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Some Amazing Words by Kurt Vonnegut from the Beginning for Palm Sunday

I am listening to the audio book of Palm Sunday by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and the beginning and introduction is so painfully good that I really want to share it with you! Hi ho.
Some Amazing Words by Kurt Vonnegut from the Beginning for Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday by Kurt Vonnegut

Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage by Kurt Vonnegut

THIS is a very great book by an American genius. I have worked so hard on
   this masterpiece for the past six years. I have groaned and banged my head
   on radiators. I have walked through every hotel lobby in New York,
   thinking about this book and weeping, and driving my fist into the guts of
   grandfather clocks.

   It is a marvelous new literary form. This book combines the tidal power of
   a major novel with the bone-rattling immediacy of front-line
   journalism-which is old stuff now, God knows, God knows. But I have also
   intertwined the flashy enthusiasms of musical theater, the lethal left jab
   of the short story, the sachet of personal letters, the oompah of American
   history, and oratory in the bow-wow style.

   This book is so broad and deep that it reminds me of my brother Bernard's
   early experiments with radio. He built a transmitter of his own invention,
   and he hooked it up to a telegraph key, and he turned it on. He called up
   our cousin Richard, about two miles away, and he told Richard to listen to
   his radio, to tune it back and forth across the band, to see if he could
   pick up my brother's signals anywhere. They were both about fifteen.

   My brother tapped out an easily recognizable message, sending it again and
   again and again. It was "SOS." This was in Indianapolis, the world's
   largest city not on a navigable waterway.

   Cousin Richard telephoned back. He was thrilled. He said that Bernard's
   signals were loud and clear simply everywhere on the radio band, drowning
   out music or news or drama, or whatever the commercial stations were
   putting out at the time.

   THIS is certainly that kind of masterpiece, and a new name should be
   created for such an all-frequencies assault on the sensibilities. I
   propose the name blivit. This is a word which during my adolescence was
   defined by peers as "two pounds of shit in a one-pound bag."

   I would not mind if books simpler than this one, but combining fiction and
   fact, were also called blivits. This would encourage The New York Times
   Book Review to establish a third category for best sellers, one long
   needed, in my opinion. If there were a separate list for blivits, then
   authors of blivits could stop stepping in the faces of mere novelists and
   historians and so on.

   Until that happy day, however, I insist, as only a great author can, that
   this book be ranked in both the fiction and nonfiction competitions. As
   for the Pulitzer prizes: this book should be eligible for a mega-grand
   slam, sweeping fiction, drama, history, biography, and journalism. We will
   wait and see.

   THIS book is not only a blivit but a collage. It began with my wish to
   collect in one volume most of the reviews and speeches and essays I had
   written since the publication of a similar collection, Wampeters, Foma &
   Granfalloons, in 1974. But as I arranged those fragments in this order and
   then that one, I saw that they formed a sort of autobiography, especially
   if I felt free to include some pieces not written by me. To give life to
   such a golem, however, I would have to write much new connective tissue.
   This I have done.

   The reader should expect me to chat about this and that, and then to
   include a speech or a letter or a song or whatever, and then to chat some

   I do not really consider this to be a masterpiece. I find it clumsy. I
   find it raw. It has some value, I think, as a confrontation between an
   American novelist and his own stubborn simplicity. I was dumb in school.
   Whatever the nature of that dumbness, it is with me still.

   I have dedicated this book to the de St. Andres. I am a de St. Andre,
   since that was the maiden name of a maternal great-grandmother of mine. My
   mother believed that this meant that she was descended from nobles of some

   This was an innocent belief, and so should not be mocked or scorned. Or so
   I say. My books so far have argued that most human behavior, no matter how
   ghastly or ludicrous or glorious or whatever, is innocent. And here seems
   as good a place as any to include a statement made to me by Marsha Mason,
   the superb actress who once did me the honor of starring in a play of
   mine. She, too, is from the Middle West, from St. Louis.

   "You know what the trouble is with New York?" she asked me.

   "No," I said.

   "Nobody here," she said, "believes that there is such a thing as

                        Whoever entertains liberal views

                     and chooses a consort that is captured

                       by superstition risks his liberty

                               and his happiness.

                         -CLEMENS VONNEGUT (1824-1906)

                             Instruction in Morals

                             (The Hollenbeck Press,

                              Indianapolis, 1900)

                              THE FIRST AMENDMENT

   I am a member of what I believe to be the last recognizable generation of
   full-time, life-time American novelists. We appear to be standing more or
   less in a row. It was the Great Depression which made us similarly edgy
   and watchful. It was World War II which lined us up so nicely, whether we
   were men or women, whether we were ever in uniform or not. It was an era
   of romantic anarchy in publishing which gave us money and mentors,
   willy-nilly, when we were young -while we learned our craft. Words printed
   on pages were still the principal form of long-distance communication and
   stored information in America when we were young. No more.

