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).

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.
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