Lonesome No More! Kurt Vonnegut’s Freethinking Heritage

On April 27, 2007, Kurt Vonnegut was scheduled to speak in Indianapolis as part of the city-proclaimed Year of Vonnegut (he was born and raised in Indianapolis where his family had long-established roots). I was to attend this event to provide coverage for the Times of Northwest Indiana and Shore magazine. On February 28, in what was to be one of his last interviews, I spoke by phone with Vonnegut, who was home in New York. We didn’t talk for long because he wasn’t well, but we discussed memories of family vacations, his ancestors and what it means to be a family. Sadly, on April 11, 2007, Vonnegut died. A member of our family was gone, a true American, and one hell of a writer.

It was after the interview was published by In These Times (Vonnegut was honorary editor of the Chicago-based magazine), that I became more interested in what Vonnegut had to say to me about his family heritage of freethought, a topic upon which not only he wrote, but his great grandfather Clemens Vonnegut too, in published essays and in his own eulogy. Freethought was rich in German culture, as well as the cultures of other European immigrants to the United States. In fact, Clemens Vonnegut founded the Freethinkers Society of Indianapolis in 1870 and served as president of the organization for many years. He was also the founder of a freethinker Sunday school and fought against religion in schools as a member of the Indianapolis Public School Board. In those days many freethinkers were involved in educational issues. Today, freethinkers may choose to be called secular humanists, agnostics, or atheists but to Kurt Vonnegut Jr. they were skeptics and they were his kin. Naturally, skepticism and kinship are two themes that run throughout his fiction.

“Freethinkers. They’re like humanists, in that they were influenced by science, not what was in the Old Testament,” Vonnegut told me just five weeks before his death. Science pervades his work, whether it’s evolution in Galapagos or the fictional material Ice-9 in Cat’s Cradle. But it’s the skepticism of superstition that comes with that foundation in science that provides the backbone of the freethought movement, and Vonnegut too embraced this family tradition. “My ancestors on both sides of the family came over here about the time of the Civil War. One of them lost a leg and went back to Germany,” Vonnegut told me. “Anyway, they were all freethinkers. They were educated. They weren’t refugees at all. They were opportunists, looking to build things, businesses to go into.” He then relayed something Clemens had said about Jesus: “If what he said was good, and it was marvelous, what did it matter if he was God or not?” For Kurt, a man could be kind and compassionate, and could contribute to humankind without being a deity or something superstitious. It was this belief he claimed resulted in the failure of his marriage to Jane Marie Cox.

“Toward the end of our marriage, it was mainly religion in a broad sense that Jane and I fought about,” Vonnegut writes in Palm Sunday, a collection of short stories, essays, and letters published in 1981. “She came to devote herself more and more to making alliances with the supernatural in her need to increase her strength and understanding—and happiness and health. This was painful to me. She couldn’t understand and cannot understand why that should have been painful to me, or why it should be any of my business at all.”

Vonnegut then references this ancestral heritage of his great grandfathers and cites a rare publication that he deposited at the New York City Library and the Library of Congress and that is now also at the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis library in both German and the English translation. The essay, titled “A Proposed Guide for Instruction in Morals from the Standpoint of A Freethinker for Adult Persons Offered by a Dilettante,” was published by Hollenbeck Press in Indianapolis in 1900. In it, the elder Vonnegut makes similar observations about the concept of a deity: “No religious creed has any real proofs. It rests simply upon assertions. These creeds are offered to us as an indispensably necessary condition for future happiness in a post-mortem life. These creeds have been fastened upon us by fraud and violence. The belief in supernatural things brings us under the rule of priests, who apply their power to the support of superstitions to increase their authority and to enable them to fleece the credulous,” writes Clemens Vonnegut. In his time, the elder Vonnegut was surrounded with like-minded individuals. His thoughts even came on the heels of the founders of the United States who fled the authority and fleecing by the British throne. Thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine spoke out against superstition and dogma, whatever the denomination, in the frameworks for their new country. However, today his words and the words of his great grandson may seem heretical to many when viewed through the lens of the current faith-heavy society.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was surprised to find that his thoughts on religion and skepticism were the same as his great grandfather’s. In Palm Sunday, Vonnegut relays that he didn’t even know his great grandfather had published a book until Kurt’s brother, Bernard, sent it to him along with a copy of the comments Clemens wrote for his own funeral, which read, in part:

Let us explain as often as possible, and particularly at the departure from life, that we base our faith on firm foundations, on Truth for putting into action our ideas which do not depend on fables and ideas which Science has long ago proven to be false. We also wish Knowledge, Goodness, Sympathy, Mercy, Wisdom, Justice, and Truthfulness. We also strive for the virtues of Temperance, Industriousness, Friendship, and Peace. We believe in pure ideas based on Truth and Justice. Therefore, however, we do not believe, cannot believe, that a Thinking Being existed for millions and millions of years, and eventually and finally out of nothing—through a Word—created this world, or rather this earth with its Firmament, its Sun and Moon and the Stars. We cannot believe that this Being formed a human being from clay and breathed into it an Immortal soul, and then allowed this human being to procreate millions, and then delivered them all into unspeakable misery, wretchedness and pain for all eternity. Nor can we believe that the descendents of one or two human beings will inevitably become sinners; nor do we believe that through the criminal executions of an Innocent One may we be redeemed.

