Kurt Vonnegut Remembered

Kurt Vonnegut Remembered

by Jim O'Loughlin (Editor)

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Overview

A collection of reminiscences that illuminate the career and private life of the iconic author of 'Slaughterhouse-Five'
 
Kurt Vonnegut (1922–2007), who began his writing career working for popular magazines, held both literary aspirations and an attraction to genre fiction. His conspicuous refusal to respect literary boundaries was part of what made him a countercultural icon in the 1960s and 1970s. Vonnegut’s personal life was marked in large part by public success and private turmoil. Two turbulent marriages, his sudden adoption of his late sister’s four children (and the equally sudden removal of one of those children), and a mid-eighties suicide attempt all signaled the extent of Vonnegut’s inner troubles. Yet, he was a generous friend to many, maintaining close correspondences throughout his life.

Kurt Vonnegut Remembered gathers reminiscences—by those who knew him intimately, and from those met him only once—that span Vonnegut’s entire life. Among the anecdotes in this collection are remembrances from his immediate family, reflections from his comrades in World War II, and tributes from writers he worked with in Iowa City and from those who knew him when he was young. Editor Jim O’Loughlin offers biographical notes on Vonnegut’s relationship with each of these figures.
 
Since Vonnegut’s death, much has been written on his life and work, but this new volume offers a more generous view of his life, particularly his last years. In O’Loughlin’s introduction to the volume, he argues that we can locate and understand Vonnegut’s best self through his public persona, and that in his performance as the kind and humane figure that many of the speakers here knew him as, Vonnegut became a better person than he ever felt himself to be.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817320119
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 03/26/2019
Series: American Writers Remembered Series
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Jim O’Loughlin is associate professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa. He is the coauthor of Daily Life in the Industrial United States, 1870–1900.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Irma Vonnegut Lindener

Irma Vonnegut Lindener (1890–1985) was Kurt Vonnegut's aunt and the younger sister of Kurt Vonnegut Sr. She had known Kurt as a small child, though she spent a notable portion of her adult life living in Germany. After the death of Edith Vonnegut, Kurt Vonnegut's mother, Irma returned to the United States for extended visits with Kurt Vonnegut Sr., with whom she had a notably close relationship (Palm 56). She wrote the following reminiscence as a contribution to Happy Birthday, Kurt Vonnegut, a limited collection honoring her nephew's sixtieth birthday.

Source: Irma Vonnegut Lindener, [Untitled], Happy Birthday, Kurt Vonnegut: A Festschrift for Kurt Vonnegut on His Sixtieth Birthday, ed. Jill Krementz, Morgan Entrekin, and Sara Reynolds (New York: Delacorte Press, 1982), 13.

I was in Germany when Kurt was born but I do remember that he was a beautiful little boy with curly hair — an exceptionally beautiful child really.

In my earlier years people always asked me if I was related to the Vonnegut Hardware Company and of course I was because it was started by my grandfather, Clemens Vonnegut, who was Kurt's great-grandfather. Now days most people just ask me, "Are you related to the author?" and I'm always proud when I can say that he's my nephew.

Sixty seems very young to me because I'm ninety-two.

CHAPTER 2

Ben Hitz

Ben Hitz (1922–2009) was a childhood friend of Kurt Vonnegut (referred to as his "best friend" in the dedication of Galápagos), and they went to Shortridge High School together. Hitz then attended Harvard and returned to Indianapolis, working as a banker before relocating to Los Angeles. Vonnegut dedicated his 1979 novel, Jailbird, to Hitz. In this brief reminiscence, Hitz writes about attending a Depression-era birthday party for the young Kurt Vonnegut.

Source: Ben Hitz, [Untitled], Happy Birthday, Kurt Vonnegut: A Festschrift for Kurt Vonnegut on His Sixtieth Birthday, ed. Jill Krementz, Morgan Entrekin, and Sara Reynolds (New York: Delacorte Press, 1982), 17.

I understand Kurt is going to have a birthday party. I certainly hope I can come. It's been fifty years since the last one I went to. Kurt and I were both born in Indianapolis in the fall of 1922. We grew up together as friends, and mostly went to the same schools. Kurt has written about the beautiful house that his architect father built on Illinois Street, the one that later had to be sold. The Depression was a hard time for architects. Anyway, that's where the birthday party was. There were only a few select guests as I recall, maybe five or six boys. No girls. Paper hats. Ice cream. As always, the ritual high point was when the birthday cake was brought in, ablaze with candles, by Kurt's mother. We all fell silent, anticipating that someone else would start the traditional song. But it was Kurt who started to sing:

"For I'm a jolly good fellow," he sang. "For I'm a jolly good fellow ..."

