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THE COMMON READER
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From the Editor

vonnegut2America's favorite chemist mechanical engineer anthropologist journalist fiction writer Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. died a few weeks ago, and perhaps with him, the ironic mode. Irony now considered too sophomoric for serious writers, unless it goes unrecognized (so it goes), technically in the abstract, disguised, off-rhymed, not readily accessible to anyone but the theorist's eye, who will, of course, guffaw and scoff upon finding it, and say I told you so -- "This is mimesis, not the real thing, the basis of all hegemony."  Irony has become too trite to be discussed, like symbol, like the colors red or blue.  Contemporary fiction plays the same old shell game, still looking for a place to hide the pea (without a pea to pot in, I mean hide anywhere).

Now having said that, it is quite flabbergasting that many people miss the irony (not only in swiftfiction) but in the everyday (i.e. tune into any news program; news folks seemed to be scared to death of it). Surprise, surprise, the world has not changed much since Swift since Twain since Vonnegut -- dvd players, cell phones, and F/A 18's notwithstanding.

Vonnegut knew as did Twain as did Swift that you a have to ready for the naked human body in all of its ironic forms.  There really isn't -- wasn't any other way for him.  For Vonnegut, irony was not a literary device but something that existed in the literal world.  He was born on November 11, 1922,  Armistice Day, four years after the real one. His mother would commit suicide on the day before Mother's Day.  He survived the Dresden holocaust in a meat-locker 60 feet below the real slaughter of 130,000, and its address Slaughterhouse 5 became the title of his first critical success. The book would begin without even the veil of fiction -- "All this happened, more or less."  And this is just a sample of the bio-ironic data of Vonnegut's life.

twainGrowing up in the crossroads of America, Indianapolis, Indiana, becoming a newsman for the high school paper The Echo, then in Ithaca, New York, writing for The Cornell Daily Sun and editing the college humor column "Innocents Abroad," Vonnegut developed an easy one-two-three approach to writing -- write factual, declarative sentences about the world around you, tell a few jokes, and know your audience. Vonnegut became expert at all three during the late 40s and 1950s writing for Chicago newspapers and writing freelance fiction for Colliers and Redbook.

Morphing from one ambition to the next, his American journey to college and career was interrupted by WW II, in which he served as a POW, and the suicide of his mother, thereby casting him in the disdainful group of confessional writers, typical of the 20th century (or any century I think, regardless of what the New Critics would say); that is, typical of writers trying to work out their own problems through fiction.  Something about which Quincy Jones would merely observe as the experience of "living in your own skin."

Another critical strike against Vonnegut early on (besides mere disbelief) was that he worked to make a living, to sell stories, and he used the marginal genre of Science Fiction, allowing him to write in what would come to be called "postmodern fiction" -- metafictions and time jumps and parallel worlds coexisting in a phenomenological Heisenbergian way.  Of course, this critical coup, this label, came much later, after the fact of his prolific career and his enormous popularity -- particularly among the young, the disaffected, lefties in general, humanists in the specific, anti-war devotees, pacifists, eco-philes, neo-Heinleinians, a lot of college drop-outs and people who who made it through, plenty of people who did not go to college at all, and a large audience of regular old human beans, like myself, who wanted to be entertained for a few hours in flights of Vonnegut fantasy.

Slh5Since his 1969 classic Slaughterhouse Five, or The Children's Crusade, Vonnegut is part of American literary corpus, whether we like it or not.  Later in his career, he did receive the recognition that was his due: no, not the Pulitzer or the Nobel Prize, not the National Book Award, or anything given by any President, but the more likable and constitutionally sound "Freedom to Read Award" at the University of Chicago, his wanna' be alma mater way back when.  MA candidates please note: the U of C had rejected his MA thesis in 1946 -- "On the Fluctuations between Good and Evil in Simple Tales" -- but later, much later, after having been transported to Trafalmadore and after learning the ways of Bokononism, the faculty, demonstrating the grace and dignity with which higher education is capable and innately endowed, accepted Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle (which is about the fluctuations previously mentioned) in lieu of a Masters thesis.  How about that MA fans!  Come to think of it, the ironic mode may not be dead after all, just existing in another dimension, accessible in any Vonnegut book, and in any critic's backward glance.


 
 
 
--Tom Douglass

Editor:Tom Douglass
Assistant Editor: Lisa DeVries 

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Copyright © 2007. ECU  Department of English.