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Fates Worse Than Death

Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
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Plot Summary

Fates Worse Than Death

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 1991

Plot Summary

Published in 1991, Fates Worse Than Death is a collection of autobiographical essays by Kurt Vonnegut. In the collection, Vonnegut explores his childhood, college life, and time in the army, as well as his thoughts on the hypocrisy of the Reagan administration. Vonnegut (1922-2007) is one of the most celebrated of American authors. Known for his black humor, satire, and science fiction writings, he is the author of 14 novels and numerous novellas, short stories, plays, and screenplays. From 2001-2003, he was named New York’s State Author.
In 1981, Kurt Vonnegut published Palm Sunday, a collection of essays, speeches, musings, and other unpublished works. Fates Worse Than Death is an update of sorts to that "autobiographical collage;" it contains similar material of Vonnegut's from the 10 years since Palm Sunday. In these essays, he reflects on his own life and on the world around him, offering opinions and commentary with sarcasm and self-deprecating humor.
According to Vonnegut, artists are like children—intoxicated with life until they are forced to go out and earn money. His father is one such person. The harsh realities of the Great Depression prevent him from pursuing his dreams of being an architect. His mother, Edith, commits suicide in 1944 by overdosing on sleeping pills. Although her true motives are not known, Vonnegut suspects that her failed writing career was a factor. Among American writers, many have also fallen prey to this tragedy, including Harriet Beecher Stowe [KH1] and Ernest Hemingway. American literature is abbreviated by this, and now what is considered to be a "generation" of authors is separated by fewer than the standard 20 years.
Vonnegut tries his hand at rewriting several historical pieces to be more to his liking. Among these are the First Amendment (in response to preachers who would like to see it overturned) and the Catholic tradition of the Requiem Mass (which horrifies him). He calls his rewrite of the Requiem Mass a "humanist requiem" and titles it "Cosmos Cantata." His rewrite concludes, "Rest grant us, O Cosmos, and let not light perpetual disturb our sleep." However, Vonnegut credits the Bill of Rights with the decline of racism in America and believes that the whole world should hear the birth cries of liberty.
During World War II, Vonnegut enlists in the Army. "I was a battalion scout, a PFC, who was captured on the border of Germany in December 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge. Thus did I happen to be a laborer under guard in Dresden when it was firebombed on February 13, 1945," he writes. Vonnegut is held as a prisoner of war for three months, along with his good friend Bernard V. O'Hare, until the bombing of the city by American and British forces. It is a tactical move that Vonnegut maintains makes no sense. Nevertheless, his experiences during this time help influence the writing of his later novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, and several of his deceased friends make appearances in the story.
Vonnegut believes that addicts should have to detox and maintain sobriety before being able to hold office, and he asserts that people who are addicted to preparing for war are among the most tragic. But even if the warmongers were not using hydrogen bombs to terrorize each other, humanity must still face death at some point. But, as the title of this collection states, there are some fates worse than death. Slavery is one such fate. Crucifixion is another.
Vonnegut is an atheist, and he and his second wife, Jane, separate after she converts to Christianity. He discusses the hypocrisy of Christianity, saying that religious revivals demand two things from converts: to stop thinking and to obey, which Vonnegut likens to the training of soldiers. He writes that Christians fail to follow the commandment of "love thy neighbor as thyself," and they have therefore become bloodthirsty. He advises readers seeking political careers to disregard the Biblical commandment "Thou shall not kill." In fact, the finale of humanity will come when President Reagan and the neoconservatives blow up the planet.
In 1984, Vonnegut attempts to commit suicide by overdosing on pills and alcohol. However, his plans are "foiled" by a stomach pump. The experience reminds him of a Ray Bradbury story in which the author writes an elegant death for his hero, Hemingway. Vonnegut reflects that American humorists seem to always become unfunny pessimists once they reach a certain age, and realizing that he can no longer "catch-and-release" audiences, he cancels his campus appearances.
Vonnegut writes that when the German people were diverse, they created a culture beloved around the world, especially since one in four Americans is of German descent. However, when the German people were one—when they were united under the Nazi banner—they created a terrible legacy for their country. He mourns the death of the German-American freethinker movement, which could have acted as an extended family for German-Americans.


 

 [KH1]This seems to imply that Harriet Beecher Stowe died by suicide…which she didn’t. Fix?


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