He sure is.

CHAPTER 3

Majie Alford Failey

Majie Alford Failey (1922–) was a childhood friend of Kurt Vonnegut, and she remained in contact with him throughout his life. They regularly wrote letters to each other, and Vonnegut would visit her when he returned to Indianapolis. Failey worked for many years as the society editor for the Indianapolis News. She also wrote about Vonnegut in an earlier book, Forgive Us Our Press Passes: A Society Editor's Prayer (1992).

Source: Majie Alford Failey, We Never Danced Cheek to Cheek: The Young Kurt Vonnegut in Indianapolis and Beyond (Carmel: Hawthorne Publishing, 2010), 4, 43–44, 47–48.

The first time I met Kurt we were ten years old. I was visiting my friend Mary Glossbrenner, on her farm outside Indianapolis. (I'm called Majie, instead of Mary Jane, my real name, because Mary gave me that nickname. It's been my chosen name ever since.) All of Mary's friends loved to go to the farm, especially because her family wouldn't let her come often into "Indianoplace" (the Big City). This idyllic retreat was called Rainbow Farm because Mary's father, Captain Daniel Glossbrenner, had been in the army's Rainbow Division in World War I. We rode horses, jumped on haystacks, and played in the barns. We were terrified of Captain Glossbrenner because he ran that place like an army general. We were also frightened by the giant stallion, stabled in the barn. We would watch as the farmhand made the stallion rear up, seemingly almost touching the rafters of the barn.

Kurt was visiting, too, because he was Mary's cousin. In truth, Kurt was mad about his cousin Mary and would do any chore around that farm, no matter how down to earth and smelly, just to be near her. Mary was sweet, blond, and blue-eyed, with a complexion like an Indiana peach. A young boy we got to know at the time also was Victor Jose, like Kurt from one of the original German families in our city. He rode his bike ten miles from the near east side of the city, Irvington, to be with Mary at the farm near Oaklandon. And though I didn't know it, of course, in those days at the farm, my second husband, Skip Failey, had known Kurt since the day they met in kindergarten, at age five. Socially the Vonnegut parents and the Failey parents were always good friends, but my large knowledge of Kurt's life through Skip Failey was all in the future. That, and many other things, would bind me to Kurt for life.

[...]

Being on the spot and living this life I can tell you that in high school Kurt was in his own kind of heaven, living, learning, and feeling secure. He was kind to everybody, and was just quirky enough to be enticing. And he was handsome. From my short vantage point of barely five feet of girlish height, I would look up at him when we talked, tall and lanky guy with curly hair that he was, and I would marvel that he seemed to have three tiers of eyelashes. Girls would kill for those eyelashes. Kurt was smart and he was funny. He loved to make all of us laugh.

[...]

He was a finalist in the Uglyman contest in his senior year, which was for the most popular and all-around best guy, while the belle of the social ball was Bluebelle. Trust me, Kurt was not ugly. Girls wanted to go on a date with him. He certainly appreciated the girls and was not shy about asking for dates. Even in his later years he could always remember who was gorgeous, who had blue eyes and who had brown eyes, which girl he took to the senior prom. He and I did not date; we were friends. When we stood side by side, Majie at five feet, Kurt at six foot three, we were Mutt and Jeff. That is why he wrote to me on a postcard in later years, "With all my heart: though we never danced cheek to cheek." I could not have reached his cheek, more like his vest buttons.

Was that the reason we didn't date? No, it was that he never asked me.

As for Kurt's zany sense of humor, he was indeed to us the prince of laughs. His sense of humor was, above all, the way most of his classmates remembered him. Kurt Vonnegut spoofed life while he was still trying to understand it. Humor for him was both a mask and a way to focus on complications in the adult world. And he loved to put jokes into action. Kurt and a couple of his buddies pulled one of the best capers I ever heard of from our high school days.

We Hoosiers are known for our frenzy over the basketball season, and that begins seriously in high school. In 1939 an important game was being held on the south side of town, and we all lived on the north side. Everyone was told to leave early for the game because parking would be tight. So a few fellows (Kurt and his buddies) stopped at Flanner and Buchanan Mortuary and relieved them of some of the purple flags that go on cars signifying a funeral procession. That particular line of "funeral" cars had unsuspecting cops waving them through traffic lights and around congestion, and Kurt and his pals got across town in plenty of time to get good parking places. Did they get in trouble for that? No. One of the fathers even proudly relayed the story at lunch at the University Club.

CHAPTER 4

Bernard V. O'Hare Jr.

