Although Kurt Vonnegut became a wildly popular, even iconic, writer during his lifetime, he was never fully embraced by literary critics or most academics, a situation that rankled him. His passing, however, has prompted writers to revisit and evaluate his life and work. Three books about Vonnegut have recently arrived, each one taking a markedly different approach.
Vonnegut’s life was an American epic. He was the youngest son of a well-to-do Indianapolis German-American family. When his father and mother married, it was considered one of the most spectacular social events in the city’s history.
But the Vonneguts took a fall during the Great Depression; Kurt’s architect father lost his practice, his mother fell into a deep depression of her own.
Shortly after Kurt graduated from Shortridge High School, the United States entered World War II. Kurt joined the army. While he was home on leave before being shipped to Europe, his mother died from an overdose of sleeping pills and alcohol. Kurt believed she committed suicide.
Kurt’s war was brief but traumatic. He was captured by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge and sent to Dresden, where he lived through the allied firebombing that killed at least 250,000 people.
After the war, he quit a PR job with General Electric to take his chances as a full-time writer, selling short stories to monthly magazines. When his sister and brother-in-law died, by chance, within days of each other, Kurt and his wife added three of his sister’s children to their own family of three kids.
Through it all, Kurt painstakingly built a literary career for himself, which suddenly hit pay dirt with the runaway success of his sixth novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, a fantasia inspired by his war experience.
After that came wealth and an extraordinary kind of fame that turned Kurt into that rarest of American birds, a literary celebrity. He was on television, appeared in movies and even made a car commercial.
An outspoken public figure, his views were sought on war, our treatment of the planet and politics.
Meanwhile, there were two troubled marriages and a suicide attempt. But at the time of his death, in 2007, after falling down the front steps of his Manhattan brownstone, Kurt was scheduled to speak in Indianapolis, where the city had dedicated an entire year in his honor.
And So It Goes
Charles J. Shields’ And So it Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life is the first attempt so far to treat Vonnegut’s life as the subject of full-blown biography. Shields, who has previously written a biography of Harper Lee, approached Vonnegut about writing his life story in 2006. Vonnegut at first demurred, but then agreed to meet with Shields, and the two men established a relationship that ended abruptly with Vonnegut’s death a few months later.
In his book, Shields never makes it clear what exactly drew him to Vonnegut as a subject, apart, that is, from Vonnegut’s obvious fame and the implicit commercial potential of such a project. In his introduction, Shields quotes from the letter in which he made his initial pitch: “Millions of readers would choose you as one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century. And I predict this: the importance of your work as a writer and social critic is about to receive renewed attention.”
Shields goes on to say that he and Vonnegut both had Midwestern roots; that his dad was also a World War II vet; and that his family had attended Quaker meetings near Swarthmore College, where Vonnegut’s first wife, Jane, went to school. But nowhere does he clearly articulate a particular or personal understanding of Vonnegut’s work. The result is that his book records the notes in Vonnegut’s life, but misses the music.
Indeed, Shields’ prose carries the whiff of a jilted fan. After his first meeting with Vonnegut, he writes: “By the time we said goodbye at his doorstep, my impression was that Kurt Vonnegut, humanist and champion of families in his novels, was a lonely, disenchanted man.”
While it’s never clear whom Shields had hoped to find, or what Vonnegut might have done to live up to his biographer’s image of a “humanist and champion of families,” it soon becomes apparent that his subject is a disappointment.
According to Shields, the Indianapolis Vonneguts were cold and neurotic; Kurt couldn’t stand his brother (in spite of a blizzard of public utterances to the contrary) and was hung up on his flighty, irresponsible sister; he drank too much and smoked even more (no secret there); was an unfaithful husband; a mean and often absent dad; double-crossed friends in business deals; and grew his hair and added a mustache in order to market himself as the next Mark Twain.
All of this is plausible and, to give Shields his due as a researcher, probably true as far as it goes. But one needn’t be a Vonnegut fan to come away with the feeling that, for all Shields’ dispiriting facts, he’s still managed to miss something essential about the man and, for that matter, his family.
