I sit up late dumb as a cow,
which is to say
somewhat conscious with thirst
and hunger, an eye for the new moon
and the morning’s long walk
to the water tank. Everywhere
around me the birds are waiting
for the light. In this world of dreams
don’t let the clock cut up
your life in pieces.
The Library of Congress has announced the acquisition of a trove of letters from Georgia O’Keeffe — photographed here by her husband, Alfred Stieglitz.
Alfred Stieglitz/Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, The Alfred Stieglitz Collection, Purchase and Gift of The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation.
Imagine Georgia O’Keeffe needing “luck” to paint a flower. But there it is, in the artist’s twirling calligraphy, in a letter to her friend, documentary filmmaker Henwar Rodakiewicz.
The letter is in a never-before-seen trove of O’Keeffe’s correspondences newly acquired by the Library of Congress. In this particular 1936 letter, O’Keeffe writes about an “order for a big flower painting” for cosmetics executive Elizabeth Arden. Though she’d been painting flowers for years, this commission stood to expose her to a much wider audience.
Barbara Bair, manuscript curator with the Library of Congress, says this was an important step toward O’Keeffe becoming more independent as an artist. Up to that point, her artistic career was mostly managed by her husband, the photographer and art promoter Alfred Stieglitz.
“The Arden commission is seen as significant for where it would be shown — a salon for women,” Bair says. “Women became O’Keeffe’s biggest fans and patrons. Arden, who had money, was endorsing her.” Bair adds that it was the first commercial commission O’Keeffe completed: “And it was a big success.”
The result was “Jimson Weed,” currently on display at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, for which O’Keeffe was paid $10,000 — a large sum at the time, especially considering it was during the Great Depression. Soon, O’Keeffe had another commercial job, painting in Hawaii for a Dole Company promotional campaign.
The collection, which also includes letters Stieglitz wrote to Rodakiewicz, were discovered by a couple as they cleaned out a new home they’d purchased in Santa Fe, N.M. The house belonged to the filmmaker’s widow.
“Over the course of going through what was left behind,” Bair says, “they found in a closet a box of Sunsetmagazines. In the box was a manila envelope [containing the letters].”
After O’Keeffe met Rodakiewicz in Taos, N.M. in 1929, the three (including Stieglitz) became friends and traveled in the same artistic circles. For Bair, this stash of O’Keeffe’s letters, spanning 1929-1947, captures a time of great transition as the artist splits her time between the East Coast and the Southwest.
Bair notes that in 1933, O’Keeffe went through a period of severe depression and was unable to paint. In February 1934, she wrote to Rodakiewicz:
The letters also reveal the importance of natural beauty to O’Keeffe’s work. The colors of her outdoor settings naturally impacted her art: the greens of Lake George, N.Y.; the black and white of New York City. Bair says the reds and other colors of New Mexico “revived her artistic juices.”
“She feels at home in the desert,” Bair says. “Her soul expands there. She picks up new subject matter — skulls, the desert landscape. She responds beautifully to the Southwestern landscape.”
In a letter from 1944, O’Keeffe describes the view from her New Mexico home near the mountain of Cerro Pedernal — the inspiration for many of her paintings.
As the poet behind the San Francisco literary institution turns 100, the city is preparing for ‘Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day’
The last couple of years have taken their toll on Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The American publisher, poet, painter and political activist is frail and nearly blind. He spends a lot of time in bed, relying on his assistant for emails and phone calls.
His body might be failing him. But his mind is still on fire. He’s hoping for a revolution. Trouble is, he says, “the United States isn’t ready for a revolution”.
Ferlinghetti is turning 100 years old this Sunday. And the man knows a thing or two about revolutions. He helped start one himself, changing the face of literary culture in the United States when he co-founded City Lightsbookshop in 1953 with a college professor friend, Peter Dean Martin.
