From the author of Mockingbirdthe first authoritative biography of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., a writer who forever altered American literature
In 2006, Charles Shields reached out to Kurt Vonnegut in a letter asking for his endorsement for a planned biography. The first response was no ("A most respectful demurring by me for the excellent writer Charles J. Shields, who offered to be my biographer"). Unwilling to take no for an answer, propelled by a passion for his subject, and already deep into his research, Shields wrote again and this time, to his delight, the answer came back: "O.K." For the next yeara year that ended up being Vonnegut's lastShields had unprecedented access to Vonnegut and his letters.
While millions know Vonnegut as a counterculture guru, antiwar activist, and satirist of American culture, few outside his closest friends and family knew the full arc of his extraordinary life. And So It Goes changes that, painting the portrait of a man who made friends easily but always felt lonely, sold millions of books but never felt appreciated, and described himself as a humanist but fought with humanity at large. As a former public relations man, Vonnegut crafted his image carefullythe avuncular, curly-haired humoristthough he admitted, "I myself am a work of fiction."
The extremely wide and overwhelmingly positive review coverage for And So It Goes has been nothing less than extraordinary and confirm it as the definitive biography of Kurt Vonnegut.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.58(w) x 8.06(h) x 0.98(d)|
About the Author
CHARLES J. SHIELDS is the author of And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, and I Am Scout: The Biography of Harper Lee (Henry Holt Books for Young Readers). He grew up in the Midwest and taught in a rural school in central Illinois for several years. He has been a reporter for public radio, a journalist, and the author of nonfiction books for young people. He and his wife live near Charlottesville, Virginia.
Read an Excerpt
1: You Were an Accident
THE WEDDING OF Kurt Vonneguts parents, Edith Sophia Lieber and Kurt Vonnegut Sr. on November 22, 1913, in Indianapolis, Indiana, was spectacular.
Ediths father, Albert, owner of a giant brewery who reveled in his reputation as one of the richest men in the city, threw a gargantuan reception at the Claypool Hotel at the northwest corner of Washington and Illinois streets, reputed to be the finest hotel in the Midwest. There were six hundred guests, and those not chauffeured in automobiles arrived in horse-drawn carriages with jingling brass harnessesan entire generation of rich Edwardians, silk-hatted or covered demurely by parasols, many of whom had been raised in Indianapoliss mansions on Meridian Street.1 Albert Lieber knew what his guests expected and he did not disappoint. There was a sixty-foot bar, choice meats, champagne, and dancing to an orchestra in the ballroom lasting until six in the morning.
And to the satisfaction of some guests, there was plenty of gossip to go around, too. The bride had graduated from Miss Shipleys finishing school in Bryn Mawr outside Philadelphia in time to come out for the 1908 season in London. Her first serious suitor, Kenneth Doulton, whose family owned the world famous Royal Doulton Porcelain Works, had proposed. He said his father would buy them a house in Mayfair, hinting that they could live very well if her father would settle a good-sized dowry on her. But she suspected he was an upper-class idler who wanted a sinecure and not the responsibility of inheriting a giant brewery in Indianapolis. She broke off the engagement.
Then she had crossed the English Channel to live in her grandfather Peter Liebers castle in Dsseldorf. There she caught the eyes of two German cavalry officers who competed for her affections. She had become engaged to the higher-ranking one, a captaina Prussian, Otto Voigt, whose saber, boots, and brass buttons looked dashing. Unfortunately, like the English gentleman who had preceded him, he had no interest in the Lieber family brewery either. She ended that engagement too.
So she had retreated home to her fathers estate, Vellamada, outside Indianapolis, where he built for her a cottage on a bluff overlooking the White River and furnished it according to her tastes, with a fireplace and a grand piano in the living room. Many days she spent hours strolling around the grounds alone.2
No one recalled exactly how the groom, Kurt Vonnegut Sr., came on the scene romantically, but he and Edith, four years his junior, had known each other since childhood. Both families belonged to Indianapoliss coterie of wealthy German Americans who gravitated to Das Deutsche Haus, the citys German cultural center. Money and the suitability of the young couple were on the minds of both families, naturally.
Kurt Sr., a promising, second-generation Indianapolis architect, already had the imprimatur of older successful men in the city who had invited him to join the exclusive University Club. He was a graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with a degree in architecture and had completed postgraduate work at Hannover Polytechnic in Germany, just like his father, Bernard. Two years after his fathers death in 1908, Kurt Sr. had returned from abroad and joined his fathers architectural firm, Vonnegut & Bohn, as a partner. He was short, blue-eyed, and fair with blond curly hair and long, thin fingers. His bride was a lovely woman with auburn hair, a fair complexion, and blue-green eyes. They had made a handsome couple at the altar of the First Unitarian Church, according to family members, the only ones invited to attend the actual ceremony. Apparently, the Unitarian Church had been chosen because the Vonneguts had been freethinkers for generations and the Liebers were Protestantsit was common ground.
The reception at the Claypool Hotel was the finishing touch to the combining of two elite families. Under the weight of millionaire Albert Liebers inexhaustible largesse in the way of food and drink, all the propriety of Indianapoliss upper crust crumbled. Never before or since have so many otherwise respectable and thoroughly conservative citizens of the dull community passed out in so short a time, said a family historian.3 Dozens of guests were still recuperating in reserved rooms two days later.
Soon after their marriage, Kurt and his bride drove to the Indianapolis Speedway in a brand-new Oldsmobile and sped around and around the track in a delirium of happiness.4 It was the beginning of their lives together. Conveniently, everything in Ediths trousseau was already monogrammed L-V from her engagement to the Prussian captain, Otto Voigt.5
THE WEDDING reception was fitting for wealthy young socialites starting out. While Kurt Sr. had been a bachelor, he had taught artistic lettering at the John Herron Art Institute and become friends with amateur artists. Edith had been a member of the Indianapolis Propylaeum, a selective literary and social club for women.
But after their marriage the Vonneguts were catapulted into realms generally open only to leading couples. The biggest coup was an invitation to join the Portfolio Club founded by the Hoosier Group artist Theodore Clement Steele and his late wife, Mary Elizabeth. The membership roster consisted exclusively of Midwestern artists, writers, or painters who supported the Arts and Crafts movement. There were monthly dinner discussions, and the group, said one onlooker, considered itself to be the custodian of the aesthetic conscience of the community.6 As the newest female member attending the club dinner in January 1917, Edith was chivalrously (and humorously) awarded the tail of the roast pig.7
The Vonneguts reciprocated by entertaining in their home at 1334 Central Avenue, located in one of the better neighborhoods. They sometimes had the director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra to supper, or writers and painters, or architects who were colleagues of Kurt Sr.s.8 Ediths dinner parties were memorable just for their settings, three generations of inherited Lieber treasure on display: china, silver, linen, and crystal.
With such a heavy social calendar, the only way to keep the house in order was with a live-in servant, especially after the Vonnegut children began coming along.9
BERNARD VONNEGUT, named for his paternal grandfather, was born August 29, 1914. He was a serious-looking little boy, even in informal photographs. The earliest anecdote about him predicted a fascination with science and technology. One afternoon when he was a toddler, his parents left him in the care of a babysitter. They didnt return until late that evening, long after he was asleep. The next morning, they noticed he was all excited and making unusual noises. The mystery was cleared up a few days later when a family friend mentioned seeing Bernard at Union Station in the arms of the babysitter. She had taken him down to the stationa half-hour walkto meet her boyfriend on the platform. His unusual noises were the sounds of locomotives.10 Many small children love trains, of course, but as soon as he was old enough, Bernard set up a laboratory in the basement to find out more about steam, power, and electricity.
The Vonneguts only daughter came next, Alice, born November 18, 1917. In babyhood, she developed a serious case of pneumonia and nearly died from a high fever.11 Kurt Jr. later believed it addled her a little.12 She refused to tolerate anything that might upset her. She shunned books and preferred make-believe instead. The sight of a truck on the highway carrying chickens on their way to market sent her into hysterics, and only her parents assurances that those chickens were on their way to a new farm could calm her down.13 Perhaps having been lavished with her parents concern when she was ill, she discovered a dependable way to keep their attention on her. And since Bernard was laying claim to being the brainy one, why shouldnt she be the one with overwrought feelings? Every child must carve out a niche for him- or herself in a family.
THE VONNEGUTS youngest child, Kurt Jr. (a beautiful boy with curly hairan exceptionally beautiful child, really, said his fathers sister, Aunt Irma), was born in Indianapolis on November 11, 1922, or Armistice Day as it was called before World War II.14 As an adult, he was quite proud of being born on a day associated with peace.15
His parents were living by then in a new, larger house at 4401 North Illinois Street, located in a neighborhood of large brick and limestone residences on the citys north side near Butler University. It had been built with Ediths money, even though Prohibition in 1921 had caused a catastrophic downturn in her fathers brewery fortune. But there was a building boom going on after World War I, and Kurt Sr. anticipated regular commissions to provide a comfortable financial bumper for his family.
Set back deep on a half-acre wooded lot, the house, which is still standing, is turned sideways, giving it a slightly unwelcoming look. The long flank of the three-story, six-bedroom house faces the street; the front door is toward the narrow side yard. The style is Arts and Crafts, and framed in a leaded, stained-glass window on the front door are the letters K, E, and V for Kurt and Edith Vonnegut. Underneath the window is an unusual door knocker, a woman with a Roman face, her head crowned with leaves, and two festoons of palm fronds beneath her ears, looping down to where they meet at a brooch, creating the handhold for rapping on the strike plate.
Throughout his life, Kurt Jr. insisted his father designed the house. Actually, it was done by the Indianapolis-born architect William Osler, some of whose other residences are still standing in Indianapolis and are similar in style to the Vonneguts. There was very little input in the house from Kurts father, and the fact that he engaged someone else to design his home is revealing about his talent or interests, for that matter.16
In his colleagues estimation, Kurt Sr. was an architect with modest abilities.17 His bread-and-butter income came from commercial projects such as Hooks Drugstores and Indiana Bell Telephone buildings. As his clients buildings grew higher, wider, multipurposed, and blander, he relied on technical knowledge to bring in the fees, not style or character.
His father, Bernard, on the other hand, had enhanced the built environment of Indianapolis with dozens of distinctive structures, including the John Herron Art Institute, the Hotel Severin, and the enormous Das Deutsche Haus designed in German Renaissance Revival style with a beer garden and theater.18 Bernards design for the Pembroke Arcade in downtown Indianapolis, inspired by the architecture of the 1893 Worlds Columbian Exposition in Chicago, was a forerunner of the modern shopping mall. An Indianapolis historian and contemporary said of Bernard, All of his work was carefully detailed and bore evidence of his scholarly tastes as an architect as well as of his superior technical ability.19
But no major projects from the hand of Kurt Sr. still exist, no monuments to his genius, as his fathers work was once described.20 The apprentice lacked confidence in his artistic skills to exceed the master. He enjoyed experimenting in a dilettantish way with calligraphy, painting, and pottery, especially as he got older. And as an architect, he had a trained sense of style. Yet his youngest son, Kurt Jr., was never sure his father wanted to be an architect, he was just the oldest son and he was told to become an architect.21 He never heard his father mention anything about grandfather Bernard. He suspected it was because his father knew he was mediocre by comparison.22
Nevertheless, income from Kurt Sr.s commissions and his wifes investments provided expensive garnishes to their lives. When they were flush with cash, they traveled and entertained. Typical was a trip aboard a ship from New York to Hamburg, Germany, in July 1924, to attend the wedding of Kurt Sr.s sister, Irma, to a German, Kurt Lindener, who owned plantations in Honduras. Alice was seven years old by then and Bernard ten. Nineteen-month-old Kurt Jr. was left behind in the care of his paternal uncle Alex and his wife, Raye, who were childless. (Much later, when he was old enough to understand, he decided his mother had done it because he was an inconvenience.)23 The family also took annual summer vacations to the seaside town of Chatham on the southeastern tip of Cape Cod, where the children could play tag with the waves.24 If the Vonneguts needed money, they sold securities or borrowed it.25
A private education for the children went without saying. As soon as Kurt Jr. was of school age, his parents enrolled him in the Orchard School, a private progressive school with grades kindergarten through eighth on West Forty-second Street in Indianapolis, recently redesigned by Kurt Sr. and a colleague. Bernard had graduated from there and continued on to the Park School, a small private high school for boys. Alice was already an Orchard student in the middle grades when Kurt Jr. was enrolled as a kindergarten student in the fall of 1928.
The Orchard School operated on the educational theorist John Deweys belief that the students should be a little community of doers. There were gardens, pottery making, music lessons, pretend bank accounts, shop class, pageants, outdoor biology, art, and folk dancing. Each child had a responsibility. An important influence on Vonnegut was a teacher who eventually became headmaster, Hillis Howie. Later in life, Vonnegut said, The value system under which I try to operate relative to animals and plants and the earth and persons with cultures different from mine is one I learned from him. There are thousands of us who were lucky enough to come under his influence, and my guess is that we are more at home on this planet, and more respectful of it, than most of our neighbors are.26
This hothouse educational environment encouraged Kurt Jr.s precociousness. One of his teachers commended him on how well he could read.27 At home, he secretly pored over an unabridged dictionary from his parents large library because he suspected that there were dirty words hidden in there and puzzled over illustrations of the trammel wheel, the arbalest, and the dugong.28 Later, when he was old enough, he dipped into his parents complete works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Bernard Shaw, Arthur Conan Doyle, and a beautiful edition of Lysistrata, which he claimed to have read when he was eleven.29
Getting his teachers attention was easy, he found, but his parents were another matter. His father, dignified and reserved, was said to take after his own father.30 Toward his children, Kurt Sr. acted coolly. His conversations with his younger son tended to be arch and distant.31 Nor did he seem interested in teaching him how to become proficient at things, again according to Kurt Jr., who remained quite resentful about this; he never forgot it. Nobody taught me anythinghow to skate, or even ride a bike.32
His father could be witty, but in such a wry way that it was hard to tell whether he was joking. The sense of humor in the house was Schadenfreudevery Germanictaking pleasure in the misfortunes of others. Listening one afternoon to act 4 of Aida, Kurt Sr. remarked in a bemused voice that the lovers sealed in a temple would last a lot longer if they didnt sing so much.33
The childrens taste for Schadenfreude too expressed itself in a love of pratfalls. Alice, for instance, hearing a series of thuds, thought her younger brother had fallen down the stairs, and rushed to make fun of him. It was the gas meter man who had tumbled into the basement. She laughed even harder. Another time she caught sight of a woman falling out a bus door horizontally like an ironing board and doubled over with giggles.34
Likewise, Kurt Jr., for the rest of his life, had an odd (and sometimes disconcerting) habit of laughing suddenly in the middle of describing something unpleasant. It was hard to tell whether he was upset or tickled by absurdity. One of his favorite anecdotes in adulthood was about a fraternity brother who heard the news of Pearl Harbor while showering. When Vonnegut got to the punch linethe guy was so shocked he fell in the tub and killed himself!he would try to suppress a wheezing, half-ashamed snigger.35
Edith Vonnegut behaved like a guest in her childrens lives. To her way of thinking, parenting came under the general heading of household tasks, which, as a wealthy woman, she could pay others to do. Mother, said Kurt Jr., did not cook.36 Nor did she sew on buttons, plant flowers outdoorsthe yardman did thator, as her son remembered it, speak to him very much.37 She did enjoy dressing the children in fine clothes, however, which she selected from the best department store in town, L. S. Ayres (which had also been designed by her father-in-law), and lunching with her lady friends in the walnut-paneled Victorian tearoom. In the Vonneguts home movies taken in the 1920s, she waves brightly to let us know she is present, but she never hugs the children to indicate that they are a joy to her.
The only sign of family affectionother than horseplay at the beach on Cape Cod, also seen in family filmsoccurs between Kurt Jr. and Alice, who guides her beaming, wide-eyed little brother past the camera tenderly by the hand. And in another scene, when they are seated beside each other in a toy wagon, he buries his face in her shoulder.
But a sister who is only five years older is not an adequate substitute for a mother. To find a humane and wise person to listen to his chatter, answer his questions, and read to him, he looked elsewhere.38
FORTUNATELY, THERE was such a person in the household, the Vonneguts cook and housekeeper, Ida Young.
Mrs. Young was a middle-aged woman when she worked part-time for the Vonneguts. An African American born in Kentucky in 1883, she married her husband, Owen, a warehouse worker, at eighteen; the couple owned a home at 1940 Yandes Street, a good twenty-minute ride by trolley from the Vonneguts. She found employment with white families in 1926 because her husband had passed away and she was on her own. A few years later, one of her children moved in, bringing with him seven of her grandchildren. From then on, her life consisted mainly of work and caring for children. She cooked and cleaned for the Vonneguts five days a week, with Thursdays and Sundays off.39
Ida did not have the authority to take the Vonnegut children in hand the way she did her own.40 Mostly, the Vonnegut parents disciplined passively by showing discontent, as Kurt Jr. put it.41 But he was very young, suggestible, and, most important, lonely. She talked to me more than my mother ever did and spent more time with me than my mother ever did.42 Ida often mentioned him to her grandchildren and was clearly very fond of him.43 By responding to his eagerness for adult affection, she won his heart, making it receptive to what she had to say about kindness, honesty, and proper behavior.
She was a Methodist, and the Bible was her instruction manual for family life.44 She knew the Bible by heart and found plenty of comfort and wisdom in there, Kurt Jr. wrote later.45 The Vonneguts attended services at the Unitarian Church only twice a year, on Christmas Eve and Easter, and the family said grace at meals, but in retrospect he termed it just a theatrical event.46
Searching for something to read aloud to Kurt Jr., Ida found in the Vonneguts library a popular anthology of stories, poems, verses, and essays called More Heart Throbs, the second volume in a series of books with inspiring passages. Many of the entries were anonymous verses, but there were also rhythmic, easy-to-read pieces by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson, Robert Louis Stevenson, and James Whitcomb Riley.47 The frontispiece shows a woman in a long white dress reading as she walks in the spring. The caption says, The little cares that fretted me, / I lost them yesterday / Out in the fields with God.
