The cover of the August 1953 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal showed a woman wearing a polka-dot swim cap and smiling in foamy blue water. The text below her image advertised several articles but not “D.P.,” a touching short story inside about a boy in post-war Germany who is the orphaned son of a German mother and an African-American father — and what happens when he sees a black GI for the first time. In 1958, “D.P.” became source material for General Electric Theater, the CBS show hosted by Ronald Reagan. Sammy Davis Jr., making his debut as a television actor, starred as the soldier. As Davis recounted in his autobiography, Reagan loved the tale: “It’s going to be a wonderful episode,” said the future president.
The man behind “D.P.” — an abbreviation for “displaced person,” or what today we might call a “refugee” — was Kurt Vonnegut, an Indiana native and former infantryman who in the 1950s had become a struggling writer of fiction. He earned paychecks for his short stories from top-flight venues such as Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post as well as Ladies’ Home Journal and Cosmopolitan (which, as he quipped years later, “wasn’t always a sex manual”). Yet his ambition lay elsewhere. In the preface to a 1968 collection of stories, he confessed a mercenary motive: “The contents of this book are samples of work I sold in order to finance the writing of the novels.”
Perhaps Vonnegut was being modest or facetious — he could be both — but then again he really may have meant what he wrote. Whatever the case, fame arrived the next year, following the publication of his breakout book Slaughterhouse-Five. It blended a world-weary pacifism with a semi-autobiographical account of the Allied bombing of Dresden, which Vonnegut had survived as a prisoner of war, plus zany elements such as time travel and an alien abduction. Slaughterhouse-Five showed up at exactly the right moment for college students who were protesting the Vietnam War. In its aftermath, the Baby Boom generation turned Vonnegut into its postmodernist laureate, allowing the author to abandon the short stories that had once sustained him and focus almost exclusively on the novels he’d been writing in near obscurity since 1952’s Player Piano.
That’s too bad, because “D.P.” and many of Vonnegut’s other contributions to the fiction-publishing magazines of the 1950s and 1960s are quite good. Some are sentimental romances (“Long Walk to Forever”). Others question corporate conformity (“Deer in the Works”). The best shine with professional polish, products of a now-defunct commercial market. “Agents and editors back then could tell a writer how to fine-tune a story as though they were pit mechanics and the story were a race car,” wrote Vonnegut in the introduction to Bagombo Snuff Box.
These works and more are on full display in Complete Stories, which pulls together for the first time in a single massive book all the short stories Vonnegut ever wrote. Lovingly assembled by Jerome Klinkowitz and Dan Wakefield — a professor at the University of Northern Iowa and a longtime friend of Vonnegut’s, respectively — they number nearly a hundred. Fewer than half saw publication before Vonnegut’s death in 2007, many came out posthumously, and a handful are available only now.
Vonnegut’s fondest fans regard him as a latter-day Mark Twain. Superficially, the two men shared a curly-haired, mustachioed look. More significantly, they wrote with irreverent humor, an ear for vernacular language, and skepticism about American power. Whereas Twain condemned the Spanish–American War, Vonnegut was a Cold War liberal. He voted for Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s and mocked Reagan in Mother Jones as “an actor who pretends to steer the United States of America.”
The lives of Vonnegut and Reagan included peculiar intersections. In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut wrote of a Cadillac that sported a bumper sticker: “Reagan for President!” Modern readers sometimes regard this detail as an astonishing example of political prescience, though it was really just a sign of the times, as Reagan’s name was in the air following the 1968 Republican convention. (Another bumper sticker in Slaughterhouse-Five reads “Impeach Earl Warren” — a right-of-center cause that did not fare nearly as well.) Then there was their General Electric connection. Several years before Vonnegut supplied “D.P.” to General Electric Theater, he worked as a publicist for the company in Schenectady, N.Y. That made him a corporate colleague of Reagan’s. Reagan “was on the road all the time, lecturing to chambers of commerce and power companies and so on about the evils of socialism,” wrote Vonnegut in 1999. “We never met, so I remain a socialist.”
The anecdote is charming rather than angry: Vonnegut at his amusing best. Near the end of his life, however, he often sank into witless partisanship. In A Man without a Country (2005), for example, he quoted lines about mercy and peace from the Sermon on the Mount. Then, without explanation or argument — because the truth to him was so glaringly self-evident — he commented: “Not exactly planks in the Republican platform. Not exactly George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, or Donald Rumsfeld stuff.”