   Nor are there many publishers and editors and agents left who are eager to
   find some way to get money and other forms of encouragement to young
   writers who write as clumsily as members of my literary generation did
   when we started out. The wild and wonderful and expensive guess was made
   back then that we might acquire some wisdom and learn how to write halfway
   decently by and by. Writers were needed that much back then.

   It was an amusing and instructive time for writers-for hundreds of them.

   Television wrecked the short-story branch of the industry, and now
   accountants and business school graduates dominate book publishing. They
   feel that money spent on someone's first novel is good money down a rat
   hole. They are right. It almost always is.

   So, as I say, I think I belong to America's last generation of novelists.
   Novelists will come one by one from now on, not in seeming families, and
   will perhaps write only one or two novels, and let it go at that. Many
   will have inherited or married money.

   The most influential of my bunch, in my opinion, is still J. D. Salinger,
   although he has been silent for years. The most promising was perhaps
   Edward Lewis Wallant, who died so young. And it is my thinking about the
   death of James Jones two years ago, who was not all that young, who was
   almost exactly my age, which accounts for the autumnal mood of this book.
   There have been other reminders of my own mortality, to be sure, but the
   death of Jones is central -perhaps because I see his widow Gloria so often
   and because he, too, was a self-educated midwesterner, and because he,
   too, in a major adventure for all of us, which was the Second World War,
   had been an enlisted man. And let it here be noted that the best-known
   members of my literary generation, if they wrote about war, almost
   unanimously despised officers and made heroes of sketchily educated,
   aggressively unaristocratic enlisted men.

   JAMES JONES told me one time that his publisher and Ernest Hemingway's,
   Charles Scribner's Sons, had once hoped to get Jones and Hemingway
   together-so that they could enjoy each other's company as old warriors.

   Jones declined, by his own account, because he did not regard Hemingway as
   a fellow soldier. He said Hemingway in wartime was free to come and go
   from the fighting as he pleased, and to take time off for a fine meal or
   woman or whatever. Real soldiers, according to Jones, damn well had to
   stay where they were told, or go where they were told, and eat swill, and
   take the worst the enemy had to throw at them day after day, week after

   IT may be that the most striking thing about members of my literary
   generation in retrospect will be that we were allowed to say absolutely
   anything without fear of punishment. Our American heirs may find it
   incredible, as most foreigners do right now, that a nation would want to
   enforce as a law something which sounds more like a dream, which reads as

   "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or
   prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of the
   press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition
   the Government for a redress of grievances."

   How could a nation with such a law raise its children in an atmosphere of
   decency? It couldn't-it can't. So the law will surely be repealed soon for
   the sake of children.

   And even now my books, along with books by Bernard Malamud and James
   Dickey and Joseph Heller and many other first-rate patriots, are regularly
   thrown out of public-school libraries by school board members, who
   commonly say that they have not actually read the books, but that they
   have it on good authority that the books are bad for children.

   MY novel Slaughterhouse-Five was actually burned in a furnace by a school
   janitor in Drake, North Dakota, on instructions from the school committee
   there, and the school board made public statements about the
   unwholesomeness of the book. Even by the standards of Queen Victoria, the
   only offensive line in the entire novel is this: "Get out of the road, you
   dumb motherfucker." This is spoken by an American antitank gunner to an
   unarmed American chaplain's assistant during the Battle of the Bulge in
   Europe in December 1944, the largest single defeat of American arms (the
   Confederacy excluded) in history. The chaplain's assistant had attracted
   enemy fire.

   So on November 16, 1973, I wrote as follows to Charles McCarthy of Drake,
   North Dakota:

   Dear Mr. McCarthy:

   I am writing to you in your capacity as chairman of the Drake School
   Board. I am among those American writers whose books have been destroyed
   in the now famous furnace of your school.

   Certain members of your community have suggested that my work is evil.
   This is extraordinarily insulting to me. The news from Drake indicates to
   me that books and writers are very unreal to you people. I am writing this
   letter to let you know how real I am.

   I want you to know, too, that my publisher and I have done absolutely
   nothing to exploit the disgusting news from Drake. We are not clapping
   each other on the back, crowing about all the books we will sell because
   of the news. We have declined to go on television, have written no fiery
   letters to editorial pages, have granted no lengthy interviews. We are
   angered and sickened and saddened. And no copies of this letter have been
   sent to anybody else. You now hold the only copy in your hands. It is a
   strictly private letter from me to the people of Drake, who have done so
   much to damage my reputation in the eyes of their children and then in the
   eyes of the world. Do you have the courage and ordinary decency to show
   this letter to the people, or will it, too, be consigned to the fires of
   your furnace?

