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What a Mean-Spirited Fox News Obituary for Kurt Vonnegut:

Allen Asch has the goods, in a video of his own. The transcript of the obituary is pretty telling:

The influential American author, Kurt Vonnegut has died at 84 after suffering brain injuries in a recent fall in his Manhattan home. Some of Vonnegut's books had, at times, been burned or banned. Correspondent James Rosen looks at Vonnegut's life and the impact of his work on the culture 20th century America.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURT VONNEGUT, AMERICAN AUTHOR: I never thought I'd amount to a hill of beans.

JAMES ROSEN, FOX NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Kurt Vonnegut probably wouldn't have wanted a classically structured obituary. His life's work, 14 novels, short stories, plays, essays, left-wing screed and random musings, was much too quirky, too filled with scatological humor, cosmic coincidences, and self-admitted sci-fi mumbo-jumbo for him to have enjoyed stately induction into the great pantheon of American writers. So here's the Cliffs Notes version.

VONNEGUT: I was born in 1922.

ROSEN: And he joined the Army in World War II. Taken prisoner in Germany, Vonnegut survived by pure chance the kind of indiscriminate stroke of fate he later made a career out of conjuring [--] the fire bombing of Dresden by allied planes, a hell-on-earth experience that flattened a city and killed 25,000 people. The horror of the war never left Vonnegut. It figured prominently in his books, most famously Slaughter House Five, which, like other of his works, made it to the big screen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He drew explicit parallels between his experience in World War II, witnessing the destruction of the German city of Dresden by allied forces and the American involvement in Vietnam, and that's one of the reasons why it was so popular and it's also one of the reasons why it was a very, very radical book in it's time.

ROSEN: Vonnegut thought Richard Nixon was not evil, just mean. And that Ronald Reagan was old-fashioned, ignorant, prudential, and dangerous. Such views make Vonnegut a counter-cultural icon and ultimately propelled the author himself to the big screen.

VONNEGUT: Hi, I'm Kurt Vonnegut.

ROSEN: His early work in science fiction brought little acclaim until the publication in 1963 of Cat's Cradle a story of earth's direction that became a cult classic. By the late '70s Vonnegut was rich and irrelevant. The subject of other people's books, a sacred cow of the New York literary scene. He once said any New Yorker you've met once you get to call your friend. He then listed his New York friends and asked if anyone wanted an introduction.

VONNEGUT: American male writers have done their best work by the time they are 55 and then it's pretty junky after that...

ROSEN: But Vonnegut kept at it and persisted in his unique brand of despondent leftism.

VONNEGUT: The bad news is the that the Martians have landed in New York City and have checked in at the Waldorf. The good news is that they only eat homeless men, women and children of all colors and they pee gasoline.

(LAUGHTER)

ROSEN: Vonnegut, who failed at suicide 23 years ago, said 34 years ago that he hoped his children wouldn't say of him when he was gone "he made wonderful jokes, but he was such an unhappy man." So I'll say it for them.

Kurt Vonnegut was 84.

In Washington, James Rosen, FOX NEWS.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

It may well be that Kurt Vonnegut would not have wanted a "classically structured obituary," but I doubt he wanted this. And regardless of what he wanted, can't we save the correspondent's derogatory literary and personal opinions -- "rich and irrelevant," "sacred cow," "such an unhappy man," "mumbo-jumbo" (whether self-admitted or not), and even the largely irrelevant and needlessly harshly framed facts of the "failed at suicide" variety -- for some other context?

I don't want to make a fetish out of "never speak ill of the dead." If someone is famous for genuinely evil things, it's hard to have a sensible obituary without mentioning them. If someone is famous for good or neutral things, but has nonetheless done something genuinely evil, one might feel some obligation to bear witness to the evil even in the obituary. I disapproved of Alan Dershowitz's condemnation of Chief Justice Rehnquist the day after he died, but at least those who had a very negative view of what Rehnquist did (as opposed to just the literary quality of what he wrote) could generally believe that the condemnation was necessary under the rubric I have just described.

But there seems no such justification when the dead person's chief sins are that he wrote novels that a journalist dislikes, or that he had more glory than the journalist deserves, or that he had a personal temperament that the journalist thinks pitiful. There is no misbehavior here that triggers any obligation of continued moral condemnation, no harsh but essential facts that require a newsman's regretful candor.

All that we have here is the ultimate defeat of death for the man, sad to contemplate even though (or perhaps precisely because) the same defeat will come for us all; the tragedy for his family and close friends; and the sadness for those who liked and respected him (in his case, rightly or wrongly, very many people). Our cultural tradition of a respectful suspension of criticism is a worthy attempt to acknowledge all this, and to restrain us from making a sad occasion more painful. It's too bad that Fox News has departed from this tradition here.

sashal (mail):
Zhenia, Why I you surprised?
Vonnegut must have been liberal, that's why FOX was meen to him
4.15.2007 7:20pm
sashal (mail):
mean= meen, sorry
4.15.2007 7:25pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
I know Vonnegut's work pretty well, since reading Cat's Cradle in the 60s, at least, and pretty much everything else. Rosen's obit captures Vonnegut, his complexes and his afflictions very accurately.

No, I wouldn't care to have my obit read quite like that, but I wouldn't quite live my life like that, either. I don't find it nasty: It's more sorrowful than critical in my view.

But then, I've read a lot of obits in the British papers which tend to note the failings and weaknesses as well as the triumphs and strengths. Rosen's piece is more truthful and respectful than the majority of pieces that will ever be written about Vonnegut.
4.15.2007 7:34pm
Joanne Jacobs (www):
What strikes me is that the reporter does almost all the talking. What's the point of quoting Vonnegut saying, "I was born in 1922" and not quoting him on his writing, his '60s popularity, etc.? There's only one quote from an unnamed critic on Vonnegut's importance. The reporter needs to get out of the way of the story.

