essays

Sep 1, 1980

Novels and the Politics of the ’60s

“Kurt Vonnegut can only offer us perspectives on how we may learn to live tolerably in a world we cannot change.”

“From Catch-22 to Slaughterhouse V: The Decline of the Political Mode.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 78 (Winter 1979):17–33.

Imagistic literature does not necessarily reveal the cultural milieu which it describes, however such literature can be significant in understanding an era when considered as perceptions of the society it represents. Hartshorne presents two examples to defend his argument: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller andSlaughterhouse V by Kurt Vonnegut. Both books offer a fictitious view of the world and its problems together with a series of rules for coping with these problems.

Heller’s Catch-22 creates a symbolic situation of an individual, Captain John Yossarian, in conflict with his corrupt military superiors during WW II. Yossarian’s search for his own personal salvation resulted in his desertion from the army. Rising above the claims of a particular group of men unworthy of respect or obedience, he found his freedom.

Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse V could be considered more of a religious work than Heller’s political fable. The protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is coming to terms with the dichotomy between man and whatever it is that is responsible for the organization of the universe. Billy Pilgrim is kidnapped by aliens from outer space and taken to the planet Tralfamadore. The resolution he arrives at is to accept his role as a pawn of forces he cannot control. Billy hopes only to accept life’s circumstances and to love and be kind to others.

Hartshorne suggests these books are reflective of the era in which they were written—Slaughterhouse Vin 1969, Catch-22 in 1961.

Yossarian of Catch-22 was striving for a particular goal of personal freedom. He was rebelling against a specific human conspiracy, not against the entire bureaucratic system that caught him up in that conspiracy. The events in the novel move in a particular direction, and ends on an optimistic note when Yossarian deserts his company. For Yossarian, survival constitutes a victory.

If Billy Pilgrim is fighting, it is against the whole universe. There is no contest in Slaughterhouse Vbecause there is no possibility of victory. “There are no bad guys for him to defeat, except perhaps God.” For Billy, survival is not crucial because death is inevitable. All one can hope for are a few good moments to cherish in life.

The tone of these novels echoes the political culture of the 1960s. The decade began with optimism and the firm belief that change is possible with the proper strategies. As the decade progressed, however, a feeling of “we have struggled, and we have failed” became pervasive. The theoretical orientation of the protest movement changed from vigorous reform to violent expression. “It is not the specific evil to which we must address ourselves, it is the evil of the whole system—which has produced evil.”

Catch-22 portrays the mood of the early 1960s with an attitude that effective resistance by the individual is possible, if we are careful to outsmart the authorities. Joseph Heller offers us instruction in how to achieve solutions to our problems.

Slaughterhouse V exemplifies the decay of reformist hopes in the late 1960s. Kurt Vonnegut can only offer us perspectives on how we may learn to live tolerably in a world we cannot change.

Both books make strong political statements capturing the moodswing of American culture during the 1960s. Although not set in the ’60s: these novels deepen our understanding of that era.