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Vonnegut on Twain

by RevereRides Thursday, May. 29, 2003 at 7:46 AM

A good read.

By Kurt Vonnegut | 5.9.03

Strange Weather Lately

The following is adapted from a Clemens Lecture

presented in April for

the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut.


First things first: I want it clearly understood that

this mustache I’m

wearing is my father’s mustache. I should have brought

his photograph.

My big brother Bernie, now dead, a physical chemist who


that silver iodide can sometimes make it snow or rain,

he wore it, too.

Speaking of weather: Mark Twain said some readers

complained that

there wasn’t enough weather in his stories. So he wrote

some weather,

which they could insert wherever they thought it would

help some.

Mark Twain was said to have shed a tear of gratitude and


when honored for his writing by Oxford University in

England. And I should

shed a tear, surely, having been asked at the age of 80,

and because of

what I myself have written, to speak under the auspices

of the sacred Mark

Twain House here in Hartford.

What other American landmark is as sacred to me as the

Mark Twain House?

The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Mark Twain and

Abraham Lincoln

were country boys from Middle America, and both of them

made the American

people laugh at themselves and appreciate really

important, really moral


I note that construction has stopped of a Mark Twain

Museum here in Hartford

behind the carriage house of the Mark Twain House at 351

Farmington Avenue.

Work persons have been sent home from that site because


“conservatives,” as they call themselves, on Wall Street

and at the head

of so many of our corporations, have stolen a major

fraction of our private

savings, have ruined investors and employees by means of

fraud and

outright piracy.

Shock and awe.

And now, having installed themselves as our federal

government, or taken

control of it from outside, they have squandered our

public treasury and

then some. They have created a public debt of such

appalling magnitude

that our descendants, for whom we had such high hopes,

will come into

this world as poor as church mice.

Shock and awe.

What are the conservatives doing with all the money and

power that used

to belong to all of us? They are telling us to be

absolutely terrified, and

to run around in circles like chickens with their heads

cut off. But they


save us. They are making us take off our shoes at

airports. Can anybody

here think of a more hilarious practical joke than that


Smile, America. You’re on Candid Camera.

And they have turned loose a myriad of our high-tech

weapons, each one

costing more than a hundred high schools, on a Third

World country,

in order to shock and awe human beings like us, like

Adam and Eve,

between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

The other day I asked former Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton

what he thought of

our great victory over Iraq, and he said, “Mohammed Ali

versus Mr. Rogers.”

What are conservatives? They are people who will move

heaven and earth, if

they have to, who will ruin a company or a country or a

planet, to prove to


and to themselves that they are superior to everybody

else, except for their


They take good care of their pals, keep them out of

jail—and so on.

Conservatives are crazy as bedbugs. They are bullies.

Shock and awe.

Class war? You bet.

They have proved their superiority to admirers of

Abraham Lincoln and

Mark Twain and Jesus of Nazareth, with an able assist

from television,

making inconsequential our protests against their war.

What has happened to us? We have suffered a

technological calamity.

Television is now our form of government.

On what grounds did we protest their war? I could name

many, but

I need name only one, which is common sense.

Be that as it may, construction of the Mark Twain Museum

will sooner or

later be resumed. And I, the son and grandson of Indiana

architects, seize

this opportunity to suggest a feature which I hope will

be included in the

completed structure, words to be chiseled into the

capstone over the main


Here is what I think would be fun to put up there, and

Mark Twain loved

fun more than anything. I have tinkered with something

famous he said, which

is: “Be good and you will be lonesome.” That is from

Following the Equator.


So envision what a majestic front entrance the Mark

Twain Museum will have

someday. And imagine that these words have been chiseled

into the noble

capstone and painted gold: "be good and you will be

lonesome most places,

but not here, not here."

One of the most humiliated and heartbroken pieces Twain

ever wrote was about

the slaughter of 600 Moro men, women and children by our

soldiers during

our liberation of the people of the Philippines after

the Spanish-American


Our brave commander was Leonard Wood, who now has a fort

named after him.

Fort Leonard Wood.

What did Abraham Lincoln have to say about such American

imperialist wars?

Those are wars which, on one noble pretext or another,

actually aim to

increase the natural resources and pools of tame labor

available to the

richest Americans who have the best political


And it is almost always a mistake to mention Abraham

Lincoln in a speech

about something or somebody else. He always steals the

show. I am about to

quote him.

Lincoln was only a Congressman when he said in 1848 what

I am about to

echo. He was heartbroken and humiliated by our war on

Mexico, which had

never attacked us.

We were making California our own, and a lot of other

people and properties,

and doing it as though butchering Mexican soldiers who

were only defending

their homeland against invaders wasn’t murder.

What other stuff besides California? Well, Texas, New

Mexico, Utah, Nevada,

Arizona, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming.

The person congressman Lincoln had in mind when he said

what he said was

James Polk, our president at the time. Abraham Lincoln

said of Polk, his

president, our armed forces’ commander-in-chief:

“Trusting to escape

scrutiny by fixing the public gaze upon the exceeding

brightness of

military glory, that attractive rainbow that rises in

showers of blood —that

serpent’s eye, that charms to destroy, he plunged into


Holy smokes! I almost said, “Holy shit!” And I thought I

was a writer!

Do you know we actually captured Mexico City during the

Mexican War? Why

isn’t that a national holiday? And why isn’t the face of

James Polk up on

Mount Rushmore, along with Ronald Reagan’s?

What made Mexico so evil back in the 1840s, well before

our Civil War, is

that slavery was illegal there. Remember the Alamo?

My great-grandfather’s name was Clemens Vonnegut. Small

world, small


This piquant coincidence is not a fabrication. Clemens

Vonnegut called

himself a “freethinker,” an antique word for humanist.

He was a hardware

merchant in Indianapolis.

So, 120 years ago, say, there was one man who was both

Clemens and


I would have liked being such a person a lot. I only

wish I could have

been such a person tonight.

I claim no blood relationship with Samuel Clemens of

Hannibal, Missouri.

“Clemens,” as a first name, is, I believe, like the name


derived from the adjective “clement.” To be clement is

to be lenient and

compassionate, or, in the case of weather, perfectly


So there’s weather again.


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