Vonnegut's influence on my early school essays
Portland, Ore. — I can truthfully say I read Kurt Vonnegut before he was famous, and his writing influenced my early narrative fiction. When Mr. Vonnegut passed away recently, news accounts focused on his rise to literary stardom in the late 1960s. But by then he'd already published many stories, and one of them – "Harrison Bergeron" – crossed my desk in elementary school. It was reprinted in a small current-events magazine that was handed out to me and my fourth-grade classmates.
It paints a bleak picture of society in the late 21st century. The title character dies violently. It wouldn't surprise me if parents today would balk at having their fourth graders read it.
But I don't think the story caused any subliminal damage to my youthful psyche. Perhaps I was prepared for its alarming speculative elements by the extensive science fiction background I'd gained reading comic books and watching B movies such as "Target Earth" and "Devil Girl from Mars."
"Harrison Bergeron" begins with a short declarative sentence: "The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal." They've been equalized by government decrees and insidious electronic devices that keep many citizens in a state of constant anxiety and mental distraction.
In reading the story now, I'm struck by the blunt, no-frills approach. It's a prose style that young writers could easily use as a model. In reexamining my early school essays, it appears I did.
This is where some readers will say, "Hold it! You SAVED your fourth-grade schoolwork? Why?!" Because of my family tradition of never throwing anything away. Thanks to my archival habits, I can pull out pages from 1963 and read this: "It was a dark, cold night. I was very tired and hungry. I wanted to rest. Still, I struggled forward."
It's a nice Vonnegut-like opening, but then what? I wrestled with that question often. The fact of not having existed very long can block a 10-year-old's creative process like a brick wall. Real-world experience also goes a long way in shaping a writer's attitudes about history, modern society, and our chances for survival in the future.
I'm now significantly older than Vonnegut was when he wrote "Harrison Bergeron." The story, once obscure, is now well known and included in literary anthologies. Sometime during high school, I threw away my copy of the little news magazine. I could have tossed it into the storage box with my essays and other school memorabilia, but no, I decided it belonged in the garbage. There's only one thing to say about such a ridiculous example of human folly: So it goes.
• Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.