“Why? Because of the Sermon on the Mount, sir.” — Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut

(above: the Emelie Building – home of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library)

We had a really great meeting of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club yesterday in downtown Indianapolis.  The club meets the last Thursday of the month at the future home of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. There were ten people in attendance – double the last meeting – from all walks of life and including one of the directors of the library, and a woman who as I understand it is the driving force in its creation.  We also had retired persons, representatives from an audio books company here in town, Taped Editions, Inc., someone from the corporate library of the Eli Lilly Company, a former teacher of English Literature.  A great eclectic group.  I am already looking forward to next month’s meeting, where we will be reading Welcome to the Monkey House, a collection of Vonnegut’s short stories.

The quotation in the title of this post comes from a story in the prologue where a young Vonnegut went to lunch with his father and uncle to meet labor organizer Powers Hapgood (above), who uttered the words in answer to a judge’s question of  “Why would a man from such a distinguished family and with such a fine education choose to live as you do?”  “Why, Because of the Sermon on the Mount, sir.” Vonnegut goes on to explain “what, exactly is the Sermon on the Mount” – basically it’s the “meek shall inherit the earth” part.

The main character in this book, Walter F. Starbuck, though poor, is mentored from an early age by a scion of one of those rich, dynastic families, Alexander Hamilton McCone.  Starbuck is ’trained’ to play chess with McCone in return for his sending him to Harvard someday.  At Harvard, Starbuck becomes an idealist and is caught up in the communist movement and ends up going to jail in addition to inadvertently informing on a friend.  After his original hitch in prison, he goes on to become a minor employee of the government who is caught up in the Watergate scandal and goes to prison yet again.  Starbuck has the Forrest Gump-like quality of having history “happen to him” by way of which we get a great story which allows the author to comment on society and its ills.

We talked a lot at the meeting about the ‘deeper meaning’ of much of the book, but I also pointed out that just based on the ‘face value’ of the writing itself, the book has great value as well.

One of my favorite, not as ‘deep’ parts of the book was in chapter twelve, when the recently released Starbuck is wandering Manhattan and spots the Coffee Shop of the Hotel Royalton:

“I believed that I was the ugliest, dirtiest little old bum in Manhattan.  If I went into the coffee shop, everybody would be nauseated.  They would throw me out and tell me to go to the Bowery, where I belonged.

“But I somehow found the courage to go in anyway – and imagine my surprise! It was as though I had died and gone to heaven! A waitress said to me, ‘Honeybunch, you sit right down, and I’ll bring you your coffee right away.’ I hadn’t said anything to her.

“So I did sit down, and everywhere I looked I saw customers of every description being received with love.  To the waitress everybody was ‘honeybunch’ and ‘darling’ and ‘dear.’ It was like an emergency ward after a great catastrophe. It did not matter what race or class the victims belonged to. They were all given the same miracle drug, which was coffee.  The catastrophe in this case, of course, was that the sun had come up again.”

Great stuff.

(above: Vonnegut puffing away – no doubt on a Pall Mall…) I recommend this book, although I wouldn’t suggest making it your first Vonnegut book.  One thing we talked about at the meeting yesterday was that the more Vonnegut one reads, the easier it becomes.  The reader becomes acclimated to the author’s, quirky, tangential writing style.

Have you read any Kurt Vonnegut?  What are some of your favorite books of his?

I also found on the internet a great old review of Jailbird from the NY Times in 1979.


  1. Stacey S said,

    October 1, 2010 at 9:03 pm

    I have not read any Vonnegut but I do own a book of short stories, I think. I might have to dig it out and read it after I read some of your blogs.


  2. Dale Barthauer said,

    October 2, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    If my understanding is correct, a guy named Starbuck went into a coffee shop where everyone was welcomed? Was Vonnegut ahead of his time?


  3. stentorpub said,

    October 2, 2010 at 8:52 pm

    @Stacey S: Hi Stacey! thanks for visiting 🙂 do try to dig out some Vonnegut if you have some. If not, I could loan you one of my books.

    @Dale: that is hilarious! I didn’t even realize that! Yes, Vonnegut was ahead of his time there as always…



  4. Melissa said,

    October 10, 2010 at 9:04 pm

    A Kurt Vonnegut book club in Indy, how do I not know about this?!


  5. stentorpub said,

    October 11, 2010 at 9:23 am

    Don’t feel bad. 🙂 I thought the same thing when I “discovered” it a couple months ago.


  6. Vadim Lakov said,

    October 19, 2013 at 3:57 pm

    This is my one of the best writer I ever red. His sense of humor is marvelous! Years ago I discovered Curt Vonnegut and I started read his books translated into polish… I recommend his books to everyone.


    • Jay said,

      October 20, 2013 at 9:07 am

      Hello Vadim,
      Thanks for the comment and visit. Glad to hear that Vonnegut is being read in Polish. His humor and wit are universal, I’d guess.


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