Kurt Vonnegut and L.J. Davis and the Novelist's Relationship to Community

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Kurt Vonnegut  at the opening of "Brooklyn Boy, February 3, 2005.

This May 1, 1978 interview was the third one Vonnegut had with Walter James Miller for WNYC’s “Writers’ Almanac.” This time, however, Vonnegut shared the microphone with journalist/novelist L. J. Davis. The topic was “the novelist’s relationship to his community.”

Miller gets things going by contrasting famously reclusive writers like J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon with gregarious ones like Davis and Vonnegut. An interesting interplay among Miller and his two guests ensues as Davis seems determined not to play second fiddle during the interview while Vonnegut reacts to that with patience and the occasional lightly sardonic jab.

Davis starts by talking about the perils of being a humorist. He recounts the time he read a story to an audience at a writers’ conference that he claimed at the time actually happened (he tells Miller and Vonnegut the story was pure fiction). It was about a man who needed money and so went to a blood bank that turned out to be run by doctor who instead of removing blood from the donors actually injected them with something. Davis says that as he was reading what he considered a great piece of black humor, he was surprised when no one laughed--during the entire twenty minutes of his performance. He later decided that the audience had been the wrong one, since it consisted mostly of people in their sixties beginning to worry about dying who’d probably already had disturbing visits to their doctors.

When Vonnegut gets his turn, Miller questions him about how he’d felt about his many visits to college campuses in the 1970s, usually to make graduation speeches. Vonnegut recalls how Saul Bellow had visited the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop to give a talk while Vonnegut was in residence there in the mid-1960s. When Kurt asked Bellow why he’d come out to the middle of nowhere to lecture, Bellow replied that he didn’t want to become isolated from society. Since Vonnegut had already developed his belief in the importance of extended families in graduate school, he was receptive to this answer, and emulated Bellow’s example when he got the chance. He found it was “important to get out of Cape Cod and see people.” Talking with students, most often about the War in Vietnam, was a great opportunity for Vonnegut to keep his hand on the racing pulse of public sentiment of the times. Vonnegut’s campus visits were a great success, as one can understand after reading some of his unvaryingly funny graduation speeches, several of which appear in his nonfiction collection Palm Sunday.

Davis then raises a problem with reading publicly: During the question and answer portion of the program, somebody will “inevitably want to debate with you—and not productively.” Vonnegut agrees, recalling the time at the Library of Congress when a questioner asked him “What right have you to make American young people so pessimistic and cynical?” Vonnegut says that he “had no reply,” and simply sat down. After a pause, Vonnegut explained to Miller and Davis that he “of course had no such right,” and that he “had no intention of making anyone pessimistic or cynical.” It’s probably the best moment in the interview: Vonnegut refusing to engage with a hostile question in a public setting, even when he had plenty of ammunition for a harsh comeback.

Special thanks to Mary Hume, Donald Farber and Ana Maria Allessi at Harper Collins for making the release of these broadcasts possible.

Walter James Miller was affiliated with the NYU Program in Liberal Studies.