From “The Nation”: Kurt Vonnegut’s “Why You Can’t Stop Me from Speaking Ill of Thomas Jefferson”

US Army Portrait of Kurt Vonnegut

US Army Portrait of Kurt Vonnegut

BY ELAINE MAGLIARO

Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favorite authors—and his book Slaughterhouse Five is one of my all-time favorite books. I was pleased to see an article written by Vonnegut in the April 14, 2014 edition of The Nation. [NOTE: The article titled Why You Can’t Stop Me from Speaking Ill of Thomas Jefferson was adapted from a speech he made on September 16, 2000, to the Indiana Civil Liberties Union (now known as the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana).] The piece also appears in a collection of Vonnegut’s speeches titled If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? Advice to the Young. The book, edited by Vonnegut’s good friend Dan Wakefield, is to be published by Seven Stories Press this month.

According to Clare Swanson of Publishers Weekly, Donald Farber—the literary executor of Vonnegut’s estate—asked Wakefield “to come from Indianapolis to New York City to sift through cardboard boxes full of the late writer’s belongings. Among the stack of papers, which included rejected short stories from the 1950s, were speeches from the many commencement addresses Vonnegut delivered in his lifetime.”

Swanson said that Wakefield “compiled and edited the speeches, and wrote an introduction, for an e-book called If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? published by RosettaBooks last April.” The book being published this April “consists of nine speeches, seven of which were delivered at university commencements.” It’s has been updated with illustrations from Kurt Vonnegut’s journals.

In Why You Can’t Stop Me from Speaking Ill of Thomas Jefferson, Vonnegut speaks about his experience growing up in a segregated society in Indianapolis, attending an all-white high school, and having had some extraordinary women teachers. He touches on natural law and some other subjects as well.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

To come back to my lily-white high school: it had such a stunning faculty because the Great Depression was going on, so teaching was a plum job for some of the smartest men in town. But even before the stock market crash of 1929, when I was 7, it had great teachers because teaching high school was virtually the only way brilliant and informed women could make effective use of their warmth and intellectual enthusiasm and giftedness. Most of my best teachers were women and, holy smokes, were they ever bright. So why were women barred then from so many jobs they now hold with distinction? Because of what was then believed to be a law of nature, a natural law.

Why were there no African-Americans in my high school? African-Americans had their own high school, of course. It was called Crispus Attucks. And because of the peculiar name of our black high school, people of all colors in Indianapolis were unusual Americans for knowing who Crispus Attucks was. He was an African-American freeman, not a slave, who stopped a British bullet at the Boston Massacre in 1770, only six years before our nation became a beacon of liberty for the whole wide world. In one book of mine, I nicknamed Crispus Attucks High School “Innocent Bystander High.”

Again: Why were there no African-Americans in Shortridge High School? Because of what was then believed to be a law of nature, a natural law. Nature had obviously color-coded people for a reason. Otherwise, what the hell were all these different colors for? And why was Thomas Jefferson, possibly the most beloved of our founding fathers after George Washington, able to write “all men are created equal,” while meaning only white males—not women, God knows—and while owning slaves? Because of what was then believed to be a law of nature. Jefferson’s slaves were mortgaged, by the way. What a shame that you can no longer take the cleaning lady, along with the saxophone, down to the hock shop if you’re short on cash. Those were sure the good old days.

Click here to read the entire article.

SOURCES

Why You Can’t Stop Me From Speaking Ill of Thomas Jefferson (The Nation)

Vonnegut’s Advice to the Young Coming to Print (Publishers Weekly)

This entry was posted in American History, Equal Rights, Literature, Racism, Thomas Jefferson and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to From “The Nation”: Kurt Vonnegut’s “Why You Can’t Stop Me from Speaking Ill of Thomas Jefferson”

  1. eddiestinson says:

    Thanks Elaine,

    When this book was first published much of it went right over my poor head. I’ve read and appreciated many excerpts from it over the years and maybe I should go down to the library and give it another try…………….

    I wonder how many more decades it will take for Americans to embrace the reality the founders and some of their writings need a serious review and updating?

  2. Elaine M. says:

    eddie,

    I plan to get a copy of the book for myself.

  3. Byron says:

    Interesting speech. Progressives and conservatives just think differently on a fundamental level. I am wondering if we are 2 species of humans.

    the wise men and the not so wise men, depending of course on your outlook.

    or maybe the wise men and the wise ass men.

    homo sapiens conservativum
    homo sapiens cascum

  4. Elaine M. says:

    Byron,

    The conservatives of my formative and early adult years were very different from the far-right conservatives on the fringes of the Republican party that are so vocal today. I think there are still many conservatives in the mold of those Republicans that I remember from back in the day. Unfortunately, it’s the wing-nuts like Louie Gohmert and Michele Bachmann who get most of the press today.

  5. Byron says:

    Elaine:

    Most of the republican party today follow neo-conservative philosophy. Neo-conservatism is a lot like liberalism in that a small group of “enlightened” people show the rest of us “poor rubes” what to do and use government to “enlighten” us.

    I cant abide either. Just leave me alone.

  6. Mike Spindell says:

    Kurt Vonnegut has long been one of my favorite writers as I came to him young through Science Fiction. My favorite Vonnegut novel is “The Sirens of Titan” which explains the dilemma of Sisyphus in its way. I haven’t returned to him much in recent years because his dystopic outlook, which I share, makes it hard to be optimistic about life, which I think necessary to carry on.

  7. Anonymouly Yours says:

    Now you’re stirring the pot….. Natural law can’t be decoded by women…. Don’t cha know…..

    I really liked your story….. It’s telling in many ways social prejudices are still in existence today…..

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