Much of what is presently understood as the “American” identity can be traced back to a rather pivotal period of the immediate postwar and early Cold War. It is not surprising that many of these values which we deem to be utterly American (homeownership, white-collar work, “nuclear” families, the bootstraps myth of the American Dream, mass consumption) are also often values associated with the middle class. Eric Hobsbawm contends in “Mass Producing Traditions” that the status of the middle class often rose at the same time that the creation of States rose, that middleclassness contained values which often made loose connections of heterogeneous masses more likely to form into some sort of homogeneous conglomeration.[1] He argues that invented traditions are a response to novel situations which take the form of reference to old situations, or which establish their own past by quasi-obligatory repetition.

“The invented traditions of the U.S.A in this period were primarily designed to achieve this object. One the one hand the immigrants were encouraged to accept rituals commemorating the history of the nation- – the Revolution and its founding fathers (the 4th of July) and the Protestant Anglo-Saxon tradition (Thanksgiving Day) – as indeed they did, since these now became holidays and occasions for public and private festivity. (Conversely, the ‘nation’ absorbed the collective rituals of immigrants – St. Patrick’s Day, later Columbus Day – into the fabric of American life, mainly through the powerful assimilating mechanism of municipal and state politics.) On the other hand, the educational system was transformed into a machine for political socialization by such devices as the worship of the American flag, which, as a daily ritual in the country’s schools, spread from the 1880s onwards.”[2]

This led to the idea, in the early twentieth century, that the concept of Americanism was a choice, and with that choice came a specific set of beliefs and actions that implied that there was something which stood opposite to it, something un-American.

While Hobsbawm is discussing the situation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United States, the situation moving from the Second World War was not entirely different from the immigrant situation preceding the First World War. There were large populations in the United States which needed to actively assimilate back into a distinctly American society in a new way: soldiers returning from both fronts, people of color who had worked and fought for their country while remaining second class citizens, women who had worked outside of the home who were expected to return to solely domestic life, the working class who would soon have to come to terms to technology changed by the war. Furthermore, the United States had to new status in the world following the ending of the war in Europe, and the devastation it brought to former world powers, and the showcasing of nuclear weaponry in Japan in August of 1945. The United States’ relationship with Europe had changed following the war (the US was more powerful than war-torn Europe) but the US now also had to contend with the other emerging giant, the Soviet Union, and work to set up what it is to be American as being the antithesis of what it is to be Soviet.[3] This was a topic that was being debated by contemporaries to the period. Three issues of the Partisan Review from 1952 deal specifically with the precarious nature of what it is to be American as opposed to Russian (the democracy which exists in America has an intrinsic and positive value, not just some capitalist myth, but a reality which must be defended against Russian totalitarianism.)[4]

Our collective memory as a society seems to lend itself to the idea that the very nature of being an American emerged during the 1950s. In retrospect, the 1950s seem a time of innocence and consensus: Gang warfare among youths did not lead to drive-by shootings; the crack epidemic had not yet hit; discipline problems in schools were minor; no ‘secular humanist’ movement opposed the 1954 addition of the words under God to the Pledge of Allegiance; and 90 percent of all school levies were approved by voters.[5] For many Americans, the most salient symbol and immediate beneficiary of their newfound prosperity was the nuclear family. Not only was the 1950s family a new invention; it was also a historical fluke, based on a unique and temporary conjunction of economic, social, and political factors. During the war, Americans had saved at a rate more than three times higher than that in the decade before or since. Their buying power was further enhanced by America’s extraordinary competitive advantage at the end of the war, when every other industrial power was devastated by the experience. This privileged economic position sustained both a tremendous expansion of middle-class management occupations and a new honeymoon between management and organized labor: During the 1950s, real wages increased by more than they had in the entire previous half century.[6] However, the reality of the 1950s was much different than this façade: poverty, racial tensions, and social change made this reality difficult for most Americans. “The hybrid idea that a woman can be fully absorbed with her youngsters while simultaneously maintaining passionate sexual excitement with her husband was a 1950s invention that drove thousands of women to therapists, tranquilizers, or alcohol when they actually tried to live up to it.”[7]

