Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: Part I

June 2, 2012

Kurt Vonnegut

In 1998, Mr. Vonnegut returned to Dresden, Germany; he revisited the slaughterhouse that served as an air-raid shelter during World War II where he and his fellow prisoners of war survived the fire bombing of Dresden. (Source: New York Times; Photo credit: Matthias Rietschel/Associated Press)

As the students settled in for our next session, Ragip accepted my invitation to read aloud the first two pages of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. When he finished, we talked about the autobiographical nature of this preface to fiction, Vonnegut’s insistence that “all this happened, more or less,” that shortly after Dresden had been fire-bombed to ashes, a soldier much like the character Edgar Derby really did get shot by a firing squad “for taking a teapot” from among the ruins, that a soldier much like Paul Lazzaro really did pledge to murder one day those who slighted him or his friends during the war, that Vonnegut “really did go back” to Dresden in 1967 with his “old war buddy” Bernard V. O’Hare to visit the Dresden slaughterhouse where they had spent their nights as prisoners of war (p. 1). After I asked why Vonnegut would want to stress this factual basis for his fiction, our conversation, much to my delight, turned back to Ernest Gaines, whose fiction about injustice and transformation also rooted in Gaines’s experience growing up in Louisiana in the 1930s and ‘40s, and to William Faulkner, who challenged all fiction writers to tell the truth about human brutality and the conflicts of the human heart, but also to uplift readers with evidence of “compassion” and “sacrifice.” Having congratulated the students on their insights to the great paradox of literature, the fictions that reveal truths, I asked them to keep Faulkner’s speech in mind as we discussed Vonnegut’s novel. “Has Vonnegut written one of those visions of despair that Faulkner condemned, or does he manage to tell these terrifying truths and, at the same time, to inspire hope that we—as individuals and as a culture—might not only endure but ‘prevail.’”

First edition cover of Slaughterhouse-Five: Or the Children’s Crusade (Source: Wikipedia)

Leaving this question hanging in the air, I noted Vonnegut’s admission of the futility of writing an “anti-war book” (p. 4), which he follows immediately with a description of himself in the late-1960s, materially comfortable but given to drinking too much and making late-night phone calls to old veterans of World War II (p. 5). “Does this description clarify why he would write this book, if he considers its anti-war position pointless?” I asked. Albana said that he seems haunted by the past, which leads to self-destructive behaviors but also to the need to talk to those who remember. “Maybe the writing comes from this same need to talk about it,” she offered. “Yes,” I responded, “and notice that he feels compelled to tell us again, the second time in six pages, that the story will end with ‘the execution of Edgar Derby’ (p. 6). Can you name another work we have read where we find out about the ending, an execution, on the first page?” Many voices responded with Gaines’s Lesson and the promised execution of another good man, Jefferson. “How might this up-front emphasis on the brutal, senseless death of a good man relate to the Faulknerian challenge for uplifting fiction?” I asked. Besa responded, suggesting the symbolic power of both executions, images simultaneously revealing our capacities for mindless cruelty and for goodness.

Applauding Besa’s interpretation, I asked the class to consider another image that Vonnegut juxtaposes to the execution of Derby, that of the “rabid little American” Lazzaro heading home from the war with “emeralds and rubies” he snatched from dead people “in the cellars of Dresden” (pp. 7-8). “Did you notice that after both images, Derby’s death and Lazzaro’s violation of the dead, the narrator says, ‘So it goes’? What do you make of this refrain, which you’ll hear throughout the novel?” Fidan suggested that line acknowledges not just the inevitability of death but also our inability to explain the injustice of men like Derby dying and men like Lazzaro thriving. “It just happens,” he said.

Naturally, I commended this intelligent remark but also stressed Vonnegut’s postmodern need to tell the story, to help us see what happened, however futile his protest against war and against “plain old death” might seem (p. 4). Vonnegut admits, I continued, that his story has generated a “short and jumbled and jangled” book because “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre” (p. 24); still, he must write to set the record straight, to discredit versions of reality that ignore or hide that record. “Can you recall examples from chapter one of Vonnegut exposing others’ invitations to close our eyes to the truth?” I asked. Blerta mentioned Vonnegut’s anthropology professor, who teaches that “nobody was ridiculous or bad or disgusting,” a theory that would make no distinction between Derby and Lazzaro (p. 10). Her example sparked Gezim’s comments on Vonnegut’s boss, a man whose military service took him no further than Baltimore, who sneers at Vonnegut as an enlisted man and approves of war as a way for officers to advance. Gezim then quoted Vonnegut’s reflection on this smug non-combatant: “the ones who hated war the most were the ones who’d really fought” (p. 13).

“What about the episode at the O’Hare house? What terrible truth about war does Vonnegut insist that we see here?” I prodded. Hearing no answer, I asked, “Why do you think that Vonnegut mentions taking his daughter and her friend with him when he visits O’Hare to talk about the war?” Dafina said they he took the girls along just to see Cape Cod (p. 15). “Yes, I agreed, “but he has Dresden on his mind, and he knows that among the masses who died in the firestorm were thousands of little girls. How does one explain fire-bombing to children? Do you recall why Mary O’Hare, to whom Vonnegut dedicates his novel, initially resents Vonnegut’s visit? What does she assume his book will declare about war?” Albana promptly cited Mary’s anger, believing that Vonnegut would write a novel celebrating war, hiding the fact that “babies,” not men, do most of the dying (p. 18). “Yes,” I said, “and do you remember Jarrell’s “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” the ‘baby’ who dies in the belly of the bomber? How does Vonnegut respond to Mary?” Albana answered again, quoting Vonnegut’s promise to tell the truth about the “Children’s Crusade” in World War II, much like the Children’s Crusade that Vonnegut and O’Hare read about from the thirteenth century, when thousands of children were forced to fight in Palestine and then sold into sexual slavery (p. 20). Thanking Albana, I asked the class if they could explain why Vonnegut ends this chapter with an allusion to the Biblical story about Lot’s wife. Finding the reference, we all quickly agreed that Vonnegut the writer, like Lot’s wife, must “look back,” and he insists that we look, too.

