How Did Kurt Vonnegut Know There Would Be a Pandemic?

When we plan courses, our choices are deliberate, right? We conscientiously select texts and arrange them in meaningful ways to increase the odds of student engagement, and we envision particular learning outcomes based on the trajectories we spend months setting up.

Yet, despite all the planning and preparation, sometimes the most profound moments of learning are the result of plain old “dumb luck”—the chance compatibility between the literature we teach and the unanticipated circumstances of the world around us.

Blue Footed Booby

I frequently teach a gen ed American lit course that fulfills the following “Challenges in the 21st Century” learning objective: “Knowledge and understanding of the historical roots, contemporary manifestations, and potential future of important challenges students may encounter as they move into the world beyond the University.” Based on this objective, I designed the course around the theme of “survival,” flexibly defined. Here’s the course description from my syllabus:

“This course will explore the concept of “survival,” and its various contextual definitions, in relation to American identity. What does it really mean to “survive” in America as an individual, as a family, as a community, as a nation, or even as a species? What do we depend upon to survive at each of these levels? What obstacles emerge or stand in the way of our survival? We’ll ponder these multifaceted questions through critical analysis of course literature and films.”

I haven’t meddled with the course theme over the past few years because the it has consistently resonated with students. When I encourage students to think about “survival” in small scale or short-term ways in their daily lives, they usually identify immediately: How do you “survive” a long day at work? How do you “survive” an awkward family dinner? How do you “survive” a semester at college?

Why do I encourage students to think about the definition of  “survival” so flexibly? Well, because most students haven’t actually dealt with “survival” in a major life-or-death way…until this semester. What it means to “survive” a semester at college isn’t the same as it what it meant when I taught the class last year.

When I originally selected the literature for the course, I wanted to represent a wide range of “survival” experiences, but I also had to keep in mind that this gen ed course is dominantly filled with non-English majors who may not enjoy reading. I’ve found a lot of non-majors are interested in Science Fiction or dystopian narratives, so I inserted Sci-Fi novels at the beginning, middle, and end of the course.

I start the course with Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955) and end with Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (1990), but I’d like to focus on the middle text here since it’s the last novel my students finished this semester before our course completely converted to an online format as a result of COVID-19: Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos (1985).

For those who aren’t familiar with the novel, it’s classic Vonnegut weird! Galápagos is narrated by Leon Trout, son of Vonnegut’s infamous reoccurring character and Science Fiction writer Kilgore Trout. Leon recounts the events transpiring in 1986, including global financial crisis, a world war, his own death, as well as the near extinction of the human race, that consequently lead to what humans will be like one million years later—the present day from which the ghost of Leon speaks.

Leon spends the majority of the novel juxtaposing what humans were like in the 1980s in what he describes as the era of “big brains” versus what humans are like one million years later—a picture of humanity that runs counter to what most students envision when asked to imagine the future.

So, what do students envision the future will look like? Usually, responses will range drastically from WALL·E to The Terminator, but the underlying constant is a world characterized by ultra-technology. Students are surprised to find the opposite at work in Galápagos: a “tranquil” and “slow” future in which humans have devolved into furry seal-like creatures with flippers and tiny brains. Leon comments, “And all the people are so innocent and relaxed now, all because evolution took their hands away” (202), and “Killer whales and sharks keep the human population nice and manageable, and nobody starves” (129).

Seals

So, how did humans end up as seal creatures? There are two primary forces at work in the novel: poorly-devised human “survival schemes” and “dumb luck.”

As Leon explains, human “survival schemes” back in the 80s weren’t always so logical, thanks to humans’ impractically “big brains.” Here are some of his critiques:

“The financial crisis , which could never happen today, was simply the latest in a series of murderous twentieth-century catastrophes which had originated entirely in human brains….More and more people were saying that their brains were irresponsible, unreliable, hideously dangerous, wholly unrealistic—were simply no damn good” (25).

“So I have to say that human brains back then had become such copious and irresponsible generators of suggestions as to what might be done with life, that they made acting for the benefit of future generations seem one of many arbitrary games which might be played by narrow enthusiasts—like poker or polo or the bond market, or the writing of science-fiction novels” (81).