Born in Yonkers, New York, in 1919, Ferlinghetti came to California in the early 1950s, drawn to the state as a place where people could start over. It was what he called this country’s last frontier.
Ferlinghetti’s mission for his new bookstore and publishing company was aligned with his left-leaning politics: to break literature out of its stuffy, academic cage, its self-centered focus on what he calls “the me me me”, and make it accessible to all.
It was a big risk.
“We were young and foolish,” he says. “And we had no money.”
Unlike most other bookstores around the country, which closed at 5pm on weekdays and were shuttered completely at the weekends, City Lights stayed open seven days a week and late into the night. Ferlinghetti wanted to create a sense of community, a place for people to toss around ideas.
The business was originally focused on selling paperback books, at a time when the literary establishment only cared about hardbacks. (These days, it sells both.)
“Paperbacks weren’t considered real books,” says Ferlinghetti. “The only paperback books were murder mysteries and some science fiction.”
But Ferlinghetti was all about democratizing literature. City Lights weathered its fair share of ups and downs over the years, including financial woes and Ferlinghetti’s arrest in 1957 on obscenity charges for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s groundbreaking epic poem Howl. The charges were dropped, setting an important precedent for reducing censorship in the publishing world.
The bookstore and publishing house became an institution, attracting and influencing literary figures across the generations, from the author Jack Kerouac to the film-maker Francis Ford Coppola (who once said of Ferlinghetti: “Lawrence gets you laughing, then hits you with the truth”) to the writer and publisher Dave Eggers.
“When I got to San Francisco in 1992, everything we did was sort of influenced by City Lights,” says Eggers. “We were trying to stand on their shoulders.”
Ferlinghetti himself is an institution. There’s a San Francisco street named after him. The city of San Francisco is proclaiming 24 March, his birthday, “Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day”. And his centennial celebrations are going on all month.
“Well, as long as it keeps growing, someone is going to have to water it,” Ferlinghetti says.
He will also release his latest book, Little Boy. This autobiographical novel packed with classical literary allusions is written in a careening, stream-of-consciousness style that feels both intimate and – because it’s written in the third person and mostly does away with conventional paragraphing and punctuation – estranging.
The book was many years in the making. It took Ferlinghetti’s longtime, New York-based agent, Sterling Lord, a while to sell. Lord says six publishers contacted him when they heard Ferlinghetti was coming out with a new novel. But all of them ended up turning Little Boy down. “In my view, they were really just the wrong publishers,” Lord says. Ultimately, Penguin Random House’s Doubleday division picked it up.
Little Boy’s story begins, abruptly, with Ferlinghetti’s mother abandoning her newborn son after his father dies of a heart attack. A beloved, childless aunt whisks baby Lawrence off to France. The story rushes forwards, with dizzying circumlocutions, from there. The patchwork of biographical narrative and freewheeling forays into societal commentary (“the icebergs melting and all that and humankind the temporary tenant floating toward the precipice unable to stop itself and its self-destruction”) makes the book feel like a memoir.
That’s not a word Ferlinghetti uses to describe his new book. “I object to using that description,” he says. “Because a memoir denotes a very genteel type of writing.”
It wasn’t until Ferlinghetti was studying for his doctorate at the Sorbonne in Paris on the GI bill, after serving in the US navy during the second world war, that he started writing his own poetry.
I ask him if he still speaks French (“Oui! Certainement!”) and about the encounters, mentioned in Little Boy, with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in postwar Paris. He tells me he never actually met the existentialist couple. But he enjoyed spying on them from a cafe across the street. “I wouldn’t dare go up and try and engage Beauvoir and Sartre in conversation,” Ferlinghetti says. “I can imagine Sartre signalling to the waiter, and the waiter giving me the boot out of the front door.”
But Ferlinghetti is not known for his shyness: he has long been seen as accessible to fans. “He’s very gracious,” says Elaine Katzenberger, City Lights’ current director and publisher, who has known Ferlinghetti since the early 1980s. “When he was still here every day, fixing a lightbulb or some other little thing, he never refused somebody who wanted to talk to him. He usually looked for some commonality to have a little conversation with them.”
