Kurt Vonnegut: Anarchist and Social Critic

Dandelion Salad

By Gaither Stewart
Southern Cross Review

(Note: After my early enthusiasm about the writer and man Kurt Vonnegut, I became skeptical of his skepticism. Was he a phony, I began to wonder? After I met him, his life style in his sumptuous Manhattan East Side town house bothered me and seemed to belie his satires of that same life. Even the adoration for him in Europe at the time sharpened my suspicions that he was perhaps not what he seemed to be. Despite my admiration for him the writer, the satirist, the anarchist, still for some time after our two meetings in the middle 1980s, I wondered if his claim that he belonged to the establishment because he was rich was not somewhat jaded. I wondered about his “positive nihilist” role. What did that mean? It took me time to make full circle and again see him for what he was. What in the end endeared me to Kurt Vonnegut was his unwavering attack on the “American way of life” and what it has engendered in the rest of the world.)

I somehow thought Vonnegut would last forever, charming as always, joking, teasing, mocking, prickling, criticizing so wittily that the target of his pungent irony thought he was kidding, praising so ambiguously that those he loved thought he was criticizing, throwing mud pies in the faces of the powerful and calling them names, and boasting to one and all that he made lots of money being impolite.

“I most certainly am a member of the establishment,” Vonnegut told me that day over twenty years ago, I think it was the fall of 1985, in his town house on the East Side in Manhattan. An Amsterdam magazine had sent me to New York to interview the light of a “certain” American literature who so titillated, amused and charmed Europeans by ridiculing the ridiculous sides of America, by his playful lack of reverence for institutions and authority and for all the things that too many people take too seriously.

“No one is more in its center than me but I don’t maintain contacts with the other members. Though I don’t feel solidarity with it, I admit membership and I don’t like establishment people who play at the false role of rebels. Then the establishment needs people like me— however I’m a member only because I have money, otherwise they wouldn’t even talk to me.”