In 1996, Kurt Vonnegut returned to Indianapolis to speak at a dinner intended to raise funds for the rehabilitation of the Athenaeum, a building designed by his grandfather as a German-American gathering place. The speech became an occasion for Vonnegut to reflect on his life in Indianapolis.
I bring you a piece of Indianapolis history that may astonish you: The landmark building, designed by my grandfather Bernard Vonnegut, whom I never knew, wasn’t always called the Athenaeum.
Some people, I’ve heard, splashed yellow pain on its façade when it was called something else. Maybe they didn’t like bratwurst. I don’t like it much myself.
At about the same time as the yellow paint monkey business, my father Kurt, who had been Bernard Vonnegut’s partner in architecture, received an anonymous note telling him, “Stop teaching your kids Dutch.” And he did. For that reason, Ich hat kein Dutch, or, in Yiddish, ein bissel Dutch.
When I was captured by Germans during the Second World War, they asked me, “Why are you making war against your brothers?” The question made no sense to me. It still doesn’t. Nor would it have made sense to Gen. Eisenhower if, God forbid, they had captured him.
During the Second World War, there was a saying in my family and others that the only thing wrong with Germans was that they were in Germany. I say now that everything there is to admire in German culture, the poetry, the music, the architecture, the etchings, the beers, the wines, the sentimentality about Christmas, the work ethic, came from several Germanies. Everything I loathe about it came from one.
As for the behavior of German-Americans in the two wars, I now quote from an essay by the lawyer my late Uncle John Rauch, actually the husband of a first cousin once removed.
“The two world wars in which the United States was arrayed against Germany were painful experiences for German-Americans … They hated to be obliged to fight their racial cousins, but they did so, and it is significant that of the millions of German descendents in the United States during those dreadful wars, there was not one case of treason.
“The Germans, while loving the country of their origin, did not approve of Kaiser Wilhelm II and his warlords, nor Hitler and his wretched Nazis. Their sympathies were with England, and their adoption of the culture of England determined their attitude.
“When England was in trouble in 1917 and again in 1941, the German-Americans rallied to her support against the Fatherland. This is a phenomenon little remarked upon.”
There is still a certain amount of anti-German-American feeling. I myself encounter it in critics of my works. They evidently believe it impossible, a violation of natural law, for a German-American to be really funny. I shouldn’t even try. Garrison Keillor said, “Who ever heard of a funny Lutheran?” But my ancestors, Liebers, Vonneguts, Schnulls, Baruses, were all Freethinkers, and I thank God for that.
I myself am now honorary president of the American Humanist Association, a spiritual descendent of the Freethinkers. I succeeded the bio-chemist and great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that essentially functionless capacity.
I spoke at a memorial service for Dr. Asimov. I said, “Isaac is up in heaven now.” It was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of humanists. I rolled them in the aisles. It was several minutes before order could be restored.
But about Grandfather Bernard Vonnegut: Unlike his brothers, and they were all born here, he was unhappy in the hardware business. He could draw, he could paint, he could model.
The Vonneguts had never had such a kid before, or so the story goes. I suspect that they had never had a male kid like that before. An artistic female would have been unremarkable back then, and without any opportunities to do much with her talent.
I say this because there have been so many female artists in subsequent generations: Richard Vonnegut’s twin Madie, my sister Allie, my two daughters Edie and Nanny. They all came into the world, as Bernard Vonnegut evidently did, with exquisite taste, and unbelievable coordination between their eyes and hands when it came to making beautiful things to look at.
In those days, and I contrast them very pointedly with these days, an artist of either sex had nothing to do and no place to go in Indianapolis. It was truly Indian-no-place or Nap Town.
Grandfather’s parents asked anybody who seemed to know anything about art what they should do with such a gifted son. The consensus was that he should study art in Europe.
So off he went. He had pretty nice parents, I have to say. He must have had one hell of a good time. I sure would have. He was stage-struck over there, among other things, and wanted to become a set designer, but there was no steady work for such a person. He became the next best thing. He came back to the USA and studied architecture at MIT, as would my father.
When he graduated, though, he didn’t head for Indianapolis. He wasn’t crazy. He went to New York City, where he got a job with a firm whose name I do not know, and organized a club for young architects.
But his family summoned him home, meaning here. Families used to be able to do that. It was time, they said, for him to marry and become a family man.
This he did. And he became the first licensed architect in Indiana. He designed this, among many other landmarks, and my father would do the same. The Ayres clock at the intersection of Meridian and Washington was designed by Father. The Ayres could never get him to send a bill.
Yes, and the plans for this building, and for every building in Indianapolis, regardless of who designed it, were executed brick by brick, nail by nail, by Italian-Americans, African-Americans, Scottish-Americans, Irish-Americans, Anglo-Americans, Swedish-Americans, Franco-Americans and on and on.
God bless their memory. Are their ghosts with us tonight to hear our thanks? Is Bernard Vonnegut’s ghost? I don’t know. That would be nice.
One ghost I am sure is here. I can feel it, and so can you. It is the ghost of all of Europe at its most humane and beautiful, before Europe tried to commit suicide in two world wars.
Something else I’m sure about: Any boy or girl born in this astonishing metropolis, who is artistically talented as was my grandfather Bernard, or as scientifically gifted as my brother Bernard, need not leave town to find training, encouragement and inspiration.
It was all here for me 73 years ago, and I have come home specifically to express my gratitude.
There is a snide saying to this effect: The big dreams go to New York City. The little dreams stay home. The biggest dreams in fact stay home. They build cities like this one, with its hospitals and universities and libraries and theaters and concert halls, and supremely civilized gathering places like the Athenaeum.
I say to all stay-at-homes, congratulations. Dream on, dream on.