Kurt Vonnegut Ponders Why “Poor Americans Are Taught to Hate Themselves” in a Timely Passage from Slaughterhouse-Five

Image by Daniele Prati, via Flickr Com­mons

Amidst what is now an ordi­nary day’s chaos and tur­moil in the news, you may have noticed some out­rage cir­cu­lat­ing over com­ments made by erst­while brain sur­geon, for­mer pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, and cur­rent Sec­re­tary of HUD Ben Car­son. Pover­ty, he said, is a “state of mind.” The idea fits square­ly in the wheel­house of Carson’s brand of mag­i­cal think­ing, as well as into what has always been a self-help tra­di­tion in the U.S. since Poor Richard’s Almanac.

Con­sid­er, for exam­ple, the immense pop­u­lar­i­ty of a book writ­ten dur­ing the Great Depres­sion, Napoleon Hill’s 1937 Think and Grow Rich, which has increased every year since its pub­li­ca­tion. By 2015, the book had sold around 100 mil­lion copies world­wide. Hill’s pro­lif­ic self-help cot­tage indus­try occu­pies a promi­nent place in a dis­tinct­ly Amer­i­can genre, and an econ­o­my unto itself. Books, videos, sem­i­nars, and megachurch­es promise the faith­ful that they need only to change them­selves to change their eco­nom­ic out­comes, in order not only thrive but to “grow rich.”

The notion has had pur­chase among wealthy oppo­nents of a wel­fare state, who find it a con­ve­nient way to blame the poor for cir­cum­stances out­side their con­trol. But it also, as robust sales indi­cate, has wide appeal among the not-so-wealthy. Why? One reason—the pre­scient­ly, acer­bical­ly insight­ful observ­er of Amer­i­can cul­ture, Kurt Von­negut might argue—has to do with the fact that Amer­i­cans think of pover­ty as a per­son­al fail­ing rather than a social con­di­tion, and con­verse­ly con­flate wealth with intel­li­gence and capa­bil­i­ty.

Von­negut artic­u­lates these obser­va­tions in his 1969 clas­sic Slaugh­ter­house-Five, through a char­ac­ter named Howard W. Camp­bell, Jr., an Amer­i­can play­wright who becomes a Nazi pro­pa­gan­dist (and who stands tri­al in Israel in an ear­li­er nov­el, Moth­er Night). Osten­si­bly quot­ing from a mono­graph of Camp­bel­l’s, Von­negut writes, “Amer­i­ca is the wealth­i­est nation on Earth, but its peo­ple are main­ly poor, and poor Amer­i­cans are urged to hate them­selves.” Camp­bel­l’s mono­graph con­tin­ues:

To quote the Amer­i­can humorist Kin Hub­bard, ‘It ain’t no dis­grace to be poor, but might as well be.’ It is in fact a crime for an Amer­i­can to be poor, even though Amer­i­ca is a nation of poor. Every oth­er nation has folk tra­di­tions of men who were poor but extreme­ly wise and vir­tu­ous, and there­fore more estimable than any­one with pow­er and gold. No such tales are told by the Amer­i­can poor. They mock them­selves and glo­ri­fy their bet­ters. The mean­est eat­ing or drink­ing estab­lish­ment, owned by a man who is him­self poor, is very like­ly to have a sign on its wall ask­ing this cru­el ques­tion: ‘if you’re so smart why ain’t you rich?’ There will also be an Amer­i­can flag no larg­er than a child’s hand glued to a lol­lipop stick and fly­ing from the cash reg­is­ter.

The Kin Hub­bard quot­ed here may now be large­ly for­got­ten, but in the first three decades of the 20th cen­tu­ry, he was a humorist as wide­ly admired as Mark Twain or Will Rogers. Hub­bard drew a pop­u­lar com­ic strip based on a char­ac­ter called Abe Mar­tin, and his humor was once described as a “com­i­cal mix­ture of hoss sense and no sense at all.”  The quote above comes from one of Mar­t­in’s many pithy polit­i­cal rumi­na­tions, which include lines like “It’s all right t’ aspire to office, but when a feller begins t’ per­spire fer one it’s time t’ watch out.”

