A Series of Accidents #13: Palm Sunday

A Series of Accidents is a chronological read-through of the books of Kurt Vonnegut. You can check out earlier articles in the series here.

Palm Sunday (book) - Wikipedia

Palm Sunday is the closest thing to an autobiography Kurt Vonnegut ever wrote. He describes it as an “autobiographical collage”, a sort of hybrid form between a conventional memoir and a nonfiction collection like Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons. He also has a less flattering, more Vonnegutian term – a “blivit”, meaning “two pounds of shit in a one-pound bag.” The book follows the trajectory of Vonnegut’s life, but takes plenty of time to digress and include published nonfiction work such as essays and speeches.

At the same time, all of Vonnegut’s work was a kind of autobiography. This is most obvious in works like Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions, but even the most far-out works contain some kind of autobiographical forward or digression. Part of the reason Vonnegut developed such a devout audience was the way readers felt as though they were having a conversation with him, and in some way knew him as a person. So, reading Palm Sunday after all the previous Vonnegut books, and a fair amount of secondary research, one encounters a lot of pretty familiar stories, from his time in World War II to quitting General Electric to the rise and fall of his literary reputation. But this isn’t such a hindrance. Vonnegut is like an old friend, where you don’t mind hearing a story for the millionth time, because he tells it so well.

The autobiographical bent of the book begins before Vonnegut is even born, in a chapter called “Roots”, a kind of implicit parody of Alex Haley’s bestseller that traces not the centuries of African-American suffering and struggle but a tragicomic narrative of German-Americans in the Midwest trying to create something meaningful, with varying success. Vonnegut draws heavily on a family history written by his “Uncle John”, and goes back to his great-grandparents, identifying most with Clemens Vonnegut, a “cultivated eccentric” who attempted to write in the tradition of Voltaire, and his unhappy grandfather Bernard, who founded the architectural firm that Kurt was once supposed to inherit.

This material goes on for quite a while, but is generally fairly interesting, if for nothing else as brief portraits of nineteenth-century American lives that were often left out of the era’s buttoned-down literature. Still, one is always aware that there is probably a lot missing from even a fairly honest family history. In Uncle John’s account, Kurt was a studious boy, and his mother’s death was an accident and not a suicide – both things the more famous author disputes. It’s also a distinctly patriarchal history, with the female members of the family getting scant attention. More than anything, one comes away from this chapter aware of the unbridgeable gap between our own experiences and those of our ancestors.

This leads into more familiar Vonnegut material: Cornell, the war, and his second stint at university as a failed anthropology PhD. Most interesting is his reflections on his tenure as a writing professor, including some direct writing advice published in an essay for the International Paper Company. Vonnegut bluntly groups his students into thirds: the geniuses that will make it no matter what, the hopeless cases, and the “middle third” who can genuinely be helped. (I like to think of myself as being in that middle third, although I fear I’m in the bottom.)

For those who are mediocre but improvable, Vonnegut has a few words of writing advice. As one might expect from his style, Vonnegut stresses simple language and cutting back on excessive wordiness, giving the dictate “Never include a sentence which does not either remark on character or advance the action.” There’s an almost obligatory recommendation of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.At the same time, he doesn’t go quite as far as some minimalist writing advice, noting that it is important to retain one’s own literary “accent.” None of this is all that different from the advice one would get in an average creative writing classroom. But Vonnegut’s charm, and his candour about the writing industry and the limits of writing instruction, make me wish I could have taken his class anyway.

The rest of the biographical information is largely in a “self-interview” published in the Paris Review. (This is the type of thing you can do when you’re a famous writer.) Vonnegut goes so far as to start the interview as if we are coming in at the middle of a long conversation, but it’s all pre-written. He notes that “Sentences spoken by writers, unless they have been written out first, rarely say what writers wish to say.” This is quite a claim for such a prolific public speaker. Vonnegut is also candid about his limitations as a writer, admitting that his books have “No real women, no love” out of a fear that any kind of romantic plotline would dominate his stories.

Vonngeut’s experiences in World War II are a defining part of his almost mythic origin story as an author, but he doesn’t deal with the war that much in this collection. He says repeatedly that he wrote his war story with Slaughterhouse-Five, and now feels that he has nothing more to say. The “Self-Interview” section does contain some stray musings on the experience of the war, and the strange twists of fate that lead him first to Dresden and then to literary fame — in his typically fatalist mode, Vonnegut notes that he would have been lauded as a hero if he had died. In the end, as he notes, the war ended up being very profitable for him, making him a best-selling author. Vonnegut bitterly estimates that “I got three dollars for each person killed” in the Dresden firebombing.