Vonnegut deserves glory for writing "Harrison Bergeron," if nothing else. When I was in college in the early '70s I used a Vonnegut title, "Welcome to the Monkeyhouse," for my column in the college newspaper.
4.15.2007 7:36pm
Nate F (www):
John Burgess,

How is, "Vonnegut, who failed at suicide 23 years ago, said 34 years ago that he hoped his children wouldn't say of him when he was gone "he made wonderful jokes, but he was such an unhappy man." So I'll say it for them" not an incredibly disrespectful set of remarks about a man who just died? That is awful.
4.15.2007 7:37pm
Tocqueville:
Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron" is one of the most profoundly un-left-wing things ever written. It is a devastaing and bare-knuckled assault on the levelling cult of egalitarianism.
4.15.2007 7:37pm
LTEC (mail) (www):
I've only read the transcript, but it doesn't sound mean-spirited to me at all. I can see both Vonnegut and his fans describing his work as a "unique brand of despondent leftism".
4.15.2007 7:40pm
great unknown (mail):
Methinks you miss the point: this is an obitiuary in the style Vonnegut himself would have written. Or at least an attempt at one. Unfortunately the author, it is eminently clear, is no Vonnegut.
4.15.2007 7:43pm
wolfefan (mail):
LTEC, are you kidding? Vonnegut says that he hopes his children will not say a particular thing of him. Reporter's response to Vonnegut's request: I'll say it for them. How is that anything but mean-spirited?
4.15.2007 7:46pm
itshissong:
All I can say is that I really don't see how anyone can listen to that piece and think that it was not mean-spirited and written as if through an unnecesarily and bizarrely politcal lens.

Also I don't think that you can consider Vonnegut irrelevant just because his later books weren't as well received by some. Many of his novel's have become modern classics that are read by people of all ages.
4.15.2007 7:46pm
Le Messurier (mail):
As John Burgess mentions British newspapers "note failings and weaknesses as well as the triumphs and strengths." The Telegraph is well known for this as well as the high quailty of their obits.

But if you don't want to be ill spoken of in The Telegraph then don't bring notice to yourself for your failings and weaknesses our your obit could be like this one:


Post-mortem of American pop-psych author M. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled:

Its opening sentence, "Life is difficult", introduced a tome which argued, uncontentiously and sensibly, that human experience was trying and imperfectible, and that only self-discipline, delaying gratification, acceptance that one's actions have consequences, and a determined attempt at spiritual growth could make sense of it. By contrast, Peck himself was, by his own admission, a self-deluding, gin-sodden, chain-smoking neurotic whose life was characterised by incessant infidelity and an inability to relate to his parents or children. "I'm a prophet, not a saint," he explained in an interview earlier this year....
Latterly he suffered from impotence and Parkinson's Disease and devoted himself to Christian songwriting, at which he was not very good.

He married Lily Ho in 1959; they had three children, two of whom would not talk to their father. She left him in 2003. He is survived by his second wife, Kathy, an educationalist he picked up, while still married, after a lecture at Sacramento, and by his children.


4.15.2007 7:46pm
SuperChimp:
LTEC,

Would they describe his works as "left-wing screed" or the man himself as "irrelevant." I doubt it (at least I wouldn't). And, regardless of the answer, Eugene's main point was the forum chosen to make these comments--the man's obituary on the most popular news channel.
4.15.2007 7:46pm
plunge (mail):
Par for the course for FoxNews, where information takes a back-seat to ideology.
4.15.2007 7:57pm
AppSocRes (mail):
Sorry, but I think the obit is spot on. I started reading Vonnegut when I was thirteen (Siren's of Titan), have read and sometimes re-read most of his works, and have tracked his career. He was a profoundly unhappy and cynical man, of moderate talent, with leftist leanings. His better writing engenders sadness and sophomoric cynicism. The obit captures it all.
4.15.2007 7:58pm
Derek Balsam (mail):
A little bit more research might have helped the reporter here. For starters, Vonnegut did write (or at least propose) his own epitaph. What is striking about it is that is neither particularly leftist nor particularly despondent:


My epitaph should be--and I am honorary president of the American Humanist Association--"The only proof he needed of the existence of god was music." It's meant a tremendous amount to me. I'm grateful, I'm really grateful for what music has done for me. Why it works, I can't imagine.


You can google the above for the source; it's quite readily available on the Internet.

Also, I'll just note that for such a "despondent leftist", there is a remarkable footnote in his private life. He was the father of four natural children, and adoptive father of three more. He adopted his own sister's children when she and her husband tragically died within a year of each other. Yes, Vonnegut was a writer, so his primary importance is in what he said. But it may be useful to also note what he did.

Vonnegut was a very important and extremely talented literary figure. A journalist who can't see past Vonnegut's politics is either a bad journalist or just doesn't care.
4.15.2007 8:14pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
It's a rather fractured, strangely organized obit--very much in the style of how Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse Five. Anywhere but an obit, it would be a cute parody. It does seem in rather bad taste.

Still, is the obligation to not speak ill of dead always applicable? I wouldn't compare Vonnegut to other prominent leftists of his generation, but will do we feel an obligation to say nice things about Castro when he dies?
4.15.2007 8:16pm
Abandon:
AppSocRes

Sorry, but I think the obit is spot on. I started reading Vonnegut when I was thirteen (Siren's of Titan), have read and sometimes re-read most of his works, and have tracked his career. He was a profoundly unhappy and cynical man, of moderate talent, with leftist leanings. His better writing engenders sadness and sophomoric cynicism. The obit captures it all.