Years later, Vonnegut didnt recall any religious instruction from Ida, but said, Im sure she must have talked about God and I was interested to hear about it.48 They pored over the book, and the effect of the experience, amplified by how a caring adult was taking an interest in him, affected him for the rest of his life. There is an almost intolerable sentimentality in everything I write. British critics complain about it. And Robert Scholes, the American critic, once said that I put bitter coatings on sugar pills. Its too late to change now. At least I am aware of my originsin a big, brick dream house designed by my architect father, where nobody was home for long periods of time, except for me and Ida Young.49
WHILE KURT Jr. was still a child in primary school feeling the effects of benign neglect at home, as he remembered it, Bernard, a high school student in the late 1920s, was earning a reputation in science that made his parents proud. His teachers at the prestigious Park School agreed with the assessment of Bernards great-uncle Carl Barus, a founder of the American Physical Society, that he was peculiarly gifted when honoring the scientific method with playful experiments involving ordinary materials close at hand.50 Even when one of his experiments blew a bolt through the first floor of the Vonneguts home, or his telegraph key blanked out every radio station in Indianapolis for three miles around, his parents were dazzled. Kurt Jr. later begrudged him his unassailable status in the family: He was my parents darling, as the firstborn should be, I suppose.51
To his teachers and parents, Bernard might be a young Edison, but how he lorded it over his brother and sister annoyed them. Kurt Jr. tried to play his older brothers assistant and helped when asked during experiments. But he began to feel resentful of the supposed superiority of that hilarious baboon.52 Science was all that mattered in his worldview. Litmus paper, slide rules, anemometers yielded real values; everything else was just opinion. Sometimes, in sheer childish frustration, Kurt Jr. flailed at his older brother while Bernard held him at arms length, chuckling.53 He was a boring bully. Never hit me, but he would talk and talk about science until my sister and I were bored shitless.54
Enviously he watched one day while his father and brother performed what looked like alchemy in the backyard. Wearing thick rubber gloves, they dropped several dimes in a plastic bucket of nitric acid. A few more ingredients in the process and then there, glistening at the bottom of the bucket, lay grains of pure silver. Another experiment involved igniting black iron oxide and powdered aluminum at high temperatures to create molten aluminum oxide. Bernard used blobs of it to spot-weld nails into a spiny shape that could be separated only with a hacksaw. His power was astonishing!55
By comparison, Kurt Jr. felt intense self-disgust. He kept a childish diary; even though nothing ever happened to me I wrote pages and pages.56 No one was encouraging him, showing him experiments. His father was attuned to the intellect rather than emotional pleading. Bernard was obviously gifted and its like having a great chess player suddenly or a musician or whatever. He was something of a prodigy at least in terms of his enthusiasm for science. It was clear he was going to be a scientist from early on and when I tried it I obviously did not have the same gifts he had, so something genetic is going on there.57
Furthermore, Bernards signs of genius gave him leverage in the family beyond the usual pride of place of an eldest child. In his world of facts and results, sensibility was gibberish. Alice demonstrated an ability to capture likenesses quickly in clay sculpture, but Bernard wasnt impressed. Art, he was fond of saying, is just ornamental. Visiting a local art museum in the company of his family, he jeered, Look at those paintings! They just hang there!58 By implication, his fathers vocationarchitecture can be seen as extension of art, after allwas just as lowly.
By the time he was a teenager, Bernard began to look on his family as part of his laboratory and took a Skinnerian interest in what they did, how they behaved, and why. His curiosity about his parents sexual relationship gave rise to an experiment when he was sixteen and Kurt Jr. was seven. Using the heat register in his parents bedroom as a conduit, Bernard ran a wire for a microphone under his parents bed and connected it to a tape recorder. Soon he had results about sex between adults that he was eager to share with his brother.59
They were riding together in the car when Bernard turned to him and said, You were an accident. Kurt Jr. remembered feeling confused and fearful. I didnt know what it meant to be an accident, but I knew accidents werent good.60
IN OCTOBER 1929, the Wall Street crash pushed the Vonneguts upper-class life toward a financial precipice. They were overextended, house-poor, but in love with the amenities of the good life. Waves of bad economic tides lapped at Kurt Sr.s profession, eroding his commissions. Desperately, he and Edith leaped at a Ponzi scheme, buying into it with an inheritance left to them by grandmother Nannette Vonnegut, who passed away in December 1929.61 Everything was lost. To keep going, they sold their securities and borrowed as much as they could.62 It still wasnt enough. As a result, Edith Vonnegut, one of the richest women in town, slowly became, according to her son Kurt, half-cracked.63
Fortunately, in 1930 an unusual project came Kurt Sr.s way, the income from which kept the family afloat for a while. But more important, how expertly he handled the work involved implied thatas Kurt Jr. later suspectedhis father had become an architect by default. His true ability was technological.
In downtown Indianapolis, the Indiana Bell Building housed all the telephone and telegraph equipment for central Indiana. The board of directors needed to add administrative offices at the site, but there was nowhere to build. After entertaining several unsatisfactory proposals about ways to expand, the directors were close to accepting that the eight-story, eleven-thousand-ton structure would have to be demolished.
But then Kurt Sr. proposed an extraordinary plan. The solution was to turn the whole building. This could be accomplished without damage to the building, and business on all floors could continue as usual during the moveno interruption to the tens of thousands of calls routed through the switchboards every day. The gas, light, and heat would stay on too, even the elevators would go up and down as the building advanced fifty-two feet forward off its foundation, then swung through a ninety-degree arc, and finally moved one hundred feet backward on rails. When at last it rested on its new foundation, the Indiana Bell Building would have been relocated, with all the employees inside, from its former address on Meridian Street to New York Street. In the rear would be plenty of room for expansion.
The board consented, either because Vonnegut was so persuasive or out of sheer curiosity to see whether such an incredible thing could be done.
Before the move, giant hoses were connected to utilities so that gas, water, and heat would continue as usual. Then underneath the bottom of the building, Vonnegut positioned eighteen jacks weighing one hundred tons apiece. On October 14, the turning around began. Engineers from all over the nation, as well as a few from abroad, came to observe what would happen. On a signal, each worker operating a jack gave the lever six complete up-and-down strokes. The building rose a fraction of an inch. Then the men rested. At the next signal, they gave the levers exactly six strokes and rested. This continued until the building was up a foot. Blocks and temporary jacks were knocked into place, and then the huge jacks repositioned to turn the building incrementally toward a set of rails. The rhythm of eighteen men working in syncopation continued.
Every workday, employees and customers arrived at the buildings entrance via a curved walkway that was constantly being lengthened to keep up with the turning front door. Inside, telephones rang, operators put through calls, and meetings were held, but workers couldnt help glancing out the windows now and then to see how the view was changing. Site superintendents distributed squashed pennies from the rails to spectators as souvenirs of the historic event, including one for Kurt Jr., who was then eight years old. Finally, in mid-November 1930 the building came to rest on its new foundation.
It was the largest building of its time ever moved.
Throughout his life, Kurt Jr. mentioned his fathers historic engineering achievement only in passing. National magazines carried the story, and requests for information about the technical side of the move continued to arrive at Indiana Bell forty-six years after the event.64 Yet the son of the titan responsible for the deed preferred instead to let it be known that he was from a family of artists: Here I am making a living in the arts, and it has not been a rebellion. Its as though I had taken over the family Esso station. My ancestors were all in the arts, so Im simply making my living in the customary family way.65 By insisting that the arts, and not technology, coursed through the Vonnegut bloodline, he made it clear that he was the true heir of his familys dreams, and not his older brother, Bernard.
DESPITE THE astounding success of the Indiana Bell Building move, the firm of Vonnegut, Bohn & Mueller, as it was then known, was forced to disband. Kurt Sr. set up a home office and accepted jobs, his son Kurt said later, that would have been soporific to a high school drafting class.66
The big house on Illinois Street would have to be sold, it was clear, and in 1932 the Vonneguts put it on the market. But year after year there were no takers. A demi-mansion with servants quarters was a white elephant in an era of hoboes, the Dust Bowl, and soup kitchens. Gradually, the Vonneguts were going under financially and began selling off ballast that had once anchored them in the upper class: china, jewelry, and artwork. The hired help was let go, including Ida Young, although the Vonneguts continued to give her clothes and items for her family.67
Edith kept reassuring her youngest child that the Vonneguts would rise to the top again, and he would resume his proper place in society when the bad times ended and would swim with members of other leading families at the Indianapolis Athletic Club, would play tennis and golf with them at the Woodstock Golf and Country Club.68 In the meantime, he would have to leave Orchard School and begin the fourth grade at a public schoola wise use of resources, he thought bitterly as an adult.69 Alice would finish at the private Tudor Hall School for Girls and Bernard at the Park School.
For Edith, the humiliation of her precipitous fall in society affected her mental health. Kurt Jr. likened it to withdrawal from a drug. My mother was addicted to being rich, to servants and unlimited charge accounts, to giving lavish dinner parties, to taking frequent first-class trips to Europe.70 With only a modest income, her husband was unable to provide the things that had formerly made her life as pleasant as a garden party.
Furiously, she turned on him, and Kurt Jr., only nine or ten, watched wide-eyed as his mother tore at his father.71 Late at night, and always in the privacy of our own home, and never with guests present, she expressed hatred for Father as corrosive as hydrofluoric acid.72 Her insults were scattershot but always with the same target: he was a failure as a man. He was unfaithful, she said; his false teeth were cheap and disgusting; he couldnt make more money because he was afraid to try.73
Her doctor prescribed sodium amytal, a barbiturate with sedative-hypnotic properties, but it twisted her personality.74 In the dead of night, she roamed the house, wrapped in a ghostly drug-induced mist, rattling doorknobs and dishes like a poltergeist. The family endeavored to keep her midnight-to-dawn craziness a secret.75 Some of her behavior was histrionicshe would fall to the ground rather than have her picture takenbut according to Kurt Jr. the hatred and contempt she sprayed on my father, as gentle and innocent a man as ever lived, was without limit and pure, untainted by ideas or information.76
To escape her assaults, Kurt Sr. retreated to an artists studio he created on the top floor in the vacated bedroom formerly belonging to a servant. There he turned into, in his son Kurts words, a dreamy artist.77 He painted portraits of friends and relatives, and many self-portraits, too. But there was something about his self-portraits that indicated he no longer recognized himself. On canvas after canvas he left sketches of his face unfinished, as if he couldnt decide on his own likeness or how he wanted to appear.78
Predictably, his parents unhappiness put a strain on Kurt Jr. that surfaced in school. One day in the seventh grade, he was called into the office by the principal. He asked me what was wrong, because I apparently was flunking everything and he said I might have to repeat the seventh grade and I didnt know what was wrong. I might have to repeat the seventh grade!79
He didnt flunk middle school, as it turned out. He graduated eighth grade on time in June 1936 with the rest of his class. Part of the ceremony included each graduate receiving a diploma from the principal, then turning to the audience and announcing his or her career plans. When it was Kurt Jr.s turn, he made an announcement guaranteed to please both his parents in the audience. I said, I would cure cancer with chemicals while working for the Eli Lilly Company.80
In other words, he would try to grow up to be just like Bernard.
