Ode To America’s Freshwater People

On Abraham Lincoln, Carl Sandburg, Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, and other Midwesterners.

Kurt Vonnegut

Upon receiving the Carl Sandburg Award in 2001, Kurt Vonnegut tipped his hat to "America's Great Lakes people." RHIMAGE/Shutterstock.

As a young man, Kurt Vonnegut considered becoming a labor organizer, and he admired and honored those who fought for the rights of wage earners everywhere. As a member of Pen International, he fought for the rights of writers around the world. On receiving the Carl Sandburg Award on October 12, 2001, the late Indiana-born author and In These Times senior editor celebrated some self-taught Midwesterners who made waves from sea to shining sea.

Christianity and socialism alike, in fact, prescribe a society dedicated to the proposition that all men, women, and children are created equal, and should not starve.

We are America’s Great Lakes people, her freshwater people, not an oceanic but a continental people. Whenever I swim in an ocean, I feel as though I am swimming in chicken soup.

I thank you for this honor, although it is a reminder that I am not nearly the passionate and effective artist Carl Sandburg was. And we are surely grateful for his fog which came in on little cat feet. But tonight seems an apt occasion as well for celebrating what he and other American socialists did during the first half of the past century, with art, with eloquence, with organizing skills, to elevate the self-respect, the dignity, and political acumen of American wage earners, of our working class.

That wage earners, without social position or higher education or wealth, are of inferior intellect is surely belied by the fact that two of the most splendid writers and speakers on the deepest subjects in American history were self-taught workmen. I speak, of course, of Carl Sandburg of Illinois, and Abraham Lincoln, of Kentucky, then Indiana, and finally Illinois.

Both, may I say, were continental, freshwater people like ourselves.

Hooray for our team!

This excerpt is taken from the new Kurt Vonnegut collection If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? Advice to the Young. Donate $40 or more to In These Times and we will send you a copy of this book that brings together 9 of his best speeches — including 7 college commencement addresses — for the first time ever, and is filled with Vonnegut’s original illustrations. 

I know upper-class graduates of Yale University who can’t talk or write worth a nickel.

Socialism is no more an evil word than Christianity. Socialism no more prescribed Joseph Stalin and his secret police and shuttered churches than Christianity prescribed the Spanish Inquisition. Christianity and socialism alike, in fact, prescribe a society dedicated to the proposition that all men, women, and children are created equal, and should not starve.

Adolf Hitler, incidentally, was a twofer. He named his party the National Socialists, the Nazis. Hitler also had crosses painted on his tanks and airplanes. The swastika wasn’t a pagan symbol, as so many people believe. It was a working person’s Christian cross, made of axes, of tools.

About Stalin’s shuttered churches, and those in China today: Such suppression of religion was supposedly justified by Karl Marx’s statement that Religion is the opium of the people.” Marx said that back in 1844, when opium and opium derivatives were the only effective pain killers anyone could take. Marx himself had taken them. He was grateful for the temporary relief they had given him. He was simply noticing, and surely not condemning, the fact that religion could also be comforting to those in economic or social distress. It was a casual truism, not a dictum.

When Marx wrote those words, by the way, we hadn’t even freed our slaves yet. Whom do you imagine was more pleasing in the eyes of a merciful God back then? Karl Marx or the United States of America?

Stalin was happy to take Marx’s truism as a decree, and Chinese tyrants as well, since it seemingly empowered them to put preachers out of business who might speak ill of them or their goals.

The statement has also entitled many in this country to say that socialists are anti-religion, are anti-God, and therefore absolutely loathsome.

I never met Carl Sandburg, and wish I had. I would have been tongue-tied in the presence of such a national treasure. I did get to know one socialist of his generation, who was Powers Hapgood of Indianapolis. After graduating from Harvard, he went to work as a coal miner, urging his working-class brothers to organize, in order to get better pay and safer working conditions. He also led protesters at the execution of the anarchists Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in Massachusetts in 1927.

Another of our freshwater ancestors was Eugene Victor Debs, of Terre Haute, Indiana. A former locomotive fireman, Eugene Debs ran for president of the United States four times, the fourth time in 1920, when he was in prison. He said, As long as there is a lower class, I’m in it. As long as there is a criminal element, I’m of it. As long as there’s a soul in prison, I am not free.” Some platform.

A paraphrase of the Beatitudes.

And again: hooray for our team!

And our own beloved Carl Sandburg had this to say about the fire-belching evangelist Billy Sunday:

You come along — tearing your shirt — yelling about Jesus. I want to know what the hell you know about Jesus.

Jesus had a way of talking soft, and everybody except a few bankers and higher-ups among the con men of Jerusalem liked to have Jesus around because he never made any fake passes, and he helped the sick and gave people hope.

You come along calling us all damn fools — so fierce the froth of your own spit slobbers over your lips— always blabbering we’re all going to hell straight off and you know all about it.

I’ve read Jesus’s words. I know what he said. You don’t throw any scare into me. I’ve got your number. I know how much you know about Jesus.

You tell people living in shanties Jesus is going to fix it up all right with them by giving them mansions in the skies after they’re dead and the worms have eaten em.

You tell $6-a-week department store girls all they need is Jesus. You take a steel trust wop, dead without having lived, gray and shrunken at forty years of age, and you tell him to look at Jesus on the cross and he’ll be all right.

You tell poor people they don’t need any more money on pay day, and even if it’s fierce to be out of a job, Jesus’ll fix that all right, all right — all they gotta do is take Jesus the way you say.

Jesus played it different. The bankers and corporation lawyers of Jerusalem got their murderers to go after Jesus because Jesus wouldn’t play their game.

I don’t want a lot of gab from a bunkshooter in my religion.

Hooray for our team!

And I now take advantage of your hospitality by declaring myself a child of the Chicago Renaissance, powerfully humanized not only by Carl Sandburg, but by Edgar Lee Masters and Jane Addams and Louis Sullivan and Lake Michigan, and on and on.

And I propose a toast to an individual who wasn’t an artist or working stiff of any description. She wasn’t even a human being. Ladies and gentlemen of Chicago, I give you Mrs. O’Leary’s cow.

This speech is excerpted from If This Isn’t Nice What Is? Advice to the Young by Kurt Vonnegut (Seven Stories Press).

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Kurt Vonnegut, the legendary author, WWII veteran, humanist, artist and smoker, was an In These Times senior editor until his death in April 2007. His classic works include Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions and Cat’s Cradle, among many others. The last book by him published before his death, A Man Without a Country (2005), collects many of the articles he wrote for this magazine.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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