I'd like to bring to your attention that Prof. Volokh's post didn't mean to question whether or not the obituary gave a clear picture of the writer's cynicism. I see it more as a critique of the mean-spirited segment. I personally have zero knowledge of Vonegut, but if the transcript is genuine, I find someone at Fox really really lacked civility, to say the least...
4.15.2007 8:29pm
Jack S. (mail) (www):
one things for sure, James Rosen certainly never will amount to a hill of beans.
4.15.2007 8:30pm
James Dillon (mail):
Clayton,

Wouldn't Castro pretty clearly fall under EV's caveat that "If someone is famous for genuinely evil things, it's hard to have a sensible obituary without mentioning them. If someone is famous for good or neutral things, but has nonetheless done something genuinely evil, one might feel some obligation to bear witness to the evil even in the obituary."? There does seem to be a wide gulf between a Communist dictator and a left-wing novelist.
4.15.2007 8:46pm
Zathras (mail):
AppSocRes:

Sorry, but I think the obit is spot on. I started reading Vonnegut when I was thirteen (Siren's of Titan), have read and sometimes re-read most of his works, and have tracked his career. He was a profoundly unhappy and cynical man, of moderate talent, with leftist leanings. His better writing engenders sadness and sophomoric cynicism.


So you read his works, despite the fact that he was only of "moderate talent" and his "writing engenders sadness and sophomoric cynicism?" Why did you read them then?

The piece was a hit job on the most defenseless of targets. It was very similar in tone to George Will's piece on the death of john Kenneth Galbraith last year. Some ideologues just can't resist a parting shot.
4.15.2007 8:50pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
It was mean spirited, and I think people should lay off a while when someone dies. Over at the Semi-Daily Journal DeLong didn’t hesitate to be equally mean spirited the day Ronald Reagan died. I didn’t like that, and I don’t like what Fox did-- shame on them both.

I only read two of Vonnegut’s books, Breakfast of Champions and Slaughter House Five shortly after publication. At the time I enjoyed them both, but neither left a lasting impression.
4.15.2007 8:52pm
frankcross (mail):
I think there are two separate issues here.

The first is the approach to obits. They are generally positive (within plausible reason), probably relating to the feelings of the family and their grief. But I can perfectly understand a news organization wanting to be evenhanded at this time. By this view, I think the complaint would be that the obit was more editorializing than news.

The second is consistency. This is the critique on Fox, as there is doubt that it would be evenhandedly negative in its obits. We can see if, when Robert Bork passes on, the station refers to him as a "despondent rightist."
4.15.2007 8:58pm
Really? (mail):
Would he have said this at a dinner party? Blowhard.
4.15.2007 8:59pm
Dave N (mail):
The portion I found mean-spirited was the very last paragraph:
ROSEN: Vonnegut, who failed at suicide 23 years ago, said 34 years ago that he hoped his children wouldn't say of him when he was gone "he made wonderful jokes, but he was such an unhappy man." So I'll say it for them.

Otherwise, I could see it as a parody of Vonnegut's style, with Fox News probably figuring he would like his obituary to be unusual.

Unfortunately, James Rosen does not have Kurt Vonnegut's writing skills.

And so it goes.
4.15.2007 9:13pm
Andrew Okun:
I'd separate into two parts myself.

First, talking about the guy and his life. This obit is mean spirited and out of line, particularly about a guy who didn't live his travails in public. I am wholly with Eugene on this.

Second, talking about his writing. I think it is permissible when an author or thinker dies to comment on his or her oeuvre (sp?) including negatively if appropriate. It can be done respectfully and should. "So and so through his life argued that something or other, but in the view of many was never able to convince. His arguments were revolutionary at the time but have since been put aside by the field." It can be a harsh judgment and still fair and respectful. Rosen's problem here is that his judgment is sneering in tone and, worse, wrong. It adds up to "popular lightweight from 1965, not worth reading." Such a summary could be a perfectly tasteful and appropriate part of a, say, Barbara Cartland obit, but in this case just makes it seem like Rosen didn't read very much of Vonnegut's work.
4.15.2007 9:33pm
PersonFromPorlock:
The sense I get from this obituary isn't of 'meanness' but of regret, of disappointment that Vonnegut never fulfilled his promise. That's not unjustifiable. Cat's Cradle is a brilliant work but it's the work of a brilliant adolescent.

Vonnegut was never so much left-wing as he was full of teenaged angst and cynicism about 'the system', even into his old age. Rosen was writing the obituary of someone who, in a sense, died too young despite his years.
4.15.2007 9:35pm
Zyzzogeton:
A brilliant and for those familiar with Vonnegut, a quite fitting obit. He would have loved it. Thanks Eugene!
4.15.2007 9:46pm
plunge (mail):
This line was particularly nasty:

"ROSEN: Vonnegut, who failed at suicide 23 years ago, said 34 years ago that he hoped his children wouldn't say of him when he was gone "he made wonderful jokes, but he was such an unhappy man." So I'll say it for them."

Twisting someone's words to condemn them in death? THAT is adolescent.
4.15.2007 9:54pm
Ship Erect (mail) (www):
Cat's Cradle a story of earth's direction

Surely a transcription mistake, but is Fox News inserting anti-global warming messages into its obituaries? :)
4.15.2007 10:07pm
John (mail):
The criticism of Fox News is unfair as this is not news but opinion and, as such, the author is (and should be) given considerable freedom of expression.

Second, I note that no one has said that anything the guy said about Vonnegut was wrong--just "mean." From my perspective, Vonnegut was a pretty mean guy himself, ready to insult any opponent at the drop of a hat.