The next line that follows this excerpt in Palm Sunday is Kurt’s own claim, “Such is my ancestral religion.” He then reproduces a graduation speech he gave in 1974 at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in which he said that what life is all about is anyone’s guess, but that some of the guesses have robbed us of our spiritual nourishment, from a sense of wonder and discovery. He called for a new religion, a heartfelt moral code much like the one detailed by Clemens and that included an extended family, which encourages us to treat one another well and abolishes the need for a prescribed set of rules or commandments for how to behave in the face of damnation. Treating each other with kindness then comes from a duty to each other and the earth, not because of any fantastical eternal reward. The laws of how to behave come from nature, as Clemens had said, not from human imagination, and these laws are not necessarily moral laws, but do tell humans, as animals, how to behave in accordance and balance with other creatures.

“From this consciousness,” Clemens writes, “follows our duty: 1) To develop our faculties and our intelligence as much as possible, 2) to apply the same to the common welfare in the narrower as well as in the more extended circles, 3) to cultivate our health, 4) more and more to develop our sense of truth, justice and benevolence, and 5) to incite these aspirations as much as possible in our fellow-men.”

These tenets of freethought are essentially no different than those of secular humanists. Kurt Vonnegut explained the similarity in our interview: “People stopped calling themselves [freethinkers] because it was so specifically German and the Germans were so hated during the First World War. And so, I am now honorary president of the American Humanist Association, which is just the very same thing.” Vonnegut served in that post from May 1992 until his death on April 11, 2007.

Humanity was critical to Vonnegut’s works and a theme that ran through many of his novels, especially Cat’s Cradle (named for a children’s string game that Vonnegut used as a symbol for the flawed patterns established by religion). Religion and family appear often in his writing as linked. In Palm Sunday Vonnegut writes, “How on earth can religious people believe in so much arbitrary, clearly invented balderdash? For one thing, I guess, the balderdash is usually beautiful—and therefore echoes excitingly in the more primitive lobes of our brains, where knowledge counts for nothing. More important, though: the acceptance of a creed, any creed, entitles the acceptor to membership in the sort of artificial extended family we call a congregation. It is a way to fight loneliness. Any time I see a person fleeing from reason and into religion, I think to myself, There goes a person who simply cannot stand being so goddamned lonely anymore.”

Vonnegut himself was not lonely and he needed no such congregation; his family was large. Even as a child growing up, his family surrounded him. In our interview he averred, “Everyone needs an extended family. The great American disease is loneliness. We no longer have extended family. But I had one. There were lots of Vonneguts in the phone book and my mother was a Lieber, and there were Liebers there too. And at Lake Maxinkuckee there were a row of cottages, one of which we owned, and so I was surrounded by relatives all of the time. You know, cousins, uncles, and aunts. It was heaven. And that has since been dispersed.” Vonnegut also had seven children, three with his first wife, three of his sister’s who he raised after she and her husbanddied, and one he adopted with his second wife, photographer Jill Krementz. They too were his family. And he had many colleagues he visited and who visited him, and many fans who became his family through association with his work, and many Hoosiers that he even remembered in Cat’s Cradle and intended to visit during that year they claimed for him in Indianapolis.

Extended family became a central theme of Vonnegut’s 1976 novel, Slapstick, where the protagonist Wilbur Swain becomes the innovator of a system of “artificial relatives” which he calls a “simple and workable anti-loneliness plan.” Winning a political campaign with the slogan “Lonesome No More!” (which is also the alternative title to the book), Swain proceeds to implement his system of extended family that gives Americans a new middle name consisting “of a noun, the name of a flower or fruit or nut or vegetable or legume, or a bird or reptile or a fish, or a mollusk, or a gem or a mineral or a chemical element—connected by a hyphen to a number between one and twenty.” Everyone with the same noun in their middle name become cousins, and everyone with the same noun and number are siblings, resulting in communities of relations all over the country who look out for each other rather than lonely strangers, adrift and uncaring.

For Vonnegut, whose humanist heritage was strong, believing that humans are connected to each other by a common familial bond is not merely the stuff of fiction or an artificial system. Becoming an activist on such issues such as the environment, war, and politics run amok, Vonnegut was exercising his empathy for his fellow family members, those of the human race, and the generations to come. This is one of the most important tenets of the humanist movement. British humanist Barbara Smoker, in her book, Humanism (the fifth edition of which was published in 2008), states: “In order to be a secular humanist one has to be an atheist or agnostic; but it is possible to be an atheist or agnostic without being a humanist.” The critical difference between atheism and humanism—and even religion and humanism—may very well be the extension of family Vonnegut celebrated. It is the care for one another, for future generations, and for all nature that binds us.

In the end, because Vonnegut had no need for superstition and was not indoctrinated to use such a system, his mind was able to freely investigate, inquire, and create the great works of fiction his extended human family will enjoy in perpetuity. Lonesome no more!

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