CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Kurt Vonnegut was many things during a writing career that spanned more than half a century: best-selling novelist, counterculture cult figure, popular speaker and biting political satirist.
But is the “Slaughterhouse-Five” author — who once cameoed in a Rodney Dangerfield film and added an obscene drawing to his signature — worthy of academic study along the lines of Hemingway and Faulkner?
Without a doubt, according to Susan Farrell, a professor of contemporary American literature at the College of Charleston.
“He holds up to some of the more canonized writers of the 20th century,” said Farrell, co-founder of The Kurt Vonnegut Society, which aims to promote the scholarly study of Vonnegut, his life and works.
Farrell got the idea to create a group — Vonnegut might have called it a karass — devoted to the Hoosier author in 2007 while she was working on a book titled “A Critical Companion to Kurt Vonnegut.” There are about 80 similar literary societies with members who study authors from Nelson Algren to Walt Whitman, but there were none at the time focused on Vonnegut.
Today the society boasts membership from across the country, with some of the nation’s top Vonnegut experts holding panel discussions at literary conferences; collecting scholarly papers focusing on topics such as the historical accuracy of “Slaughterhouse-Five;” and advocating for his inclusion in high school and college literature courses. Farrell is one of the society’s most active participants and the author of academic papers like “Vonnegut and Religion” and “Art, Domesticity and Vonnegut’s Women.”
“Susan Farrell disproves the myth that one can either be a teacher or researcher but not both,” said Marc Leeds, founding president of the Vonnegut Society, a founding board member of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library and author of The Vonnegut Encyclopedia.
“For nearly three decades she has maintained a laudatory teaching career while contributing major milestones to the study of the American war machine’s effects through literature,” Leeds said.
Farrell said a primary reason for the Vonnegut Society is to keep the author’s intellectual reputation alive.
“A lot of writers that are popular in their time fall into obscurity,” she said.
That certainly hasn’t happened with Vonnegut. His more than two dozen novels, short story collections and nonfiction works remain in print and continue to sell well each year.
But there are some who think of Vonnegut as a dime store, pulp science fiction writer — the kind of author whose popularity with the masses automatically negates his literary heft.
Farrell thinks that’s giving the Indianapolis native short shrift.
“A lot of people don’t take Vonnegut that seriously, and that’s for a number of reasons — he can be deceptively simple and, you know, maybe too accessible,” she said. “Critics in the ’70s and ’80s didn’t take his work as seriously as maybe they should have. There’s been a lot written since his death (in 2007), though, and his reputation is very strong right now. He ushered in a whole new style of writing that’s been very influential.”
The style is postmodern and minimalist, with short sentences and paragraphs that are easy to read. His best-known passages often consist of just a few words, like the “so it goes” that serves as a coda to each death that occurs in “Slaughterhouse-Five.”
Farrell has said the first Vonnegut book she read was “Breakfast of Champions” after finding it on her parents’ bookshelves as a teenager. But she considers “Slaughterhouse-Five” to be her favorite of Vonnegut’s works and his masterpiece. She includes the book in her American literature classes but finds that while most students these days have heard Vonnegut’s name, they haven’t read his work.
“I feel like I’m introducing students more to him than I did when I first started teaching” nearly three decades ago, she said.
Vonnegut loosely based Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist in “Slaughterhouse-Five,” on his own experiences surviving the bombing of Dresden, Germany, during World War II. In the novel, Pilgrim time travels between the war, his married adult life as an optometrist and his time living captive with a porn star as human specimens on the fictional planet Tralfamadore.
The plot might sound silly, but it packs an unexpected emotional punch.
“Some of his works can seem almost cartoonish, but I think that’s a deliberate stance,” Farrell said. “The things he’s experiencing in the war are told in an almost naive, cartoonish point of view that makes it more poignant. You have that distinction between very simple, non-sentimental sentences and the horrors he’s describing.”
Earlier this year Farrell helped bring an art exhibit focusing on “Slaughterhouse-Five” to the college’s Addlestone Library. The 50 oil paintings created in 2019 by former College of Charleston studio arts major Lance Miccio were a tribute to the novel’s 50th anniversary.
“I like to say that Vonnegut writes like a painter,” Miccio told South Carolina Public Radio. “So, I try to paint like a writer.”
Farrell came to the College of Charleston in 1993 after earning her doctorate in English at the University of Texas in Austin. With her advanced degree in hand, Farrell scoured the national jobs lists for work as an English professor but found there was little available.
“I had never set foot in South Carolina when I got the job at the College of Charleston, and I feel so fortunate to have ended up here,” she said. “I’m very grateful.”
Her latest book, “Imagining Home: American War Fiction From Hemingway to 9/11,” includes chapters on Ernest Hemingway during World War I, Vonnegut during World War II and Tim O’Brien during the Vietnam War. Farrell said she has been fascinated by 20th-century war literature, which she teaches along with contemporary American authors such as Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo and Louise Erdrich. Farrell also is the author of “A Critical Companion to Tim O’Brien” and her classes focus on contemporary American literature, women writers and gender issues.
Her classes seem to resonate with students, who use terms like “really great,” “always interesting” and “really knows what she’s talking about” in online reviews to describe Farrell and her teaching.
“It’s a great field and a lot of students love it,” Farrell said of contemporary American literature. “They haven’t had a chance to study it in school. Their traditional classes have been in British literature or early American literature, so they’re usually very happy to read literature that’s from their time and place.”