Bernard V. O'Hare Jr. (1923–1990) served with Kurt Vonnegut in the 106th Infantry Division during World War II. Both men fought in the Battle of the Bulge and were held as prisoners of war during the Allied bombing of Dresden in 1945. After the war, O'Hare went on to become a lawyer and to serve as a district attorney in Pennsylvania. Vonnegut used O'Hare's name for a character in Mother Night, and a visit to the O'Hare household is recounted in the first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five. In 1968 Vonnegut and O'Hare revisited Dresden together.

Source: Bernard V. O'Hare Jr. "Pvt. Vonnegut," Happy Birthday, Kurt Vonnegut: A Festschrift for Kurt Vonnegut on His Sixtieth Birthday, ed. Jill Krementz, Morgan Entrekin, and Sara Reynolds (New York: Delacorte Press, 1982), 28–29.

At the end of a war, soldiers who have become war buddies lie to one another and say they will keep in touch. Kurt and I, however, did not lie, and we have managed to be completely unsuccessful in avoiding one another since then.

This is somehow true although before the war we had nothing in common in our backgrounds except that we were about the same age and smoked too much. What we have in common now derives unhappily from the war and happily from our relationship as old and close friends.

I first met Kurt when assigned by the Army to participate in a specialized training program which brought us together at Alabama Polytechnic Institute in Auburn, Alabama [now Auburn University]. The Army Specialized Training Program was shelter for the Preppies of World War II. But it terminated prematurely, and we were transferred to the infantry. And because neither of us understood maps nor had any sense of direction, we were put to work as reconnaissance scouts. This is explanation enough as to the circumstances of our capture.

Our captors told us that "for you the war is over" and sent us to Dresden.

We lived in a slaughterhouse. In the fire-bombing of that City by persons we thought were friends it proved to be the best house in town.

We went back to Dresden after the war. I don't believe that either of us really expected to find it there or to discover that it existed in the first place. But, and in spite of our training as reconnaissance scouts, find it we did, albeit in a somewhat different form from the Jewel City of our memory. It was uncomfortable being there the first time and it was uncomfortable being there the second time.

Except in generalities, we never presently talk about Dresden or the war. This probably is because when together we laugh too much.

We laughed excessively on our return to Dresden, hysterical laughter, I believe.

Both of us agreed that we could still smell the smoke and some other things.

We didn't spend much time there.

Russia was also part of our itinerary. We didn't spend much time there either.

In some reviews Kurt has been characterized as a black humorist. Those reviewers wouldn't know black humor from Good Friday. They don't know that what they read is only his reaction to the sight of the world gone mad and rushing headlong toward Dresden to the hundredth power.

And they miss his message, in which he pleads that world governments found their rule on something more akin to the Sermon on the Mount than the preachings of those who lead the world to Armageddon.

There is certainly nothing wrong with a man like that. And if such thinking constitutes black humor, it's too bad there is not an epidemic of it.

I am glad Kurt and I did not lie.

And I would go back to Dresden with him again.

Happy Birthday, Kurt.

CHAPTER 5

Gifford Doxsee, Dick Erbes, Duane Fox, Floyd Harding, Tom Jones, Clifford Stumpf, Thomas C. Ballowe, Gordon Zicker

Following his capture during the Battle of the Bulge, Kurt Vonnegut and other POWs, including members of the 422nd and 423rd Infantry, were sent to Dresden, where they were imprisoned in a modified slaughterhouse that was later to serve as the setting for Vonnegut's best-known novel. Shadows of "Slaughterhouse-Five" collects reminiscences of this period from Vonnegut's fellow soldiers, and in the following excerpts they relate their memories of Vonnegut's involvement, including a confrontation with a German guard, as well as their own responses to the novel and film versions of Slaughterhouse-Five. Following the war, Gifford Doxsee (1924–2017) became a history professor at Ohio University. Duane Fox (1918–1978) was a vice president of the International Association of Heat & Frost Insulators & Asbestos Workers in Omaha. Clifford Stumpf (1919–2002) was a life member of the American Ex-Prisoners of War. Gordon Zicker (1923–2002) worked in the same bank for forty-six and a half years before retiring as a vice president in 1986. Additional reminiscences are from Dick Erbes (1924–1999) and Thomas C. Ballowe (1925–2005).

Source: Ervin E. Szpek Jr. and Frank J. Idzikowski, eds.,Shadows of "Slaughterhouse Five": Reflections and Recollections of the American Ex-POWs of Schlachthof Fünf, Dresden, Germany (New York: iUniverse, 2008), 2008. 228–236, 517, 538, 547, 553, 600.

