cared for the planet. What other writer of his time did that?
Mailer? Mary McCarthy? Fitzgerald or Hemingway?
He cared about the clumsy, the poor, the downtrodden. He saw that they too had a right to be fed, clothed, and housed against the elements.
He refused to write battle scenes of war, knowing that they made people see slaughter as glamorous. He wrote a war novel in which there are no battles. Saturation bombing is not a “battle.” It is only a devestation.
Next to The Beatitudes the lines he quotes most were from his fellow Hoosier Eugene V. Debs:
“As long as there is a lower class, I am in it; as long as there is a criminal class, I am of it; as long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
He asked why people don’t say things like that anymore. He said them. He dramatized them. He built stories around them. He fed our imagination. He knew were hungry.