Admirers treated Vonnegut as a sage, but he could be a sloppy thinker. In 1985, when Vonnegut made his first and only appearance on Firing Line, William F. Buckley Jr. introduced him as “a distinguished American man of letters.” As Buckley turned to the program’s subject, which was free speech, he quoted Vonnegut’s own words: “What do I want my books to accomplish? Well, I hope eventually to destroy the American army as an effective fighting force.” Buckley grinned as he went in for the kill: “It seems to me that if you destroy the effective fighting force, there isn’t much left there to intimidate those who would want to take away our freedom.” Almost immediately, Vonnegut retreated: “My politics are grotesque because I exaggerate.” In writing about the exchange, Vonnegut biographer Charles J. Shields concluded that Buckley had “filleted” his guest.
So it might come as a surprise that Vonnegut’s best short story — and perhaps the best thing he ever wrote — is a favorite of conservatives and libertarians. “Harrison Bergeron” first appeared in 1961, in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (not in Galaxy Science Fiction, as the editors of Complete Stories claim). Here’s how it begins: “The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way.” It turns out that they possess an equality of mediocrity enforced by “the United States Handicapper General.” The government seeks to eradicate individuality, excellence, and beauty, and so smart people have radios implanted in their ears to disrupt their thoughts, talented ballerinas perform with weights to inhibit their motion, and television announcers suffer from speech impediments. A character rejects a suggestion of reform: “Pretty soon we’d be right back to the dark ages again, with everybody competing against everybody else.” The story ends in violence and gallows humor.
“Harrison Bergeron” is a small masterpiece of dystopian literature, in the tradition of Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and, to a lesser extent, Vonnegut’s own Player Piano. Buckley enjoyed “Harrison Bergeron” so much that in 1965 he reprinted it in National Review. “Vonnegut is one of the handful of genuinely great writers of science fiction,” said an editorial introduction. On Firing Line two decades later, Vonnegut expressed his gratitude to Buckley: “There was one time, incidentally, where I was in print in only one place in the world, and that was in your publication; and I must thank you for that.”
The themes of “Harrison Bergeron” apparently puzzle the editors of Complete Stories. In an essay on Vonnegut’s futuristic fiction, Klinkowitz does his best to explain them, but his best is weak: “The government that mandates equality as practiced in this story is neither liberal nor conservative, but rather self-styled government per se.” What this means is unclear, though at some level it’s a tired exercise in moral equivalence. Extrapolating the nightmare world of “Harrison Bergeron” from the Left’s egalitarian obsessions doesn’t demand a vivid imagination — especially today, when they’re surging past previous flood marks on American campuses and at the offices of Google. And so the story lives.
Yet conservatives who have rejected Vonnegut may suffer from their own lack of vision. A story from 1962, “2BR02B,” dramatizes the inhumanity of euthanasia and population control. Vonnegut later updated it as “Welcome to the Monkey House,” in which a “World Government” encourages “ethical suicide, which consist[s] of going to the nearest Suicide Parlor and asking a Hostess to kill you painlessly while you lay on a Barcalounger.” Another tale, 1952’s “Poor Little Rich Town,” is a defense of small-town customs as they confront an imported cult of efficiency. Vonnegut was a liberal, but in his art it’s also possible to detect a Burkean traditionalist who values individual worth and genuine diversity in the face of an obliterating progressivism. Conservatives will spot the faint outlines, but only if they’re first willing to look.
In 1966, Vonnegut reviewed a dictionary for the New York Times. He questioned several of its biographical choices, wondering, for example, why it had an entry for Norman Mailer but not one for William Styron. Then he wrote this line: “And are we to be told throughout eternity this and no more about Alger Hiss: ‘born 1904, U.S. public official’? And why is there no entry for Whittaker Chambers?” Most liberals wouldn’t even have thought to ask the question — and those who did might actually have approved of the decision to whitewash the rotten legacy of Hiss and ignore the greatness of Chambers. Vonnegut was different, and this is why his fiction stands a good chance to last.
If we’re still reading dictionaries in 2081 — and if we haven’t forfeited our language to Orwell’s Newspeak or surrendered our minds to the Handicapper General — let’s hope they contain an entry for Vonnegut.