Sauce for the goose...
4.15.2007 10:13pm
Dave N (mail):
I should have concluded my previous post slightly differently--which I will do now out of respect to Kurt Vonnegut:

So it goes.
4.15.2007 10:22pm
Really? (mail):
John,

Did he die as an unhappy man? I didn't get that impression from the NPR piece I heard following his death. Nor did I get the impression during any of my brief conversations with one of his grandchildren. Do you know otherwise?
4.15.2007 10:24pm
_:
"can't we save the correspondent's derogatory literary and personal opinions"

- I take it you havent watched much FOX News
4.15.2007 10:43pm
NRWO:
A man “of moderate talent”?

Harrison Bergeron is excellent meditation on the perils of egalitarianism.

Slaughterhouse Five is an excellent work of historical fiction (bombings at Dresden, which Vonnegut experienced) and of science fiction (notably being “unstuck in time” and having control over your thoughts but not your behavior).

God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut.
4.15.2007 10:51pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Eugene, making allowances for mourning-period criticism of a Chief Justice but not making the same allowance for mourning-period criticism of a novelists suggests that you must feel that novelists have very little impact on society. One may dislike a novel not just because one feels it is poorly written; one may dislike the novel, or the author's entire body of works, because one feels that the novel has a very negative impact on society.

I think you do Vonnegut an injustice in presuming that no one would be justified in having a negative view of him on the same scale that Dershowitz had a negative view of Rehnquist. Vonnegut was not some romance writer, concerned mostly with helping people pass the time. He wanted to influence public opinion. He wanted to turn people against the Vietnam war. He wanted to provide serious criticism of certain political ideas and philosophies.

I agree that one should not speak ill of the recent dead, at least. In death, we should most remember that we are all more alike than we are different, that we are united by a common humanity, no matter how much we disagreed with the departed on how profoundly a level. But if you are going to provide justification or understanding of violating this rule on the grounds you set forth, I think you have to either allow such criticism of a novelist like Vonnegut or do far graver insult to him than the Fox critic did.
4.15.2007 10:55pm
Cornellian (mail):
Who exactly is James Rosen to call Kurt Vonnegut no longer relevant? I suppose that's still better than Mr. Rosen's situation of having never been relevant in the first place.

What kind of idiot thinks a deceased's opinion of various former presidents is proper content for an obituary?
4.15.2007 10:58pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
You can hear a podcast of Vonnegut reading an excerpt from a pre-publication version of Breakfast of Champions at New York City’s 92nd Street YMCA in 1970 here.

Pure 1960s. Every time Vonnegut deprecates the United States, white people, capitalism, technology, automobiles, etc the audience applauds. The book was more fun (at least at the time) than Vonnegut’s bilious reading. He does sound very unhappy.
4.15.2007 11:06pm
gr (www):
And no mention of Vonnegut's Liberal Crap I Never Want to Hear Again?
4.15.2007 11:07pm
Eli Rabett (www):
A principle advantage of English newspaper obits is that they are (often) written by people who actually knew the deceased.
4.15.2007 11:08pm
NRWO:
Saying “principle advantage” is slightly better than saying “principle investigator” on NIH grants, but both are incorrect: Don’t compromise good writing principles, especially principally advantageous ones. A principal principle of good writing is proper word use, and “principle advantage” isn’t right. Now, back to Vonnegut please …
4.15.2007 11:44pm
Le Messurier (mail):

A principle advantage of English newspaper obits is that they are (often) written by people who actually knew the deceased.


and usually written by the best writers on the paper rather than entry level reporters, or hacks like Rosen.

Beyond that, I must say trhat I really don't buy into the argument of "speak nicely of the dead". At least not entirely. That's an American cultural thing that doesn't always serve us well. Especialy when the figure is an historic figure (as Vonnegut was).

There is every reason to report and write of the deceased's historical influence/impact/importance and how it came to be. For this kind of reporting I believe "gilding the lilly' does a disservice to those who may not be all that familiar with the subject and for those who are, it can be a good thing to put his life in a different perspective. I don't speak here of Vonnegut alone, but of historic or near historic people generally. I'm just not that bothered by negative obituaries on Vonnegut or Regan. These types obituaries are a form of opinion journalism and not "straight" reporting. American obituaries are almost always written for "family and friends". Yet, I see nothing wrong with writing them for people who want information AND opinion. For an historic figure there will certainly be more than one written and the reader can easily get "balance".
4.15.2007 11:59pm
LTEC (mail) (www):
Many people are asserting that it is insulting to say of someone that he died an unhappy man. I don't know if he was unhappy or not, but I don't see this as any kind of insult. I, for one, have been miserable most of my life, and it would be insulting for people to say of me after I die that I was cheerful.

When Vonnegut said 34 years ago that he hoped his children wouldn't say after he died that he was an unhappy man, this can mean a number of different things. For example:
1) He is and will continue to be a happy person, and he hopes his children realize this.
2) He is and will continue to be an unhappy person, but he doesn't want to be remembered principally for this.
3) He fears that he will die an unhappy person, and he hopes this doesn't come to pass.

I think 1) is very unlikely, and 3) is the most likely.


Lastly, do we know for a fact that Rosen didn't know Vonnegut?
4.16.2007 12:03am
Allen Asch (mail) (www):
Prof. Volokh,

Thanks for the link!

And, I guess you can do quite a good textual analysis using the transcript too!

I don't think what I left out made the Fox News piece look any worse than it was, by the way. I am sorry that I left some people with the impression that Fox News did not mention Dresden and Slaughterhouse 5. I was actually going to have another clip pointing out how Fox did not really honor Vonnegut's military service and instead made it out as "pure chance" that "he later made a career out of conjuring." I only left that part out because my video was already over 3 minutes...

