wampeters foma & granfalloons

As our nation slowly descends into a Trump-related dystopian nightmare, one can’t help but wonder what some of the great writers and thinkers who are no longer with us would have thought. Would Mark Twain fire up some passive-aggressive Tweets? Would Hemingway call Trump a pansy-ass and challenge him to an arm-wrestling match? Or more apropos to this show, how would Kurt Vonnegut react to the unique times we’re living in?

Unfortunately we can’t ask him, but his essay collection Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons offers us Kurt’s thoughts on another trying time in American history: 1966-1974. Vietnam, Nixon, hippies and drugs are all at play in this series of essays that feel just about as vital now as they might have 50 years ago.

So join Alex Schmidt and Michael Swaim as they light some incense, put on some Creedence and discuss old-man Kurt Vonnegut’s oddly prescient reactions to 60s and 70s America in Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons.

Kurt Vonnegut Book Club: Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons

Tony Costa (1944-1974)

Antone Charles “Tony” Costa was a Cape Cod, Massachusetts carpenter that murdered at least 4 people in and around the town of Truro in  1969. The case gained international attention after district attorney Edmund Dinis claimed to the media that “the hearts of each girl had been removed from their bodies and were not in the graves…Each body was cut into as many parts as there are joints.” Dinis also said there were bite marks found on the bodies. These claims incited a stream of national and international media outlets to visit Provincetown, Massachusetts. The attention was so intense that author Kurt Vonnegut, whose daughter had met Costa, compared him to Jack the Ripper in his collection of essays ‘Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons’. Vonnegut continued to correspond with Costa, later saying: “The message of his letters to me was that a person as intent on being virtuous as he could not possibly have hurt a fly. He believed it.”

Costa was suspected in the murders of 7 women: Bonnie Williams, Diane Federoff, Barbara Spaulding, Sydney Monson, Susan Perry, Patricia Walsh, and Mary Anne Wysocki. He was only convicted of killing Walsh and Wysocki. On February 8, 1969, whilst looking for the bodies of Patricia Walsh and Mary Anne Wysocki, police discovered Susan Perry, who had been missing since the previous Labour Day. Her body had been cut into 8 pieces. When Wysocki’s body was found 1 month later, her torso and head had been buried separately. Not long afterwards, Walsh and the remainder of Wysocki’s bones were found in a forest clearing Costa had used to grow marijuana. Costa described the murders of Walsh and Wysocki in a novel he wrote in prison. In his own account, Costa and a friend named “Carl” were out with the two women taking LSD and Dilaudid. Carl shot Walsh and Wysocki. Costa claimed he managed to subdue his friend, and when he realised that Mary Anne Wysocki was still alive, Costa used a knife to end her suffering. According to Costa’s account, he and Carl buried the bodies. The novel, which was never published, also describes the deaths of Susan Perry and Sydney Monzon as being drug overdoses. Costa claims that it was Carl that dismembered and buried their bodies and he had no knowledge until after their deaths.

On June 12, 1969, Costa was arraigned on murder charges for 3 of the deaths. In May 1970 he was convicted of the murders of Mary Ann Wysocki and Patricia Walsh and sentence to life in prison at Massachusetts’ Walpole Correctional Institution. 4 years after his incarceration, Costa committed suicide by hanging himself in his cell.

I began with physical anthropology. I was taught how to measure the size of the brain of a human being who had been dead a long time, who was all dried out. I bored a hole in his skull, and I filled it with grains of polished rice. Then I emptied the rice into a graduated cylinder. I found this tedious.

I switched to archaeology, and I learned something I already knew: that man had been a maker and smasher of crockery since the dawn of time. And I went to my faculty adviser, and I confessed that science did not charm me, that I longed for poetry instead. I was depressed. I knew my wife and my father would want to kill me, if I went into poetry.

My adviser smiled. “How would you like to study poetry which pretends to be scientific?” he asked me.

“Is such a thing possible?” I said.

He shook my hand. “Welcome to the field of social or cultural anthropology,” he said.

—Kurt Vonnegut, describing his “conversion” to cultural anthropology at the University of Chicago. After all, “it offered the greatest opportunity to write high-minded balderdash.

As seen in the Address to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1971, from his book, Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons (Opinions).