October 12, 2001

Vonnegut speaks downtown

University of Chicago alumnus Kurt Vonnegut (BA ‘72) was honored Wednesday evening at the Harold Washington Library Center in downtown Chicago as the recipient of the Chicago Public Library Foundation's 2001 Carl Sandburg Literary Award. He is the author of 14 novels including Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions, and the novel-memoir Timequake, as well as many plays and non-fictional works.

Over 800 Vonnegut devotees packed into the library to hear the 79-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner speak. Hundreds more showed up but were not let in. Dressed entirely in gray, Vonnegut spoke about everything from Mark Twain to Picasso and, at times, refused to speak. Journalist Mara Tapp interviewed him for the event as part of the Chicago Book Week-City of Big Readers, Chicago's second annual citywide literary festival.

Tapp's first question asked for the author to give his opinion on the events of September 11. “What happened to Chandra Levy?" Vonnegut responded instead. “Is Gary Condit still running for re-election?"

Later, Tapp asked: “Is there a difference between humor and irony?" Vonnegut scratched his head and then said: “Look, I was a chemistry major. How the hell am I supposed to know?"

Other times, when asked by Tapp to give his thoughts on a certain subject, Vonnegut would reply with an abrupt “No." The audience would laugh and then the discussion would turn in a different direction.

Vonnegut's remarks about the University of Chicago were bittersweet. A student of anthropology, Vonnegut had completed all the necessary requirements to be awarded a Master of Arts degree in 1947 except for a valid thesis. He had written a thesis, but the University rejected it. “God damn that was a great thesis," Vonnegut said repeatedly. “Rejected."

“I'd been going to college forever yet I didn't have an MA thanks to the U of C," Vonnegut said.

Vonnegut would periodically write letters to the dean asking to be granted his Masters degree, but it was not until 1972 that the University of Chicago finally awarded it to him, determining that Cat's Cradle served as a suitable dissertation in anthropology.

“That son-of-a-bitch called me up and wanted me to come down for a ceremony," Vonnegut said.

He did not attend the ceremony but accepted the MA nonetheless. “That anthropology thing was a big mistake though," Vonnegut said. “I can't stand primitive people. They're so stupid."

Vonnegut did, however, find a positive side to his time at the University. “Studying anthropology at the U of C allowed me to stand outside cultures and look at them," Vonnegut said. “I couldn't have done it without them. For that, I'm very grateful."

The author spoke of his passion for literature, telling how during the Great Depression he used to come home from high school and read all of the short stories in the two weekly magazines to which his family subscribed. He mused at length about the necessary dialogue that must take place between reader and writer and he emphasized the creative rewards to be found in writing. “You don't write to get rich or famous, but for your soul," Vonnegut said.

Vonnegut instructed the audience to return home and to pen a six-line rhymed poem. “Once it is as good as you can get it, tear it up and let the pieces fall," he said. “You will still have gotten your whole reward."

Tapp asked Vonnegut about his painting style, often categorized as a type of new cubism. “Sure I paint like Picasso," Vonnegut said. “I like how he paints. I'm not ashamed of it. I've done a few Pollacks, too."

Vonnegut, slouched in his chair, kept the audience on its toes. “It was fantastic to be in the presence of modern greatness," said Jacques Ulvert, a first-year in the College, who attended the event.

No clues as to the possibility of a new manuscript were revealed at this time.