“You can’t teach people to write well. Writing well is something God lets you do or declines to let you do.”
When I read that Kurt Vonnegut had died, my first thought was of a different, but equally famous, Cornell writer, E.B. White. At the end of Charlotte’s Web, White wrote, “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” Like Charlotte, Vonnegut was a good writer, and even for those who knew him only through his work, he felt like a true friend.
As a writer, he distilled the human condition to its essence, exposing it in its irrationality and violence and its moments of love and selflessness. He somehow pinpointed our failings and frailties with loving precision. Some may have dismissed him as a cynic, and no one could have blamed him for being a bitter writer and man, yet his unflagging spirit and biting humor were all the more remarkable coming from a man who had seen and suffered more than anyone by all rights ought to have. His bitter edge did not come from anger but from the disappointment of someone who understood the tragic gap between the grand potential and grim reality of humanity.
A man with a sense of history, a knowledge of things and a unique understanding of life, he had a wit and sardonic flair that was without peer. A style indebted to many but unlike any other, Vonnegut was an estimable but sometimes underrated and overlooked writer. In 1966, he wrote a review of the current dictionaries for The New York Times. Considering the subject matter, the piece is not only eminently readable but, surprisingly, enjoyable. Leaving aside questions of literary merit, anyone who manages to write something even halfway interesting in an article weighing the merits of different dictionaries has to have something going for him. Whatever the quality that means the difference between humdrum or extraordinary prose is — and it will take someone more gifted then myself to do it justice — Vonnegut had it in spades.
What made Vonnegut’s books remarkable was that after reading one, things seemed to make a little bit more sense. Their particular brilliance spoke to the power not only of a few well chosen words, but the power of a new and interesting idea or observation. By way of endorsement, nowhere has this reader ever found a religion presented so compellingly as Bokonism in Cat’s Cradle, or delighted in sociological definition as dead-on as the novel’s creation of the granfaloon. The explanation of the granfaloon is typical Vonnegut in its revelatory clarity, concision and humor.
Vonnegut was a man who wrote without pretense or treacly sentiment yet managed to cross the border between the sublime and the ridiculous with nimble grace and remarkable facility. His great impact as a writer, thinker and a conveyor of new ideas will only really be appreciated in his absence. Considering his skill with the written word, I can only apologize for this poor and garbled attempt at expressing a feeling of loss that can not be done justice with the words I happen to have available. Undoubtedly, Vonnegut would have had some better ones at hand — and perhaps others more ably equipped than I will — as well as what I imagine would be a few particularly choice words concerning the overwrought emotions his death has brought on in his admirers.
While he left no room for undue sentimentality or religious ideology in either his life or work, Vonnegut was nonetheless a man of great conviction. His view of the world, with all its faults, still held hope. As he wrote at the close of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: “Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’ ”
This simple but remarkable sentiment was echoed at a convocation Mr. Vonnegut delivered in Southampton, Long Island in 1981. Despite the repetition, it is worth reading and absorbing:
“[Today’s leaders] aren’t really interested in saving lives. What matters to them is being listened to — as however ignorantly their guessing goes on and on and on. If there’s anything they hate, it’s a wise guy or a wise girl.
“Be one anyway. Save our lives and your lives too. Be honorable. I thank you for your attention.”