While the lasting impression that many Americans have of the 1950s is one of traditional family dynamics, rampant consumerism, and the mythos of the American Dream/Pull-Yourself-Up-By-Your-Bootstraps, it is important to remember that collectively our most powerful images of the traditional middle-class family dynamic are constantly being redelivered to our homes in countless reruns of 1950s television sit-coms.[8] Moreover, the linking of the American Dream to a traditional family setting, as was depicted in many of these shows, was also directly linked to the dream of homeownership, something which was distinctly a part of 1950s American culture.[9] It was only after World War II that homeownership even became a possibility for many (white) Americans, and with a large population of men (and their budding families) in need of quality homes, improvements in mass production technologies, and legislation on the part of the US government, the suburban landscape of the United States was born.[10] This added to an already deeply ingrained aspect of the “American identity: manifest destiny.[11] However, in the 1950s, the face of manifest destiny changed from the conquering of the West and the “virgin” lands that it held, to ideas of “virgin” cities to be built and planned by white America, in order to capture the American ideal.[12]

This is not to say that there was not something uniquely “American” emerging during this period, something which stood as a counterpoint to the Soviet Union. While many still believe that the Cold War was an ideological struggle (communism versus capitalism, totalitarianism versus democracy) the truth of the matter is much blurrier than most Americans are comfortable with admitting, even twenty-nine years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. While there is some weight to the notion that ideology drove the cold war (some historians even go so far as to propose that there was a crisis of capitalism that emerged during the early twentieth century)[13] ideology often came second for the United States when it came to opposing the Soviets. There are numerous instances of the willingness of the United States sacrificing its ideology for the sake of defeating communism (the Hollywood blacklist, the trial of the Rosenburgs, the new place of religion in politics).[14] Moreover, values which were seen as distinctly “American” could often conflict with each other, such as the concepts of freedom and ownership.[15] Even the Partisan Review, which was working to define what was distinct about the United States and its culture during this period, openly defined it in opposition to the Soviet Union.

It should be noted here, that the culture of the Cold War and the American identity associated with such, is not necessarily synonymous with the culture of the 1950s in general, due mostly to the fact that much of the domestic interests and day to day lives of Americans were barely touched by the politics surrounding the conflict with the Soviet Union.[16] With this distinction we can distinguish between a relatively free society (depending on your race and gender) defined by relative prosperity and domesticity, and a political system within the United States with totalitarian tendencies. For the purposes of this paper, it is the former which is more important for placing Kurt Vonnegut within an early Cold War context. It may seem far-fetched that there was something distinctly “American developing during the twentieth century, but the truth of the matter is, the United States actively exported its values and ideas to other areas of the world during this period, lending itself to the idea of an “American” identity. Hollywood, Jazz, and heroes such as Charles Lindberg gave a face to a nation that parts of the rest of the world wished to emulate following World War I.[17] By the beginning of the 1940s, technologies such as radio and aviation suggested that the United States was in a place to be a global power in exporting its culture and values. This only increased moving forward. American heroes, such as Lindbergh and the Wright brothers were being admired the world over, American radio dominated the airwaves, and the idea of “American Internationalism” was beginning to dominate (the idea that the United States’ culture and technology had a world-wide appeal).

Having attempted to unwrap what was occurring culturally during the 1950s, it now falls to place Kurt Vonnegut in this period. Vonnegut was raised in a less than traditional household, where the wealth of his parents in his most formative years made it possible for the Vonneguts to hire a nanny, Ida Young, who raised the children.[18] It should also be noted that Kurt only got into the University of Chicago after the War because his wife, Jane, had been admitted for her own separate graduate program, and initially had no intention of not working outside of the home. However, the circumstances of Vonnegut getting the job at GE, and the subsequent birth of their first child, Mark, caused Jane to quit school and become a full-time caregiver.[19] The Vonneguts had three children of their own, and eventually adopted three of Alice’s four children after her and her husband’s death. They owned a home in Cape Cod, and Vonnegut maintained a fascination with cars, leading him to work to sell Fiats in order to maintain some semblance of a middleclass status.[20] On the surface, it would seem that the dream of domesisity was something which Kurt Vonnegut had achieved, but according to his son, Mark, in his autobiography and chronicling of his battle with schizophrenia, The Eden Express, the Vonnegut home was less than tranquil, with money being tight through much of the 1950s, and his parent’s marriage on the rocks. They would eventually divorce after the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five.

