Historical uncertainty and moral ambiguity in postwar America: An examination of selected black humor novels of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Jeffrey Matthew Foster, University of Rhode Island

Abstract

The first objective of my study is to examine how Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. exemplifies the American black humorist in his response to the moral ambiguity and historical anxiety of the postwar era. Of central importance to my discussion is my contention that Vonnegut is not a satirist: he does not feel, contrary to what some critics have suggested, that there is any hope for improvement of the human condition. Indeed, journalist Harry Reasoner asked Vonnegut whether he would accept being called a pessimist, to which the black humorist answered, “Well, things do seem to get worse.” In this dissertation, I examine three of Vonnegut's novels, Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat's Cradle, and The Sirens of Titan both in terms of how they reflect the historical and moral crises of postwar America and how they help us better understand the nebulous term “black humor.” ^ This leads to my second objective, which is to develop a critically-useful definition of black humor. Matthew Winston notes that “the term black humor has been used in so many different ways and applied to such a diversity of works that it lacks any precision.” The first step in attaining a more precise, useful definition is to acknowledge black humor as a literary reaction to World War II and the dropping of the atomic bombs. We cannot truly understand the novels of Vonnegut and other American black humorists if we choose to ignore this historical context. ^

Subject Area

Literature, American

Recommended Citation

Jeffrey Matthew Foster, "Historical uncertainty and moral ambiguity in postwar America: An examination of selected black humor novels of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr." (2000). Dissertations and Master's Theses (Campus Access). Paper AAI9989444.
http://digitalcommons.uri.edu/dissertations/AAI9989444

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