I really appreciate that you blogged this video! :-)
4.16.2007 12:16am
FC:
Vonnegut wrote flippantly of death in his fiction. Would it be appropriate to write of his own death in the same way? If not, we must then reject much of the ideological content of his work.
4.16.2007 12:21am
2Ldtocare:
I don't care where you are on the political spectrum. That obit is poor journalism and reflects a strong political bias.

I hope fox and cnn journalist have a death match one day. We can title the mass obituary: a bunch of yellow journalist died today. Both left and right wingers alike. None of them amounted to a hill of beans. So it goes.
4.16.2007 12:40am
Duffy Pratt (mail):
The bigger problem with the obit is: Why should Vonnegut or anyone else be measured by how they felt about Nixon or Reagan?

I liked his books when I read them, and I think I read them at the right time: late in high school and early in college. I never read anything of his after my early twenties, but I still look back fondly on several of his books.

I'm not surprised that Fox's obit was both a bit disrespectful, and that it had a tin ear in trying to mimic Vonnegut's style. George Roy Hill had a hard time bringing his style to life, and he was a much better director than anyone remotely associated with Fox news.
4.16.2007 12:55am
Fub:
Mr. Rosen isn't stupid. Since he could only bring a knife to a literary gunfight, he challenged an opponent who was already dead.
4.16.2007 1:51am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Person from Porlock-

Cat's Cradle is a brilliant work but it's the work of a brilliant adolescent.

Vonnegut was never so much left-wing as he was full of teenaged angst and cynicism about 'the system', even into his old age.

How are you defining "adolescent" and "teenaged" here? Are you just infantilizing someone that doesn't agree with you?
4.16.2007 1:55am
llamasex (mail) (www):
I've read alot of Vonnegut, he is one of my favorite authors. If you read his books you see how much he was a happy man. Taking in the joy of life, he talks about how much fun it is to just roll around with his dogs. About his children natural and adopted. This seems like it was written by someone who really read alot of his books, just scanned around for a piece.
4.16.2007 2:22am
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
In defense of Alan Dershowitz, it was Fox that called him. We don't really expect a long-term critic to decline to say anything, do we? And having done the Fox interview, there wasn't much point in not posting his comments.
4.16.2007 2:37am
Henri Le Compte (mail):
Well, to me it seems obvious that the author of this obit was shooting for a Voneguttian feel (and, here's to hoping that doesn't become an entrenched adjective). Flip, hip, and more than a little dour.

I'm not saying that it succeeds. Just that it was more homage than hit piece.
4.16.2007 3:02am
Cornellian (mail):
He was a profoundly unhappy and cynical man, of moderate talent, with leftist leanings. His better writing engenders sadness and sophomoric cynicism. The obit captures it all.

An obit is not the place for literary criticism.

I do have to wonder whether any obit in the history of Fox News will ever describe the deceased's writings as a "right wing screed" - kinda doubt it.
4.16.2007 4:18am
Visitor Again:
I prefer this little remembrance appearing in Monday's L.A. Times.
4.16.2007 5:07am
aizheng (mail):
4.16.2007 6:02am
Enoch:
Vonnegut's obit was written 30 years ago in Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's Inferno. That obit was spot-on, too.
4.16.2007 7:21am
PersonFromPorlock:
American Psikhushka:

Are you just infantilizing someone that doesn't agree with you?

Not at all. Clever teens are a delight, albeit a fatiguing one. But with Vonnegut we had so much cleverness and so little content... did he ever write anything that couldn't be summed up as "Ah, s--t?"

Enoch:

Vonnegut's obit was written 30 years ago in Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's Inferno. That obit was spot-on, too.

More of a post-obit, actually! And marvelously sardonic into the bargain.
4.16.2007 8:53am
Justin (mail):
It'd be interesting to compare this obituary with Barbara Olson's
4.16.2007 9:38am
Jeek:
So what did Rehnquist do that was "genuinely evil" enough to require condemnation in his obituary?
4.16.2007 10:37am
Justin (mail):
Jeek, I'm not sure you caught the nuance in EV's statement, but EV "disapproved" of Deschawitz's negative obit. If you want to see why AD thought WR was a bad person, you could actually read the obit, which attacks WR for his participation in Operation Eagle Eye, his purchase of a house with a restrictive (against Jews) covenant, and Bush v. Gore.

I don't think that's enough to write a negative obit of someone so quickly after their death, unless that person's death is being used as some sort of force (i.e., such a rule should not stop people from trying to prevent a replacement Chief Justice in his mold). But two defenses of AD, a man I dislike. One, he doesn't need to have the same formulation of what standards one speaks ill of the dead on as EV or myself. Two, he was approached by Fox News "only moments" after WR's death (the piece does not make clear whether AD knew of the death) to give his candid views, (foolishly) gave them in an honest way, and only wrote the obit in response to the hate mail and criticism he received for those comments. I don't think this is enough to make his obit the correct thing to do (far better to stay silent and ride out the criticism in my view), but the facts make criticism against AD more measured.
4.16.2007 10:47am
Dave N (mail):
Cornellian wrote:

I do have to wonder whether any obit in the history of Fox News will ever describe the deceased's writings as a "right wing screed" - kinda doubt it.

Probably not; that will be left to MSNBC and CNN.
4.16.2007 10:56am
heh (mail):
"and so [with foxnews] it goes..."
4.16.2007 11:07am
Stevethepatentguy (mail) (www):
Yeah, but my great-great grand children will be reading "Slaughter House Five" and Rosen's great-great grand children won't remember great-great grandpa's name.

