Unstuck in Time: A Journey Through Kurt Vonnegut's Life and Novels


In Unstuck in Time, Gregory Sumner guides us, with insight and passion, through a biography of fifteen of Kurt Vonnegut's best-known works—his fourteen novels starting with Player Piano (1952) all the way to an epilogue on his last book, A Man Without a Country (2005)—to illustrate the quintessential American writer's profound engagement with the "American Dream" in its various forms.

Sumner gives us a poignant portrait of Vonnegut and his resistance to ...

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Unstuck in Time: A Journey Through Kurt Vonnegut's Life and Novels

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In Unstuck in Time, Gregory Sumner guides us, with insight and passion, through a biography of fifteen of Kurt Vonnegut's best-known works—his fourteen novels starting with Player Piano (1952) all the way to an epilogue on his last book, A Man Without a Country (2005)—to illustrate the quintessential American writer's profound engagement with the "American Dream" in its various forms.

Sumner gives us a poignant portrait of Vonnegut and his resistance to celebrating the traditional values associated with the American Dream: grandiose ambition, unbridled material success, rugged individualism, and "winners" over "losers." Instead of a celebration of these values, we read and share Vonnegut's outrage, his brokenhearted empathy for those who struggle under the ethos of survival-of-the-fittest in the frontier mentality—something he once memorably described as "an impossibly tough-minded experiment in loneliness."

Heroic and tragic, Vonnegut's novels reflect the pain of his own life's experiences, relieved by small acts of kindness, friendship, and love that exemplify another way of living, another sort of human utopia, an alternative American Dream, and the reason we always return to his books.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Like so many of America’s great vernacular spokespersons—Abraham Lincoln, Will Rogers, Frank Lloyd Wright—Kurth Vonnegut knew that he’d be most convincing when telling his own story with simple, plain honesty. Gregory D. Sumner has perceived that directness in Vonnegut’s novels, and correlates the author’s life and works in an engaging, almost spellbinding manner. The Grand Old Man would have liked this book, and I can sense his blessing on it.”
—Professor Jerome Klinkowitz, author of Vonnegut in Fact, The Vonnegut Effect, and Kurt Vonnegut’s America

“Gregory D. Sumner celebrates what he playfully identifies as the ‘Kurt Vonnegut road show’ with a tribute that is enlightening and entertaining. I read with wonder and delight the biographical sketches so gracefully fused with a montage of Vonnegut stories and the ideas they dramatize. Unstuck in Time is an achievement of scholarship illuminated by a fan’s contagious enthusiasm.”—Sidney Offit, Curator-emeritus George Polk Journalism Awards

"Gregory D. Sumner's Unstuck in Time is a wonderful primer to Kurt Vonnegut's work. Every page brims with analytic insight, biographical revelation, and old-fashioned storytelling. Reading Sumner reminds us about how astoundingly right Vonnegut was about the planetary condition. Highly recommended!"
—Douglas Brinkley, professor of history at Rice University

"'Unstuck in Time'" is a fine, appreciative account of the life and work of a great American writer, Kurt Vonnegut."
—Dan Wakefield, author of New York in the Fifties

“An excellent reading companion to Kurt’s work.”
—Mark Vonnegut

Publishers Weekly
Named for the mental dislocation experienced by Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, Sumner's exploration of the iconic writer's life begins with a brief biography and an outline of the recurrent themes found throughout his 14 novels. The significant elements include Vonnegut's preoccupation with technology, which stems from his scientific studies at Cornell and later work at General Electric, and his penchant for stories reminiscent of his experience as a soldier and POW during WWII. Fourteen chapters follow, providing plot, background, and analysis for each of Vonnegut's books. Other notable tendencies discussed were the reuse of Midland City, Ohio, and the recycling of minor characters in major roles, such as the constant presence across novels of Kilgore Trout, the science fiction author who appears in all 14, who is finally given the leading role in the author's final novel, Timequake. Sumner does well to contextualize contemporary events both in the world and the writer's personal life during each novel's conception, ultimately connecting many dots in the Vonnegut oeuvre.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
An introductory-level summary of Kurt Vonnegut's novels, with a biographical twist. It's clear that Sumner (History/Univ. of Detroit Mercy) is a devoted and thoughtful reader of Vonnegut's novels. However, it's difficult to tell whether his book is intended to be a scholarly work or simply the gushing evangelism of a true fan. Readers who enjoyed Slaughterhouse-Five but are looking for a refresher on the plot, or those coming to Vonnegut for the first time, will find that the book meets their needs. Readers seeking a more analytical approach may be disappointed. Sumner describes Vonnegut's novels in chronological order and dispenses corresponding details from the author's personal history when relevant. Though light on analysis, the book is accessible. In his chapter on Night Mother, Sumner zeroes in on the novel's insistence on the impossibility of true moral purity through its portrayal of a protagonist who embodies the role of both war criminal and war hero: "He opens us to the disturbing malleability of the human soul, insists that there is no place of purity and ‘clean hands' to which we can safely and finally retreat." In the chapter on Cat's Cradle, Sumner examines Vonnegut's exploration of the occasionally evil consequences of good intentions. The chronological organization often reveals the development of a particular theme in successive novels, but it precludes a more in-depth investigation of these themes. For general readers, a useful refresher course on Vonnegut's life and novels; scholars should look elsewhere.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781609804305
  • Publisher: Seven Stories Press
  • Publication date: 12/4/2012
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 8.82 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

GREGORY D. SUMNER, JD, PhD, is chair of history at the University of Detroit Mercy, where he has taught since 1993. He holds a doctorate in American history from Indiana University and is the author of Dwight Macdonald and the Politics Circle. Sumner has been awarded summer fellowships by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and has twice been William J. Fulbright Senior Lecturer at the Université di Roma Tre.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Preface ix

Introduction: Storyteller: Kurt Vonnegut and the American Dream 1

Prologue: Impossible Dreams: A Writer s Education, 1922-1952 7

1 Player Piano 21

2 The Sirens of Titan 39

3 Mother Night 59

4 Cat's Cradle 81

5 God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, or, Pearls Before Swine 103

6 Slaughterhouse-Five, or, The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death 123

7 Breakfast of Champions, or, Goodbye Blue Monday! 147

8 Slapstick, or, Lonesome No More! 171

9 Jailbird 189

10 Deadeye Dick 213

11 Galapagos: A Second Noah's Ark 239

12 Bluebeard 261

13 Hocus Pocus 287

14 Timequake 311

Epilogue: A Man without a Country, a "Planetary Citizen" 323

Notes 331

Kurt Vonnegut's Novels 339

Acknowledgments 341

Index 345

About the Author 356

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