- Kurt Vonnegut's Three Mother Nights
Kurt Vonnegut's third novel, Mother Night, dates from the period when his writing career was in disorder and his publications were taking odd and various forms. The majority of Vonnegut's work in the 1950s had been short fiction produced for weekly general audience magazines such as Collier's and The Saturday Evening Post, but as these journals went out of business, the author was forced to search for new sources of income, which in 1959 he found in the growing industry of paperback originals. The Sirens of Titan was published by Dell that year, earning Vonnegut about the same amount as a well-paying short story and teaching him that advances from such firms were a source of ready money (McCabe 94-95).
Mother Night was Vonnegut's second effort in this new direction, and its format and production were geared specifically to the style of pulp paperbacks. Fawcett's 35¢ "Gold Medal" original was presented not as fiction but as fact, "An American traitor's astonishing confession—mournfully macabre, diabolically funny—written with unnatural candor in a foreign death cell," according to the volume's cover. Printed and distributed in February 1962, this edition of Mother Night appealed to the timeliness of wartime memoirs then available and to interest in the trial of the accused Nazi war criminal, Adolf Eichmann. Significantly, in a way that influences the novel's text, Vonnegut abetted this historical interest by framing the body of his work with a similar set of inducements to a factual reading: an "Editor's Note," signed by himself, preceding the narrative identified by a second title page as "The Confessions of Howard W. Campbell, Jr.," together with Campbell's own purported dedication of his work.
This editor's note is important because in two subsequent editions Vonnegut added successive frames that threw not only the body of the novel but the "editing process" itself into new perspective, effectively changing the way in which Mother Night is read. The 1962 Fawcett Edition (published in Greenwich, CT) consists of the novel with Vonnegut's Editor's Note; the 1966 hardcover Harper & Row edition (New York) retains these features, plus adds a new "Introduction" concluding with the dateline "Iowa City, 1966" (where Vonnegut was then teaching in the University of Iowa Writers Workshop), detailing what the author describes as "My personal experience with Nazi Monkey business" and identifying the novel's moral; and a 1984 underground Polish edition (published in Warsaw by Niezalezna Oficyna Wydawnicza, which means "unofficial publishing house") adds a third piece of apparatus, "Przedmowa do Wydania Polskiego" ("Preface to the Polish Edition"), signed by Vonnegut and dated "Manhattan Island / 14 lipiec [July] 1984," which precedes both the 1962 note and 1966 Introduction and places the novel in a new perspective for Polish readers.
Both theme and technique in Mother Night are successively recharacterized by the frames Vonnegut has added to his text. The novel itself explores the oddities of twentieth-century behavior and ascribes them to a style of schizophrenia [End Page 216] that allows persons and nations to indulge in pretenses and divided loyalties. Ostensibly the confessions of an American expatriate who serves the Nazis as a propagandist while sending out coded messages to the Allies, Mother Night develops as a story that not only plays both sides at the same time but accomplishes opposites at once: Howard Campbell is not only the most effective German broadcaster, prolonging the war long beyond the average citizen's willingness to fight, but he becomes the very best anti-German spy, speeding the Allied victory. On the eve of his postwar trial for crimes against humanity, Campbell discards a letter of exoneration from his American spy-master to accept guilt for crimes against himself and prepares for his own self-execution. As with all other facets of this novel, however—which include such rebounding absurdities as Roosevelt chuckling in glee at the obscenity of Campbell's anti-Semitic broadcasts and Hitler brought to tears by the sentiments of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address—the ending is an open one, inviting double meanings, for Campbell's final...