He is willing to further stray into politically uncomfortable territory with two chapters about sympathy for fascists (although not fascist sympathy, as it is historically defined.) One, “A Nazi Sympathizer Defended at Some Costs”, is an evaluation of French author Louis-Ferdinand Celine, an author (and admitted influence on Vonnegut) whose bleak vision of humanity dovetailed into anti-Semitism and eventually full-on fascism. The other, “A Nazi City Mourned at Some Profit”, reflects extensively on Vonnegut’s association with the bombing of Dresden, and the idea of mourning German citizens killed during World War II, most of whom enabled the Nazis to one degree or another.

Vonnegut is clear and forthright about the repugnance of Celine’s ideals, and makes no argument that Dresden shouldn’t have been bombed. Rather, he asks that we retain enough of our humanity to cherish the elements of genius in Celine, and mourn for the losses of Dresden. Such sentiments are uncomfortable today, and were perhaps always uncomfortable, given how many unsavoury people make the same arguments. This kind of appeal to a universal humanism, like the appeal to free speech that I’ll discuss in a moment, can easily be exploited. The bombing of Dresden has been used by some writers as a gateway to the far right, and I have seen ironic internet leftists start out appreciating Celine’s aesthetics and ended up as effective reactionaries. Still, I think these sections are valuable because of how they challenge us to maintain a consistent progressive morality, one that denies no one sympathy or fairness.

The narrative after this section is somewhat jumbled (or, one could say, unstuck in time), skipping from the end of the war to Vonnegut’s current life as a literary celebrity in New York. One chapter, “The People One Knows”, goes into detail on Vonnegut’s struggles with making small talk at fancy parties, and includes a multiple-page list of all of the names in his rolodex (which he admits only represents vague acquaintance), including several prominent postmodernists and Nora Ephron. There’s even room for a snide joke about Gore Vidal.

This era of boozy, cliquey literary celebrity is long gone now, and even in the moment Vonnegut seemed aware that it was declining. He predicts that his will be the last generation where one can make a living as a full-time writer. While this prediction may not have been literally correct, things certainly seem to be trending in that direction, with book advances and article pay rates shrinking and even well-established writers having to teach for the main source of their income. Today, there is still something of literary celebrity, but it’s very different, and largely about cultivating a social media presence that is both virtuous and entertaining. As Vonnegut was prescient in noting, “the most striking thing about members of my literary generation in retrospect will be that we were allowed to say absolutely anything without fear of punishment.”

That quote also suggests the importance Vonnegut places on freedom of speech. The book as a whole begins with a celebration of the First Amendment and the broader idea of free speech and debate. This is a topic that has a much different political valence now, where the right uses cynical invocations of the First Amendment in response to criticism, and the left clings to a narrow definition of censorship to defend its campaigns to remove (usually hateful and false) speech from platforms. In the 1980s, when Vonnegut was writing, these positions were reversed, largely because it was the left that had little access to establishment channels. So it goes.

One of the events that Vonnegut describes involves the banning of his books from a school library for their profanity, with the principal going so far as to burn them in the furnace. This, as Vonnegut acknowledged, could be defended using the minimalist definition of free speech the left has become fond of: that the library is under no obligation to carry every book, and has the freedom to make judgments about what it wants its students to be exposed to. But, as Vonnegut notes, “if you exercise that right and fulfill that responsibility in an ignorant, harsh, un-American manner, then people are entitled to call you bad citizens and fools.” Legalism doesn’t give us a good framework to distinguish between phony controversies about being “silenced” and hamhanded attempts to limit debate and the range of thought, both of which we’ve seen plenty of in recent years. I have no idea how Vonnegut would respond to today’s culture war (he would probably say something funny), but this section is a reminder that free speech once had a very different cultural valence.

Similarly, Vonnegut defends the concept of obscenity, which loomed large in Reagan’s America. He frequently was criticized for the use of profanity and sex in his novels, including from his hometown Indianapolis paper, which dismissed Breakfast of Champions as a puerile attempt to shock. Vonnegut denies this, then includes another drawing of his asshole. As he presents it, the crusade against obscenity and “bad manners” is just a way to avoid talking about the human body and all the weaknesses that comes with it.

Embracing the role of provocateur to its maximum, Vonnegut includes his “most obscene” short story, a jokey piece called “The Great Space Fuck” which was published in Harlan Ellison’s Again, Dangerous Visions collection. (Harlan Ellison is a whole other can of worms which I don’t want to uncork here.) He notes that it may be the last short story he ever published, which was essentially true – other than a number of posthumous publications, the only story he wrote later was something called “Merlin”, which was serialized on beer cans. “The Big Space Fuck” is predictably silly, involving a doomed Earth shooting a rocket full of important people’s semen into space in the hopes of keeping the human race alive. There are a number of names re-used from past Vonnegut works, with Wanda June re-appearing as the daughter of Dwayne and Grace Hoobler, and suing them for bringing her into this world. The story ends with everyone being eaten by giant lampreys. For all the profanity, the story is still basically light-hearted, and not pornographic in the least. I don’t think Vonnegut had it in him to be truly obscene.