Still, doing things the Ferlinghetti way hasn’t always been easy. Katzenberger says his idealistic, poetry-for-all vision is hard to maintain in today’s profit-driven publishing marketplace.
“We don’t have bestsellers, and we’re not publishing bestsellers,” Katzenberger says. “Staying true to those ideals and maintaining them, that’s the hardest thing. And on the other hand, it’s the most important thing.”
At the end of our interview, I ask Ferlinghetti if he’s proud of his many accomplishments.
“I don’t know, that word, ‘proud’, is just too egotistic,” he says.
How about satisfied?
“I would never use that word.”
OK. Um … happy?
“Yeah, happy would be better,” he says. “Except when you get down to try and define the word happy, then you’re really in trouble.”
He’d really much rather get back to our discussion about what it would take to start a revolution.
“It would take a whole new generation not devoted to the glorification of the capitalist system,” Ferlinghetti says, chuckling. “A generation not trapped in the me, me, me.”
Living (and dying) in Avalanche Country by John Marshall and Jerry Roberts
Review by Ed Quillen
Living (and dying) in Avalanche Country
by John Marshall and Jerry Roberts
Published in 1993 by Simpler Way Book Co.
WHERE MOUNTAINS RISE, snow generally falls. And from time to time, the snow merely pauses on a slope, waiting for a chance to descend again — this time as an avalanche.
Thus Central Colorado endures its share of avalanches. Three Western State College students were killed this spring by a snowslide on Cumberland Pass. In 1962, half the town of Twin Lakes was demolished by a slide that roared down Mt. Elbert. Monarch Pass gets closed, from time to time, by avalanches, as does the road to St. Elmo.
But the state’s major avalanche zone lies to the southwest, in the San Juan Mountains, where avalanches are not an occasional danger, but almost a daily fact of life (and death) for most of the year.
Living in Avalanche Country might be considered a social history of avalanches in some slide-prone territory. It passes over most of the science (things like moisture content and slope gradient) to focus on history and the human element from the vantage of Silverton — a one-time mining town in the heart of the range, where every route to town passes through slide zones.
Avalanches are the main reason that the narrow-gauge tourist train from Durango doesn’t run clear to Silverton in the winter — there’s the danger of a slide striking the train, and the constant expense of snow removal.
The Colorado Department of Transportation doesn’t enjoy the option of suspending operations in the winter, and authors Marshall and Roberts devote much of the book to that department’s heroic efforts to keep the highways open so that Silverton residents can get their groceries and mail.
Conceptually, the process is fairly simple. As soon as the clouds clear and the wind dies down after a storm, close the road. Use explosives to bring down the snow on the known avalanche runs — a map in the back of the book lists 40 named runs between Ouray and Silverton. Then plow the snow off the road, and wait for the next storm.
This began after World War II with a surplus army 75-mm howitzer, which was hauled on a trailer to where it could lob an explosive shell toward the top of the slide run. If all went well, it triggered the slide.
More cannons were added over the years, but by 1986, the security requirements for storing the ammunition exceeded what small towns could offer. So now a helicopter takes off after every storm with a pilot and a bombardier, who drops the charges. It’s safer and faster, and the same crew can handle Wolf Creek Pass, too.
On the ground, though, the road still has to be plowed, and the slides sometimes ignore the explosives, only to run later. On March 5, 1992, a snowshed on the East Riverside Slide saved the lives of four motorists who were trapped in it for 12 hours. But less than 200 feet away, outside the shed, two highway maintenance men had been buried under their plow truck.
One of them, Danny Jaramillo, kicked out the truck window, reached a little shovel he had aboard, and dug his way to the surface and then walked to the snowshed. It took 18 hours.