Insert your favorite Teddy Roosevelt quote here.
4.16.2007 11:51am
bellisaurius (mail):
Talking about obits in general:

Y'know. So much of a newspaper is a little sad and depressing, that I actually find myself reading the obits because they show me people who've lived interesting lives, and done interesting things. I look to it, in short, for hope. Ironic, isn't it?
4.16.2007 11:58am
Randy R. (mail):
This pales in comparison to the write up in the Wall Street Journal of the death of William Burroughs, the beatnik who wrote Naked Lunch. Perhaps someone can dig it up, but it makes Fox News look like a glowing and fauning obit. They basically blamed him for everything that is wrong in American culture.
4.16.2007 12:19pm
Randy R. (mail):
As for never speaking ill of the dead, I generally follow that advice, out of respect for the living who might hear it.
But I'm telling you, when W kicks the bucket, all bets are off!
4.16.2007 12:26pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):

I do have to wonder whether any obit in the history of Fox News will ever describe the deceased's writings as a "right wing screed"



When it comes from the right, I believe the favored noun is "ravings".
4.16.2007 12:42pm
Shake-N-Bake:
Maybe this Rosen guy needs to chill out. Perhaps with some Ice-Nine.

I guess this should be expected of Fox News. This goes well beyond just reporting the facts, good and bad, of Vonnegut's life. That's just par for the course for "news" channels in general these days though.
4.16.2007 12:57pm
ed o:
well, perhaps he should have said KV was a profoundly happy man who was moderate in politics and didn't seem to have contempt for his home country-it would be a lie, but would have satisfied the commenters here.
4.16.2007 1:09pm
Hoya:
Consider

ROSEN: Vonnegut, who failed at suicide 23 years ago, said 34 years ago that he hoped his children wouldn't say of him when he was gone "he made wonderful jokes, but he was such an unhappy man." So I'll say it for them.

Does anyone know the source of the Vonnegut quote within this? Because it could be that Vonnegut made a joke of the following form: "I hope my children won't say of me when I'm gone that I made wonderful jokes, but was such an unhappy man...so I'll say it for them." If that's the Vonnegut quote, then maybe the transcription is just a mistake: the quote mark should go after 'them', rather than 'man.' It is Vonnegut saying of himself that he was an unhappy man who made good jokes, not Rosen.
4.16.2007 1:15pm
Jeek:
Burroughs and Ginsberg caught in the same shotgun blast:


The Death of Decency
By Roger Kimball
1005 words
8 August 1997
The Wall Street Journal
A12
English
(Copyright (c) 1997, Dow Jones &Company, Inc.)

It has been a bad year for famous drug-abusing literary charlatans. In April, the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg -- author of "Howl" (1956) and innumerable other paeans to pharmacological and sexual excess -- died of liver cancer at the age of 70. On Aug. 2, the Beat novelist William S. Burroughs succumbed to a heart attack at the age of 83. Considering the way they abused themselves -- especially Burroughs, who was addicted to heroin for some 15 years -- it is hard not to admire their robust constitutions.

It is even harder, though, to admire anything else about the life or work of either. Both specialized in pretentious, proselytizing pornography: Ginsberg of an incense-burning, pseudo-Whitmanesque sort, Burroughs of a much grittier, sado-masochistic variety. There are few poems by Ginsberg that could be quoted whole in this newspaper; I doubt whether any page of "Naked Lunch," Burroughs's celebrated 1959 fantasy about a violent, drug-ridden sexual underworld, could be. A generous person might be tempted to describe the accumulated literary value of both writers as null. But that would be grossly unfair to nullity. The poet Edith Sitwell came closer to the truth when she described "Naked Lunch" as "psychopathological filth."

How, then, can we explain the extent to which Ginsberg and Burroughs have been lionized by the media and the academic literary establishment? Anyone who read the obituaries these men received -- especially Ginsberg, who got lavish, front-page treatment almost everywhere -- might be tricked into thinking that they were important literary figures. In the early 1990s, Stanford University paid $1 million for Ginsberg's papers. His works are published by prestigious houses and are studied in classrooms across the country. Ditto for Burroughs. The word "genius" is routinely applied to both. So is "transgressive" -- a term that, tellingly, has emerged as a favorite word of praise among addicts of the "cutting edge."

I agree that Ginsberg and Burroughs were "transgressive." But is that a good thing? After all, Saddam Hussein is "transgressive" too. The obituary of Burroughs in The New York Times informed readers that "he spent years experimenting with drugs as well as with sex, which he engaged in with men, women, and children." Note the word "experimenting," as if Burroughs were engaged in some sort of scientific inquiry rather than straight-forward abuse of hard drugs and sordid sexual debauchery.

Burroughs committed his most clearly transgressive act in Mexico in 1951. Although predominantly homosexual, he had married and fathered a son. Drunk at a party, he took out a handgun and announced to his wife that it was time for their William Tell act. When he tried to shoot a glass off her head, he missed and killed her. As one obituary put it, "the circumstances of the killing were never fully investigated, and Burroughs fled Mexico City for South America rather than stand trial."

Burroughs is often praised for his "humor." But as far as I can tell, there is only one genuinely funny sentence in "Naked Lunch," and its humor is inadvertent. "Certain passages in the book that have been called pornographic," Burroughs wrote in a preface, "were written as a tract against Capital Punishment in the manner of Jonathan Swift's `Modest Proposal.'"

Burroughs wasn't alone in invoking the author of "Gulliver's Travels." Burroughs's fellow Beat writer Jack Kerouac wrote that his friend was "the greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift." In 1963, the critic and novelist Mary McCarthy solemnly said there were "many points of comparison" between the two, and concluded that, "like a classical satirist, Burroughs is dead serious -- a reformer."