   I gather from what I read in the papers and hear on television that you
   imagine me, and some other writers, too, as being sort of ratlike people
   who enjoy making money from poisoning the minds of young people. I am in
   fact a large, strong person, fifty-one years old, who did a lot of farm
   work as a boy, who is good with tools. I have raised six children, three
   my own and three adopted. They have all turned out well. Two of them are
   farmers. I am a combat infantry veteran from World War II, and hold a
   Purple Heart. I have earned whatever I own by hard work. I have never been
   arrested or sued for anything. I am so much trusted with young people and
   by young people that I have served on the faculties of the University of
   Iowa, Harvard, and the City College of New York. Every year I receive at
   least a dozen invitations to be commencement speaker at colleges and high
   schools. My books are probably more widely used in schools than those of
   any other living American fiction writer.

   If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons
   would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor
   of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more
   responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters
   speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life.
   Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most
   sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words
   really don't damage children much. They didn't damage us when we were
   young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.

   After I have said all this, I am sure you are still ready to respond, in
   effect, "Yes, yes-but it still remains our right and our responsibility to
   decide what books our children are going to be made to read in our
   community." This is surely so. But it is also true that if you exercise
   that right and fulfill that responsibility in an ignorant, harsh,
   un-American manner, then people are entitled to call you bad citizens and
   fools. Even your own children are entitled to call you that.

   I read in the newspaper that your community is mystified by the outcry
   from all over the country about what you have done. Well, you have
   discovered that Drake is a part of American civilization, and your fellow
   Americans can't stand it that you have behaved in such an uncivilized way.
   Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred to free men for
   very good reasons, and that wars have been fought against nations which
   hate books and burn them. If you are an American, you must allow all ideas
   to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.

   If you and your board are now determined to show that you in fact have
   wisdom and maturity when you exercise your powers over the education of
   your young, then you should acknowledge that it was a rotten lesson you
   taught young people in a free society when you denounced and then burned
   books-books you hadn't even read. You should also resolve to expose your
   children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will
   be better equipped to make decisions and to survive.

   Again: you have insulted me, and I am a good citizen, and I am very real.

   THAT was seven years ago. There has so far been no reply. At this very
   moment, as I write in New York City, Slaughterhouse-Five has been banned
   from school libraries not fifty miles from here. A legal battle begun
   several years ago rages on. The school board in question has found lawyers
   eager to attack the First Amendment tooth and nail. There is never a
   shortage anywhere of lawyers eager to attack the First Amendment, as
   though it were nothing more than a clause in a lease from a crooked

   At the start of that particular litigation, on March 24th of 1976, I wrote
   a comment for the Op-Ed page of the Long Island edition of The New York
   Times. It went like this:

   A school board has denounced some books again-out in Levittown this time.
   One of the books was mine. I hear about --> un[Author:I] -American
   nonsense like this twice a year or so. One time out in North Dakota, the
   books were actually burned in a furnace. I had a laugh. It was such an
   ignorant, dumb, superstitious thing to do.

   It was so cowardly, too-to make a great show of attacking artifacts. It
   was like St. George attacking bedspreads and cuckoo clocks.

   Yes, and St. Georges like that seem to get elected or appointed to school
   committees all the time. They are actually proud of their illiteracy. They
   imagine that they are somehow celebrating the bicentennial when they
   boast, as some did in Levittown, that they hadn't actually read the books
   they banned.

   Such lunks are often the backbone of volunteer fire departments and the
   United States Infantry and cake sales and so on, and they have been
   thanked often enough for that. But they have no business supervising the
   educations of children in a free society. They are just too bloody stupid.

   Here is how I propose to end book-banning in this country once and for
   all: Every candidate for school committee should be hooked up to a
   lie-detector and asked this question: "Have you read a book from start to
   finish since high school? Or did you even read a book from start to finish
   in high school?"

   If the truthful answer is "no," then the candidate should be told politely
   that he cannot get on the school committee and blow off his big bazoo
   about how books make children crazy.

   Whenever ideas are squashed in this country, literate lovers of the
   American experiment write careful and intricate explanations of why all
   ideas must be allowed to live. It is time for them to realize that they
   are attempting to explain America at its bravest and most optimistic to

   From now on, I intend to limit my discourse with dim-witted Savonarolas to
   this advice: "Have somebody read the First Amendment to the United States
   Constitution out loud to you, you God damned fool!"