When it comes to what Vonnegut was really about — his writing — Shields can do little besides offer plot synopses and quote mainstream critics, most of whom were ill-disposed toward Vonnegut. Thus Shields quotes an unnamed critic who called Vonnegut’s novel Slapstick “flashy, clever, empty” and Vonnegut “an ideal writer for the semi-literate young,” but manages somehow to ignore the fact that no less a writer than John Updike defended the book and Vonnegut’s appeal, “…based as I believe it is, on the generosity of his imagination and the honesty of his pain.” These are among the qualities that continue to draw readers to Vonnegut’s works.
Unstuck In Time
To learn more about how Vonnegut the writer managed to turn the stuff of his admittedly less than perfect life into enduring art you can to turn to Gregory D. Sumner’s Unstuck In Time: A Journey Through Kurt Vonnegut’s Life and Novels.
Sumner is chair of history at Detroit University Mercy and has written previously about the critic Dwight MacDonald. Like Shields, Sumner approached Vonnegut in order to write about him, but Vonnegut (gently) turned Sumner away because, he said, “In the world of the senses, absolutely nothing happened. My life has been pretty much like that.”
So Sumner’s tack is “to tell Kurt Vonnegut’s story by walking across the foundation stones of his legacy, his fourteen novels.” In the process, we learn about how Vonnegut translated his various life experiences into characters and stories. Hence the idea of being “unstuck in time,” a concept borrowed from Slaughterhouse-Five’s protagonist Billy Pilgrim, that, as Sumner says, is, “the sense of floating from one moment to another, and back again, regardless of circumstance and without much control.”
While the novels have a sequential order of their own, Sumner shows how Vonnegut used them to work through the various issues in his life, including the survivor’s guilt he felt in connection with the deaths of his mother, sister and his war experience; self-doubt and disappointment in himself; love for people; and discouragement about the things we do to ourselves and the planet.
While a reader can be forgiven for coming away from Shields’ book thinking of Vonnegut as a kind of Wizard of Oz, a wounded man behind a curtain of prose, Sumner demonstrates that Vonnegut’s work is inseparable from the life and, most important, that it has a marvelous, even courageous, integrity that bears close examination.
As a cultural historian, Sumner seems better equipped to illuminate the contexts of Vonnegut’s books. His portrait may not be as detailed as Shields’, but it feels better rounded. Although his recapitulations of the various plots (and all those characters!) can get a little tedious at times, Sumner writes clearly, economically and without pretension.
Vonnegut and Hemingway
Lawrence R. Broer takes Sumner’s approach to Vonnegut a step further with his Vonnegut and Hemingway: Writers at War. Broer, professor emeritus at the University of South Florida, has written other books about both authors. While the “war” he refers to in his title immediately conjures Hemingway and Vonnegut’s battlefield experiences, Broer is after a deeper meaning, too — the dark and buried issues that both writers spent their lives wrestling with, and the impact their respective struggles had on their creativity and the quality of their art.
Broer begins by noting that, in an essay from Fates Worse Than Death, Vonnegut identified Hemingway as his adversary: “Explaining that they were divided by booms and busts and wars radically different in mood and purpose and technology, which separated not only himself from Hemingway but the first half from the last half of the twentieth century, Vonnegut declared that, while he and Hemingway were only twenty-three years apart in age, the difference might have been a thousand years.”
That difference, writes Broer, was also defined by the two writers’ differing views of masculinity, bravery and, most important, the profound issues both men had with women and their own feminine sides.
Broer brings a highly nuanced reading, combining Jungian, Freudian and feminist strands, to both these literary lions. And though the going can get a bit eye-glazing at times, his book becomes unexpectedly exciting, thanks to Broer’s wise insistence that we read the authors not in terms of their individual books, but as bodies of work that, over time, reveal a history of personal struggle with psychic pain and death that, in the end, are powerfully redemptive.
Broer, like Sumner, also demonstrates that, contrary to prevailing opinions in the lit crit establishment, Vonnegut’s works not only stand up to close and varied readings, they reward them. The definitive biography of Kurt Vonnegut has yet to be written, but the depth and breadth of his accomplishment is finally gaining traction.
And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Shields (Henry Holt and Company, $30)
Unstuck In Time: A Journey Through Kurt Vonnegut’s Life and Novels by Gregory D. Sumner (Seven Stories Press, $24.95)
Vonnegut and Hemingway: Writers At War by Lawrence R. Broer (The University of South Carolina Press, $37.45)