Written by Vonnegut's friend and chief advocate in the academy, a definitive look at the writer's and nation's mutual influence
Kurt Vonnegut's death on April 11, 2007, marked the passing of a major force in American life and letters. Jerome Klinkowitz, one of the earliest and most prolific authorities on Vonnegut, examines the long dialogue between the author and American culture—a conversation that produced fourteen novels and hundreds of short stories and essays. Spanning Vonnegut's half-century literary career, Kurt Vonnegut's America integrates discussion of the fiction, essays, and lectures with personal exchanges and biographical sketches to map the complex symbiotic relationship between Vonnegut's work and the cultural context from which it emerged—and which it in turn helped shape.
Following an introduction characterizing Vonnegut as Klinkowitz came to know him over the course of their friendship, this study traces Vonnegut's career, decade by decade, drawing connections between the nation's preoccupations, the author's biography, and his literary productions. Vonnegut's 1950s saw him starting out as a short story writer, using his training in anthropology and experience in journalism and public relations to offer comic insights on middle-class behaviors. In the 1960s the author produced a series of darkly humorous novels rooted in the sense of apocalypse he'd experienced as a prisoner of war during the destruction of Dresden, Germany. Vonnegut's rising fame made him a public figure by 1970, with his novels and increasingly prominent essays serving as commentaries on the trends and patterns of these changing times. By the 1980s Vonnegut was sufficiently comfortable with his celebrity status to offer broader perspectives in his work, including his take on human evolution and artistic development. The 1990s found Vonnegut writing the strongest fiction and commentary of his career, melding them into a masterpiece, Timequake, the virtual autobiography of a novel.
Kurt Vonnegut's America charts the impact of Vonnegut on American society and of that society on Vonnegut over more than a half-century to illustrate how each informed the other. Among his artistic peers, Vonnegut was uniquely gifted at anticipating and articulating the changing course of American culture. Far from being A Man without a Country, as his last book was titled, Vonnegut achieved greatness by passing his own test—opening the eyes of his audience to help them better understand their roles and possibilities in the common culture they both shared and crafted.
A pioneer in Vonnegut studies, Jerome Klinkowitz is the author of more than forty books, including novels, collections of short stories, studies of literature, philosophy, art, music, sports, and air combat narratives. A former working musician and the owner and operator of a minor-league baseball team, he is a professor of English and University Distinguished Scholar at the University of Northern Iowa.
“No matter how familiar you are with the great author's canon, Kurt Vonnegut's America will have you pulling his books off the shelf again, eager to reread them, armed with new insights that could only be provided by the country's leading Vonnegut scholar. Here, Klinkowitz provides a critical context for Vonnegut's output that is informed not only by his biography, but his reaction to, and shaping of, an ever-evolving American culture. It's no wonder that Vonnegut himself was honored by Klinkowitz' academic interest, as well as his friendship. If the late author could read these pages, he'd surely say, ‘If that isn't nice, what is?’”—Robert Weide, director of Kurt Vonnegut: American Made and screenwriter of Mother Night
"In his tenth book on Kurt Vonnegut, Jerome Klinkowitz reads the writer and American culture as evolving in vivid conversation with one another. The critic views Vonnegut's work as a cultural seismograph charting past transformations in American history and forewarning developments for which few were prepared. Klinkowitz writes both as Vonnegut's close friend and as founder of Vonnegut studies. The resulting work reverberates with the inviting elegance, unique authority, and impeccable rigor that only Klinkowitz could provide and which his subject deserves. Thus, this volume highlights the relationships between an iconic writer and his audience as well as between the writer and his most accomplished critic."—Christian Moraru, author of Memorious Discourse: Reprise and Representation in Postmodernism
"This is a book that only Jerome Klinkowitz could have written. Long the foremost commentator on Vonnegut's writing—and the author's friend for thirty-six years—Klinkowitz is also an acknowledged authority on the literary and cultural aspects of contemporary America. These, he shows in depth, provide the context and catalyst for Vonnegut's achievement. Thus his book explains Vonnegut, author and body of work, better than any other single study. At times it even reads like Vonnegut. Blending personal recollection with biographical and critical commentary, Klinkowitz offers immediacy and unique insights in a book that feels like a farewell to an old friend. Kurt Vonnegut's America is a must for any Vonnegut enthusiast."—Peter J. Reed, professor of English emeritus, University of Minnesota
"In this wonderfully comprehensive book Jerome Klinkowitz offers a multifaceted view of a writer whose fifty-year career spanned the second half of the twentieth century. Descendant of Mark Twain and Will Rogers in his use of the American vernacular, anticipator of postmodern theorists in his interrogation of previously unchallenged assumptions, anthropologist in his lifelong concern with family structures and folk societies, and journalist in his address to the 'person from Indianapolis' that he always considered himself to be, the Kurt Vonnegut that emerges from these pages complicates all previous renderings of the author. That the writer who offers this portrait of the artist as a complex man is both a friend of thirty-six years as well as a critic for over thirty-six years only adds to the immense pleasures of this depiction."—Stacey Olster, professor of English, Stony Brook University