   Well-the American Civil Liberties Union or somebody like that will come to
   the scene of trouble, as they always do. They will explain what is in the
   Constitution, and to whom it applies.

   They will win.

   And there will be millions who are bewildered and heartbroken by the legal
   victory, who think some things should never be said-especially about

   They are in the wrong place at the wrong time.

   Hi ho.

   WHY is it so ordinary for American citizens to show such scorn for the
   First Amendment? I discussed that some at a fund raiser for the American
   Civil Liberties Union at Sands Point, New York, out on Long Island, on
   September 16, 1979. The house where I spoke, incidentally, was said to be
   the model for Gatsby's house in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. I
   saw no reason to doubt the claim. I said this in such a setting:

   "I will not speak directly to the ejection of my book Slaughterhouse-Five
   from the school libraries of Island Trees. I have a vested interest. I
   wrote the book, after all, so why wouldn't I argue that it is less
   repulsive than the school board says?

   "I will speak of Thomas Aquinas instead. I will tell you my dim memories
   of what he said about the hierarchy of laws on this planet, which was flat
   at the time. The highest law, he said, was divine law, God's law. Beneath
   that was natural law, which I suppose would include thunderstorms, and our
   right to shield our children from poisonous ideas, and so on.

   "And the lowest law was human law.

   "Let me clarify this scheme by comparing its parts to playing cards.
   Enemies of the Bill of Rights do the same sort of thing all the time, so
   why shouldn't we? Divine law, then, is an ace. Natural law is a king. The
   Bill of Rights is a lousy queen.

   "The Thomist hierarchy of laws is so far from being ridiculous that I have
   never met anybody who did not believe in it right down to the marrow of
   his or her bones. Everybody knows that there are laws with more grandeur
   than those which are printed in our statute books. The big trouble is that
   there is so little agreement as to how those grander laws are worded.
   Theologians can give us hints of the wording, but it takes a dictator to
   set them down just right-to dot the /'s and cross the /'s. A man who had
   been a mere corporal in the army did that for Germany and then for all of
   Europe, you may remember, not long ago. There was nothing he did not know
   about divine and natural law. He had fistfuls of aces and kings to play.

   "Meanwhile, over on this side of the Atlantic, we were not playing with a
   full deck, as they say. Because of our Constitution, the highest card
   anybody had to play was a lousy queen, contemptible human law. That
   remains true today. I myself celebrate that incompleteness, since it has
   obviously been so good for us. I support the American Civil Liberties
   Union because it goes to court to insist that our government officials be
   guided by nothing grander than human law. Every time the circulation of
   this idea or that one is discouraged by an official in this country, that
   official is scorning the Constitution, and urging all of us to participate
   in far grander systems, again: divine or natural law.

   "Cannot we, as libertarians, hunger for at least a little natural law?
   Can't we learn from nature at least, without being burdened by another
   person's idea of God?

   "Certainly. Granola never harmed anybody, nor the birds and bees-not to
   mention milk. God is unknowable, but nature is explaining herself all the
   time. What has she told us so far? That blacks are obviously inferior to
   whites, for one thing, and intended for menial work on white man's terms.
   This clear lesson from nature, we should remind ourselves from time to
   time, allowed Thomas Jefferson to own slaves. Imagine that.

   "What troubles me most about my lovely country is that its children are
   seldom taught that American freedom will vanish, if, when they grow up,
   and in the exercise of their duties as citizens, they insist that our
   courts and policemen and prisons be guided by divine or natural law.

   "Most teachers and parents and guardians do not teach this vital lesson
   because they themselves never learned it, or because they dare not. Why
   dare they not? People can get into a lot of trouble in this country, and
   often have to be defended by the American Civil Liberties Union, for
   laying the groundwork for the lesson, which is this: That no one really
   understands nature or God. It is my willingness to lay this groundwork,
   and not sex or violence, which has got my poor book in such trouble in
   Island Trees-and in Drake, North Dakota, where the book was burned, and in
   many other communities too numerous to mention.

   "I have not said that our government is anti-nature and anti-God. I have
   said that it is non-nature and non-God, for very good reasons that could
   curl your hair.

   "Well-all good things must come to an end, they say. So American freedom
   will come to an end, too, sooner or later. How will it end? As all
   freedoms end: by the surrender of our destinies to the highest laws.

   "To return to my foolish analogy of playing cards: kings and aces will be
   played. Nobody else will have anything higher than a queen.

   "There will be a struggle between those holding kings and aces. The
   struggle will not end, not that the rest of us will care much by then,
   until somebody plays the ace of spades. Nothing beats the ace of spades.

   "I thank you for your attention."

   I spoke at Gatsby's house in the afternoon. When I got back to my own
   house in New York City, I wrote a letter to a friend in the Soviet Union,
   Felix Kuznetzov, a distinguished critic and teacher, and an officer in the
   Union of Writers of the USSR in Moscow. The date on the letter is the same
   as the date of the Sands Point oration.

   There was a time when I might have been half-bombed on booze when writing
   such a letter so late at night, a time when I might have reeked of mustard
   gas and roses as I punched the keys. But I don't drink anymore. Never in
   my life have I written anything for publication while sozzled. But I
   certainly used to write a lot of letters that way.

   No more.

   Be that as it may, I was sober then and am sober now, and Felix Kuznetzov
   and I had become friends during the previous summer-at an ecumenical
   meeting in New York City, sponsored by the Charles F. Kettering
   Foundation, of American and Soviet literary persons, about ten to a side.
   The American delegation was headed by Norman Cousins, and included myself
   and Edward Albee and Arthur Miller and William Styron and John Updike. All
   of us had been published in the Soviet Union. I am almost entirely in
   print over there-with the exception of Mother Night and Jailbird. Few, if
   any, of the Soviet delegates had had anything published here, and so their
   work was unknown to us.

   We Americans were told by the Soviets that we should be embarrassed that
   their country published so much of our work, and that we published so
   little of theirs. Our reply was that we would work to get more of them
   published over here, but that we felt, too, that the USSR could easily
   have put together a delegation whose works were admired and published
   here-and that we could easily have put together a delegation so unfamiliar
   to them that its members could have been sewer commissioners from Fresno,
   as far as anybody in the Soviet Union knew.

   Felix Kuznetzov and I got along very well, at any rate. I had him over to
   my house, and we sat in my garden out back and talked away the better part
   of an afternoon.

   But then, after everybody went home, there was some trouble in the Soviet
   Union about the publication of an outlaw magazine called Metropole. Most
   of Metropole's writers and editors were young, impatient with the
   strictures placed on their writings by old poops. Nothing in Metropole,
   incidentally, was nearly as offensive as calling a chaplain's assist -->
   ant[Author:I] a "dumb motherfucker." But the Metropole people were
   denounced, and the magazine was suppressed, and ways were discussed for
   making life harder for anyone associated with it.

   So Albee and Styron and Updike and I sent a cable to the Writers' Union,
   saying that we thought it was wrong to penalize writers for what they
   wrote, no matter what they wrote. Felix Kuznetzov made an official reply
   on behalf of the union, giving the sense of a large meeting in which
   distinguished writer after distinguished writer testified that those who
   wrote for Metropole weren't really writers, that they were pornographers
   and other sorts of disturbers of the peace, and so on. He asked that his
   reply be published in The New York Times, and it was published there. Why

   And I privately wrote to Kuznetzov as follows:

   Dear Professor Kuznetzov-dear Felix-

   I thank you for your prompt and frank and thoughtful letter of August 20,
   and for the supplementary materials which accompanied it. I apologize for
   not replying in your own beautiful language, and I wish that we both might
   have employed from the first a more conversational tone in our discussion
   of the Metropole affair. I will try to recapture the amiable, brotherly
   mood of our long talk in my garden here about a year ago.

   You speak of us in your letter as "American authors." We do not feel
   especially American in this instance, since we spoke only for
   ourselves-without consulting with any American institution whatsoever. We
   are simply "authors" in this case, expressing loyalty to the great and
   vulnerable family of writers throughout the world. You and all other
   members of the Union of Writers surely have the same family feelings.
   Those of us who sent the cable are so far from being organized that I have
   no idea what sorts of replies the others may be making to you.

   As you must know, your response to our cable was printed recently in The
   New York Times, and perhaps elsewhere. The controversy has attracted
   little attention. It is a matter of interest, seemingly, only to other
   writers. Nobody cares much about writers but writers. And, if it weren't
   for a few of us like the signers of the cable, I wonder if there would be
   anybody to care about writers-no matter how much trouble they were in.
   Should we, too, stop caring?

   Well-I understand that our cultures are so different that we can never
   agree about freedom of expression. It is natural that we should disagree,
   and perhaps even commendable. What you may not know about our own culture
   is that writers such as those who signed the cable are routinely attacked
   by fellow citizens as being pornographers or corrupters of children and
   celebrators of violence and persons of no talent and so on. In my own
   case, such charges are brought against my works in court several times a
   year, usually by parents who, for religious or political reasons, do not
   want their children to read what I have to say. The parents, incidentally,
   often find their charges supported by the lowest courts. The charges so
   far have been invariably overthrown in higher courts, those closer to the
   soul of the Constitution of the United States.

   Please convey the contents of this letter to my brothers and sisters in
   the Writers' Union, as we conveyed your letter to The New York Times. This
   letter is specifically for you, to do with as you please. I am not sending
   carbon copies to anyone. It has not even been read by my wife.

   That homely detail, if brought to the attention of the -->
   Writers[Author:I] ' Union, might help its members to understand what I do
   not think is at all well understood now: That we are not nationalists,
   taking part in some cold-war enterprise. We simply care deeply about how
   things are going for writers here, there, and everywhere. Even when they
   are declared nonwriters, as we have been, we continue to care.

   KUZNETZOV gave me a prompt and likewise private answer. It was gracious
   and humane. I could assume that we were still friends. He said nothing
   against his union or his government. Neither did he say anything to
   discourage me from feeling that writers everywhere, good and bad, were all
   first cousins-first cousins, at least.

   And all the argle-bargling that goes on between educated persons in the
   United States and the Soviet Union is so touching and comical, really, as
   long as it does not lead to war. It draws its energy, in my opinion, from
   a desperate wish on both sides that each other's Utopias should work much
   better than they do. We want to tinker with theirs, to make it work much
   better than it does-so that people there, for example, can say whatever
   they please without fear of punishment. They want to tinker with ours, so
   that everybody here who wants a job can have one, and so that we don't
   have to tolerate the sales of fist-fucking films and snuff films and so

   Neither Utopia now works much better than the Page typesetting machine, in
   which Mark Twain invested and lost a fortune. That beautiful contraption
   actually set type just once, when only Twain and the inventor were
   watching. Twain called all the other investors to see this miracle, but,
   by the time they got there, the inventor had taken the machine all apart
   again. It never ran again.


Analysis of the Excerpt

Kurt Vonnegut's "Palm Sunday" serves as a collection of essays, speeches, and reflections, offering a glimpse into the author's insights on various subjects. The excerpt in question centers around an interaction between American and Soviet writers, facilitated by the Charles F. Kettering Foundation. It delves into the authors' relationship with the state and society and, most prominently, the freedom of speech. By examining the dynamics between the American and Soviet authors, this analysis seeks to unravel Vonnegut's perspectives on freedom of expression within different cultural contexts.

Freedom of Speech in Context

  1. Cultural Relativism: The excerpt begins with a stark contrast between how freedom of speech is perceived and exercised in the American and Soviet contexts. Vonnegut highlights the Soviet state's stricter control over literary expression while pointing out that the American authors also face criticism and legal challenges.

  2. Solidarity among Writers: An underlying theme in this passage is the sense of camaraderie among writers across national boundaries. Vonnegut emphasizes that writers form a "great and vulnerable family," insinuating that freedom of speech is a universal concern transcending politics and geography.

  3. The Metropole Affair: This incident becomes the focal point of the excerpt, serving as a microcosm of the broader issues surrounding freedom of speech. The suppression of the magazine "Metropole" and subsequent exchange between the American authors and the Soviet Writers' Union illuminates the ideological divides and the way those divides are manifested in literary expression.

Analysis of Key Themes

  1. Negotiation of Freedom: Vonnegut's engagement with his Soviet counterpart, Felix Kuznetzov, illustrates a negotiation between two different conceptions of freedom. While the Americans advocate for unrestricted freedom of expression, the Soviets highlight the need for social responsibility, thus unveiling the complex dynamics between individual liberty and social cohesion.

  2. The Universality and Particularity of Freedom: The excerpt acknowledges that freedom of speech is universally valued but is enacted and restricted differently across cultures. Vonnegut conveys this through the comparison of American and Soviet reactions to different types of offensive material.

  3. The Role of Writers as Advocates: Vonnegut portrays writers as both creators and advocates, emphasizing their role in defending freedom of speech. By siding with the suppressed authors of "Metropole," Vonnegut asserts that writers must stand up for one another, recognizing a shared struggle.

  4. Utopian Ideals: The closing metaphor of the Page typesetting machine symbolizes the idealistic pursuits of both nations and their respective failures. This allegory resonates with the theme of freedom of speech, indicating that the quest for a perfect realization of this freedom is fraught with complications.


The excerpt from "Palm Sunday" presents a nuanced view of freedom of speech, scrutinizing it through the lens of cultural, political, and literary contexts. Vonnegut's narration draws attention to the complexities and contradictions inherent in the understanding and implementation of this fundamental right. Through dialogues, controversies, and metaphorical reflections, Vonnegut navigates the reader through a landscape where freedom of speech is simultaneously universal and specific, an ideal to strive for and a reality to grapple with. His perspective underscores the humanistic values that unite writers across ideological divides, advocating for empathy, solidarity, and continual striving for a more perfect expression of freedom.

In-depth Exploration of "Palm Sunday"

Historical and Literary Context

  • Post-War America and Vonnegut: Born in 1922, Vonnegut's formative experiences, including his time as a prisoner of war during WWII, deeply influenced his writing. The post-war era, characterized by rapid technological advancements, the Cold War, and existential uncertainty, provided a rich tapestry against which Vonnegut's themes of humanism, existential dread, and skepticism toward progress unfolded. "Palm Sunday" reflects these themes, weaving together personal narrative with broader societal critique.
  • Evolution of American Literature: Vonnegut emerged during a time when American literature was grappling with its identity amidst global upheavals. His work, including "Palm Sunday," can be seen as a bridge between the modernist endeavors of the early 20th century and the postmodernist explorations that characterized its latter half. Vonnegut's blend of satire, science fiction, and autobiography in "Palm Sunday" underscores his unique position in the literary landscape, challenging traditional genre boundaries.

Themes and Styles in "Palm Sunday"

  • Autobiography as Collage: "Palm Sunday" stands out for its format—a collage of essays, speeches, and personal reflections. This structure mirrors Vonnegut's view of life as a series of interconnected stories and ideas, rather than a linear narrative. It allows him to explore diverse themes from censorship to the meaning of community, all while maintaining a conversational tone that invites readers into a dialogue.
  • Critique of Censorship and Advocacy for Free Speech: A recurring theme in Vonnegut's work is his staunch defense of free speech, a principle he saw as under threat in both his contemporary society and in historical contexts. Through "Palm Sunday," Vonnegut engages with this theme by recounting instances of censorship and emphasizing the importance of protecting artistic and intellectual freedoms.
  • The Role of the Writer: Vonnegut consistently pondered the writer's role in society, a theme evident throughout "Palm Sunday." He positions writers as essential observers and critics of their times, tasked with challenging societal norms and advocating for truth. This book serves as a manifesto for the engaged writer, one who uses humor, irony, and moral inquiry to reflect on the human condition.

Vonnegut's Legacy and Influence

  • Influence on Future Generations: "Palm Sunday" not only encapsulates Vonnegut's legacy but also offers a blueprint for future writers on engaging with society's moral and ethical dilemmas. His ability to combine personal narrative with broader societal critique has influenced countless authors, encouraging a style of writing that is at once deeply personal and universally relevant.
  • Reflections on Morality and Human Nature: Through the various pieces included in "Palm Sunday," Vonnegut explores enduring questions about morality, human nature, and the search for meaning in an often-chaotic world. His reflections provide a window into his worldview—one marked by a skepticism of easy answers and a deep empathy for the human plight.

Conclusion "Palm Sunday" is more than just an autobiographical work; it's a microcosm of Kurt Vonnegut's broader literary contributions and philosophical musings. By blending personal history with cultural commentary, Vonnegut crafted a work that reflects on the complexities of the 20th century and the timeless challenges of the human condition. Through this exploration, readers gain not only insight into Vonnegut's mind but also a deeper understanding of the societal forces that shape our collective narratives.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is "Palm Sunday" by Kurt Vonnegut about? "Palm Sunday" is an autobiographical collage by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. that blends a variety of literary forms, including essays, speeches, and personal reflections. It delves into Vonnegut's life, his views on society, literature, and the intersection of personal and political realms.

How does Vonnegut address freedom of speech in "Palm Sunday"? Vonnegut champions freedom of speech as a fundamental American value, critiquing both its suppression in the Soviet Union and challenges within the United States. He emphasizes the importance of protecting this right against censorship and societal pressures.

What significance does the Metropole affair hold in Vonnegut's narrative? The Metropole affair, involving the suppression of a Soviet magazine, serves as a case study for discussing the limitations on freedom of expression. It illustrates the struggles writers face in advocating for artistic freedom and the importance of solidarity among the international literary community.

How does Vonnegut perceive the role of writers in society? Vonnegut views writers as essential advocates for freedom and truth. He believes they have a responsibility to challenge censorship, support one another, and engage with societal issues, demonstrating the power of words to influence change.

What does Vonnegut imply about cultural differences in understanding freedom? He suggests that while the value of freedom is universal, its interpretation and implementation can vary significantly across cultures. This disparity highlights the ongoing dialogue between differing perspectives on freedom and expression.

Who was Kurt Vonnegut and what is his significance in American literature? Kurt Vonnegut (1922–2007) was an American writer known for his satirical and science fiction works. His experiences as a World War II veteran and prisoner of war deeply influenced his perspective and thematic concerns, particularly his skepticism of authority and his critique of war. Vonnegut's unique blend of humor, science fiction, and philosophical musings on humanity's plight has made him a pivotal figure in American literature.

What role did Vonnegut's experiences during World War II play in his writing? Vonnegut's experiences during World War II, especially surviving the Dresden bombing as a POW, profoundly shaped his worldview and literary output. These experiences provided a critical lens through which he viewed the absurdity of war, the fragility of life, and the importance of empathy, themes recurrent in his works, including the famous "Slaughterhouse-Five."

How does "Palm Sunday" reflect Vonnegut's views on society and government? "Palm Sunday" is an autobiographical collage that offers insight into Vonnegut's views on society, government, and the individual's role within these structures. Through essays, speeches, and reflections, Vonnegut criticizes censorship, champions freedom of speech, and reflects on the responsibilities of writers to challenge societal norms and government policies.

Can you elaborate on the historical context of the Metropole affair mentioned in "Palm Sunday"? The Metropole affair refers to a controversy surrounding the publication of a Soviet magazine that pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable under Soviet censorship laws. This incident, although specific to the Soviet Union, is used by Vonnegut to discuss broader issues of censorship, freedom of expression, and the universal challenges faced by writers in oppressive political climates.

What does Vonnegut mean by "a blivit" and how does this concept relate to "Palm Sunday"? Vonnegut humorously defines "a blivit" as "two pounds of shit in a one-pound bag," using this concept to describe "Palm Sunday" as a work that defies conventional literary categorization by combining fiction, non-fiction, and various other forms. This term reflects Vonnegut's disdain for traditional constraints and his desire to explore the full range of human experience in his writing.

How did Vonnegut's views on freedom of speech and censorship compare to contemporary discussions on these topics? Vonnegut was a staunch defender of freedom of speech, often clashing with censorship and conservative social norms. His advocacy for unrestricted expression and critique of censorship remain relevant in contemporary discussions, especially in debates over the balance between free speech and societal harm, internet regulation, and the role of social media in public discourse.

In what ways did Vonnegut's writing style and approach to storytelling influence future generations of writers? Vonnegut's unique narrative style, which combined satire, science fiction, and postmodern techniques, along with his ability to address profound philosophical questions with humor and simplicity, has influenced countless writers. His approach to storytelling, which often broke the fourth wall and played with narrative structure, paved the way for innovative narrative techniques in contemporary literature.

Glossary of Terms

  • Autobiographical Collage: A literary form that combines elements of autobiography with various other styles, such as essays and speeches, to create a comprehensive portrait of the author's life and thoughts.
  • Freedom of Speech: The right to express one's opinions without censorship or restraint by the government, considered a foundational aspect of democracy.
  • Censorship: The suppression or prohibition of any parts of books, films, news, etc., that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable, or a threat to security.
  • Metropole Affair: A reference to an incident involving censorship and suppression within the Soviet Union, used by Vonnegut to discuss broader themes of artistic freedom and expression.
  • Solidarity: Unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; mutual support within a group.
  • Cultural Relativism: The idea that a person's beliefs, values, and practices should be understood based on that person's own culture, rather than be judged against the criteria of another.
  • Utopian Ideals: The principles or practices of envisioning and aiming for a perfect society, where everything is ideal, often used in literature to critique current societal flaws.
  • Satire: A genre of literature that uses humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.
  • Science Fiction: A genre of speculative fiction that typically deals with imaginative and futuristic concepts such as advanced science and technology, space exploration, time travel, parallel universes, and extraterrestrial life.
  • Postmodernism: A broad movement that developed in the mid- to late-20th century across philosophy, the arts, architecture, and criticism, marked by a skeptical, self-aware approach to literature, questioning of narratives and conventions, and blending of genres and styles.
  • Dresden Bombing: A controversial Allied aerial bombing during World War II that resulted in the destruction of the city of Dresden, Germany. Vonnegut's experience as a POW during this event deeply influenced his anti-war sentiments.
  • POW (Prisoner of War): A person, whether combatant or non-combatant, who is held in custody by a belligerent power during or immediately after an armed conflict.
  • Censorship: The suppression of speech, public communication, or other information that may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, politically incorrect, or inconvenient as determined by governments, media outlets, authorities, or other groups or institutions.
  • First Amendment: The first amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees freedoms concerning religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition. It forbids Congress from both promoting one religion over others and also restricting an individual's religious practices.
  • Utopia: An imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect. Often used to critique the current state of society and to explore visionary and idealistic possibilities.
  • Blivit: A term humorously coined by Vonnegut to describe "Palm Sunday," indicative of a work that contains more content and complexity than it seems capable of holding, challenging conventional literary forms.