The other, Eddie Imel of Ouray died. His death led to improved procedures and better radios in the trucks, but the authors argue, rather convincingly, that if the East Riverside snowshed had been built to 1,100 feet long, rather than the money-saving 400 feet, the well-liked Eddie Imel would never have been swept to his death.
Living in Avalanche Country teems with first-person accounts from survivors, generally well-told. One of my favorites was from an Arizona couple whose car was swept down by the Mother Cline slide in the spring of 1988. And as an informal student of place names, I was fascinated that the slides had names, many of them attached to local characters or events.
One chapter focuses on mail-truck drivers, whose dedication is astonishing; the Postal Service should start using them in commercials. The authors go back to the 19th century for accounts and photos — the early freighters often tunneled through slides, and others taught pack burros to walk on snowshoes.
The photos, historic and modern, seem worthy of a book in themselves, and there are stories behind the photos — or even non-photos:
So Pete’s up there about to shoot the Brooklyns. We’re standing there by the mine road where they park the cat. This guy pulls up in a station wagon and asks if he can take some pictures. “Sure,” we tell him. Well, Pete’s up there by Chattanooga getting ready to fire away. This guy has set a tripod and he’s got about three cameras hanging from his neck. He looks ready.
‘Bout the third shot Pete fires, things start happening. I mean happening. Every slide from the Eagle down through the Brooklyns takes off running. I think later we counted 16 avalanches that ran. Pretty incredible.
Well, things start settling down and we begin to hear this camera guy swearing away. He picks up his tripod, camera and all, and throws it — I mean, hard — into the back of the station wagon. Then he throws his other cameras in one by one. “Must’ve got some great shots,” we said. “I never snapped a damn picture,” he replied. The swearing started up again. You know? I don’t think he ever did say good-bye.
In some ways, Living (and Dying) in Avalanche Country is an extremely local book about coping with winter in the core of the San Juans, and you won’t find much lore from elsewhere. But in recounting those life-and-death struggles, Marshall and Roberts are telling stories that resonate throughout the Rocky Mountains, wherever avalanches might strike.
— Ed Quillen
Still occasionally find a copy on eBay or a local garage sale for cheap. Just heard from a friend that the book is still available at Fetch’s in Silverton.
A Barry Lopez book is never a quick read: “Each place on Earth goes deep.”
Of course, deftly sketched landscapes are one of his chief delights — and Horizon, suspended halfway between travelogue and memoir, offers plenty of them. But Lopez — who often chronicles himself wandering from one landscape to another, or away from the group he’s journeying with, or away from the initial reason for coming to a place — wants us, above all else, to consider. To find context and connections. To think about where to go from here. To take our time.
Whatever time is left.
Lopez is one of America’s foremost naturalist writers. His 1978 Of Wolves and Men was a finalist for the National Book Award; the seminal Arctic Dreams won it in 1986. After nearly 40 years of writing and scholarship, there’s plenty of ground to cover in Horizon, physical and otherwise: the Galapagos; Australia; Kenya; Antarctica. And, inevitably, one of the things he must consider is the way global climate change is altering these landscapes forever. (In a haunting moment, Lopez stands on a ship with two other travelers, struck wordless by the Arctic sea before them — “not a scrap of ice.”)
The book is ordered vaguely by locations, but things come in and out like the tide; at any moment, we loop back in time, we shift place, we meet him at a different age, we go entirely elsewhere. It makes for dreamlike reading, and these are clearly locations and memories meant to be savored. With his signature style, he filters the landscapes through cultural contexts, political history, and sharp physical observation. And he asks questions — explicitly, but also implicitly. What do we do when those in power consider the natural world a resource and not a protectorate? Can those who are knowledgeable be heard? Can we get back some of what we’ve lost? How do we learn to rely on each other? Who can lead with compassion in such hard times? Is it already too late? Will we survive?
