History . . . by a Hare | Sandweiss on Mother Night

Eric Sandweiss


“The march of time.” “The progress of mankind.” “Time’s arrow.” I admit I had not encountered the image of history as a swift hare (nor art as the defeated tortoise, watching its rival jump into the lead) until I approached the finish line of Mother Night (261), Vonnegut’s first novel-length reckoning with the people and places of an identifiable present.

Speaking as someone who makes his living assembling facts in temporal lines (and therefore, perhaps, as a reader inclined to believe that the world, as it is, provides challenge enough to our creative capabilities), I gravitate to this third book in the Vonnegut canon. Here, more than in Player Piano and Sirens of Titan, we see the author grapple directly with the spirit of his day. It is a day no longer dominated by the willed patriotism that sustained Americans through global war, nor by the Cold War era’s bellicose repression of the second thoughts that flooded the national psyche alongside media images of Hiroshima. No, Vonnegut writes, c. 1961, as a shell-shocked survivor, wandering about a world that is coming to its collective senses. Adolph Eichmann, already in a Jerusalem jail, will soon instruct his prosecutors in the art of following orders; the Rosenbergs are dead but Soviet plans to place nuclear missiles in Cuba are alive; Rachel Carson is following the link that leads from chemical enhancement to mortal danger; the SNCC Freedom Singers are preparing to take their show on the road from their home in Albany, Georgia; Jane Jacobs is discovering the folly of a federal urban policy that would kill our cities in order to save them.

And Howard W. Campbell, Jr., wonders about the continued value of his own life.

Until recently, luck has favored Vonnegut’s memoirist. Blessed with a loving wife, a successful playwriting career, a remunerative investment portfolio, and a longstanding knack for outrunning the dogs of war, he has arrived at a quiet, invisible corner of Greenwich Village (none of Jacobs’s “eyes on the street” here, thank God). If not exactly happy in his postwar isolation, he at least believed that he had safely outrun History. Once both a propagandist for the Nazis and a spy for the Allies, he somehow slipped through the snares in which either side might have trapped its worst enemies.

Or did he? Remember that Vonnegut’s story opens not in New York but in Israel, where Campbell finds himself “surrounded by ancient history” (2). Writing from beneath “thirty or forty feet of ruined cities” (5), the narrator suggests even before his story begins, something more at work than his simple wonderment at the presence of ancient archaeological sites. His “confessions,” as Vonnegut—in the persona of an editor—writes, will be drafted from within the seat of ancient Biblical reckonings and tortured prophets of millennia past. Who escapes from such a place?

Knowing Vonnegut as the fantasist of Sirens of Titan, we might anticipate going on to encounter bearded heavies and jeweled seductresses who carry their metaphorical names and supernatural powers from ancient temples to extragalactic palaces and back. But Vonnegut avoids the temptation to go big. History—real, living History—is everywhere. His thirty-feet-under-the-city image echoes, we know from the introduction, the author’s own experience, sixteen years past, trapped under the streets of a burning Dresden. The reckonings that await Campbell and his fellow prisoners in Israel are not biblical but contemporary: we meet Nazi hunter Tuviah Friedman, whose Institute for the Documentation of Nazi War Crimes did indeed bring to justice former Nazis, as it does in the book. Friedman’s prize catch, Eichmann, makes a creepily genial appearance in the novel, telling Campbell that he has always gotten along by going along—just “recognize what is expected of you in each phase” of life, he advises his fellow prisoner. Back in America, where the action soon shifts, we learn of the Japanese government’s secretive plan to foment treason among African Americans—again, straight out of the history books.

Where he bothers to fictionalize, Vonnegut dresses his characters and events in the flimsiest of costumes, as though the publisher’s lawyer had handed him a list of potentially libelous items and said “just take care of it”: the dentist Lionel Jones’s White Christian Minuteman newspaper recalls the Minutemen, the underground anti-Communist militia group that organized just as the novel was published. Jones’s pompous Iron Guard of the White Sons of the American Constitution might have been dreamed up by the John Birch Society (founded in Vonnegut’s home town of Indianapolis three years earlier) or by the fascist mystic William Dudley Pelley, who based his Silver Legion of America in nearby Noblesville, Indiana in 1940, and lived there the rest of his life. Vonnegut’s fictitious Free American Corps, recruited from among American POW’s to fight with the Nazis on the Eastern Front, could easily be mistaken for the actual British Free Corps, which did just that.

In other words, Kurt Vonnegut, of Indianapolis and the US Army 106th Infantry, has plenty of firsthand experience with the “crazy loom of modern history” (81). He doesn’t have to stretch his imagination onto other planets or future times in order to explore war and the human condition. Campbell, from his cell, writes “how long ago that war was… how nearly forgotten” (3), but we suspect even in these opening paragraphs that it’s actually much nearer, and that he—like the man who supposedly has found and edited his confession—is going to find out just how near that is.

This tension—of lives poised nervously between a receding past and a perilous future, between national obligations and personal responsibilities, between lies and truth—never lets up. Like the incriminating “SS” symbol, it seems programmed into the keys of Campbell’s old German typewriter, as though he were powerless to stop that machine from betraying his anxieties. “Nationalities just don’t interest me,” he insists (35); “real estate doesn’t interest me,” he says elsewhere (133); “I am . . . a nationless person by inclination” (1). In its place he longs to remain within the “sovereign territory of our nation of two” (43): a stateless, placeless, timeless world that he shared for a brief few years with his wife Helga. But that nation proves about as durable as the Sudetenland. Helga disappears. When she returns years later, she is … not Helga. Americans turn out to be Nazis, Nazis Communists, Communists Americans, but no one gets to be himself. None—including, by the tale’s end, Howard W. Campbell—can escape the causes, nations, politics, History that have tossed them about since the 1930s. No one in this postwar world will enjoy the luxury of living in a Nation of Two.

Vonnegut, taken by his readers from the late 1960s forward as an affable, anarchistic prankster, seems to me in Mother Night to be still on the edge of wishing it would all matter. “When you’re dead, you’re dead,” he shrugs; “all people are insane.” “So what.” “So it goes.” Really? Such Zen-like resignation makes sense only as a defense mechanism, fabricated to evade the angst of Howard Campbell—who is, after all, Vonnegut, as well. Campbell despairs that even “simple, obvious truths” are crushed in the gears of totalitarianism, with their “unbroken sequences of teeth that are immaculately maintained” (224). Discovering a poem he wrote as a young man in 1937, Campbell muses on his naiveté in imagining he could have escaped those gears:

I saw a huge steam roller
It blotted out the sun.
The people all lay down, lay down.
They did not try to run . . .
“Lie down, lie down!” the people cried
“The great machine is history!”
My love and I we ran away. . .
Left history far behind us. (122)

“I was and am a very bad poet,” he reflects, returning the manuscript to the old trunk that he calls “the coffin for the young man I would never be again” (121, 123). He cannot leave history far behind him—any more than the Jewish survivors—now his captors—whose loved ones fell to his treachery. Instead, Campbell’s brief moment in Goethe’s “supercilious light” has been eclipsed, after all, by the steamroller that is the past. When we leave him at the end of his confession, Howard W. Campbell is back beneath those ancient stones, ready to face “Mother Night.” His life as an artist, now packed up in a coffin, rolls slowly alongside him to the grave, while the “hare of history” bounds forward to overtake its next naïve competitor.