Saturday, March 30, 2024


 a challenge to American exceptionalism


MAR 30, 2024

A girl I liked in ninth grade reported on “Slaughterhouse-Five” in class. Able to read much better and much faster than I could in previous years, her classroom book reports inspired me to read “The Hobbit” and “Watership Down.” While I couldn’t compete with her academically, I didn’t want her to forever know things I couldn’t, so even though it took me until the next fall to finish the book, I read “Slaughterhouse-Five” because she did.

When Kurt Vonnegut died, Fox News said he was a “despondent liberal.” They mentioned the suicide attempt he had written about years before and suggested that he finally got his wish. Upon his passing, the National Review called him a “leftwing nutjob.” What sort of person invokes this kind of hatred when he dies?

Franklin Delano Roosevelt used the Great Depression and the impending war in Europe to whip the Republican Party into submission. When he died, and the war ended, the Grand Ole Party resurfaced with a new and better mission. Men like Walt Disney, Joseph McCarthy, Howard Hughes, and Roy Cohn used their powers to deliver a new message. America, with its corporate giants, is the strongest, smartest, best, most powerful, and most moral country in the history of the world, and if you didn’t agree, then you clearly were a communist. The Democratic response became, “What about the people you left out of the equation?” and that’s essentially the situation we live in today.

In school, you were probably told that the most horrible, most destructive attacks in World War II were Nagasaki and Hiroshima and the advent of the American Atomic Bomb. America was quite proud of our bomb’s destructive capability. The success of last year’s film “Oppenheimer” suggests this feeling continues. You weren’t taught correctly, though. The most destructive attacks in World War II came not as a product of American scientific genius but from conventional weapons produced in mass quantities by America’s corporate giants. The bombings of Tokyo and Dresden brought on more destruction, more human carnage, and suffering than any other attack in the history of the world.

In December 1944, four months after his mother’s suicide, Kurt Vonnegut was deployed with the 106th Infantry Division to what became known as “The Battle of the Bulge.” By the end of December, Vonnegut was captured with fifty of his fellow servicemen and shipped by rail to the Prisoner of War camp in Dresden. He described it as “the fanciest city I’d ever seen.” He was told, and he believed, that the Germans had their prisoner-of-war camps in Dresden because Dresden had no military industry. Following World War I, treating war prisoners became a concern in the West and the Germans. This concern became part of the Geneva Convention that met after the end of World War I.

Between February 13 and February 15, 1945, a joint operation by the United States and Great Britain unleashed a barrage of incendiary and concussive bombs on Dresden with such ferocity and volume that it is still recorded as the most destructive single attack in human history. It would be another twenty-five years before Americans became willing to discuss this. When Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse-Five, most Americans had never heard of Dresden. Mired in the Vietnam War, draft-age young people and godless liberals attached considerable meaning to the book.

The book begins with an omniscient narrator telling us about Billy Pilgrim, a member of the Chaplin Corps Who was captured in the Battle of the Bulge and sent by rail to a prisoner-of-war camp in Dresden. Pilgrim and the other men on the train were housed in a repurposed abattoir, which they are told was named Slaughterhouse-Five. In Slaughterhouse-Five, we meet characters who appear in subsequent Vonnegut stories and novels, including a teacher named Edgar Derby, an American Nazi Propagandist named Howard Campbell, and Paul Lazarro, who blames Pilgrim for the death of his friend, Elliot Rosewater, and swears one day to kill Pilgrim.

The science fiction element of the novel is introduced with an alien race known as the Tralfamadorians. In the 1972 film, they are portrayed by balls of light. In the novel, Vonnegut gives them an appearance similar to what Salvador Dali might have created. After his encounter with the Tralfamadorians, Pilgrim becomes “unstuck” from time, experiencing the scenes in his life out of their natural order, sometimes simultaneously, and often looping back on themselves.

After reading Slaughterhouse-Five in the ninth grade, it would be several more years before I knew how Faulkner or Joyce used non-linear time in their writing. Vonnegut would have been acutely aware of them. There’s a clear and deep connection between modernist writers like Faulkner and Joyce and post-modern writers like Vonnegut.

A veteran of World War II and the Korean Conflict, George Roy Hill went on to direct some of the more notable films of the 70s and 80s, including “The World According to Garp,” “Slapstick,” “The Sting,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” and in 1971, at the height of the Vietnam War, and the surrounding protests, he directed “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

Not wanting to use “name” actors, Hill introduced Michael Sacks as Billy Pilgrim. Sacks went on to do “The Sugarland Express,” “Hanover Street,” and “The Private Files of J Edgar Hoover.” Realizing that the part of Montana Wildhack required a fair amount of nudity, Hill hired Playboy Playmate Valerie Perrine, who had never acted before. She went on to be nominated for a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for her part in Bob Fossee’s “Lenny” on the life of comedian Lenny Bruce.

In 1954, Buckminster Fuller shocked the world when he introduced a cardboard model of his revolutionary building technique that became known as the “Fuller Dome.” Durable and economical, there are several notable Fuller Domes in Mississippi, including one in Rankin County, which is sometimes called the best fried catfish restaurant in the world. Without question, the Fuller Dome is the most important architectural development of the entire post-modern era.

In Slaughterhouse-Five, the Tralfamadorians rescue Billy Pilgrim from his own troubled planet and build a home for him on theirs, in a luxuriously appointed Buckminster Fuller dome, where they bring pornographic actress Montanna Wildhack for him to mate with.

Using non-linear time in much the same way Faulkner did in “The Sound and the Fury,” Vonnegut spins a tale that questions American Exceptionalism, the American Dream, the condition and meaning of man, and the horrors of war.

Ray Bradbury used science fiction to expand and explore the limits of man’s imagination, and Kurt Vonnegut used science fiction to expand and explore the limits of man’s condition. I suppose there will always be those who hate Vonnegut for challenging the idea of American exceptionalism and the Vietnam War. I don’t think that would bother or surprise him.


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