MCCULLOUGH: God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut

Will McCullough

Last week the world became significantly less inhabitable: author Kurt Vonnegut died on April 11. At first, I consciously did not want to believe the bad news, but instantly knew it to be true. After seeing the man in an interview about two years ago, I appreciated his steadfastness in living each day as he had the previous. He would push forward, becoming passionate about wrongs he saw occurring in the world, always faithful to his humanist beliefs.

His novels never abandoned the way he saw the world, often portraying it with the absurdest tilt that could be the only way to do justice to his cynical view of the state of things. He often used science fiction devices to portray humans as destructive to one another. When he retired from fiction in 1997, he began to focus more on essays that often explicitly expressed the same cynical distaste for Western behavior that was in his novels. This change perhaps came because he was tired of being any shade of coy in what he wanted to say. The last book he published was titled “A Man Without a Country.” As if the title were not enough to gauge what the book concerned, a continual theme through the collection of essays was the particularly egregious nature of offenses people commit against each other in this country – especially by the powerful elite (namely the president and presidential cronies).

One, perhaps imperfect, measure of literary canonicity is inclusion in “The Norton Anthology.” The editors of the American volume have included the first chapter of his “Slaughterhouse Five” in the canon. Probably the most well-known of his works, “Slaughterhouse Five” was the obvious piece to include, if a Vonnegut work were to be included at all. I raise this point because “a long, long, time ago in a galaxy far, far away” I, along with innumerable others, read his books prior to any notion of what a literary canon was. The books were some of the first real books that I read on my own, opening up what would become the activity to which I have dedicated the last four years of my life: reading. It was void of anything that had to do with school (an association with school or anything that teachers approved of would have resulted in my dissociation with it). His works did many things aside from opening up reading; they held a resonance with the antiwar sentiment of the Vietnam era, as they are doing so today with the Iraq war. He effectively fostered a generation of readers with a social conscience through his writings.

He created rallying points out of truths many forget: treat others as you want to be treated; you only get one life to live and you have to take your lumps and move on. These are simple and noble notions, but they are too often forgotten for the purpose of personal gain.

This memoriam certainly fails to summarize what was so important about the man’s life and writings. It fails because succeeding would be impossible. I spent the entire weekend trying to think of the impossibility of filling the void that has been undoubtedly created by his departure. I then remembered his phrase which sums up the continuity of life through times both good and bad, the ever-present sentence through “Slaughterhouse Five”: “So it goes.”


Will McCullough is a senior English major and economics minor from Plymouth Meeting, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected].