Thursday, April 12, 2007


Kurt Vonnegut, one of the great American writers of the twentieth century, died yesterday of brain injuries sustained when he took a fall a couple of weeks ago. Best known for his novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), inspired by his own experiences as a prisoner of war during the bombing of Dresden near the end of World War II, Vonnegut was one of the major figures of the counterculture movement of the 1960's and 70's. He was a great writer, a great humanist, and a great patriot.

My favorite of his books is Galápagos (1985), the story of a small band of mismatched humans who get shipwrecked on the fictional island of Santa Rosalía in the Galápagos Islands after a global financial crisis has crippled the world's economy. Shortly thereafter, a disease renders all humans on earth infertile, with the exception of the people on Santa Rosalía, making them the last specimens of mankind. They eventually evolve into a species resembling seals: though possibly still able to walk upright (it is not explicitly mentioned, but it is stated that they occasionally catch land animals), they have a snout with teeth adapted for catching fish, a streamlined skull and flipper-like hands with rudimentary fingers. Like all of Vonnegut's books, it reminds us not to take ourselves -- and our species -- too seriously.

Vonnegut was harshly critical of the Bush administration, whom he called "upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography," and he was an outspoken opponent of the war in Iraq. He never lost his edge, even as his health deteriorated in his later years. While he was frequently disappointed by human greed and foolishness, he continued to press for a more humane America, one true to the principles outlined in our Constitution. We'll continue to carry the torch for you, Mr. Vonnegut, even those of us whose skills will never match yours. Thanks for making us laugh, and thanks for reminding us of what America could be, if only we could muster the will.

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