The book is awash in sublime and brutal details, both in natural terms and cultural ones. (The mummified bodies of seals on Antarctica are melancholy; geologists omitting locations of findings to hide them from souvenir hunters is tragic.) Occasionally there’s an awkward personal anecdote that suggests people are harder for Lopez to navigate than landscapes — recollecting stilted interactions with colleagues and locals, operating on cultural assumptions, or struggling with moments of his own guilt. And it’s noteworthy that Lopez’s place in elevated and academic circles sometimes align him with power in ways that are discomfiting. (In an archaeological camp in Kenya, watching his team leader speak with an upset Turkana elder, he realizes the expedition only has the government’s permission, not that of the people whose ancestral lands they’re standing on — yet only one of those officially mattered.)
But Lopez is a welcoming host as he brings you across the world. He’s especially at home in the cold, and the chapters in the Arctic and Antarctica are full of passages that, in their painstaking physicality, lead inevitably to deeper psychological places. The painful clarity of Antarctic water and the euphoria of polar bumblebees in an otherwise-quiet Arctic landscape; the contrasts and unparallels of the long-abandoned stone dwellings of the Arctic Thule people and the much-more-recently-abandoned hut outside Cape Crozier where British soldiers hunted penguin eggs.
The Lopez we see in Horizon is someone making his farewells, but this is also the writer who had Arctic Dreams and made an elegy of roadkill in Apologia: still as interested in the cruelties of the world as in its beauties, as forgiving of human frailty as of the necessity of one animal hunting another, and eager to wonder about the unknowable in-betweens.
To him, it is all connected. Horizon is a biography and a portrait of some of the world’s most delicate places, but at heart it’s a contemplation of Lopez’s belief that the only way forward is compassionately, and together. Whether that’s possible he doesn’t examine; then again, he describes so many things that don’t seem possible — what’s one more horizon to aim for?
For Lawrence Ferlinghetti, living to be 100 is no fun. Speaking from his home in San Francisco recently, Ferlinghetti said he’s practically blind now — he can’t read, and he’s skipping his big birthday bash at the bookstore he co-founded, City Lights in San Francisco.
“They’re going to have quite a celebration,” he says. “But I won’t be there. It’s no use, my appearing in public, because I couldn’t speak. I mean, I could speak, but on account of my eyesight it would be” — he pauses to laugh — “I don’t know what it would be.”
Nevertheless, Ferlinghetti — who will turn 100 this Sunday, March 24 — has a lot to celebrate. Once a standout poet of the Beat Generation, his bookstore has become a popular landmark and the small press of the same name is still in business after more than 60 years. And he’s just published a new novel.
His 1958 book of poetry A Coney Island of the Mind sold more than a million copies. In it, he compares the horrors depicted in Goya’s paintings of the Napoleonic Wars to scenes of post-World War II America:
“His language and his humor, and the things he was saying were things that appeal to, could be understood by the average man on the street,” Nicosia says. “A poet in the American voice. And that was one of the breakthroughs, of course, of the ’50s, was: taking poetry away from academia, away from this rarified aesthetic language that nobody could understand, and writing in the voice of ordinary people.”
“A bookstore is a natural place for poets to hang out,” Ferlinghetti said. “And they started showing up there.”
City Lights became a magnet for West Coast intellectuals, and later, a tourist destination. Ferlinghetti also started the small press called City Lights Books. In the fall of 1956, he published a little 75-cent paperback: the first edition of “Howl,” by Allen Ginsberg.
“Howl” was a new type of poetry that became an anthem for the nascent counterculture. It begins: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix …”
“‘Howl’ knocked the sides out of things,” Ferlinghetti said. “Just the way rock music in the ’60s knocked the sides out of the old music world.”
“Howl” includes passages of homosexual imagery, and Ferlinghetti was arrested in 1957 on charges of publishing obscene material. After a long federal trial, he was acquitted.
Gerald Nicosia, the critic, says Ferlinghetti’s two greatest accomplishments were fighting censorship, and inaugurating a small press revolution.
