Vonnegut's legacy 

The fate of his childhood home

From time to time, Kurt Vonnegut liked to say he could happily have spent his life in Indianapolis. There was a touching wistfulness in his saying this, which only partly ducked the fact that had his life taken that turn he would probably never have become the Kurt Vonnegut millions of readers came to know and love.

Great writers have a way of building their own mythologies and sharing them with strangers in ways that enable the strangers to feel those mythologies as their own. It doesn’t take anyone who reads Kurt Vonnegut long to see that Indianapolis is an essential part of his mythology — the point of origin for almost everything that follows, a filter through which, for better and worse, life experiences are understood.

Vonnegut was born and grew up here; he left to go to college and then to war. Though he came back for brief visits over the years, he never really returned. He became Kurt Vonnegut instead.

And in his books and essays he wrote about, alluded to and was inspired by Indianapolis.

Last January, the city of Indianapolis officially declared 2007 “The Year of Kurt Vonnegut,” honoring the worldwide impact of its native son. Vonnegut said he was “thunderstruck” and a little embarrassed by this recognition. He looked forward to and fretted over the speech he was supposed to give at Clowes Hall in April. He said he expected that speech to be his last public address.

It was at about this time that Karl Zimmer, then the president of the Athenaeum Foundation, spoke with Vonnegut about creating a Kurt Vonnegut literary center at the Athenaeum, an Indianapolis landmark built by Vonnegut’s grandfather. Vonnegut told Zimmer he thought this a fine idea, but a day later he called back saying he didn’t think naming a literary center after a living writer was wise.

It wasn’t long after that Kurt Vonnegut died.

Since last May, I have been involved with a committee dedicated to creating a Kurt Vonnegut Center in Indianapolis. In addition to members of the Athenaeum board, representatives of the Writers’ Center of Indianapolis, the public library, Indiana Historical Society and Cultural Development Commission have participated in these conversations. It didn’t take us long to appreciate the potential such a center might hold.

Using Kurt Vonnegut’s life and works as a kind of organizing principle would allow us to not only honor Vonnegut’s literary achievements, but to explore the galaxy of issues and themes that informed him. So, in addition to a permanent exhibition about Kurt Vonnegut, a Kurt Vonnegut Center could also feature temporary shows dealing with such topics as the German-American heritage in Indianapolis, architecture, the First Amendment, Pop Art and the Free Thinker movement.

The Vonnegut Center would also provide literary programming, including readings by guest writers and workshops and classes for teens and adults.

The Athenaeum would serve as the headquarters for the Vonnegut Center and would also be the point of departure for tours of Vonnegut’s Indianapolis, including landmarks like Shortridge High School, Crown Hill Cemetery and Kurt’s boyhood home on North Illinois Street.

Here our story takes another turn. It happens that the Vonnegut boyhood home is for sale. The house was built by Vonnegut’s parents in the 1920s; he lived there until he was 7. The family was forced to sell the house when his father’s architectural practice suffered a reversal during the Depression. This house looms large in the Vonnegut mythos. It is at once a symbol of promise, domestic grace and decency — and of a fall, dissolution and family tragedy to come. The house is not exactly as it was in Vonnegut’s time, but it retains enough of its original character to easily evoke the world that shaped Vonnegut’s earliest memories.

It should be preserved as part of Indianapolis’ cultural heritage.

This has become the first task of the Kurt Vonnegut Center. We are trying to determine whether one or more donors will step forward — soon — to help acquire the house. The Kurt Vonnegut Childhood Home would host an annual Writer-in-Residence program. It would also be available to provide accommodation to other visiting writers associated with programs such as Butler University’s yearly series, as well as a variety of salon-style events and receptions.

One thing seems certain: The day after it opens its doors, a Kurt Vonnegut Center in Indianapolis will become an international destination and an invaluable addition to the city’s cultural portfolio. As Kurt’s son, Mark Vonnegut, put it last April, Indianapolis may think a Kurt Vonnegut Center ought to be in New York or Cape Cod — he thought it belonged here.

The fact is, to fully understand Kurt Vonnegut, you have to come through Indianapolis. This is our opportunity to provide Kurt with a kind of homecoming after all.

To find out more about the Kurt Vonnegut Center and the Kurt Vonnegut Childhood Home, e-mail me at dhoppe@nuvo.net. 

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David Hoppe

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