I think it’s no coincidence that I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick on the plane ride to and from Texas. Meg and I were busy all week planting the seeds for a new extended family in Austin, and more or less, that’s what the book is about — extended families as a cure for loneliness. It might be one of Vonnegut’s key philosophies, and Vonnegut would recycle it over and over again in later speeches, books, and conversation. This bit is from the prologue, which is probably better than the rest of the pages of the book combined. Yes, get Slapstick, if only for the prologue:
[H]uman beings need all the relatives they can get–as possible donors or receivers not necessarily of love, but of common decency.
. . .
When we were children in Indianapolis, Indiana, it appeared that we would always have an extended family of genuine relatives there. Our parents and grandparents, after all, had grown up there with shoals of siblings and cousins and uncles and aunts. Yes, and their relatives were all cultivated and gentle and prosperous, and spoke German and English gracefully.
. . .
They were all religious skeptics, by the way.
. . .
They might roam the wide world over when they were young, and often have wonderful adventures. But they were all told sooner or later that it was time for them to come home in Indianapolis, and to settle down. They invariably obeyed–because they had so many relatives there.
There was good things to inherit, too, of course–sane businesses, comfortable homes and faithful servants, growing mountains of china and crystal and silverware, reputations for honest dealing, cottages on Lake Maxinkuckee, along whose eastern shore my family once owned a village of summer homes.
. . .
But the delight the family took in itself was permanently crippled, I think, by the sudden American hatred for all things German which unsheathed itself when this country entered the First World War, five years before I was born.
Children in our family were no longer taught German. Neither were they encouraged to admire German music or literature or art or science. My brother and sister and I were raised as though Germany were as foreign to us as Paraguay.
We were deprived of Europe, except for what we might learn of it at school.
We lost thousands of years in a very short time–and then tens of thousands of American dollars after that, and the summer cottages and so on.
And our family became a lot less interesting, especially to itself.
So–by the time the Great Depression and a Second World War were over, it was easy for my brother and my sister and me to wander away from Indianapolis.
And, of all the relatives we left behind, not one could think of a reason why we should come home again.
We didn’t belong anywhere in particular any more. We were interchangeable parts in the American machine.