“Up until that point, getting published was a difficult thing,” Nicosia says. “If you were a radical, an innovative writer, you would be rebuffed by mainstream publishers. By creating this press out of nothing, City Lights press, he said, ‘Look, you don’t need these big publishers in New York.'”
Ferlinghetti has always been an advocate for the underdog, in part because of his own life story — and it’s a tale right out of Dickens. His father died shortly before he was he was born, and his mother was committed to a mental hospital shortly after. He was raised by an aunt, and then by foster parents.
His new autobiographical novel, Little Boy, begins like this: “Little Boy was quite lost. He had no idea who he was or where he had come from.”
Ferlinghetti enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor. He served as an officer at Normandy on D-Day, and at Nagasaki after the atomic bomb. That experience turned him into a lifelong pacifist.
He began writing poetry at a revolutionary time in arts and music. And in 1994, at least, he still believed art could make a difference.
“I really believe that art is capable of the total transformation of the world, and of life itself,” Ferlinghetti said. “And nothing less is really acceptable. So if art is going to have any excuse … beyond being a leisure-class plaything, it has to transform life itself.”
That’s what Lawrence Ferlinghetti has been doing for most of a century. As for the secret to his longevity?
“Have a good laugh and you’ll live longer,” he says, laughing.
Tom Cole edited this story for broadcast.
Critics, however, didn’t consider Ferlinghetti on par with the other Beat writers he called his friends: Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg. Ferlinghetti doesn’t want to talk about his past now, but in 1994, he told me that even though he was raised in New York, he never met those East Coast writers until he moved to San Francisco and opened City Lights.
When I was 24, I watched a small white car through the 4X scope attached to my M240B machine gun. The weapon rested on the wall of a rooftop on the outskirts of the city of Tal Afar, Iraq. The street down which the car drove was otherwise empty, the United States Army having previously informed the citizens of Tal Afar to evacuate their city or find themselves caught between military-strength deadliness and the people toward whom that deadliness was meant to be applied.
Though the day was hot and hazy, and I had been awake for all but a few of the preceding 48 hours, it was unmistakably clear that from a window of the small white car the occupant of the passenger seat had unfurled a white flag of truce. This was plain even without the aid of magnification provided by my scope. Through the scope, I saw a man in the passenger seat and a woman driving. They were old, and though I can’t say with any certainty how old, their age registered immediately as an important characteristic. Old people rarely try to kill American soldiers. I believe this to be both historically true and true in that place and at that time. Old couples waving white flags of truce from windows of small white cars are exceedingly unthreatening, even in a place like Tal Afar in September 2004, where many of the young men were very dangerous, including and perhaps especially us.
Someone said, “What ya got, Powers?” And I said: “Nothing. Just an old couple trying to get out.” There were perhaps a dozen people on that rooftop, some of whom I knew about as well as you can know a person, others whom I had only met a couple of days earlier. I think someone got on the radio but I can’t say that for sure. I do know that none of the people on that rooftop were afraid of the old man and the old woman in the small white car. Some distance away from us, perhaps on another rooftop, another group of soldiers had been watching the same white car, though I did not know that yet.
I don’t remember how much time passed between my saying, “It’s nothing,” and someone in that other group of soldiers opening fire, but it was likely less than 10 seconds. And I don’t know why they did it. But I know that .50-caliber machine-gun rounds tore into the small white car and tore into the old man and the old woman until the small white car stopped moving and the old man and the old woman were both dead. So it goes. They have been dying in my mind every day for the last 14 years. I suspect they will do so until I’ve exhausted my own days on this earth. This is my moment trapped in amber.
I am now 38. I live in a rented house in Pittsboro, N.C., with my wife, my two daughters and my dog. I try to be kind. I try not to hurt people. And though I have just told you all the things I know with certainty about that day in September in Tal Afar, Iraq, when I was 24, I’m still not sure what it means. I don’t know if my being there in that place and at that time makes me a bad person, but on most days I think it means I do not get to claim to be a good one.
