Kurt Vonnegut on Jailbird, His Watergate Novel

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This last of four interviews of Vonnegut by Walter James Miller took place on October 1, 1979, and it’s the crown jewel of the set. Vonnegut had just published his “Watergate novel,” Jailbird, in which he abandons the sketchy sci-fi plot lines that had made Slapstick such a punching bag for critics in favor of a sharp-eyed historical/political realism that marks the second major phase of his career.

The first great phase began with Mother Night (1962), then ran through Cat’s Cradle (1963), God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965), and Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). The second started with Jailbird (1979), and followed up with Deadeye Dick (1982), Galapagos (1985), and Bluebeard (1987). In this interview Vonnegut glows with renewed energy and confidence as he discusses the second great theme (the first was the bombing of Dresden) of his fiction, the history of the virtual defeat of left-wing idealism in America during his lifetime. 

Vonnegut tells Miller that he was himself a proud leftist as a young man—one who, had he been born five years or so earlier, “might have gone to Spain” to support the communists who rose up against Franco. In the 1930s, Vonnegut’s uncle had introduced his nephew to Powers Hapgood, a graduate of Harvard who went to work in the coal mines after college in preparation for becoming a labor organizer. Vonnegut describes this Ivy-League coal miner as one of the few “absurdly idealistic people I ever met.”  Hapgood became the model for Kenneth Whistler in Jailbird, the leftist who inspires young protagonist Walter Starbuck and his girlfriend Kathleen O’Looney. But Starbuck, unlike his hero, turns out to lack the courage of his convictions. He abandons O’Looney for another woman, and has to admit to himself years later, after all sorts of professional failures and compromises, that ‘”I was never a serious man….Never have I risked my life, or even my comfort, in the service of man.” O’Looney, on the other hand, becomes a rich recluse like Howard Hughes and quixotically tries to leave her entire estate to the American people.

Jailbird, while a mixture of fact and fiction, offers a comprehensive description of the labor movement and other left-wing struggles from the turn of the 20th Century all the way to the Watergate hearings that forced Richard Nixon to resign in disgrace. In between these events are the trial and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti (whose story is as moving as Jesus’ on the cross, Vonnegut insists), the Stock Market Crash and ensuing Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and the socio-economic turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s. Vonnegut gives powerful dramatic illustrations of these historical events through their psychological impact on his characters--as diverse, believable, and tragic-comic a cast as he ever created.

Kilgore Trout even makes a comeback in Jailbird, and Vonnegut’s retelling at Miller’s request of one of Trout’s sci-fi stories about Albert Einstein in heaven all by itself makes this interview a delight. Vonnegut lovers are in Miller’s debt for conducting these interviews, which provide us the intimate experience of listening as Vonnegut makes intelligent conversation with another human being for the edification of all.

Although Vonnegut passed away in 2007, he lives on in his stories, novels, nonfiction, interviews, sound and video recordings, films, and in all those of us who remember him as a great writer and great American. He was, as one critic put it, our laughing prophet of doom; he was our Mark Twain; he was Citizen of the World Kurt Vonnegut.

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.