Vonnegut’s depiction of women, and domestic life, in his novels, seems to lend itself to the idea that Vonnegut very much wanted the steady reliability of a happy marriage and home life, even it did not work out that way for him (Paul’s dream of “The Farm” in Player Piano and the entire conception of the characters of Emily and Angela Hoenikker in Cat’s Cradle add weight to this assertion). Though, by Vonnegut’s own words, he does not spend much time thinking about women in his writing, claiming, “there aren’t any. No real women, no love.”[21] Beyond this, though, Vonnegut had a very clear idea of how he saw himself, wanting the world to view him as a sort of “everyman” rather than an intellectual.[22] The best example of this comes in the letter which Vonnegut wrote to Charles McCarthy, the head of the Drake Board of Education in Drake, North Dakota in 1973, in response to McCarthy burning Slaughterhouse-Five because he disagreed with the text. In the letter, while addressing what he thinks of people who censor what children read, Vonnegut also touts some facts about himself.

“I am, in fact, a large, strong person, fifty-one years old, who did a lot of farm work as a boy, who is good with tools. I have raised six children, three my own and three adopted. They have all turned out well. Two of them are farmers. I am a combat infantry veteran from World War Two, and hold a Purple Heart. I have earned whatever I own by hard work. I have never been arrest or sued for anything. I am so much trusted with young people and by young people that I have served on the faculties of the University of Iowa, Harvard, and the City College of New York. Every year I receive at least a dozen invitations to be commencement speaker at colleges and high schools. My books are probably more widely used in schools than those of any other living American fiction writer.”[23]

While this statement is not necessarily entirely factual (by all accounts of biographers and people who knew Vonnegut, he was terrible at working with his hands and using tools) and contradicts itself (he wants McCarthy to think he is both a laborer while touting the universities he has taught at) it does show that Vonnegut was very concerned with the image of his identity to the rest of the world, and that this was the particular identity that he wanted to present. He was a man who showed great concern for the welfare of his children, admired those who work with their hands, took pride in his military service (especially serving in the Second World War), and enjoyed teaching and writing and sharing his ideas with the people around him.

[1] Eric Hobsbawm. “Mass Producing Traditions: Europe, 1870-1914.” In The Invention of Tradition edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012): 280

[2] Ibid., 279

[3] Partisan Review Vol 19, No. 3 (May-June 1952): 284

[4] Partisan Review Vol 19, No. 3 (May-June 1952): 284

[5] Stephanie Coontz. The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (New York: Basic Books, 1992): 24

[6] Ibid., 29

[7] Ibid., 9

[8] Ibid., 23

[9] Kenneth Jackson. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985): 4

[10] Ibid., 7

[11] John Findlay. Magic Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture after 1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993): 2

[12] John Findlay. Magic Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture after 1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993): 11

[13] John Gaddis. The Cold War: A New History (New York: Penguin Books, 2005): 11

[14] Stephen Whitfield. The Culture of the Cold War. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996, Second Edition): 77

[15] Jenifer Van Vleck. Empire of Air. (Harvard University Press, 2013)

[16] Stephen Whitfield. The Culture of the Cold War. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996, Second Edition): 12

[17] Jenifer Van Vleck. Empire of Air. (Harvard University Press, 2013)

[18] Charles Shields. And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2011): 18

[19] Ginger Strand. The Brothers Vonnegut. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015)

[20] Jerome Klinkowitz. Kurt Vonnegut’s America (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2009): 45

[21] David Hayman, David Michaelis, George Plimpton, and Richard Rhodes. “Kurt Vonnegut, the Art of Fiction” in The Paris Review No. 69 (1977): 42

[22] This seems odd, since Vonnegut was greatly concerned with not being categorized as a genre writer of science fiction, since this would mean that his work would be taken less seriously by intellectuals. This is one of many contradictions to the way which Vonnegut presented himself.

[23] Kurt Vonnegut to Charles McCarthy. November 16, 1973