There is an eminently useful thought experiment with which I suspect you are familiar. It goes something like, “What would an alien think of ____?” The blank is typically filled in with something like sex, or our destructive relationship to the natural world, or money. War is sometimes used to fill that blank, too. The point of the thought experiment is to invent a kind of critical distance between a particular aspect of human behavior and ourselves, the ones behaving un-self-consciously like humans.
This thought experiment is useful precisely because it forces a perspective so separate, or alien, that with a little luck we gain some insight into why we are the way we are or why we do the things we do, like procreate, or poison our habitat, or hoard digital proxies for paper proxies for bits of rare but not all that rare metals, or watch old people get machine-gunned to death, or firebomb medium-size German cities. I’ve often thought that “Slaughterhouse-Five” is a variation on this kind of thought experiment; it has few if any equals in creating the kind of distance that can offer insight into the mass insanity of modern warfare.
But it is so much more than a uniquely useful thought experiment on war. It is equally remarkable in the innovative way its structure is married to, and made necessary by, the story itself. Just before his capture by the Germans during the war, our hero, Billy Pilgrim, becomes “unstuck in time.” Later in the narrative we learn that this is a consequence of Billy’s subsequent abduction by Tralfamadorians, aliens who happen to be unbound by the normal limitations of time and space. Through this ingenuous device Kurt Vonnegut shows the past as an irresistible force, particularly in the case of those who have trauma at the center of their experience.
The war intrudes on Billy’s later life in a way that will be immediately familiar to those who have fought in one. His past arrives without invitation, bouncing between the war, his childhood and his unremarkable later life as an optometrist, which is itself punctuated by visits to mental and veterans hospitals. As the narrative progresses we begin to understand that for a man who has witnessed the horrors that Billy has, the Tralfamadorians’ belief that the past, present and future are merely the primitive notions of Earthlings starts to sound like a comforting explanation for the intrusive nature of traumatic experience.
This all may sound very strange to you. It is, beautifully strange. But let me be more direct about what I really think this book is. “Slaughterhouse-Five” is wisdom literature. It is a book of awe and humbling clarity. Its lessons are so simple that by adulthood most of us have forgotten or taken them for granted only to be stunned upon being reacquainted with their fundamental gravity.
Through the little green eyes of Billy Pilgrim’s Tralfamadorian captors, we see ourselves as mere human beings, mortal animals utterly stripped of our pretensions. Our crimes become both monumental and quotidian. Our grief and our destiny both inevitable. This may sound cynical or nihilistic, but I would argue that this book is among the most humane works of art ever created. It is concerned with and dedicated to the alleviation and prevention of human suffering in the face of its inevitability, and I can think of no braver moral position to take than that one. I’ve relied on it as a touchstone in my life. You can have Job. I’ll throw in my lot with Billy Pilgrim.
In the singularly brilliant introductory chapter, Vonnegut tells us in his own voice how he came to write this book. It was born from his experiences as a young Army private taken prisoner in World War II, witness to both the brutality of the German war machine and the catastrophic Allied firebombing of Dresden. Near the end of the chapter he writes the following: “I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee. I have also told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that.”
This is merely one example of Vonnegut’s unmatched moral clarity. He, more than any other writer I can think of, could cut through cant and sophistry and dissembling to expose our collective self-deceptions for what they are. His sentences are accusations that let you keep your dignity. And for those of us who recognize ourselves in those accusations, that generosity is a rare gift. Few among us will ever write something so plainly and undeniably true that its honesty feels provocative even 50 years after it first appears in print, but Vonnegut did when he wrote “Slaughterhouse-Five.” I, for one, am grateful it exists.
Kevin Powers is the author of two novels, “The Yellow Birds,” a National Book Award finalist, and “A Shout in the Ruins,” as well as a poetry collection, “Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting.”