WHEN SUMMER came, everything was always better. There was a second home for the Vonneguts where the sunlight put a blush on everyones face, and the water for swimming and bathing was pure as rainwater. The name of it, in the language of the Pottawatomie who once lived there, meant clarity or transparent: Maxinkuckee. Lake Maxinkuckee was an enchanted body of water to me, said Kurt Jr., remembering it many years later, my Aegean Sea, perfect in every dimension.81
The basin of Lake Maxinkuckee was gouged into the sandy soil by the scraping heel of a glacier and is constantly refreshed by spring water. Two and half miles wide and a mile and a half long, the lake has a thirteen-mile shoreline of rocky beach ringed by forests of oak, beech, and maple. The small town of Culver sits on its northeastern side.
The Vonneguts and their relativesthe Schnulls and the Glossbrenners, mainlysummered in five cedar-sided homes (owned jointly and often acrimoniously when it came to paying taxes) on the most desirable side of the lake, the sunny eastern shore. Another branch of the family owned Hollyhock Farm with a thirty-acre orchard of Jonathan, Grimes, and Wagener apple trees.82 Taken as one holding, the property constituted a freshwater fiefdom owned by a German American family several generations deep.
The Vonneguts exodus to Lake Maxinkuckee started soon after Memorial Day by driving down Meridian Street until it became a flat, two-lane road, Route 31. The trip was straight north for ninety miles through the Indiana countryside. Stopping for lunch, they arrived at their cottage at 782 East Shore Drive by early afternoon. Then came the ceremony of taking down the winter shutters, raising the windows, and letting sunlight and fresh air ventilate the rooms for the first time in many months. Last, the boathouse would be unlocked, freeing the canoes and the leaky rowboat that Kurt Jr. had christened the Beralikura combination of Bernard, Alice, Kurt. That evening everyone would tuck into his or her first dinner at the lake, eating by the glow of a kerosene lamp.83
Evenings were spent readingTennyson, Poe, Dickens, Hawthorne, Stevenson, Emerson, and James Whitcomb Riley were favoritesor playing Old Maid, Pinochle, or Parcheesi. At sunset, Culver Military Academy fired a cannon. Hearing that martial sound, Kurt Jr. hoped never to be yelled at and have to wear a uniform.84 Before bedtime, he would run down the pier his father had built and fling himself off the end, clutching a bar of soap for his bath.
TO BE German was celebrated at the lake. The older folks tended to converse in German to stay in practice.85 Kurt Jr. resented it when his parents shut him out of the conversation that way.86 His father, who was in better spirits on vacation, sometimes cupped his hands to his mouth and jokingly called out, Epta-mayan-hoy?, which sounds Native American but is ersatz German for Do abbots mow hay? The proper response was for one of the children, sometimes as many as half a dozen during a single summer, to shout back, Ya, epta-mayan-hoy! (Yes, abbots mow hay!)87
Later in life Kurt Jr. complained about how little he really knew about German culture. He likened his situation to the title of an opera by Richard Strauss. Die Frau ohne Schattenthe woman without a shadow, I was a kid without a shadow, an ethnic shadow. My parents could have taught me German but they didnt. I had no ethnic awareness whatsoever.88 He blamed his parents for thisanother refrain of Nobody taught me anything. But he also blamed anti-German sentiment during the First World War, which so shamed and dismayed my parents that they resolved to raise me without acquainting me with the language or the literature or the music or the oral family histories which my ancestors loved. They volunteered to make me ignorant and rootless as proof of their patriotism.89
During World War I, fear of the Hun (and envy over German Americans prominence in business) led the Indianapolis Star to print the names and addresses of eight hundred German immigrants who were not naturalized. Someone threw yellow paint on Das Deutsche Haus, the citys German cultural center, which the members voted to rename the Athenaeum.90 One morning, Kurt Sr. reached into his mailbox to find an anonymous note: Stop teaching your kids that Dutchslang for German.91 Ironically, of course, neither Alice nor Bernard (Kurt Jr. wasnt born yet) had been taught to speak German. Kurt Sr.s mother, Nannette, also suffered a scare. The chauffeur she hired, a well-educated gentleman, turned out to be spying on us, said Kurt Sr.s sister, Irma. He was trying to find out whether we were disloyal or not.92 Putting the lie to this kind of prejudice was the fact that eight Vonnegut men registered for the draft, including Kurt Sr.93
There were many reasons for German Americans in Indianapolis to feel affronted, angry, or defensive. But their behavior doesnt square with Kurt Jr.s belief that his parents were ashamed. Regular junkets aboard ship to Germany by the family continued at an energetic pace throughout the 1920s and early 1930s. In fact, Kurt Sr. sailed to Hamburg aboard the brand-new luxury liner the Deutschland two months after the stock market crash.94 The Vonneguts, the Liebers, and their relatives were proud of their heritage, but they thought of it in lyrical and cultural, not political, terms. Indianapolis was replete with the efforts of German Americans to improve the city: the German-English School Society, the Musikverein, the German American Veterans Society, the German Literary Club, the Freethinkers Society, and the soaring Indiana Soldiers and Sailors Monument, designed by a Berlin architect. Later, during World War II, there was a saying in the Vonnegut home that the only thing wrong with the Germans was that they were in Germany.95
Moreover, the intellectual tradition of German rationalism and liberalism ensured that families like the Vonneguts refused to be cowed by nativists and bigots. Said Kurt Jr. himself many years later, To them this country did have religious documents: the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.96 They endured the slings and arrows of zealots and moved on with their lives.
In any case, the greatest benefit from Kurt Jr.s life at the lake wasnt cultural. It was the abundant affection he received from belonging to the saga of the Vonnegut clan at Lake Maxinkuckee. Just his being thereswimming, canoeing, lighting firecrackers on the Fourth of Julyadded to family lore that spanned three generations. The contentment he felt erased his feelings of loneliness and anxiety at home. He later came to believe that in a perfect world every child who is at odds with his parentswhether the adults were cold or too demandingshould have an understanding relative to go to.97 That person would serve as a safety net in times of trouble or just lend a sympathetic ear. And in his family, there was such a relativesomeone who was responsive and amusing and generous with me my ideal grown-up friendhis uncle Alex Vonnegut.98
Uncle Alex was Kurt Sr.s gregarious younger brother, Harvard educated, and a broker for the Provident Mutual Life Insurance Company. His favorite three words, he said, were enclosed find check.99 Later in life he confessed to feeling disappointed that he hadnt lived up to his expectations.100 Selling insurance was too easy, and he was bored. Still, he was bubbling with good humor, said Kurt Jr.s cousin Walt Vonnegut, and he loved children.101 Alex once proclaimed humorously to a friend in a letter, I am in the Prime of Senility.102
All of the nieces and nephews would claim him at Lake Maxinkuckee, pulling him by the hand out onto the porch of one of the cottages where they could fuss over him. They begged for an Edgar Allan Poe story or requested his most popular trick, making a cats cradle out of string, which was likely the inspiration for the title of one of Kurt Jr.s novels years later.103 He had been married since 1915, but he and his wife, Raye, had no children and never would. The reasonat least the one Alex gave to close relativeswas that he had contracted a venereal disease while making the Grand Tour of Europe after college and was incapable of fathering a child. Having missed this opportunity, he energetically acted the surrogate parent to his many nieces and nephews.
No doubt because Alex was partial to children, he put his finger on something troubling his nephew Kurt Jr. No one was listening to him. When Kay was a child, Alex said later, calling him by his family nickname, he complained about not being able to talk and that he was always being interrupted.104
THE TROUBLE was that he couldnt seem to say anything important enough to get the attention he craved at home. My sister was five years older than I was, my brother was nine years older, and at the dinner table I was the lowest ranking thing there. I could not be interesting to these vivid grownups.105 The give-and-take of conversation swirled around him, usually at the center of which was Bernard. My brother was just full of baloney about wonderful things that were happening to him.106
And then, as he entered his teenage years, he stumbled on how to turn everyones head in his direction. As he recalled it, the strategy was simple: The only way the youngest kid, by far the youngest kid, can hold attention is by being surprising. After everyone else at the table volunteered, Well, I had a pretty nice day today, he would add dramatically, Oh, I didnt, not at all. The clatter of silverware stopped, and his siblings and parents waited to hear what had happened.107
At first, he was guilty of anticlimax, and his remarks failed to entertain and were generally met with a nod. He got the hook, so to speak, and the conversation moved on. But over time his stories and jokes became bolder, more imaginative, and better told, causing his brother and sister to stifle their outbursts of laughter.108
Learning how to amuse was a skill, he realized. And for being tutored in the art of creating situations, practicing timing, and delivering punch lines, the perfect tutor was the radio. One of his favorite programs was Vic and Sade, a couple in Bloomington, Illinois, with an adopted son, Rush.109 Each episode took an ordinary eventa broken washing machine, an early morning errandand spun it out with extremely droll dialogue, without a laugh track or live audience, as if the listener were eavesdropping on a family who didnt know they were funny. It was only fifteen minutes long. The listener had to be engaged, entertained, and satisfied in that brief space of time. Listening critically to the big radio in his parents living room, he received his first fundamental lessons in writing. It was beautifully timed and extremely clever. That was the Muzak of my life.110
And learning to be funny accomplished something he never thought possible: it changed the balance of power in his family. After he demonstrated to Alice that he could be a real card, delivering gags just like comedians, she moved closer to him. By comparison, Bernard, down in his basement laboratory or in his advanced classes, might be able to do wonders with electricity and chemicals and so on. But upstairs in the dining and living rooms, his brother was strengthening his alliance with their sister by becoming her partner in funny business. They became a duo performing favorite bits from Abbott and Costello, Burns and Allen, or Laurel and Hardy.111
The sweetness of this victory absorbed him all his life. Later, he often created characters in groups of three in his novels, two men and one woman.112 The ability to control humor put him in control of the family drama here: my sister, my brother, and myself.113
WITH A new weapon in his quiver, Kurt Jr. sallied forth to practice it in adolescence. Alice, eighteen, was about to leave home for a few semesters at art school, and Bernard had followed in his fathers footsteps to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Where Kurt Jr. would attend high school, however, was dictated again by his parents diminishing finances. Unable to afford the kind of private education they had provided for Alice and Bernard, they enrolled their youngest at the new powerhouse of public secondary education in the city, Shortridge High School.
