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Columnist Clarence Page talks Vonnegut


Clarence Page.
  • Clarence Page.

Clarence Page, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune, thinks of Kurt Vonnegut as an "uncle by a different family," the kind of guy who's prone toward telling stories, sometimes even preaching, but always with a sense of humor. Page, who has worked for the Tribune since 1971 and says he can relate to Vonnegut's post-war Chicago journalism experience (Page after Vietnam, Vonnegut after WWII), will keynote the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library's annual fundraiser, Night of Vonnegut, on April 13 at Scottish Rite Cathedral. He answered a few questions over the phone Sunday (and see below for a few more words from Page regarding Roger Ebert's legacy). I got the ball rolling by asking Page if he has a favorite Vonnegut book; my interpolations aren't essential to the rest of the interview, so I'll let Page take it from here.

"Cat's Cradle is still my number one - and I say still because that was how I discovered Vonnegut. I was in college at Ohio University in the late '60s when one of my buddies at my favorite saloon had his class books there, and on top was Cat's Cradle. I think he went off to the john, and I had a few minutes to pick up the book and start reading. The very first page, I was hooked. It has kind of a Melville opening - a takeoff from 'Call me Ishmael.' I keep coming back to Cat's Cradle because it seems so complete. So many of his other works - God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; Slaughterhouse-Five; Breakfast of Champions - widely touted for good reason, are very anecdotal and the story arc isn't as complete as in Cat's Cradle, which has a distinct beginning, middle and end that I find most satisfying.

"My second favorite Vonnegut book is Slaughterhouse-Five, and what's intriguing about it is that he opens up with non-fiction. I think he was getting into what Benjamin Disraeli would call his 'anecdotage,' where he was evolving from strictly writing fiction into becoming more of a public essayist, which is how he ended up, really.

"One reason why Vonnegut attracted me off the bat is his tone, which is something only a journalist could come up with. It's the same reason why I'm a fan of Earnest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Joan Didion and other New Journalists, some of whom crossed over into fiction writing. Vonnegut had that same kind of clear, crisp, conversational way of delivering very heavy thoughts, taking you from what you know to what you don't know, starting off from what seems like an amusing entertainment and taking you from there into some deep thinking. What I love about Cat's Cradle is how Vonnegut creates a religion and has a lot of the narrative storytelling skills that make the Bible as magical as it is. Narrative is the secret of good journalism and good writing, in general. Most people can't name all ten commandments, but everybody can remember the story of how Moses got the ten commandments.

"I love those little Vonnegutisms: Beside ending a sentence with "So it goes" to signal and emphasize that he just made an important point, there's also the way he says 'Listen' at the beginning. When he starts to digress, like I am constantly with you, he'll say 'Listen' like he's about to say something really important to hear. He can do that and get away with it because he has crafted his work that well that you find it amusing and not annoying."

Remembering Ebert

Much of my conversation with long-time Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page was taken up with discussing the works and impact of Kurt Vonnegut. But Page says he had Ebert on the mind, and I couldn't resist putting a couple questions to him about the film critic, who died last week at age 70. Here are a few excerpts:

"He and Gene Siskel both, Midwestern guys, brought serious film criticism to TV, and being a cross-media person myself, I know that is harder than it sounds, because TV is a visual medium, craves simplicity and can tend to hate nuance. Good film criticism is quite the opposite. I knew both of them; we all got started in Chicago journalism around the same time. People always said, 'Do these guys hate each other?' And I said, 'Look at the two of them. Yeah, they're passionate about their beliefs; if they disagree, they're going to raise their voices and make their points. But they don't talk over each other. It's almost as if they rehearsed it, which they didn't, but they were both so good at making their point briefly, in a sound byte that was good for TV, and at the same time giving space to the other.'

"That is something that they call chemistry in television, and it's the elusive quality that brings to mind that old Supreme Court line of Potter Stewart's about obscenity - I can't define it but I'll know it when I see it. That's chemistry, and that's why nobody else has even come close to duplicating the success of Siskel and Ebert. Part of that is because both of these guys were Midwesterners - Gene from Chicago; and Roger moved up from Champagne, a small-town guy whose father was an electrician. There's a classic Midwestern sense of decency that says you can be passionate, firm and confident in your beliefs, but don't let it make you into an undesirable person.

"He was diagnosed in 2002. Part of his jaw was removed but he went back on the year and continued to work on air. The cancer came back and he then lost the entire jaw, couldn't speak anymore, eat or drink. Everyone wondered what was going to happen, but he turned out to be more prolific than ever with new media; he got on Facebook, Twitter blogs. His last column talks about redesigning his new webpage. You have that poem 'Rage, rage against the dying of the light,' and really, Roger's an example of that. He didn't quit, and I think he's just a role model for all of us journalists. Don't let anything get you down and just keep going. And we columnists are famous for having to be carried out feet first anyways!"


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