Kurt Vonnegut Is a Laughing Prophet of Doom

Kurt Vonnegut? Larry L. King? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The quotations and misquotations discussed on this website have typically been attributed to famous people. My inquiry is different. I would like you to explore a ubiquitous quotation describing a famous person. The prominent satirist and science fiction author Kurt Vonnegut has been called a laughing prophet of doom. I’ve seen this assessment emblazoned on several of Vonnegut’s books. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: In 1968 “The New York Times” published a review of a collection of short stories and essays by Kurt Vonnegut titled “Welcome to the Monkey House”. The reviewer was Larry L. King, a journalist, novelist, and playwright who later became well-known for co-creating the musical “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”. King was unimpressed with Vonnegut’s current effort, but he complimented the author’s previous work, Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

There are only brief glimpses of the hilarious, uproarious Vonnegut whose black-logic extensions of today’s absurdities into an imagined society of tomorrow at once gives us something to laugh at and much to fear.

At his wildest best (as in his earlier “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” or in “Cat’s Cradle”) Kurt Vonnegut is a laughing prophet of doom. Too much of this book—Vonnegut’s seventh—is slick, slapdash prose lifted from the pages of magazines of limited distinction.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1969 the pseudonymous Penelope Ashe published the prank book “Naked Came the Stranger”. Ashe was really a conglomeration of two dozen journalists. The paperback edition in 1970 contained advertisements for other books, and the page promoting “Welcome to the Monkey House” displayed a carefully trimmed excerpt from King’s book review: 2

“Hilarious, uproarious black-logic … a laughing prophet of doom” —The New York Times

The ad text was misleading because the phrases primarily applied to previous works by Vonnegut and not the collection being publicized.

In 1989 the book “Writers Talk To Ralph D. Gardner” included the transcript of an interview Gardner conducted with Kurt Vonnegut and Jill Krementz. The introduction to the piece contained a description of Vonnegut: 3

While some critics noted his “droll madness” or found him “vexing,” “a laughing prophet of doom;” his work “unnerving,” it has also been acclaimed as the “cataract of a thundering moral statement.”

Vonnegut first published the science fiction novel “The Sirens of Titan” in 1959. When it was reprinted in 2006 it began with a page of plaudits for the author. Here were three of the commendations: 4

AMERICA’S GREATEST SATIRIST
KURT VONNEGUT IS . . .

“A MEDICINE MAN, CONJURING UP FANTASIES TO WARN THE WORLD.”
—The Charlotte Observer

“A CAUSE FOR CELEBRATION.”
—Chicago Sun-Times

“A LAUGHING PROPHET OF DOOM.”
—The New York Times

In conclusion, Larry L. King deserves credit for the statements he wrote in 1969. He did call Vonnegut “a laughing prophet of doom” with respect to two of his early novels: “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” and “Cat’s Cradle”. The plot of “Cat’s Cradle” concludes with a world-wide apocalypse caused by the deadly fictional substance ice-nine. Kurt Vonnegut was a junior, but Jr. is now typically omitted.

Image Notes: Ice crystals from Pexels at Pixabay. Image has been cropped, resized and retouched to symbolize ice-nine from the novel “Cat’s Cradle” by Kurt Vonnegut.

(Great thanks to Wayne Laufert whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1968 September 1, The New York Times, Section: The New York Times Book Review, Old Soup by Larry L. King (Book review of “Welcome to the Monkey House” by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.), Quote Page BR4 and BR5, New York. (The original text misspelled “extensions” as “extentions”) (ProQuest)
  2. 1970 (1969 Copyright), Naked Came the Stranger by Penelope Ashe, Section: Advertisements at end of book, Quote Page 223, Dell Publishing Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1989, Writers Talk To Ralph D. Gardner, (Interviews conducted by Ralph D. Gardner), Section: Kurt Vonnegut and Jill Krementz, Quote Page 313 and 314, The Scarecrow Press, Metuchen, New Jersey and London, England. (Verified with scans)
  4. 2006, The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, (Quotation is on promotional page at beginning of book), Dial Press Trade Paperback from The Dial Press: A Division of Random House, New York. (Verified with scans)