Shortridge, at 3401 North Meridian Street, looks almost exactly as it did when Vonnegut enrolled as a freshman in 1936. The original building, where his parents attended high school, had closed in 1928, and the new Shortridge building was already bulging with more than the twenty-five hundred students it was intended for. The reason for the overcrowding was that jobless graduates were allowed to reenroll. Hardly any of us had any money, said a classmate of Vonneguts during the Great Depression. But on thinking it over I decided that we were richwe had the finest school filled with the best teachersand indeed we did have everything.114
Shortridge has an air of monumentality: a three-story, brick rectangle building with a Corinthian facade featuring a front entrance with six columns. Panels above the doors illustrate scenes of a classical education: art, music, literature, commerce, philosophy, and ethics. The interior rooms and hallways are finished in golden oak, ceramic tile, and plaster. Kurt Jr. couldnt contain his excitement about this new chapter beginning in his life: If your parents could get you there, you got to go there. God, I remember an ancient history course there, it was just a knockout. A real chemist headed the chemistry department, Frank Wade, who taught and worked as a chemist. So my brother, going to the Park School while maintaining his upper class status, bicycled to Shortridge to study chemistry with Frank Wade.115
To choose his courses, he relied on what friends said about the best teachers.116 But here Bernard stepped in, supplanting his parents authority about his brothers choices. The first disagreement was over foreign language. Kurt Jr. wasnt interested in German, which Bernard recommended, despite his complaint later that he had been cut off from his heritage. He begged to be allowed to take Latin instead, so he could join the schools largest club, the Roman State. (Incredibly, twelve hundred students belongedhalf the school.) But I wasnt to study Latin, I was to study German, a technical language, because Bernard insisted it was more useful.117 Two years of German, his parents decided, would be followed by two years of French because it was part of a liberal education. When it came to freshman science, he wanted to enroll in zoology because he liked animals, but Bernard pointed out it wasnt physical science enough.118 So zoology was out and chemistry was in.
Nevertheless, he did well his freshman year: all As and Bs in core courses such as English, algebra, and chemistry, which, considering that he later insisted he had no interest or talent for science, is worth noting.
The summer of 1937 he worked at the Vonnegut Hardware on East Washington Street for his great-uncle Franklin Vonnegut. His job was running the freight elevator up and down between six floors, eight hours a day, a Sisyphean task that gave him a glimpse of life in hell, he later said.119
Franklin made a mistake, however. As the owner of the business, he assigned his nephew number two on the time clock, right under him, which was taken by the other workers as tiresome evidence of the unfairness of nepotism. Kurt was embarrassed.120 Many of the men employed by Vonnegut Hardware were making the same salary he wasfourteen dollars a week. It was his first real-life lesson in social and economic disparity, illustrating what he had read in a book recently given to him by Uncle Alex: Thorstein Veblens Theory of the Leisure Class. He reveled in its attacks on conspicuous consumption, since it made low comedy of the empty graces and aggressively useless possessions which my parents, and especially my mother, meant to regain some day.121 With the excitement of a youngster who has at last caught his parents red-handed, he realized he was being raised to become bourgeois.
SOPHOMORE YEAR, Kurt took up smokingsmart-looking Pall Mall cigarettes in the red package with a coat of arms and the Latin motto In hoc signo vinces (By this sign shall you conquer). He determined too that he would have a girlfriend. Girls liked him because he was polite and funny, and, for his part, he fell in love with girls.122 In fact, he had his eye on one in particular, Mary Jo Albright.
Christmas morning, he wrapped a present and left early for the short walk to her house on North Washington Street. Inside the gift box, he had a teddy bear. He hoped it would strike the right note between friendship and thoughtfulness.
Mary Jos father answered the door and welcomed him in, calling for his daughter to come down and meet the young gentleman who had just arrived. From her expression, Kurt could tell she was surprised to see him. They sat on the couch and he presented his gift. Opening the wrapping, she fussed over the teddy bear and thanked him. But after a few moments, she explained they couldnt talk longshe was expecting her date, Bill Shirley. They had made plans to go skating together.
Kurt made the best of things and started making his exit, thanking her father and wishing them a Merry Christmas. It had been a sincere, if inelegant, expedition of the heart.123
In his bedroom he would stand at his window at night and watch a teenage girl, Nina Brown, undress in her lighted window through the backyard trees.124 In his home life, the relationship between his parents illustrated almost nothing about tenderness and sexuality, and echoes of it can later be heard in his novels. His stories are rife with loneliness, bad relations between parents and children, unsuccessful attempts at romance, and a kind of chilliness of the heart that prevents the protagonist from feeling emotion.125 In addition, the Vonneguts twin belief systems going back several generationsunitarianism and freethinkinggave no guidance about sex and love.
His father tried to provide a passion that would unite them as men. He was an expert collector of guns, all kinds, but especially antique pistols and revolvers.126 The rarest he owned was a one-hundred-year-old single-shot Belgian target pistol with blued barrel and carved stock inlaid with gold. It might have been used in a duel, when men would die rather than accept dishonor. He wanted his son to appreciate the whorls on a particular guns etched barrel, the teardrop loop of its gold trigger guard, its dark walnut grip, fashioned when Napoleon was emperor.
The rites of initiation succeeded. Kurt Jr.s cousin Walt paid him a visit and was hugely impressed by what he saw in Kurt Jr.s bedroom. Saw Ks two automatic pistols, he noted in his diary. He has 11 rifles & shotguns not including the one I borrowed, and 4 pistols. Of course, most of the guns really belong to Uncle Kurt, I believe, but K has them in his room.127
It was a kind of armory, a masculine citadel.
DURING THE summer between his sophomore and junior years, Kurt worked at Vonnegut Hardware again, this time on the sales floor, discovering that the customers stole regularly, and that working where there were no windows was not for him.128 After ringing up a sale, he always added a complimentary gift to the customers purchase: a twelve-inch wooden ruler that doubled as an Indiana Legal Length Fish Gauge. Printed at the seven-inch mark was the prescient word Trout.129 But he dreaded the fate of many male Vonneguts, which was to end up with a career in the venerable hardware store or, as he characterized it to a friend, working in the nuts and bolts department.130
Finally, the big house on North Illinois Street sold in 1939, and his parents used the money to buy property in the Williams Creek subdivision of Indianapolis. In the meantime, until they could build a smaller house, they lived catch-as-catch-can, badgered by money problems and general unhappiness.
Edith took a fiction-writing course at the YWCA in the hope of selling short stories to womens magazines. She imagined that once her stories caught on, the family could vacation on Cape Cod again while she continued to write. Hearing her talk about editors, guidelines, and submissions, her son became intrigued with the idea of being an author. It was my mother more than my father who stirred my interest in literature, except that whatever talent I have was hishis letters were exquisite.131 But her stories were hopelessly out of date in tone and subject matter. They were country clubby and literary-sounding when readers wanted a bit of raciness and a few burning kisses to escape the dreariness of the Depression. She never sold anything. I was aware of that.132
Meanwhile, his father, who had once spun around an eleven-thousand-ton building without anyone inside feeling a shudder, fussed over an invention that he hoped would bring in a dependable stream of money. It was a device for cleaning out pipe stems, a kind of piston in the stem. But it would require changing the design on every pipe made, and it would work only on straight stems. He took out a patent on it.133 Predictably, no one expressed any interest.
JUNIOR YEAR in high school, Kurt Jr. took his first drink, a surreptitious one. One autumn afternoon, upon arriving home after school, [I] discovered mother decorating the house, having a jug of sherry. There was a very pretty light coming through it. I took a slug from that and, man, it really felt nice.134 Alcohol and cigarettes, two means of self-medicating his high and low mood swings, became addictions he would never be able to shake.
For another reason, a more salutary one, his junior year was important: Vonnegut began appearing in print regularly in the Shortridge High School Echo. About sixty students produced the Echo, although publishing it with an ever-rotating staffa different one for each day of the weekwas a scramble.135 Every weekday morning, a new edition of the Echo appeared, providing the student body and faculty with the latest news about school activities, events, and sports.
The first article carrying Vonneguts byline, This Business of Whistle Purchasing, a lighthearted criticism of a school fund-raiser, was submitted at the urging of his sophomore English teacher. Then beginning in his junior year, he contributed a piece to the newspaper practically every week, sometimes as many as fournews, commentary, sportswhich he sometimes signed, in place of his real name, Ferdinand or Koort or, his kookiest moniker, Koort Snarfield Vawnyagoot II. Silly pen names aside, his work for the Echo launched him as a writer. His happiness from being in print stemmed from the realization that he had a gift when it came to putting words on paper. Each person has something he can do easily and cant imagine why everybody else is having so much trouble doing it. In my case it was writing.136 Looking back, he attributed basic elements of his fictional style to having an instant audience in high school: I was writing for my peers and not for teachers, it was very important to me that they understand what I was saying. Also the journalistic style of short, punchy sentences, active verbs, and strong structure appealed to him. Because I believed in the merits of this type of prose, I was quite teachable and so I worked hard to achieve as pure a style as I could.137
An added benefit was that his articles were continual advertisements for himself on the social scene. Suddenly, the Echos gossip columnists began taking note of this new big-man-on-campus. Tip to Kurt Vonnegut. Please look at the person to whom you are going to speak. It is rather disturbing to have you look the other way and then say hello. Shortridge girls.138 Another gossip columnist touted him as the best candidate to lead the junior talent show. Plug for Kurt Vonnegut, who is planning on running for Junior Vaudeville chairman. Dont you think he would be a keen one, though? For if he applies a touch of that subtle Vonnegut wit to the Vaudeville, it should be really whizz-bang!139 He won the election.