Gifford Doxsee, HQ 3rd Battalion, Infantry

On our arrival in Dresden, an English-speaking German captain addressed us and explained that henceforth our guards were unlikely to know any English. Good daily relations with our guards necessitated an interpreter with enough knowledge of both languages to maintain lines of communication. The captain asked for volunteers from among us, who would admit to knowing enough German to serve as interpreters. Four of our group volunteered. Each was interviewed by the Captain individually, and Kurt Vonnegut [Vonnegut knew very little German and felt he was selected as M.O.C. due to his last name] was selected and served for most of the month prior to the February 13–14 bombing.

One day as Vonnegut remained in the barracks with a detail of five prisoners to scrub down the refectory tables and chairs and our living quarters, one of the German guards began to press on a prisoner to work harder. The soldier said he was sick, that he could not work any harder. The guard continued to press for more work, finally striking the prisoner. Vonnegut lost his patience at this treatment and under his breath uttered that the guard was a swine. The guard overhead the whispered curse, became furious, and stomped off to report to his sergeant that the translator had insulted the honor of Germany by calling him a dirty pig. Vonnegut was thereupon summoned, given a summary court-martial, found guilty, and demoted to the ranks of the rest of us. That evening, another prisoner was selected as Vonnegut's successor as interpreter. This all occurred within a few days of the firebombing. Henceforth, Kurt had to go out to work daily like the rest of us.

After the destruction of the city when we began the daily clean-up, the only youthful guard assigned to us, a nasty sixteen-year-old Hitler Jugend who had been brainwashed in the Nazi Youth corps, took it upon himself to "teach" Vonnegut what it meant to have insulted a German, and what genuine, sustained, hard, physical labor really entailed. Each day, for weeks, as we reached our place of work and the other ten or twelve guards scattered out among the 150 of us prisoners, the obnoxious kid whom we had nicknamed "Junior" would affix his unsheathed bayonet to his rifle and then follow Kurt Vonnegut around, poke him in the rear with the steel tip of his bayonet and at the same time jestfully utter such phrases as "Vonnegut! You are lazy. You Americans are all lazy. You do not know the meaning of work. We Germans are strong. We know how to work. I will teach you how. Get to work!" And along with the taunts would come periodic jabs with the bayonet point. Kurt knew as well as I and the rest of us that Junior was baiting him, daring him to lose control just once, for only a split second. Had Kurt even once during those long weeks of torment so much as uttered a whisper of protest [or] even suggested raising his arm in a gesture of defiance or retaliation, Junior would have gained his end. He could have reported Kurt as threatening him, or attacking him or the honor of Germany. Undoubtedly, there would have been another trial, and Kurt Vonnegut might well have found himself sentenced to execution, just as his Italian-American colleague was shortly thereafter.

(Continues…)


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments

Chronology

Introduction

Part 1. Growing Up: 1922–1943

1. Irma Vonnegut Lindener

2. Ben Hitz

3. Majie Alford Failey

Part 2. From War to the Homefront: 1944–1964

4. Bernard V. O’Hare Jr.

5. Gifford Doxsee, Dick Erbes, Duane Fox, Floyd Harding, Tom Jones, Clifford Stumpf, Thomas C. Ballowe, Gordon Zicker

6. Jane Vonnegut Yarmolinsky

7. Mark Vonnegut

8. Nanette Vonnegut

Part 3. The Iowa Years: 1965–1967

9. Loree Rackstraw

10. Gail Godwin

11. Suzanne McConnell

12. Maria Pilar Donoso

13. Andre Dubus

14. John Irving

Part 4. Literary Celebrity: 1968–1979

15. Peter Fonda

16. Jill Krementz

17. Vance Bourjaily

18. Geraldo Rivera

19. Jerome Klinkowitz

20. Dan Wakefield

21. Joe David Bellamy

22. Peter J. Reed

23. Andrew Leonard

24. David R. Slavitt

25. Loree Rackstraw

26. Morris Lurie

27. Kaylie Jones

28. Peter Gzowski

Part 5. Reluctant Guru: 1980–1997

29. Raymond Mungo

30. Martin Amis

31. Greg Herriges

32. Joseph Timmons

33. Norman Mailer

34. George Plimpton

35. John Irving

36. Carole Mallory

37. Jerome Klinkowitz

38. Dan Rattiner

39. Robert B. Weide

Part 6. “I Never Expected to Live This Long”: 1998–2007

40. John Krull

41. Ezra Prior

42. John Casey

43. Alan Bisbort

44. Todd Davis

45. Michael Moore

46. Charles J. Shields

47. Donald Farber

48. Jerome Klinkowitz

49. John Updike

List of Reminiscences

Additional Reminiscences

Fictional Accounts of Vonnegut

Notes

Works Cited

Index

Customer Reviews