Arts » Written + Spoken Word

2012 Night of Vonnegut scores


Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library-commissioned painting of Vonnegut by Chris King. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MARC LEEDS
  • Photo courtesy of Marc Leeds
  • Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library-commissioned painting of Vonnegut by Chris King.

Among the most popular questions asked of Jim Lehrer when he arrived in Indianapolis for the 2012 Night of Vonnegut: Had he been here before?

Lehrer understands the Hoosier State much better than most Plains-state-bred intellects beached in D.C.

The first time he was ever "paid money to speak into a microphone," Lehrer was a young train ticket agent in Texas, calling out to customers their chance to catch a train departing for Indianapolis.

His early elocution skills matured around the rolling syllables of Indiana's capital city and his later appreciation for its particular culture evolved along with his wife's well-marked and much-read copy of Cat's Cradle.

In fact, he told a crowd of about 300 gathered in the Athenaeum on a rainy April Saturday night, it is all but stitched into his spirit.

At a fundraiser Lehrer attended earlier in the week for an Emily Dickinson library in Amherst, Mass., he discovered the library director's husband was from Ft. Wayne, Ind.

"Well, that makes you a Hoosier," Lehrer blurted out without a second thought.

"Yeah, I'm a Hoosier," the man replied, which sparked continued consideration of the Hoosier way.

Lehrer's wife later reminded him that the dialogue parroted a portion of Vonnegut's Cats Cradle involving Hoosier cosmology.

He then recited the selection for the Night of Vonnegut audience. His delivery made clear his appreciation for the Hoosier enigma.

Often an idealized vision of a famous person fails to correspond with the person manifest in the flesh, Lehrer said. But, Vonnegut, he added, was everything you'd expect: an amiable literary legend, somewhat removed and at-times camera shy to the point Lehrer could not coax a photo with Vonnegut even though Vonnegut was at the party in celebration of a Lehrer book.

Lehrer's most recent arrival in Indianapolis is thanks to the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library's executive director, Julia Whitehead, who, like Lehrer, is a marine.

[Editor's note: The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library is a 2012 NUVO Cultural Vision Award winner.]

She stalked him out at a D.C. book fair and implored him to come support the library.

Within months, he accepted the invitation.

"When a marine asks you to do something, it's not a case of yes or no, it's a question of when," he said.

Vonnegut's work is exceptional, Lehrer said, in that it can leave a reader "laughing, crying, sweating, shivering and very happy and very unhappy all in the same three sentences."

A book by Vonnegut "not only captivated us as a story but in ways that went way beyond in so many ways — and that is why I'm here tonight," Lehrer said.

"I'm honored to be here; I'll always be here with you all, if not physically than in spirit to treasure the work and the meaning of the work. I'm having a wonderful time being in your company tonight."

If Lehrer nailed Vonnegut's tone in his reading of Cat's Cradle, MAD Magazine's Senior Editor Joe Raiola channeled George Carlin's spirit as he ridiculed the ridiculous in his "Joys of Censorship" review of generations of conflict between comedy writers and self-appointed moral champions hell bent on saving the nation from its human nature.

Raiola asked the audience to consider the well-intentioned effort to insert the word "slave" in place of the 122 instances of the word "nigger" in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. "As if that's some kind of upgrade," he quipped.

Even the very comedy clubs where Richard Pryor "exposed racism" were considering outlawing the word, he said.

Raiola meditated on the word "cunt" and tried to image Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer without it.

"At some point someone just has to say this is stupid shit," he said. "The movie Bully? Teenagers can't see a movie where other teenagers are saying, 'Fuck!'"

Comedy Central censored a South Park featuring Santa Claus pretending to be Mohammed in a bear suit, he said. And the network censors John Stewart "every single night," he added.

The editor also conveyed the depth of the torture he endures at the hands of censors world-wide through his song, "Don't Put a Fatwa on Me," inspired by a voicemail from a man who said he was calling from Pakistan and was upset with a Mad cartoon featuring Mohammed on a pancake.

"The issue never gets old," Raiola said and he lauded the KVML for its work to keep Vonnegut alive and fight misguided censorship for "generations and generations to come."

Editor's Note: In the spirit of full disclosure, I bid in the KVML silent auction and won a membership to the Indiana Historical Society for around $40. Altogether the library aimed to raise around $15,000. Whitehead reports that the rare book Missing In Action by Kurt Vonnegut was the high-dollar item at $950.


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