He became known as something of a character. Humor and rudimentary charm were becoming his trademarks. At a dancing class, run by a Mrs. Gates, where Indianapoliss young ladies and gentlemen learned the waltz and foxtrot, he arrived one evening wearing the required blue serge suit and white gloves. As he glided over the floor, he quietly let a trail of marbles dribble through a hole in his trouser pocket, hoping couples would take indecorous pratfalls. Everybody (except Mrs. Gates) loved him, said his partner that night.140
By midyear he was a member of the Student Council, the Junior Social Committee, the Press Club, the Drama League, the Fiction Club, and the Junior Pin and Ring Committee. The Echo noted his intriguing personality, said he was an upperclassman who is worshipped by freshmen femmes; thought of as wonderful by Sally Evans, and intriguing by Baba KigerKurt Vonnegut remains oblivious to all. Universal opinion, Kurtwe need more people like you.141
He was Kurt Vonnegut Jr.writer, wit, and mischief maker.
HIS SENIOR year, he turned his attention to life after high school, but in his mind, at least, the way seemed clear. His work on the school paper had led him to read H. L. Mencken, the acerbic critic of politics and American life: I knew something about his lifethat he had had a very exciting time as a newspaper reporterand I guess later as a city editor. I read a couple of his autobiographical works, and as a result of this I wanted to be a newspaperman.142 On his own, he found his way to the editorial offices of the Indianapolis Star and, in the course of asking some advice about how to get into journalism, was offered a job by the managing editor.
For a young man, it was a remarkable coup. And it would have been the first step toward independence, had Bernard not stepped in. His brother was by then in graduate school in physics at MIT. While Kurt Sr.s star had sunk lower and lower as an architect and amateur artist until he was completely demoralized, Bernard had proved by example that he had been right all along: the arts were ornamental.143 In the new world, the laurels would go to scientists, technicians, the practitioners of the practical artsnot daubers in art, like Alice, who had failed to complete art school, or, by extension, scribblers like the kind Kurt Jr. wanted to be. No one in the family had made good by chasing after the Muses. Humankind would be grateful to those who understood the natural and physical sciences.
Kurt Sr. could no longer speak with authority about what was worth spending your life on. His confidence had fled. The sum of his years spent drawing designs that he hoped would leave his imprint on Indianapolis, and his participation in societies devoted to discussing art, had come to nothing. His only advice to his namesake was Be anything but an architect.144
It was decided that Kurt Jr. would attend Cornell, which his great-uncle Franklin Vonnegut, as well as a cousin, Richard C. Vonnegut, had attended. His major would be chemistry or perhaps biochemistry. But there must have been bad blood about it. When Kurt graduated from Shortridge High School in June 1940, neither of his parents was in the audience. He never forgave them for the snub. Really low class. Later, they apologized.145
The summer between high school and college, Kurt and Bernard went hiking in New Hampshires White Mountains. But in the back of his mind, Kurt was worried about his scores on the college boards and suggested they call Cornell to just make sure everythings okay. To his humiliation, his admission as a chemistry major to Cornell was uncertain because, although he had received an A+ in high school physics, his math scores on the boards were low. Bernard drove him to Harvard, where he was accepted provisionally.
In the meantime, their father persuaded the principal of Shortridge to contact the admissions office at Cornell and vouch for his son. And so yeah, I got admitted to Harvard, on a trial basis, or whatever. And to MIT, the same thing, but Bernie said I better go to Cornell, which was his idea of me, sort of third rate.146
Bernard had vetoed his dreams, which were to become a writer, and throughout his life he put the blame on his brother for interfering. Bernie really fucked up my life. If it hadnt have been for him, all the shit that was about to happen to me wouldnt have happened. I enrolled in the sciences at Cornell only as a sop to him, no other reason. Later, I was in a real mess.147
Copyright 2011 by Charles J. Shields
Table of Contents
Prologue: Out of Print and Scared to Death 6
1 You Were an Accident, 1922-1940 9
2 One of the Biggest Fools on the Hill, 1940-1943 36
3 To War in the Bridal Suite, 1943-1945 50
4 Folk Society and the House of Magic, 1945-1947 79
5 Stop Being Such a Hardheaded Realist, 1948-1951 104
6 The Dead Engineer, 1951-1958 119
7 Cooped Up with All These Kids, 1958-1965 149
8 A Community of Writers, 1965-1967 190
9 The Big Ka-BOOM, 1967-1969 225
10 Goodbye and Goodbye and Goodbye, 1969-1971 257
11 Cultural Bureaucrat, 1971-1974 286
12 Ripped Off, 1975-1979 320
13 Looking for Mr. Vonnegut, 1980-1984 344
14 Dear Celebrity, 1984-1991 364
15 Waiting to Die, 1992-2007 387
Appendix: Vonnegut-Lieber Family History 417
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
upon reading that mr vonnegut, while in a comatose state, forms a victory "V" and smokes the imaginary Pall Mall, i have decided to quit. but not smoking, never that. w/ in mr shields' anyway strange book, this deathbed scene is said to come from mark vonnegut's report. well, i myself look forward to learning further from mark of the last of vonnegut. perhaps mark, in suggesting a cheerful end to kurt vonnegut jr, will be also willing to "throw the brooklyn bridge in free"? but mr shields is a very fine writer of prose. i will give the "a life" that much.
This isn't even my review, but I have to say, I'm having to fight to be the first one in the house to read this book. My husband and stepson both immediately grabbed it and said, "I want to read this one the SECOND you're through!"Will add more when I've finished the book.______________________I've finished the book now. I thought it was interesting and well written, but I can't decide whether reading about my favorite authors is a good thing or not. In the case of Truman Capote, it was, mainly because I was fascinated by him and knew already that his life was a complete train wreck. But in Vonnegut's case, maybe it wasn't, because the things I liked the most about his writing were his humanist leanings and his admonition to "be kind", and yet he wasn't all that kind even to his own family and friends. So, I'm having a hard time pinning down my feelings about reading this book.If you like biographies, Shields does them well. This book is obviously thoroughly researched, logically put together, and an interesting read. But if you prefer continuing to hold your heroes on a pedestal, maybe it's best you skip reading about the intimate details of their lives.I still love Vonnegut's books. And I think maybe I can appreciate them even more since it seems he aspired to the truths he wrote about, but wasn't always able to achieve them in his own life either.I just wish he'd been happier.
As an avid fan of his work, I was extremely excited to read this. I always like to know the 'method behind the madness' as it were, and this book showed a very thorough and detailed look into the mind of one of my favorite authors. It read like a novel, with the hints and nuances of real life shining through in the stories of his home life. Well done.
In my late teens and early 20s, I devoured everything Kurt Vonnegut had written, even searching through the old magazine stacks at my local library to dig up stories in publications such as The Saturday Evening Post that had never been reprinted. My father, who frequently picked up and read books after I did, also read Vonnegut¿s works. After a few books, he remarked something to the effect of, ¿At first I really liked his books, but now I think is sort of a fake.¿ I never really delved into the full meaning of that statement--perhaps I didn¿t need to. It was already apparent that some of Vonnegut¿s works had a deeper meaning to me, such as Slaughterhouse Five and Mother Night, while others were just amusing (Cat¿s Cradle) or very funny (God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Breakfast of Champions.) I was happy, then, as a LibraryThing Early Reviewer to have the opportunity to receive and review And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Shields as a way of revisiting, and perhaps reevaluating, my previous obsession with Vonnegut¿s books.The Vonnegut that emerges from this exhaustively researched biography is a contradictory character. Considered a spokesman for the left by some people, he remained at heart a Midwestern conservative in many ways, understanding the virtues of capitalism, and even investing in companies such as Dow Chemical, the maker of Agent Orange. He could support George McGovern for President while also finding time for a speaking engagement at West Point. He could marry his high school sweetheart, who was better educated than he was, then discourage her personal development for the 34 years of their marriage, while expecting her to act as the first and best reviewer of his writing, take care of his personal business, and be a mother to their own three children and the four children of his sister and brother-in-law who died within a few days of each other--the sister by cancer and the brother-in-law in a freakish train wreck. Meanwhile, Vonnegut carried on multiple affairs with younger women, seeming to draw strength from them for his writing, but returning time and time again to his wife and expecting her continued support for his career despite her knowledge of his affairs.This book is best in providing this sort of detailed narrative of Vonnegut¿s life, from his upbringing in a well-to-do Indianapolis family whose fortunes declined after the Great Depression; to the impact of his Mother¿s suicide; his love/hate relationship with his older brother Bernard, a successful scientist who tried to push Kurt into the same career path; his experience as a WW II prisoner of war present at (but underground and thus removed from) the firebombing of Dresden; his failed attempts at completing college, first at Cornell and later at the University of Chicago; his initially successful career in the PR Department at General Electric; his struggles to get his first short stories published; and his slow rise to stardom, which took over a dozen years after he abandoned GE to become a full time writer (with a brief sideline as a failed Saab dealer). Shields provides hundreds of footnotes to back up his story and it seems authoritative throughout.Shields also does a good job of tying the events in Vonnegut¿s life to the events in his stories. Of course, Vonnegut often injects himself into his stories, so as a reader, I knew there was a large autobiographical element, and not just in Slaughterhouse Five. I didn¿t realize, however, that at the time of Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut went back and added the personal introductions that I was so familiar with to his other novels, which reinforced their autobiographical aspect and helped to support Vonnegut¿s self-driven PR campaign for himself and his books. There are other interesting links identified between Vonnegut¿s life and his works, but this is still not a ¿literary¿ biography. It provides decent summary descriptions, which, oddly, seem to get more in-depth for Vonnegut's la
A must read for any Vonnegut fan - which I am most definitely one of. I loved reading this authorized biography about the late and great Kurt Vonnegut - my absolute favorite author of all time!! We learn about his life, his writing and his iconic status and let me just say it is one fascinating read. I devoured the book and consider it to be one of my favorite reads this year! It is filled with anything and everything you would want to know about KV. I am recommending this to anyone and everyone who loves Vonnegut's works - you will not be disappointed!!