The Hub­bard-quot­ing Camp­bell, writes Von­negut with wry humor, was “said by some to have had the high­est I.Q., of all the war crim­i­nals who were made to face a death by hang­ing.” He also pitch­es his appeals to the com­mon man, and ties togeth­er the “think and grow rich” phe­nom­e­non and the ten­den­cy of so many of the country’s less-well-off to sup­port can­di­dates and poli­cies that rou­tine­ly endan­ger access to pub­lic ser­vices, qual­i­ty edu­ca­tion, and health­care.

Amer­i­cans, like human beings every­where, believe many things that are obvi­ous­ly untrue. Their most destruc­tive untruth is that it is very easy for any Amer­i­can to make mon­ey. They will not acknowl­edge how in fact hard mon­ey is to come by, and there­fore, those who have no mon­ey blame and blame and blame them­selves. This inward blame has been a trea­sure for the rich and pow­er­ful, who have had to do less for their poor, pub­licly and pri­vate­ly, than any oth­er rul­ing class since, say, Napoleon­ic times.

Camp­bell appears else­where in the nov­el in an attempt to recruit Amer­i­can POWs into “a Ger­man mil­i­tary unit called ‘The Free Amer­i­can Corps,” of which he is “the inven­tor and com­man­der.” Near the top of the post, see the char­ac­ter in the 1972 Slaugh­ter­house-Five film defend his alliance with the Nazis and explain his bizarre uni­form in terms one com­men­ta­tor sees as dis­tinct­ly res­o­nant with today’s far-right rhetoric. For all his out­landish pre­sen­ta­tion, he is a com­pli­cat­ed figure—something of an amal­gam of the far right’s show­men and huck­sters and its cyn­i­cal intel­lec­tu­als, who often under­stand very well how the stark divi­sions of race and class are main­tained in the U.S., and exploit that knowl­edge for polit­i­cal gain.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Kurt Von­negut Gives a Ser­mon on the Fool­ish­ness of Nuclear Arms: It’s Time­ly Again (Cathe­dral of St. John the Divine, 1982)

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

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

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (7)
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  • Mike Donovan says:

    At the time when Slaugh­ter­house 5 was set, Amer­i­ca was on the verge of becom­ing the leader of the free world. Now, every­body is told they are spe­cial, and we elect­ed a very spe­cial per­son to be pres­i­dent, and the free world is about to turn its back on us.

  • Mike Donovan says:

    At the time when Slaugh­ter­house 5 was set, Amer­i­ca was on the verge of becom­ing the leader of the free world. Now, every­body is told they are spe­cial, and we elect­ed a very spe­cial per­son to be pres­i­dent, and the free world is about to turn its back on us.

  • Meri says:

    I would have loved to have met Von­negut. How bril­liant, and how cor­rect he was. Extreme self­ish­ness, greed, lack of empa­thy and com­pas­sion are now so per­va­sive with­in the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion (nev­er­mind our politi­cians) that I see no turn­ing back. This coun­try’s going down–mass sur­veil­lance, pover­ty, igno­rance, despair. Wel­come to the dystopia!

  • Jo Ann Circosta says:

    I had the great plea­sure of meet­ing and hear­ing (twice) KVJr speak and read. It was a delight and chal­lenge to try to fol­low the the ideas of such and agile, far-reach­ing mind. He was, remains, through writ­ing, one of most valu­able and insight­ful observers of Amer­i­can soci­ety. Oh that we still had his wit and wis­dom to help under­stand our cur­rent cli­mate of bizarre, upside-down polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al sit­u­a­tion.

  • MartynW says:

    It’s pos­si­ble Ben Car­son has a bet­ter view­point on what it’s like to work one’s way up from social dis­ad­van­tages than most.

    The alter­na­tive the poor are giv­en by those who tell them that they can do noth­ing to help them­selves, is to become wards of the State. This is good for the State, which needs depen­dent vot­ers to keep it in pow­er, but has a poor his­tor­i­cal record of get­ting peo­ple out of gen­er­a­tion-to-gen­er­a­tion pover­ty.

  • jerry says:

    Speak­ing through Camp­bell, his­to­ry is prov­ing Von­negut cor­rect.

  • Christopher Gioconda says:

    Real­iz­ing that Camp­bell is a “fraud” and pre­tend­ing to be a nazi adds a whole oth­er lay­er to his words. He’s being hon­est about Amer­i­cans, but I’ve always been torn on whether or not he was try­ing to fur­ther sub­vert the Nazis or just crit­i­ciz­ing his own peo­ple.

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