“Apologies for momentary brain failures were the staple of everybody’s conversations: ‘Whoops,’ ‘Excuse me,’ ‘I hope you’re not hurt,’ ‘I can’t believe I did that,’ ‘It happened so fast I didn’t have time to think,’ ‘I have insurance against this kind of thing,’ and ‘How can I ever forgive myself,’ and ‘I didn’t know it was loaded,’ and on an on” (180).

“Furthermore, human brains were too easily swayed by “mere opinions”: “Mere opinions, in fact, were as likely to govern people’s actions as hard evidence, and were subject to sudden reversals as hard evidence could never be” (16).

With “big” human brains constantly “malfunctioning,” Leon explains that humanity’s survival a million years into the future is a matter of sheer luck. A handful of people were in the right place at the right time, escaped on a cruise ship from Ecuador, ended up on the sustainable Galápagos island of Santa Rosalia, and managed to repopulate. Isolated, without technology, and with no hope of rescue, evolution took over from there.

But aside from the Santa Rosalia “survivors,” what happened to the rest of the human race? Leon explains, “Some new creature, invisible to the naked eye, was eating up all the eggs in human ovaries, starting at the annual Book Fair in Frankfurt, Germany. Women at the fair were experiencing a slight fever, which came and went in a day or two, and sometimes blurry vision. After that…they couldn’t have babies anymore. Nor would any way be discovered for stopping the disease. It would spread practically everywhere” (176).

Leon later poignantly reflects, “Truth be told, the planet’s most victorious organisms have always been microscopic” (201).

The timeliness of the novel this semester certainly felt more uncanny than coincidental.

I always situate Galápagos at the midterm point of the semester because it’s a comedy. A lot of survival-themed literature can get pretty gloomy, so I want students to go into their midterms or spring breaks with uplifted spirits. As you can imagine, the novel’s humor didn’t “land” the way it normally does; however, precisely because of the COVID-19 circumstances, student engagement with the novel was at an all-time high.

One student even commented, “It’s like Vonnegut knew there would be a pandemic.”

Vonnegut

And I think there’s something to this statement, right? Great authors are sort of like fortune-tellers or prophets. This is why it’s so important to hear them out and think carefully about they have to say. In the two weeks before our online conversion, I saw students use Vonnegut’s novel to work through and discuss their own panic, fear, anxiety, anger, and uncertainty about the pandemic and what their futures hold.

At one point, Leon summarizes the plot of The Era of Hopeful Monsters, a novel written by his father, Kilgore Trout: “It was about a planet where the humanoids ignored their most serious survival problems until the last possible moment.  And then, with all the forests being killed and all the lakes being poisoned by acid rain, and all the groundwater made unpotable by industrial wastes and so on, the humanoids found themselves the parents of children with wings or antlers or fins, with a hundred eyes, with no eyes, with huge brains, with no brains, and on and on” (86).

In the past, students saw this exaggerated sci-fi “plot” as a warning about our potential future, but today that potential future has essentially arrived. While we’re not yet humanoid mutants, we have waited until “the last possible moment” to deal with our “serious survival problems.” What do we do next? How do we adapt? Is there hope?

If there is hope, it’s suggested near the end of Galápagos when Leon points readers to the novel’s epigraph, an Anne Frank quote (281):

“In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart.”

Now that my course is completely online, I’m moved not only by how my students have come together via our Blackboard discussion board to support each other but also by their drive to continue discussing our course literature despite the chaos.

Sometimes it takes a pandemic to help a class full of non-English majors understand how important literature is.

Works Cited

Vonnegut, Kurt. Galápagos. Random House, 2006.

Cookbooks Not Novels

I have kept a running list of things students have called novels: plays, essays, articles, both primary and secondary sources of all sorts, poems, textbooks, memoirs, and cookbooks. Given how often I teach cookbooks in the scope of the American Literary tradition I have perhaps encountered this term-swapping with “cookbooks” at a disproportionate rate.

Before I write another word, I want to scream “NO this is not another ‘arrogant teacher complaining that students can’t write’ vent piece.” (I also want to warn you dear readers that I take pictures of my dog with my reading material. It’s a thing.)