I almost gave this four stars, but I couldn't quite do it. I'm a huge Vonnegut fan (of his books) and, prior to this, knew very little about his life, especially about his public persona. I was caught off-guard by how depressing this book ended up being. Sure, I get that he had tragedy in his life, but the man who brought me so much joy as a reader... I don't know, I guess I just wished him a little more happiness. That said, I get that not every life is a happy one and "depressing" sort of goes hand in hand with creative genius. I enjoyed the book overall because I am such fan. Not too sure if readers unfamiliar with Vonnegut (or not as in love with him as I am) will find this biography satisfying. Also, not to beat a subject while it's down, but I felt the writer, Shields, tried too hard to put absolutely everything in this book. Some editing, trimming, would have helped the pacing.
In this painstakingly researched and loving biography of Kurt Vonnegut, Charles J. Shields paints a rich and balanced portrait of a very complicated author. Shields reveals Kurt Vonnegut as a conflicted and often contradictory human being, and sadly, in the end, a lonely and unhappy old man in this fascinating and highly readable look at his life. I count Kurt Vonnegut among my favorite authors, since discovering Slaughterhouse Five in a college English course in the 1970's. Billy Pilgrim became my touchstone for understanding war-damaged friends and family, and Kurt Vonnegut became my guide to viewing humanity, progress and the insanity of war through new eyes. I had already discovered Twain and Thurber, but Vonnegut was in a class by himself. I became enamored with his world view, his cynicism and his sense of humor and read practically everything he wrote. His books made me laugh and cry and think, which is exactly what happened when I read Charles Shield's biography. I learned that Kurt Vonnegut was a very different man than his public persona, much more complex and flawed and human than I had imagined. Now that I have read this mesmerizing and educational look at Vonnegut's life and the history that shaped it, I owe it to myself start all over again, rereading his body of work through new eyes. Armed with context, I imagine the reading experience will be very different. I can't wait to find out. Listen. The best endorsement I can give Mr. Shield's work is this:And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life will reside in a place of honor, on the top shelf of my bookcase, with all my other keep forever books, right next to my Vonnegut collection. It is that good.Note: The advance copy was rife with typographical errors, which distracted from my enjoyment and my rating slightly. Hopefully they were all corrected prior to publication.
And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A LifeCharles J. ShieldsHenry Holt and Co. November 8th, 2011Trade PaperbackAdvance Reader¿s Edition494 pages¿And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life¿ by Charles J. Shields is the definitive biography of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Thoughtful and thought-provoking ¿And So It Goes¿ provides genuine insight into the life of one of the world¿s truly extraordinary writers. Whether pointing out the negatives regarding the rolls of science and technology in society or finding humor in almost everything that happened to him, Vonnegut has never failed to entertain. And in ¿And So It Goes¿ Shield gives us the complexities of Vonnegut¿s heavy thought and in the process allows us to see the human lurking beneath the mask of the writer. Vonnegut has been compared to Mark Twain many times, and the level and style of humor both men possessed would validate that comparison, but Vonnegut also had something to say about society and he did so with aplomb. Every aspect of Kurt Vonnegut¿s life is studied here. The triumphs, the struggles, the inner turmoil and human faults are all included in great detail but in such a way as to paint a very human picture of one of our finest writers. From childhood to death this is a true study of the life of Kurt Vonnegut. ¿And So It Goes¿ is recommended for biography aficionados, Vonnegut fans, and anyone interested in the writing process (Shield¿s gives Vonnegut¿s views on writing and includes sage advice to Vonnegut (which still hold true today) from high-level magazine editors of the times.) Hi Ho!4 ½ stars out of 5The AlternativeSoutheast WisconsinThose who believe in telekinetics, raise my hand.-Kurt Vonnegut
Charles Shields¿ authorized biography of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., And So It Goes, has caused some controversy lately. Vonnegut died a little less than a year after beginning to work with Shields on the biography. Jill Krementz, Vonnegut¿s widow, refused to participate even when Kurt was alive, and Mark Vonnegut, his son and co-executor, refused to let Shields quote directly from Vonnegut¿s letters after his death. Mark has even publicly denounced the biography recently. Nonetheless Shields conducted extensive interviews and combed through more than 1,500 letters for five years. And So It Goes presents Kurt Vonnegut as a human, a complicated mix of good and bad. He was a writer by trade trying to make sense of the world he lived in.I thought the biography was fairly extensive (roughly 400 pages) and paced well. Vonnegut was shaped by a series of complicated events and Shields does a good job documenting those critical events: his childhood marked by his family¿s fall from fortune during the Great Depression and as a result his mother¿s suicide; the struggle between his brother¿s excellence at science and his desire to write; his experience as a prisoner of war in Dresden, which most people know later became the critical impetus for his most beloved novel, Slaughter-House Five; excelling as a PR man for General Electric; and his sister and brother-in-law¿s tragic deaths that led Vonnegut to adopt their three children, which placed six children total under his wife at the time, Jane, and his care.Shields does an especially good job capturing Vonnegut¿s struggles as a new writer with a family of six children. Vonnegut was diligent in his writing regime, waking every morning and hunching over his typewriter for hours. It was the era of magazines, and Vonnegut paid his dues selling stories. Vonnegut¿s novels didn¿t come easily, but he followed his morning writing ritual for much of his life. Shields gives critical analyses of Vonnegut¿s early novels, but his later novels don¿t receive as much attention. Vonnegut was troubled by critics for much of his career, but especially with his later work.I also found Vonnegut¿s experiences at the Iowa Writer¿s Workshop especially interesting. It was that experience that ultimately gave him the inspiration and motivation to complete Slaughterhouse-Five. I was also unaware that Vonnegut taught and befriended many great writers, like John Irving and one of my favorites, Andre Dubus. It was the first time that he felt like part of the literary community. His time at the workshop also led to an extra-marital affair that sped the end of his already stressed first marriage.Writer Naeem Murr once told me, when he was the writer-in-residence at my my college, he didn¿t think it was a good idea for artists to have children, because the art often takes everything the artist has. If you look at the lives of famous writers, you¿ll find that this is often true. Vonnegut was no exception. Though he had enduring relationships with his wives and children, those relationships were often strained due to his work and his life-long battle with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.Shields begins the book with an appropriate quote from Vonnegut¿s Wampeters, Foma & Granfallons (1974), ¿I keep losing and regaining my equilibrium, which is the basic plot of all popular fiction. And I myself am a work of fiction.¿ That quote sums up what I found most revealing about the biography. Much of Vonnegut¿s image among his loyal readers, myself included, is part of the fiction. Vonnegut was on the cutting of edge of the new metafiction technique in literature, and he became popular during the 1960s. Shields writes about the film adaptation of Mother Night: ¿in the film, Vonnegut is not there to intervene the way he could in metafiction¿there is no safe, ironic distance in the storytelling¿so that the film Mother Night unfolds pretty much as straight drama. The problem, Vonnegut later came to
When you get right down to, everyone is just like everyone else ¿ even if they happen to have written one of the most important books of our times. People act like people. They get married. The marriage works for a short time or a long time or for some time in between. The married couple leans on each other for various strengths. They have kids. The kids various succeed in becoming adults. Tragedies occur. There is success. There is failure. And, again, life goes on. And this book shows, if nothing else, that Vonnegut was just a human like the rest of us.This book is strong in that it gives you the life of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. It is weak because, in spite of his genius, he is nothing more than a human being, and most of what we see of his life is either already reflected in his books, or is the mundane life of middle-America ¿ a life lived much like many of us. (Just a little bit more fame and, eventually, more money.)What this means is that the primary interest will be for those who already are fans of Vonnegut¿s work. For those who are looking for an interesting story about a man who they know little about, it will not be particularly riveting. For the fan, the background on how the books got to be written is excellent. And Vonnegut¿s reaction to his stardom ¿ as a spokesman for a generation he was not a part of ¿ is different than one might expect. However, if you only have a passing interest in Vonnegut, you may find this to be a sad book ¿ or a book about which you are indifferent. Because, when it is all said and done, Vonnegut¿s life (outside the Dresden firebombing) was really not that exciting. It is a story of betrayals and divorces and of a man who worries that he is a one-trick-pony ¿ with nothing more to add than one great novel. And, as such, it is really a story about everyman. All leading to this appraisal of the book ¿ your interest in this book will be directly related to your interest in the subject. I found it somewhat interesting because I am a fan who has read quite a bit of Vonnegut¿s book. Your mileage may vary.
While I found the book interesting, and Shields does a nice job of presenting Vonnegut in all his conflicted complexity, I also found the book rather too dense. One wonders how much material--if any--Shields had but chose _not_ to include in the interest of creating a tighter narrative. Shields' style--which is very episodic, focusing on many, many individual events which he deems to be significant and revealing--is more suited to an autobiography, where the narrator himself can imbue the events with meaning or at least to a close personal biography, more like a personal memoir of a famous person. This is, of course, what shields had hoped to write, but he simply waited too late. Vonnegut died too early in his research. The result is a lucid but unfortunately rather distant biography that clearly differs from the style Shields prefers to work in.
