Academic Minute Podcast
Susan Farrell, College of Charleston – Kurt Vonnegut’s Continuing Appeal to the Young
Kurt Vonnegut’s appeal to young people continues.
Susan Farrell is a professor of English at the College of Charleston and the 2009 Bill Moore Distinguished Teacher-Scholar Award Recipient. She specializes in contemporary American fiction and teaches a variety of courses on American literature, contemporary fiction, women’s studies, and academic writing. She has published numerous articles on contemporary American authors such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Alice McDermott, Louise Erdrich, Shirley Jackson, and others.
Her research in the last few years has focused largely on American war literature. Her most recent book is called Imagining Home: American War Fiction from Hemingway to 9/11. Farrell’s research and published work on American war fiction are closely intertwined with her teaching, which includes courses on 20th and 21st century war fiction as well as past courses on the Vietnam War and 9/11 war fiction. She finds that her students embrace the subject of war fiction and recognize that the world of literary fiction allows authors to tell war stories through an emotional perspective that facts cannot create.
Kurt Vonnegut’s Continuing Appeal to the Young
Over his life, Kurt Vonnegut gave dozens of quirky commencement addresses. In those speeches, he made some preposterous claims. He made people laugh and made them think. They were speeches the graduates remembered.
College students especially loved Vonnegut. But why was a writer born in 1922 adored by a counterculture told not to trust anyone over 30? Why did he continue to appeal to younger generations?
In many ways, Vonnegut had more in common with the parents of the students he addressed than with the students themselves. Father to six children, he had studied biochemistry at Cornell and had worked in corporate public relations.
He had the credibility of a World War II veteran, a member of the “Greatest Generation.” Captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge, he was sent to Dresden as a prisoner of war. He survived the Allied firebombing of the city and was forced to help excavate hundreds of human beings who had been burned alive, suffocated, and crushed to death.
If Vonnegut was, like the students’ fathers, a family man and veteran, he also embodied the dad that students in 1969 dreamed their own fathers could be: funny, artistic, anti-establishment, and anti-war.
As the U.S. was fighting what many believed was an unjust war in Vietnam, he used his own experience in World War II to destroy any notion of a good war. Americans should spend money on hospitals and housing and schools and Ferris wheels rather than on war machinery, he told students.
Vonnegut playfully urged young people to defy their professors and fancy educations by clinging to superstition and untruth, especially what he called the most ridiculous lie of all – “that humanity is at the center of the universe,” playing out the “dreams of God Almighty.” Creating art, he argued, was the best way to reclaim human divinity.
[Amazon] – Imagining Home: American War Fiction from Hemingway to 9/11 (Studies in American Literature and Culture)
[Google Books] – Critical Companion to Kurt Vonnegut
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