Kurt Vonnegut on the arc of literature

after the war I went to the University of Chicago and studied anthropology, and eventually I took a masters degree in that field. Saul Bellow was in that same department, and neither one of us ever made a field trip. Although we certainly imagined some. I started going to the library in search of reports about ethnographers, preachers, and explorers—those imperialists—to find out what sorts of stories they’d collected from primitive people. It was a big mistake for me to take a degree in anthropology anyway, because I can’t stand primitive people—they’re so stupid. But anyway, I read these stories, one after another, collected from primitive people all over the world, and they were dead level, like the B-E axis here. So all right. Primitive people deserve to lose with their lousy stories. They really are backward. Look at the wonderful rise and fall of our stories.

That is Kurt Vonnegut on timeless literature. This quote makes him out to be a monster. Read the full post; it’s subtly redeeming.

h/t @TimHarford

4 thoughts on “Kurt Vonnegut on the arc of literature

  1. As an interesting aside, he’s really abridging how he got is MA in Anthropology. Here’s a random link I found that contains the key elements:
    He spent the next couple years pursuing an M.A. in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. But his thesis, “Fluctuations Between Good & Evil in Simple Tales”, was declined and the degree was not granted. That was between 1945 and 1947.

    A surprise bonus came in 1971, when Vonnegut belatedly received his M.A. in Anthropology from the University of Chicago: apparently the University decided to accept his novel Cat’s Cradle in lieu of a formal thesis. The book, in which an absentminded scientist accidentally destroys the world by turning all water into ice, also deals with themes of rationalism and science versus the role of mysticism.

  2. I would say that the quote makes him out to be facetious, for anyone that’s ever read a Vonnegut novel and become used to his snide irony

  3. I’m writing Vonnegut’s biography, which will be published next year by Henry Holt & Co….

    In 1947, Vonnegut submitted an ambitious thesis at Chicago on Cubism and Native American art that was turned down. Then he submitted a proposal for a second thesis on how Native American myths were created to account for white conquest. His advisors were very encouraging.

    But what Vonnegut never explained was that he dropped out– he never wrote the thesis. Years later, he submitted “Fluctuations Between Good & Evil in Simple Tales” (written in haste in a few weeks) when he was teaching creative writing at the University of Iowa in 1965 and wanted a college degree. It was rejected: not anthropological enough.

    Finally, having been the offered the opportunity to teach at Harvard provided he had a degree, he submitted Cat’s Cradle in 1971. The department accepted it in lieu of a thesis, but he vilified Chicago for the rest of his life, omitting his failure to, in effect, get with the program.