1 of 3
2 of 3
3 of 3
Kurt Vonnegut Sr. was a successful American architect until his firm bottomed out during the great depression. He had two sons and a daughter, whom he encouraged to study science and enlist in the army. At the same time that one of his sons, Kurt Jr., began writing and selling short stories, Kurt Sr. patented a new tobacco pipe which could be cleaned without getting your fingers dirty. He died of lung cancer, brought on by a life of heavy smoking, just before Kurt Jr. became one of the most prolific American writers of his time. So it goes.
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. gained notoriety for his unique style of satirical, black comedy science fiction in Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions and other novels. His narratives were often partly autobiographical, incorporating elements of his tour in WWII, his career as a technical writer for General Electric and his addiction to cigarettes, which he began at age 12, following in the footsteps of his father, mother, brother and sister.
His short story collection Welcome to the Monkey House begins with this preface:
“My sister smoked too much. My father smoked too much. My mother smoked too much. I smoke too much. My brother used to smoke too much, and then he gave it up, which was a miracle on the order of the loaves and fishes.
And one time a pretty girl came up to me at a cocktail party, and she asked me, ‘What are you doing these days?’
‘I am committing suicide by cigarette,’ I replied.
She thought that was reasonably funny. I didn't. I thought it was hideous that I should scorn life that much, sucking away on cancer sticks. My brand is Pall Mall. The authentic suicides ask for Pall Malls. The dilettantes ask for Pell Mells.
I have a relative who is secretly writing a history of parts of my family. He has showed me some of it, and he told me this about my grandfather, the architect: "He died in his forties—and I think he was just as glad to be out of it." By "it," of course, he meant life in Indianapolis— and there is that yellow streak about life in me, too.
The public health authorities never mention the main reason many Americans have for smoking heavily, which is that smoking is a fairly sure, fairly honorable form of suicide.”
Vonnegut was a fatalist with a sense of humour. In his personal favourite and most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, a race of four-dimensional aliens called the Tralfamadorians repeat the phrase “So it goes” every time someone dies, to express their resignation to the inevitability of death. Vonnegut was resigned to his own death early on in life and believed cigarettes were as good a way to die as any other.
In God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, Vonnegut writes fictional interviews with dead celebrities, with the aid of the famous euthanasia activist Dr. Kevorkian, by putting him into a near death state. He begins the book with this message to his readers:
“I wish one and all long and happy lives, no matter what may become of them afterwards. Use sunscreen! Don’t smoke cigarettes. Cigars, however, are good for you. There is even a magazine celebrating their enjoyment, with male role models, athletes, actors, rich guys with trophy wives, on its covers. Why not the surgeon general? Cigars, of course, are made of trail mix, of crushed cashews and granola and raisins, soaked in maple syrup and dried in the sun. Why not eat one tonight at bedtime?
Firearms are also good for you. Ask Charlton Heston, who once played Moses. Gunpowder has zero fat and zero cholesterol. That goes for dumdums, too. Ask your senator or senatrix or congressperson if guns, like cigars, aren’t good for you.”
But the main characters of Vonnegut’s novels, which were usually based on him, rarely smoke. Vonnegut’s protagonists are always naïve, unaware of the practical joke the universe is playing on them. Smoking is done by the savvy characters, the ones who have accepted the pointlessness of their own existence. Despite the pessimistic views expressed in his fiction, Vonnegut was not a cynic. He was named honourary president of the American Humanist Association, a non-theistic group that strives to “bring about a progressive society where being good without a god is an accepted and respect way to live life.”
Vonnegut used cigarettes in his writing as an acceptance of death and all that it promises. Everyone is trying to live their life, some people are even trying to live a good life and cigarettes, like death, will tear you away from the good things and delivering you from the bad things. In that regard, they deserve some respect.
In 2005, Vonnegut emerged from retirement to publish A Man Without a Country, a collection of short essays. He had this to say about his lifetime of smoking:
“Here's the news: I am going to sue the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company, manufacturers of Pall Mall cigarettes, for a billion bucks! Starting when I was only twelve years old, I have never chain-smoked anything but unfiltered Pall Malls. And for many years now, right on the package, Brown & Williamson have promised to kill me. But I am eighty-two. Thanks a lot, you dirty rats. The last thing I ever wanted was to be alive when the three most powerful people on the whole planet would be named Bush, Dick and Colon.”
Vonnegut died two years later of a head injury unrelated to tobacco. So it goes.