Vonnegut places himself in a long tradition of comedic literary writers tweaking the nose of a censorious establishment. Also included in Palm Sunday is a forward to a volume of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, where he cheekily admits that this may not be the best edition on the market. Another chapter deals with Mark Twain, who Vonnegut claims he modeled himself after as a way to be “purely American.” This section quotes extensively from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which could be said to be Twain’s closest equivalent to a Vonnegut novel, using a fantastical premise to create social commentary. There are also references to Samuel Johnston, Booth Tarkington, and Stephen Crane, alongside more eclectic choices like Indianapolis humourist Kim Hubbard and country group the Statler Brothers. It’s a sort of eccentric canon, but one in which Vonnegut thoroughly belongs.

Vonnegut eventually circles back to his family and children, after a guilty series of digressions. He is somewhat cagey about the subject of his recent divorce, attributing it to primarily religious differences. Jane became increasingly interested in Christianity, eventually becoming born-again along with the couple’s daughters, while Kurt remained an avowed atheist. Jane reportedly objected to this depiction, saying it was not untrue but left out a lot. For instance, one imagines that Vonnegut’s various affairs had something to do with the divorce. So it goes.

The section on Vonnegut’s children is more affectionate. Of particular note is a speech given to the Mental Health Association about his son’s Mark struggles. In the speech, Vonnegut walks a narrow line, stressing that he doesn’t want to romanticize mental illness but also arguing that it can be a natural, even useful, response an insane society. There’s also a story about Mark almost getting into a fight with a middle-aged and deeply deranged Jack Kerouac. Vonnegut mostly avoids discussing his daughters, saying that he wants to protect their privacy, but does include a letter by his daughter Nanette responding to a customer complaint at a cafe she works at. Today, it would probably be a post on r/antiwork. In the end, Vonnegut concludes that his children have surpassed him in everything he tried to teach them – painting, chess, carpentry, music, and even writing. It’s a sweet message, even if one that suggests that Vonnegut could never fully abandon the role of author for that of parent.

If my somewhat tortured write-up makes it sound like Palm Sunday is a jumbled mess, that’s because it sort of is. Vonnegut seems to have thrown into the book everything that he had laying around and couldn’t find a home for elsewhere. There’s a script for a play that was never performed, and probably never should be performed, an adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that casts it as a show-within-a-show put on by Archie-innocent college students. There’s a well-circulated passage where Vonnegut grades each of the books he’s written. (I think it’s fairly accurate, although I think he’s harsh on Slapstick and too easy on Sirens of Titan.) Palm Sunday, the one you’re currently reading, gets a C. There’s a brief summary of Vonnegut’s rejected PhD thesis, complete with graphs. It’s sort of the literary equivalent of a junk drawer.

And yet, there’s few authors whose minor works I’d rather read than Vonnegut’s. Even the most mundane, unnecessary piece has sterling lines that could be re-purposed elsewhere. Here are just a few that caught my attention:

“All the great story lines are great practical jokes that people fall for over and over again.”

“We have discovered that writing allows even a stupid person to seem halfway intelligent, if only that person will write the same thought over and over again, improving it just a little bit each time. It is a lot like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump. Anybody can do it. All it takes is time.”

“Several ordinary life stories, if told in rapid succession, tend to make life look far more pointless than it really is, probably.”

“If you want to feel ten feet tall, as though you could run a hundred miles without stopping, hate beats pure cocaine any day.”

“The perfect gift for somebody who has everything, of course, is nothing.”

“A chicken, no matter how big, has no rights in the state of Pennsylvania.”

I was originally only going to list five quotes here, but this is the spirit that Vonnegut inspires: you just want to stay a little longer to keep listening.

In the end, Vonnegut returns to the theme of religion, which gives the book its title. In spite of his professed irreligiousness, Vonnegut was invited to give a speech on Palm Sunday at an Episcopalian church. He gives an exegesis of a Biblical scene where Jesus, as serious and self-pitying as he is, tells a joke. Vonnegut’s novels are full of people with strange beliefs who are nurtured and kept alive by their beliefs, no matter how inaccurate they may be. Maybe he was a kind of religious writer after all. Certainly, Palm Sunday is a book it would be hard to publish without a cult-like following, but for the faithful it is full of sacred proverbs.

Next time out, we’ll get back to Vonnegut’s novels with Deadeye Dick.