Yes, I need to hold myself accountable and admit that a few years ago I was at that haughty place. Looking back on my own processing of this phenomena, my reactions followed a pattern that happened to mirror the stages of grief.

Denial: These are honest mistakes, or typos. No one would call a cookbook a novel on purpose.

Anger: How can students not know the difference between a cookbook and a novel?? Why didn’t anyone warn me about this sooner!? This. Is. Annoying.

Bargaining: If y’all consistently call them cookbooks in your papers I will bring donuts!

Depression: I’m a failure of a teacher. The education system is yet again failing us. I am really bad at my job, what else am I messing up?

Acceptance: Ok, so from now on sometimes folks will call cookbooks novels. This is a part of the literary landscape. That’s how language is now.

It took me a while to transition from teaching the difference between the genres (and ‘marking mistakes’) to actually going to the source and asking my students *why* this was happening. My students told me and turns out there is a reason why.

Many had the experience in high school where books are divided into two categories: fictitious novels and nonfiction novels. I don’t take it to be the case that high school teachers (or librarians) used these categories. Yet for whatever reason, it has stuck with many students as their truth for how to discuss book-objects. Nonfiction novels are basically any book that isn’t fiction—and book is also loosely understood, too. For students coming out of this classification system, of course a cookbook is a novel. I get that. I also regret not asking years sooner.

Even if their genre is undefined, cookbooks are great sites for teaching theory. Ten examples in no order! They are unfamiliar enough as a genre that they make an interesting place to learn, or practice, close reading. The economy of language (and ingredients) is not the only reason why cookbooks are a Marxist field day for discussions of material conditions, production, and power. Heck, it is impossible to have a full discussion about spices without a Postcolonial lens. All waves of Feminism and Critical Race Theory emerge when we ask who is doing what, in domestic and public spheres. The questions of who does what, where, why, how also insist we engage with Queer Theory, debates on Authorship (and imagined communities of readers or eaters). And for die hard rhetoricians, cookbooks are all about Burkeian equipment for living, and proverbs.

In terms of their potential for assignments, I’ve used cookbooks as the catalyst text for all sorts of projects, such as: Poems from the point of view of an ingredient; Twine choose your own adventure games about the global movement of food (like potatoes); Infographics on the history of a food/food adjacent commodity (like horses); Traditional Papers doing literary analysis and/or close reading of cookbooks; Podcasts exploring an idea from a cookbook as the idea exists in our communities.

In teaching American protest literature, I favor including cookbooks on the syllabus for many reasons. A big reason is that cookbooks easily open the conversation for material conditions in texts to investigate biases we might bring to texts (see Greg Spector’s prior post). For example, the combination of Julia Turshen’s cookbook Feed the Resistance, John Lewis’ collaborative text March, and the cult-classic, genre bending book Foxfire. John Lewis’ graphic novel series, March, (in collaboration with Aydin and Powell) takes us through Lewis’s resistance in the American South through the violence and complexity of fear and hope in the civil rights movement. He also takes us through his food memories starting at a young age, and move into dangerous food spaces (like lunch counters), and spaces for food that hold hope and action (like the restaurants and homes that fed members of the resistance).

I am the kind of instructor who does the thing of bringing in food for the last day of class, and I tend to ask my students what kind of food they would like. In a semester where I taught the above-mentioned texts (in combination with Birth of a Nation—and a guest visits from speakers like, Akila McConnell, on history of the stereotypes around fried chicken), students wanted fried chicken for their last class. So, I brought enough fried chicken to feed 25 twenty-somethings—with at least 100 packets of hot sauce—to class. The chicken had cooled by the time it got to them—a consideration students hadn’t made and were not too pleased with. Despite our shared knowledge of frying being a way to preserve chicken, and that they weren’t eating spoiled food, many noted that they didn’t vote for cold fried chicken.

