Kurt Vonnegut’s relationship to Indianapolis had its ups and downs. This was his hometown, and hometowns, like families, can inspire ambivalence in their progeny.
Imagine what it would have been like to be Kurt Vonnegut, returning to Indianapolis in 1969 for a signing of his new book, Slaughterhouse Five, at L.S. Ayres department store. He must have felt like a conquering hero as he arrived at the store whose iconic clock was designed by his architect father. But the event was a bust. “I sold thirteen books in two hours,” he wrote his friend, Dan Wakefield, “every one of them to a relative.”
This would change. In 1991, when the driver of a horse-drawn carriage caught sight of Vonnegut walking near the Columbia Club one night, she stood up and saluted him, calling his name. Vonnegut couldn’t help but smile and shake his head. “I guess they really like me here,” he said.
Vonnegut’s love for Indianapolis was abiding. It was, he knew, the wellspring of his life and art. “To grow up in such a city as I did,” he wrote in an essay first published in NUVO, “was to find cultural institutions as ordinary as police stations or fire houses. So it was reasonable for a young person to daydream of becoming some sort of artist or intellectual, if not a policeman or fireman. So I did. So did many like me.”
Although his relationship with his hometown warmed over the years, there was little standing acknowledgement of Vonnegut’s history here during his lifetime. It took the city until 2007 to officially declare “a Year of Vonnegut” — and that turned out to be the year he died.
If you were one of the millions of Kurt Vonnegut fans the world over and you came to Indy to better understand the master’s roots, you’d be hard pressed to know where to start.
Things got better five years ago, with the creation of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. Championed by Julia Whitehead, the KVML began in a donated space on Senate Ave. From the first, the library aimed to be a living testament to Vonnegut’s contribution, and so it has sponsored awards for creative writing, developed programs for veterans, Teaching Vonnegut workshops and Banned Books Week projects, as well as a host of other events, including the annual VonnegutFest and Night of Vonnegut Gala (happening this April 30, for more information and tickets, go to www.vonnegutlibrary.org).
In January, the KVML announced its intention to acquire a building of its own at 646 Massachusetts Ave. Kurt’s son, Mark Vonnegut, helped choose this location and has pledged $100,000 to help make it happen. Scott Vonnegut, one of Kurt’s nephews, is providing architectural expertise. All of this is part of a $2.5 million capital campaign aimed at not only securing a permanent home in Indianapolis, but at helping to spread the library’s work, including a Slaughterhouse Five exhibition, through educational institutions in other cities.
Kurt Vonnegut always believed that Indianapolis made him. The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library is returning the favor: providing his hometown with a cultural destination worthy of his name.