Much like many of the other opinions and views which Vonnegut held, his understanding of an American identity was complicated. It is important to unravel parts of this because it will help us understand some of his conflicting views on the place of science and technology within the United States, as well as where he fit as a critic of both. While there are many aspects of the idea that Vonnegut has of the United States that he admires (such as the concept of freedom of ideas and expression of those ideas) he often holds conflicting views of the country during this period, as is apparent in both novels. These conflicting thoughts about ideology and identity seep into Vonnegut’s own understanding of self, presenting conflicting pictures of himself. I am not the first to note that Vonnegut presents a conflicting picture of himself. Robert Tally and Jerome Klinkowitz both spend significant portions of their published work on Vonnegut, delving into the conflicting identity he presents. Klinkowitz, in particular, is interested in Vonnegut’s conflicting views of himself within his conception of the United States. However, both men also come to their scholarship on Vonnegut from personal relationships which they held with him during their lifetimes, as they both admit in the introductions of their respective works. Not only am I offering an outsider perspective on Vonnegut’s view of the United States during this period, I am working to highlight an important gap in scholarship on Vonnegut, his perspective on himself. A man who wrote extensively about himself and his thoughts during this period, has not been studied in this manner, and his conflicting views on freedom and democracy in the United States help us to understand the conflicting views which he holds about science and technology. The main point to take away, though, is that dissent is thoroughly American, in Vonnegut’s view, and that the ability to criticize is fundamentally American.

Kurt Vonnegut was born and raised in the Heartland of the United States, he served in the United States military and took pride in that service, he was an American. However, the extent to which that identity was important to Vonnegut is less striking than his understanding of what the American ideology and identity was. The beginning lines of his first autobiography, Palm Sunday (1981) read, “this is a very great book by an American genius.”[1] While that line is filled with all the irony which Vonnegut inserts into his fictional musings, there is something to be said of the bravado which Vonnegut attributes to “American.” It is not enough to simply be a genius, he takes on the status of an “American genius.” This is probably due, in part, to his bombastic view of the United States, but also probably due to how he views the American literary tradition, one which he reveres and yearns to be a part of. He spends the first chapter of Palm Sunday making arguments not only for a great American literary tradition (which he firmly believes is coming to an end) but also for his place within the last generation of “full-time, life-time American novelists.”[2]

Vonnegut’s appreciation for the productions of American art and literary culture speaks to what Vonnegut values the most about his conception of American ideology: the freedom to voice and produce ideas. “Whatever ideas are squashed in this country, literate lovers of the American experience write careful and intricate explanations of why all ideas must be allowed to live. It is time for them to realize that they are attempting to explain America at its bravest and most optimistic to orangutans.”[3] This statement is not as negative is it would seem on its surface, because it realizes that the ability to make those intricate explanations in defense of an American ideal are thoroughly American, in the eyes of Vonnegut. Within a letter criticizing a school board member who had burned his books in a school furnace, Vonnegut writes, “well you have discovered that Drake is a part of American civilization, and your fellow Americans can’t stand it that you have behaved in such an uncivilized way…if you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.”[4]

Within the two novels which I am focusing on, Vonnegut also seems to be playing with ideas about the United States and what it means to be an American. Both novels take place in the United States. In Player Piano, the Third World War that precedes the events in the book was only ended because “it was recognized that American know-how was the only answer to the prospective enemy’s vast numbers.”[5] The technological determination of the United States, and the country’s tenacity in war strongly sit in Vonnegut throughout the rest of the novel, though not necessarily in a good way. Technological prowess in war, and boasting of great military might, are negative attributes to American ideology in the eyes of Vonnegut, and thus his critical stance towards both military technologies, and the military hierarchy in Player Piano. In Cat’s Cradle, Papa Monzano indicates an obsession with the United States, so much so that he tries to model the island of San Lorenzo after his conception of the US. United States military might and a conception of the United States as a Christian nation are the two attributes which Monzano chooses to highlight the most, but both are facades on San Lorenzo. The military is nearly non-existent, and the only true Christians on the island are the Hoosiers and an ex-SS officer turned doctor to Monzano. While Vonnegut is not claiming that the US military is a façade, or that people who claim to be Christians are not, he is commentating out the outward facing appearance of the United States during this period. It is a society that appears both devoutly religious and fiercely militaristic on its surface. Of this, Vonnegut would be of the mind that the labels, and even the outward facing persona of the nation, were less important than the actual deeds of the United States. He would go on to say, “‘socialism’ is no more an evil word than ‘Christianity.’ Socialism no more prescribed Joseph Stalin and his secret police and shuttered churches than Christianity prescribed the Spanish Inquisition. Christianity and socialism alike, in fact, prescribe a society dedicated to the proposition that all men, women, and children are created equal and shall not starve.”[6]

Vonnegut’s own domestic life was also something of a façade. He 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 until the Great Depression, around Vonnegut’s tenth birthday.[7] 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. Kurt did not even have an undergraduate degree, and Jane was a highly sought-after English graduate student, so there was a slight role reversal from the “traditional” expectations in the early years of their marriage. 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.[8] 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 to maintain some semblance of a middleclass status.[9]

On the surface, it would seem that the dream of domesticity 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. Moving into the 1960s, Kurt would be offered a job at the University of Iowa, and would leave his family behind for nearly half a decade, living on his own and forcing Jane and their six children to practically fend for themselves.[10] 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.”[11] However, he sells himself short, because there is something very important to Vonnegut about stability at home in his narratives. His entire early critique of Anita in Player Piano rides on her mechanical approach to marriage, and her counterfeiting warmth with Paul.[12] In Cat’s Cradle, the death of Emily Hoenikker begins the subsequent moral decay of the entire family. Some scholars, such as Daniels and Bowen, have pointed out that Vonnegut’s use of women, while acting as mere decorations to the plot, point to larger feelings he may hold about the state of domesticity in 1950s America. While they are always secondary characters, in some ways, they inadvertently drive the plot of the text, though some feminine trait which Vonnegut deems them to be lacking. In Player Piano, it is modesty and a masculine assertiveness that drives Paul from Anita into the arms of the revolution. In Cat’s Cradle it is the lack of Emily’s presence as the moral center of the home that leads her children astray.

Beyond the American identity, and American cultural values, 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.[13] 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 arrested 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.[14]


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)[15] 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. This goes beyond just the contents of this letter. Nearly every interview which he gave after the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five is a discussion of how much being a veteran means to Vonnegut, because he feels like he can relate to the rest of the country better.[16] This relates back to his touting his public education growing up, making him different from his siblings, somehow more civic minded, more American. Vonnegut is incredibly concerned about how he appears to the rest of the country, that even though he is criticizing many aspects of the United States, he wants to show that he is thoroughly American. This view that dissent can be patriotic, that criticism is fundamental to being an American, bleeds into Vonnegut’s views on science and technology, in that his place as a critic is fundamental to ensuring that our uses of our creations are moral and ethical, and that we are considering the big picture in what we create.

[1] Kurt Vonnegut. Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage. (New York: Dial Press, 1981): xi

[2] Ibid., 3; 1

[3] Kurt Vonnegut. Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage. (New York: Dial Press, 1981): 7-8

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

[5] Kurt Vonnegut. Player Piano. (New York: Dial Press, 2006): 6

[6] Kurt Vonnegut. A Man Without a Country. (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005): 11

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

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

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

[10] Jerome Klinkowitz. Kurt Vonnegut’s America (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2009): 60

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

[12] Kurt Vonnegut. Player Piano. (New York: Dial Press, 2006): 17

[13] 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.

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

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

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