Teaching A Lesson Before Dying: Part 1

March 31, 2012

Ernest Gaines

This posting introduces Ernest Gaines’s 1993 novel A Lesson Before Dying, which I have been reading with my students.  The two postings that follow highlight their responses to the novel.

Set in the share-cropping world of rural Louisiana in the late 1940s, this novel features the teacher-student relationship between Grant Wiggins, a thirty-five year old African American teacher, and Jefferson, a twenty-one year old, semi-literate African American on death row for a murder he did not commit.

Jefferson has, in fact, committed theft, as his attorney acknowledges at the murder trial, explaining to the all-white jury that his impoverished client panicked at the scene of the murder, looting the liquor store cash register as the murderers and their victim, the owner, lay dead at his feet.  But surely, he reasoned, this black “boy” could not be smart enough to plan a robbery and murder: “Why, I would as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this” (8).

Initially, Grant resents and resists his new charge, thrust upon him by his Tante Lou, to go into the local jail and, over the few months before Jefferson’s execution, to persuade him to go to his death feeling like a man, not like a “hog.” How, Grant wonders, can anyone expect him to reverse the legacy of slavery, the three-hundred-year-old cultural conviction that black ‘boys’ need not expect education or justice, need not aspire to the American Dream.

A Lesson Before Dying

In addition to tracing these interconnected themes of racism and justice, of literacy and liberty, this masterful novel also explores the relationship between Grant and Reverend Ambrose, the parish preacher, and between Grant and Vivian, a strong woman and committed teacher stuck in a bad marriage she seeks to end.  Naturally, the old black preacher and the young black agnostic come into constant conflict, for Ambrose wants Grant to teach Jefferson to “kneel” before he dies; instead, once committed to the process, Grant insists that he will teach Jefferson to “stand.”  Grant and Vivian also experience tension but of a much different sort, for their truly tender love story gets entangled with her Catholic faith and with a passionate cane-field conception that precedes her divorce.  Yet the conflict with Ambrose and the tensions with Vivian open Grant’s eyes to the futility of his own anger, a transformation that softens his heart and strengthens his resolve to coax Jefferson to his feet.  By the end, Jefferson walks to his death, having learned from Grant how to write his way to manhood; in turn, the student has taught his teacher the value of compassion, courage, and community.

Trip to Shkodra, Albania

February 8-10, 2012

On Wednesday, February 8, I boarded a minibus headed from Pristina to Tirana, Albania, where I met my dear friend Agim K., who accompanied me in another minibus to Shkodra, Albania, the site of my first Fulbright in 2003.   During the first six months of that year, I taught American lit and research strategies to sophomores at the University of Shkodra; while doing so, I lived in an upstairs apartment of Agim’s house.  He shared the lower floor with his wife Zushi and his then-18-year-old daughter Afrora.

Cover of Teaching American Literature at an East European University

Cover of Teaching American Literature at an East European University

I wrote a book about this experience in Shkodra.  Titled Teaching American Literature at an East European University: Explicating the Rhetoric of Liberty (Edwin Mellen Press, 2006), the book focuses primarily on the academic adventure of teaching American literature—its powerful narratives of liberty and slavery, of justice and oppression—to twenty-year olds who aspired to those liberties because they knew from their own and their families’ experiences what it meant to grow up under communist oppression and an educational system that privileged lecturing and scorned writing-to-learn.

But, as the preface explains, the real inspiration for the book came from my Albanian family.  Though relatively well-off now, the Ks endured tremendous hardships, as did most Albanians, during the communist years, 1944-1989, and during the hard economic times that followed.  In narrating his family’s struggles, Agim always asked, in tearful, despairing tones, “What is possible?” after describing the horrors of labor camps and suppressed faith.  In far more hearty tones, he asked the same question after outlining his hopes for the future, always keeping despair at bay with his mantra, “step-by-step,” his courageous Faulknerian conviction that he and his family will ‘not only endure but prevail.’

Naturally, thoughts of the Agim, Zushi, and Afrora filled my head and my heart as I rode with five other passengers for six hours through Kosova’s deep snow and then through Albania’s stunning northeastern mountains pictured, however inadequately, here.  After this (roughly) 250 mile trek, we found sun and no snow in Tirana, Albania’s capital (see photo).  After Agim and I met up, we took another van to Shkodra, about 70 miles to the north, almost to Montegro.

**Click on the first picture to scroll through the gallery in a larger format.

Though I had only two days to spend with them, we used the time well to reminisce about 2003 and to brag shamelessly about our families. They couldn’t hear enough about my wife Judy; our ‘kids,’ Heather, Anna, and Matt, our son-in-law Roy, our daughter-in-law Kristen; and our grandkids, Josh, Nate, Roy, and brand-new Ellie.  Returning the favor, Agim and Zushi told me at length about Afrora’s plans to marry Erjon, a young man in Vienna; they also described their up-coming trip to the United States to work and live near their son Andi, who will soon marry Ilma, the beautiful, dark-haired young woman pictured here, next to her lovely soon-to-be sister-in-law Afrora.  The other photo features Agim and Zushi, the smug parents.  Life is good.

**Click on the first picture to scroll through the gallery in a larger format.