Review: 50 of seventy-fiveTitle: [AND SO IT GOES: Kurt Vonnegut A Life]Author: [[CHARLES J. SHIELDS]]Rating: 4.25* of fiveThe Book Report: Shields, whose biography of Harper Lee was a New York Times bestseller, is set to do it again with this life of the ineffable Kurt Vonnegut, father to Kilgore Trout, Billy Pilgrim, and the unforgettable Montana Wildhack. If any of these names fails to ring a bell with you, please exit the room via the door marked ¿DUH¿. Anyone sixty-five or under should recognize failed SF writer Kilgore Trout as the real hero of [Breakfast of Champions] (and Vonnegut¿s ironic alter ego). Anyone of any age who fails to recognize Billy Pilgrim or Montana Wildhack as the forces in [Slaughterhouse-Five] hasn¿t read the book. Shame! Shame! Shields began this project with Vonnegut¿s blessing. While he was a very short way into the project, Vonnegut suffered the fatal accident (in exactly the way he predicted he would, more than thirty years before it happened) that silenced his curmudgeonly trumpetings from the marshes of sanity, where he spent a forty-year career attempting to bring the rest of us into awareness of the fact that we¿re heading the wrong damn way down the shaggy, overgrown path of conformity and unquestioning obedience to Authority. Vonnegut himself wasn¿t a willing follower of much of anything, be it a rule or a custom or an order. He did what was expected of him as a husband and a father, in his day and time, but the book illuminates the unspoken reluctance of his participation in any life that wasn¿t of, and in, the mind. Writing was Vonnegut¿s ruling passion. It trumped all things corporeal. It gave him, as Shields brings out without beating us over the head with the knowledge, a sense of himself as an actor in the world and not just a spectator.After Vonnegut¿s death, his widow and his oldest son pulled back from full participation in the preparation of this life. I think that was not a good decision, myownself, because a more appreciative and less tendentious biography I have yet to read. I think the author¿s intent was to write a real life of the man, not to grind an axe to a sharp edge in order to slice and dice the reputation of anyone. That¿s rare. And it¿s a delight to see it done so well.My Review: I don¿t know about you, but this Boomer cut his literary teeth on Vonnegut. No one can claim full citizenship in the USA without reading [Slaughterhouse-Five]. It¿s in the Constitution, it just has to be. The experience of the firebombing of Dresden, firsthand, from an emotional standpoint and by a man who lived through it, is something that all of us in this self-satisfied, we¿re always right, country need to experience. It¿s not an anti-war novel. It¿s not a screaming polemic. It¿s a man¿s attempt to put his life into perspective, and that life includes one experience¿the firebombing¿that renders perspective forever out of reach. And Vonnegut was always looking for perspective in his work. The author of this life seeks out the actors in his life, and then more or less gets out of the way while they fill him in on what it was like to know Kurt Vonnegut. In a strange way, I think this book would have appealed to the negative, curmudgeonly, perpetual victim that was Vonnegut, because he would have at last seen his own life in perspective.Perfect he was not. He stank as a father. He wasn¿t a good husband to his first wife, insulting her, cheating on her, demanding she be his servant girl (though it¿s never put this way in the book, it was really really clear to me that this was so); he was a crap friend to some very deserving people, eg Knox Burger, whose editorial support Vonnegut repaid by pusillanimously giving then withdrawing his very significant business dealings from Burger, who had founded a literary agency on the strength of Vonnegut¿s being his client. But his talent was in storytelling, in distilling the life he wasn¿t good at living into thought-provoki
I am borderline 3 1/2 and 4 stars on this. Shields does a thorough job writing Vonnegut's history, but using such a sizable cache of private letters as your main primary sources leads to, what feel to me, as forcing things in sometimes. There were instances that stories were referenced that had been mentioned in a letter that weren't really relevant to the topic at hand, and it seemed like he kind of jammed them in because he felt they needed to get in the book somewhere. I also think he was a bit unfair with later works such as Bluebeard, which he kind of pans a bit. Overall a nice job and required reading for the Vonnegut-o-phile.
When I agreed to read this book and write this review, the only thing I knew about Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was he had written ¿Slaughterhouse-Five¿. After reading this biography, I know feel I know everything about him. Of course that¿s not really true.Mr. Shields covers Mr. Vonnegut¿s life from beginning to end, cradle to grave, at the end is an appendix with more family history. In detailing what happens in his life, we also get an understanding of why he felt the way he did, his experience in life affecting his personality, as it does with all of us.¿I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all,¿ says his protagonist Malachi Constant in `Sirens of Titans.This was how Vonnegut felt about his life, his family and society in general, a society that he felt had rejected him. Society that didn¿t take him seriously as a writer, his life¿s work.As big as this book is, it cover¿s 85 years after all, it is not boring. Mr. Shields coverage of Mr. Vonnegut is complete but not wordy and while bringing to us all the important details does not get bogged down in them, making for a very readable biography. A biography written the way a biography should be written.
Vonnegut is one of the authors I've put aside for years because the temptation to copy his style is too great. Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat's Cradle would certainly make my Top 100 books list if I had one. There are few modern writers who have created more memorable lines, from brilliant socio-cultural observations ("History! Read it and weep!") to simple human experience ("then every cell in Billy's body shook him with ravenous gratitude and applause").While I was delighted to hear that Mr. Shields had published a biography of this very influential writer, I was initially dissuaded from pursuing interest after reading Christopher Buckley's review in the Sunday Book Review section of the New York Times, which described a "sad, and often heartbreaking biography." Fortunately, I received it as a Christmas gift and my fundamental interest in Vonnegut overcame my reluctance to take on anything gloomy.I think Janet Maslin's review reflects my reading experience more accurately than Mr. Buckley's. What Ms. Maslin and I read was a well-paced and structured narrative attempting to describe an enormously complicated and contradictory man. While there are certainly aspects of his life that would clearly qualify as tragic, Mr. Shields has compiled a compelling, cohesive and balanced narrative that weaves together tragedies and triumphs to give the reader a satisfying, complete picture of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Yes, he alienated his wife, most of his children, a good part of his family and numerous friends---but he was also capable of passionate love, strong commitment and unqualified friendship. Yes, he produced piles of forgettable stories for the mainstream magazine market and some very bad novels---but he also gave us one of the great American novels in Slaughterhouse-Five. The man was a fundamental contradiction, something that I believe made his writing that much stronger.While Mr. Shields gives detailed accounts of his relationships with his wives, children and lovers, I found the passages dealing with writing to be more dramatic and engaging. The author chronicles in varying degrees of detail the development, publication and reception of each of the novels, giving the greatest amount of attention to Slaughterhouse-Five. I found it amazing that a book that reads like it wrote itself was instead the product of years of struggle against writer's block, which disappeared only when Vonnegut returned to Dresden and failed to find what he thought he needed to write the novel. Vonnegut went there to collect details and background on what he missed by waiting out the great firestorm in a cellar (about which he felt absurd guilt). Instead, he returned to a place that bore little resemblance to what he had experienced, which forced him to realize that he had to make a significant detour from the path he believed he had to take. Much to his credit, he literally went with the moment, discovering that time itself is the overriding influence on meaning. It was almost as if something inside him reached out and grabbed him by the ears and shouted, "Listen. Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time."As a struggling writer (aren't we all?), I was encouraged by the fact that Vonnegut considered himself a failure during much of his early career, bemoaning the fact that one of his early novels "only" sold 6,000 copies, a figure that a self-published author would die for. Even to the end, he complains that he doesn't have the status of a Kerouac. These are the parts of the book that "rang true" (pun intended) for me, confirming that the author's job is to write the best book he or she can write and realize up front that the reading public may not be in sync with what you have created. Times change, tastes shift, and fame comes with its own form of baggage, as Vonnegut learned during the long, dry period following the success of Slaughterhouse-Five.The downsides of the book, as Ms. Maslin as pointed out, are that the author did not get to spend much time with
I wanted to read this book because Kurt Vonnegut is one of my all-time favorite authors. His inventive imagining and placing human feelings into inhuman scenarios reflect a chaotic modern world. He was never satisfied with telling a story straight or leaving any of his characters alone to wrestle with the fates he gave them by themselves. I think he was probably a better writer than a human. He wanted to be a better creator than his creator, but he was flawed in the same ways he felt god was flawed - absent and distant.I don't really care about the book aspect of this book. It wasn't spectacular. It must have been hard to papier mache a life out the pages of letters. Which got me wondering about the future of biographies. If Vonnegut were my age, for example, there wouldn't be much hard data on which to base such a biography. I've written a lot of letters, but, ever increasingly, with new technology, hard copy of written communication is shrinking. And what does exist isn't worth quoting. Quick indecipherable emails shed no light. I think if Vonnegut were still alive, he could write a biography based on emails. But who would he write about? Himself, obviously.I have to admit I cried when I got to the end of the book, like a light had gone out all over again, the extinguishing of a great star that had once burned in isolation but also as a part of a literary constellation.
Shields' writing reads like a Rolling Stone article in some places but never a standard, run-of-the-mill biography. Shields walks you through Vonnegut's life, providing vignettes to help the reader dissect or understand his life--it's hard to tell which. As a huge Vonneut fan, understanding of his shortcomings but appreciative of his ability to write, I was pleased with the text overall. Shields brings to life and light a side of Vonnegut many have only guessed at from Vonnegut's books and meager snippets about him found elsewhere around the world. I was pleased that Vonnegut had a biography, something to describe him in a manner in which he agreed, albeit not too far removed from his own death. Had Shields been able to spend more time with Vonnegut I think the vignettes would have been more cohesive and Shields would have been able to piece them together to provide the reader with the best honest picture of Vonnegut. As it stands, it's a worthwhile addition to a Vonnegut lover's bookshelf and should provide others interested in biographies a window into the background and life of a man who produced some of the most challenging and interesting works of the last century.
It's a hatchet job, and surprisingly boring.
I have even a fan for many years. It's interesting to learn of his life!