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Mark Vonnegut talks about his dad's writing, artwork and political views

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 28, 2008 - I discovered Kurt Vonnegut when I was 12 years old. My older brother had come home from the Army, and as I snooped through his things one summer afternoon, I found a worn copy of “Slaughterhouse Five,” Vonnegut’s classic science fiction anti-war novel. I had been reading mostly Hardy Boys mysteries and comic books, so reading Vonnegut was a shock that showed me new vistas of what reading could be.

Mark Vonnegut, Kurt's son, read “Slaughterhouse Five” as he was about to graduate from college and realized, after years of watching his father struggle as a writer, having to take many supplemental jobs, that his dad was going to be successful.

In a recent phone conversation, Mark Vonnegut explained that while he knew his father was a writer, he didn’t really understand how gifted Kurt Vonnegut was until his dad gave him a copy of “The Sirens of Titan” to read when he was 14 years old. “I realized, after reading it, that my dad was a very unusual writer. He was an underdog, and I liked that.”

“As a child, you assume your family is normal, but looking back…”

His father, he explains, was as anti-authoritarian at home as he was in his books. “This is why we have two parents,” he laughed. “He absolutely hated being an authoritarian figure.”

On Friday, Dec. 5, Mark Vonnegut, son of the late Kurt Vonnegut Jr., will be in St. Louis to present "Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: His Life, Art & Politics." He will read from his father's work, display some of Kurt Vonnegut’s artwork and discuss his dad's political views, which, he says, are rooted in the Midwest. Kurt Vonnegut was born in Indiana.

“Kurt spent most of his adult life in the East,” Vonnegut said, “but he was always a Midwesterner.” When Kurt Vonnegut’s ancestors came to the United States from Germany, they were freethinkers, predecessors of humanism.

“The people of the Midwest had a strong influence on Kurt, with people helping people,” Vonnegut says. “Belief in a particular deity doesn’t seem to come along with good behavior, and he just felt that people should be nice,” regardless of whether there was a reward in the afterlife.

It was this belief in helping others that led Mark Vonnegut to his own career as a pediatrician. “Kurt hated reading his own work, but he used to say that he would gladly read “The Sirens of Titans” to sick children, if it would make them better.”

His second book, “The Sirens of Titans” is a comic science fiction novel that addresses the meaning — or meaninglessness — of life, and a key passage in the book references an article in a children’s encyclopedia that baffles layman adults. This book, like his others, showed the playfulness and wonder that Kurt Vonnegut returned to again and again.

Which is why, Dr. Vonnegut thinks, “he would have loved this election. He would have been crying. He always believed that blacks had held up under unbelievable circumstances placed on them by white people.”

Mark Vonnegut has been very careful not to exploit his father’s memory, and this is the first invitation he’s accepted to discuss his work. He’s looking forward to the opportunity to discuss his father as he was, not as the myth he’s sometimes become.

Kurt Vonnegut, who once wrote about the wonder and opportunity for interaction that a trip to the post office offered, would likely tell you to grab a friend and go listen to his son talk for a while.

“Why the hell not?”

Christopher Broussard is a freelance writer. 

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