But McCarthy was wrong. Burroughs was not a reformer. Unlike Swift, he had no ideal to oppose to the degradation his books depicted. On the contrary, he was a cynical opportunist who realized that calling his work "satire" could help exempt it from legal action. An obituary in The Village Voice described Burroughs as "utterly paranoid and utterly moral." That is exactly half right.

It is significant that the careers of both Ginsberg and Burroughs began with an obscenity trial, Ginsberg with "Howl" in 1957, Burroughs with "Naked Lunch" in 1962. Ira Silverberg, a publicist for Burroughs, is quoted as saying that "William Burroughs opened the door for supporters of freedom of expression." In fact, Burroughs helped open the door on the public acceptance and academic adulation of violent, dehumanizing pornography as a protected form of free speech.

As Rochelle Gurstein pointed out in "The Repeal of Reticence," her astute book about free speech and obscenity, "it is a sign of our time that this ready-made plea for freedom of choice, and the dismissal of standards as a form of cultural imperialism, is automatically offered not only on behalf of commercial entertainment but also for obscene art and pornography."

As Ms. Gurstein shows, it was not until the 1950s that the question of obscenity was cast as a First Amendment issue. Until then, free speech had been explicitly excluded by the courts as a defense for trafficking in obscene materials. The problem was not defining obscenity -- about which there was wide agreement -- but in assessing the degree of public harm the circulation of certain materials might be expected to cause. "Obscenity was successfully regulated," she notes, "because there was broad consensus about indecency, rooted in the old standards of the reticent sensibility."

That consensus has long since dissolved, along with the moral sensibility that supported it. In this sense, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and the rest of the Beats really do mark an important moment in American culture, not as one of its achievements, but as a grievous example of its degeneration. The Village Voice observed that, when it came to appreciating his nihilism, "the culture had finally caught up with" Burroughs. Sadly, that couldn't be more accurate.
4.16.2007 1:20pm
John Harvey (mail):
Person from Porlock said, "Cat's Cradle is a brilliant work but it's the work of a brilliant adolescent."

"Vonnegut was never so much left-wing as he was full of teenaged angst and cynicism about 'the system', even into his old age."

I find it hard to a person in his forties as adolescent. Especially someone who had survived the fire bombing of Dresden. Vonnegut may have been filled with angst but"teenaged angst" cannot really be said of anyone with Vonnegut's life experience.
4.16.2007 1:35pm
John Harvey (mail):
Sorry, I meant to say I find it hard to describe any person in his forties as adolescent.
4.16.2007 1:36pm
amativus (mail):
Good Lord, that WSJ editorial is outrageous for the same reason this obituatry is outrageous. Not because it's mean-spirited (and really! only six days after Burrough's death? He's not even in the ground yet!), but because it's just so wrong. Reducing Kurt Vonnegut's work to irrelevant works is simply untrue. I'm a college student, and 40 years after the publication of his works, I haven't seen my generation more upset about a cultural icon's death than Steve Irwin. To dismiss his works after 40 years of dedicated readership is simply ridiculous. The same goes for the WSJ article, and if Roger Kimball has never felt the brilliance of Howl for himself, then it's not society I pity but Kimball himself. On a slightly off-topic note, this quote was particularly infuriating:

Burroughs helped open the door on the public acceptance and academic adulation of violent, dehumanizing pornography as a protected form of free speech.

No, Mr. Kimball, that door was always open and for precisely this reason. Your "violent, dehumanizing pornography" is somebody else's "striking cultural satire." Let us all take a moment and thank the Founding Fathers that you are not the arbiter of so-called cultural decency.

In short, what offends me most about these editorials is not their negative attitudes, but their profoundly inaccurate records of these men's lives. The primary job of an obituary author is to accurately capture the individual's life and legacy and all of these works do a terrible disservice to their subjects and their readers.
4.16.2007 3:44pm
hey (mail):
Goven Vonnegut's oeuvre, and the much higher quality of British Obits, I see this as a failed attempt at blending the two. Interesting concept, but probably something that should have been avoided with appropriate humility towards one's own writing talent.

Amativus: it's a culture war, you're just on the other side. Note that there's a difference from what's legal and what's acceptable. Imus' recent comments being an excellent example of legal but immoral and unacceptable. Write out 1000 times "Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from criticism, simply freedom from state enforced censorship".
4.16.2007 5:32pm
Randy R. (mail):
Thank you, Jeek, for finding the WSJ editorial! Nice comments, Amativis!

It isn't a coincidence that both Ginsberg and Burroughs were gay, and the WSJ lays the blame for just about everything bad about our society at their feet. To conservatives like those at the WSJ or Fox, anything gay is automatically bad. (Unless of course, you are a closeted gay Republican. Then they just treat you like you are invisible.)

But all these ravings are just that: howls against anyone who would dare question authority. Ginsberg "Howl" was just that, a wake up call that conformism isn't always good, and is often bad. That our so-called leaders don't always know what is best for us or our country. That our businessess care only about the bottomline, and not much else. And so on and so on.

Ever read the books by Robert Bork? He said nothing good came out of the 60s. Nothing! No music, thought, movements, ideas -- nothing. These people want you to 'know your place' and don't ask questions, or rock the boat. of course, the rules are fixed to benefit them, and they certainly don't feel they have to answer even to the paltry rules they set up. Ethics? Transparency? Above board dealing? Those are for OTHER people, not the establishment.

Sorry for sounding like a 60s radical. I'm really not. But I do find it amusing that these conservatives are so upset.

and, hey, they lost. We won. So I don't really care what they think.
4.16.2007 5:32pm
Randy R. (mail):
Hey: "Note that there's a difference from what's legal and what's acceptable"

I don't think Amativis said anything to imply that he didn't know that.