That led to a conversation about the temperature of fried chicken in many of the texts we were reading. During the freedom rides people didn’t bring thermal lunch boxes to keep their chicken warm. It was suggested putting hot sauce on the chicken—while some students laughed at the idea of NOT putting hot sauce on the as-is chicken. Unanimously, the class agreed that hot sauce greatly improves room temperature chicken. And voila, here is an opportunity for experiential knowledge to bring to March—as well as identifying how food traditions like fried chicken are weaponized in coded language for racial stereotypes. It is one thing to read the history about why certain food stereotypes developed. It is another thing to experience the food (the food that has become rhetorically weaponized) in a set of sensory conditions that are historically different from their daily sensory experience.

We have a pedagogical responsibility to encourage the use of terms with their corresponding objects. Yes. Then we shouldn’t abide calling cookbooks novels. However, is there anything we can do with a cookbook that we can’t do with a novel? Or the other way around?

When we juxtapose cookbooks with literature, we don’t have to use cookbooks as a historical guide to better understand the things happening in literature—anymore than we should use literature only to historically emplace cookbooks. We can study food as a cultural object, as we can with literature or film. Why not read cookbooks as the evidence of the storytelling that has literally fed us, mind, body, and soul? And from what I understand about the canon, “novels” end up there because they feed us in similar ways.

To recap (and reframe) some of the Pros and Cons for calling a cookbook a “novel,”:

Pros:
1) Who cares what students are calling the material as long as they’re reading it.
2) Calling a “cookbook” a “novel” allows broad understandings of reading.
3) Cookbooks-as-novels are great sites for doing theory. They can illustrate how to bridge the gap between doing theory in the classroom and in everyday life.
4) We can also benefit from cross-genre and interdisciplinary perspectives.
5) Cookbooks and novels both create imagined communities.
6) Cookbook-novels also let us introduce genre theory.
7) Is the term “cookbook” really that accurate anyway? When we say “cookbook” do we mean a collection of recipes, or a book about cooking? What about novels and non-fiction novels that have recipes in them and cookbooks filled with creative non-fiction or poetry-proper?

Cons:
1) Words matter, and the issue of calling objects by the noun they are matters.
2) Calling everything a “novel” is indicative of something learned before students get to my college classroom. In the way that many of us aim to have students “unlearn” the five-paragraph essay, we have a responsibility to teach students how different texts fit into different genres.
3) Moreover, we want to give students the benefit of knowing what to call texts in different classification systems so that they can better engage with the critical conversation about those genres.
4) When students use “novel” instead of “cookbook” when pointing to a cookbook, it makes me question their comprehension of the material.

Trying to look at the pros and cons from an objective point of view immediately shows me three things. First, one list clearly wins over the other. Next, the cons list is more about me. It indicates teacher-frustrations, whereas the pros list has an uncanny resemblance to many intended “learning outcomes” for literature classrooms.

With compassion fatigue as high as it is for students and faculty alike, it is important to give students aesthetic, critical and practical tools to manage that fatigue. Of course, that opens the can of worms about the role of emotional labor in the literature classroom and how those affective demands hit humanities departments where it hurts. Until we solve those big systemic questions, we all have the responsibility to ask ourselves what should be teaching in the American Literature classroom while the world literally burns. I suggest adding a cookbook. Feed The Resistance is a favorite of mine.

My classroom needs both cookbooks and literature. I think I am ok if “novel” sometimes slips from one to the other. I still want students to know the words specific to different genres. But I also want the flexibility to do work on cookbooks that we would do on novels. In Feed the Resistance, the recipes take budget, audience, and culture into account, and it also gives a step by step guide for ‘getting involved’—without overwhelming yourself. I like a text that teaches one of my intended learning outcomes: learn to use effective communication to take care of yourself and others, while maintaining a focus on community in critical thinking. Novels teach that learning outcome a good part of the time, but I trust cookbooks to do that consistently.

Bio:

Darcy Mullen is a Postdoctoral Marion L. Brittain Fellow, teaching about food and media literacy at Georgia Institute of Technology. Publications include articles exploring the use of “local” as a tool for mapping food movements, the politics of place in tourism, the Anthropocene, and pedagogy studies. She is currently teaching community engaged courses linking poetics and food systems in urban agriculture. She tweets pictures of what she reads (#bookselfies with #souphound: @FarmsWatson). For more about her, visit her website, www.storiesofsoil.com, where she blogs about dirt, books and art.