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One of the extraordinary results of critical writing in the late 1980s seems to be the ubiquitous presence of authors whose works have been solid sellers in the academic world for several generations, or authors who are "fresh" on the literary horizon, or authors whose writings are well-known and eagerly read by one generation but become almost extinct by the next. In other words, some writers come and go and are read and forgotten as the social and political milieu of the times dictate. A case in point would be Kurt Vonnegut whose Shughterhouse-Five, published in 1969, became an overnight best-seller with the antiwar protestors in the early 1970s and gave Vonnegut a cult-figure status for several years into that decade. By the early 1980s, however, and despite the publication of Breakfast of Champions (1973), Slapstick (1978), Palm Sunday (1981), and Galápagos, (1985), among others, Vonnegut's star had lost much of its luminous quality, relegating him to a "hasbeen" status or a name to be added to those deadly and often somnambulistic graduate-school reading lists.
Fortunately, however, in the often-erudite series, Conversations, William Rodney Allen brings to readers and critics alike a new and fresh approach to Vonnegut, the man as well as the author. From a background of twenty-two interviews, talks, and newspaper columns from many different sources, Allen compiles a three-dimensional portrait of Vonnegut as science fiction writer, black humorist, and one-time cult figure with international status. He is at once witty, candid, ordinary, and unconcerned in later interviews with his image, and although generous in his praise of contemporaries, his opinions are frank and assertive, as for example, in a column by William T. Noble in "The Detroit Sunday News Magazine," 18 June 1973, where Vonnegut praises Norman Mailer as a fine writer, possibly even great, and then adds, "But wouldn't you like to sit down sometime and edit him?" Likewise, in a conversation with Hank Huwer in the South Carolina Review, Spring 1987, he denounces the critics of William Styron and Mailer whom he says have been "hideously attacked," whereas John Updike has been left alone. "He's awfully good and hands in good work."
In general, Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut is almost autobiographical in the sense that most interviewers, including Allen, have drawn a finely-tuned picture of a man who has experienced "the valleys and peaks" of a brilliant literary career and yet continues to craft at his trade. However, not all interviewers seem to mesh fully with Vonnegut's range of interests; possibly the best interview is with Robert Scholes from The Vonnegut Statement, edited by Jerome Klinkowitz and John Somer, 1973, which at its conclusion shows two extraordinary, literate, and spirited men who have anticipated the interweaving of questions and answers in an unusual and satisfying display of erudition. Nevertheless, the volume, in its totality, is a good example of the fine tradition of this Mississippi series. [End Page 761]
In solid contrast to Vonnegut, the critical scholarship on William Stryon has increased impressively since the 1950s with the publication of Lie Down in Darkness (1951), Set This House on Fire (1960), and The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967). Through four decades now, Styron's work has provoked an avalanche of critical studies: Louis D. Rubin (1967), Marc L. Ratner (1972), Robert H. Fossum (1968), Richard Pearce (1971), and catapulted this Virginia-born author to international recognition. Like Vonnegut, Styron's thematic material is wide and varied in substance and style, but his main focus, tempered partially by the New Southern writers, emphasizes literature that has universal appeal and goes beyond regionalism. Both writers are concerned with...