However, you are correct -- this is all part of the so-called culture war. What's funny, though, is that these conservatives have no problem questioning authority when the authority being questioned is a Democratic president, or a liberal institution. Oh, they're all for that. But when it's time to criticize Wall Street, or business, or religion, they go all postal on us.

In other words, they are quite happy to use the culture war not to better our society, but to better themselves.
4.16.2007 5:36pm
ed o:
so, were ginsberg and burroughs personal warped and degenerate individuals? did one, in a drunken fit, shoot an innocent woman in the head? were they drug addicts? did either have sex with children? was there anything personally admirable about the artists such that they are worthy of the breathless admiration doled out?
4.16.2007 5:41pm
Colin (mail):
was there anything personally admirable about the artists such that they are worthy of the breathless admiration doled out?

Their writing.
4.16.2007 6:08pm
ed o:
well, an article pointing out what despicable human beings they were seems fairly appropriate then. or, does their "wonderful" writing remove them from having to meet any standard for human decency?
4.16.2007 6:22pm
ed o:
by the way, what was admirable about their writing? was there a point besides the shock value? what was the point of the "beat" generation?
4.16.2007 6:26pm
Randy R. (mail):
Try reading their works and make the judgements yourself.
Which was sorta the point. instead of relying upon an authority to tell you what to think, you should examine the evidence and then think for yourself.

And furthermore, although Ginsberg experimented with drugs in his life (and who didn't in the 60s?), there is really nothing 'despicable' or degenerate about his life. As for Burroughs, he did some crazy things, it's true, and there is no defending it, and there is no reason not to put some of that in an obit. But that isn't the point being debated here.
4.16.2007 6:57pm
Q the Enchanter (mail) (www):
Well, it certainly seems "mean spirited" to me. But I'd say the worst thing you could say about it was that it really isn't very good.
4.17.2007 2:24am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Person fom Porlock-

Not at all. Clever teens are a delight, albeit a fatiguing one. But with Vonnegut we had so much cleverness and so little content... did he ever write anything that couldn't be summed up as "Ah, s--t?"

So discontent equals adolescence? Or just discontent that you disagree with or deem "too much"? Seems very much like infantilizing. Perhaps your work with "clever teens" has left you with a desire to exercise the level of control some have over teens over others by infantilizing them? The founding fathers were very discontent, were they adolescent?
4.17.2007 4:16am
Banjo Drill (mail):
Rosen's piece is disgusting. Even in an obit, Fox can't help pump out it's steaming logs of propaganda. It WAS mean spirited. And it missed the point of his work. Just like any asshole that thinks Fox reports "news"...or anyone who doesn't see through the smoke and mirrors in front of this illegal war that Fox continuously tries to justify.

To think that Rosen is being truthful and respectful here is way off mark. You may have read Vonnegut in the past, but you've definitely forgotten what it meant.
4.17.2007 9:57am
ed o:
read the works, including KV. didn't find them particularly compelling. juvenile, self centered and not particularly enlightening-kind of like the rock star getting on stage and slurring or vomiting but still getting cheers from the audience.
4.17.2007 10:46am
Banjo Drill (mail):
ed o,
I'd imagine you could say that about any writer if you don't try to digest the meaning.
4.17.2007 12:05pm
proseandpromise:
The beauty of Vonnegut's writing was it's honest simplicity. He had a way of saying profound truth with the simplicity of a child, not because he was adolescent, but because he was most basically human. He wrote to all people everywhere in the most universal of language from the most universal POV, personal experience. I think his fondness for the sayings of Christ probably tie to this. They both reflect the world around them plainly and clearly. The establishment never likes that. It gets Kurt V. a disrespectful, shallow obit, it got Jesus crucified, and it got Socrates a stomach full of poison.

Adolescent as it may have been, it was honest. Most "adult" writing is less cynical only because it has become more willing to accept and make excuses for the unacceptable. I admire Kurt V. for doggedly refusing to do that more than for anything else he did.

The most offensive thing about this obit is its charictarization of a great man. It sounds like his self-portraits looked.
4.17.2007 2:17pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
ed o-

How are you defining "juvenile"?
4.17.2007 6:37pm
Simon Jericho (mail):
Although the WSJ's edi-bituary of Burroughs is nauseating, I can at least respect that the hatchet man said exactly what he meant and pulled no punches. In that, I am reminded of H.S. Thompson's "obit" of Tricky Dick:


Richard Nixon, a man so evil he glowed green in the dark, is dead. America, we have buried our Satan.


By contrast, Rosen's little smear of Kurt is disingenuous and smarmy, largely employing insinuation to the effect that Vonnegut's contribution to American thought is of no consequence and therefore unworthy of the audience's attention, especially now that the man is finally dead, like he wanted. Rosen's entire point could be easily encapsulated thus:


Kurt Vonnegut was an unhappy, cynical liberal who wrote a bunch of unhappy-cynical-liberal books, which ceased to be remotely relevant once America moved beyond the unhappy-cynical liberalism of the sixties.


It's a gross mischaracterization, but at least that would be honest.
The attempt to mimic Vonnegut's style just lets the asshole hide behind the claim that he was being ironic. It's a rather quiet and cowardly smear, designed to denigrate the man without allowing him the dignity of controversy, which after all might interest folks enough to actually read his books.
4.18.2007 7:37pm
kampot:
Could be a typo but 250,000 people died in the Dresden firebombing not 25,000. Fox tends to slack off on fact checking anything to do with WW II - remember Bill O confusing the SS atrocities during the Battle of the Bulge (where Vonnegut was captured).
4.19.2007 9:24am