Hear Kurt Vonnegut Visit the Afterlife & Interview Dead Historical Figures: Isaac Newton, Adolf Hitler, Eugene Debs & More (Audio, 1998)

Image by Daniele Prati, via Flickr Com­mons

Kurt Von­negut wrote nov­els, of course, but also short sto­ries, essays, and — briefly, suit­ably late in his career — cor­re­spon­dence from the after­life. He did that last gig in 1998, com­pos­ing for broad­cast on the for­mi­da­ble WNYC, by under­go­ing a series of what he called “con­trolled near-death expe­ri­ences” orches­trat­ed, so he claimed, by “Dr. Jack Kevorkian and the facil­i­ties of a Huntsville, Texas exe­cu­tion cham­ber.” These made pos­si­ble “more than one hun­dred vis­its to Heav­en and my return­ing to life to tell the tale,” or rather, to tell the tales of the more per­ma­nent­ly deceased with whom he’d sat down for a chat.

Von­negut’s ros­ter of after­life inter­vie­wees includ­ed per­son­ages he per­son­al­ly admired such as Eugene Debs (lis­ten), Isaac New­ton (lis­ten), and Clarence Dar­row (lis­ten), as well as his­tor­i­cal vil­lains like James Earl Ray (lis­ten) and Adolf Hitler (lis­ten). Oth­er of the dead with whom he spoke, while they may not qual­i­fy as house­hold names, nev­er­the­less went to the grave with some sort of achieve­ment under their belts: Olestra inven­tor Fred H. Matt­son, for instance, or John Wes­ley Joyce, own­er of the famed Green­wich Vil­lage lit­er­ary water­ing hole The Lion’s Head. Only the Slaugh­ter­house-Five author’s coura­geous and impos­si­ble reportage has saved the names of a few, like that of retired con­struc­tion work­er Sal­va­tore Biagi­ni, from total obscu­ri­ty.

Famous or not, peo­ple inter­est­ed Von­negut, who claimed to get his ideas from “dis­gust with civ­i­liza­tion” but also served as hon­orary pres­i­dent of the Nation­al Human­ist Asso­ci­a­tion. This aspect of his per­son­al­i­ty comes up in the Bri­an Lehrer Show seg­ment just above, a lis­ten back to Von­negut’s “Reports on the After­life” seg­ments for WNY­C’s 90th anniver­sary. (You can lis­ten to all the seg­ments indi­vid­u­al­ly here.)

Pro­duc­er Mar­ty Gold­en­sohn talks about record­ing them at Von­negut’s apart­ment, where the famous writer would answer the phone every few min­utes for a brief talk with one curi­ous fan after anoth­er, none of whom he’d tak­en any pains what­so­ev­er to keep from find­ing his phone num­ber. “It was a won­der­ful thing,” says Gold­en­sohn. “He had a way of talk­ing, hear­ing what he want­ed to hear, thank­ing, and hang­ing up very nice­ly. Six­ty sec­onds.” He’d also mas­tered, adds Lehrer, the art of the one-minute trip to the after­life, and the sto­ries this unusu­al radio for­mat allowed him to tell sure­ly drew from the vast range of expe­ri­ences and emo­tions to which Von­negut had exposed his mind not just through read­ing, but also with such fre­quent and brief yet very real human con­nec­tions he’d make on a seem­ing­ly near-con­stant basis.

A lit­tle bit less than a decade after these record­ings and the sub­se­quent pub­li­ca­tion of their print col­lec­tion God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, the unceas­ing­ly smok­ing and drink­ing Von­negut would, at the age of 84, make his own final trip to the after­life. There he now pre­sum­ably awaits (pos­si­bly beside Kevorkian him­self) the next cor­re­spon­dent intre­pid enough to come up and inter­view him. Giv­en the events of the past decade, lis­ten­ers could cer­tain­ly use what­ev­er dose of his char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly clear-eyed and sar­don­ic per­spec­tive he might have to offer.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Kurt Von­negut Read Slaugh­ter­house-Five, Cat’s Cra­dle & Oth­er Nov­els

Hear Kurt Vonnegut’s Very First Pub­lic Read­ing from Break­fast of Cham­pi­ons (1970)

Hear Kurt Vonnegut’s Nov­el Cat’s Cra­dle Get Turned into Avant-Garde Music (Fea­tur­ing Kurt Him­self)

An Ani­mat­ed Kurt Von­negut Vis­its NYU, Riffs, Ram­bles, and Blows the Kids’ Minds (1970)

Kurt Vonnegut’s Term Paper Assign­ment from the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop Teach­es You to Read Fic­tion Like a Writer

Kurt Von­negut Dia­grams the Shape of All Sto­ries in a Master’s The­sis Reject­ed by U. Chica­go

In 1988, Kurt Von­negut Writes a Let­ter to Peo­ple Liv­ing in 2088, Giv­ing 7 Pieces of Advice

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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