Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 11/8/2011
Kurt Vonnegut fans recognize the flawed narrator in his masterpiece novels, Player Piano… Cat’s Cradle… God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater… Sirens of Titan... Slaughterhouse-Five.
The cusp of nihilism and hope in his life narrative is the focus of Charles J. Shields’ beautifully researched and engrossing biography, And So It Goes—Kurt Vonnegut: A Life.
Vonnegut displayed an incomprehensible disloyalty to the wives, literary agents and editors who helped him draft a literary career as the relevant author of a generation. Preferring the isolation of his study with his typewriter and Pall Malls, he also held a life-long grudge toward literary critics, who ignored him.
Vonnegut’s advice to students at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop might make sense of his life here:
Try not to create characters that are absolute—real people aren’t like that.
Born of a civic-minded German American family in 1922, his father was an architect and descendent of freethinkers from the wealthy immigrant enclave of Indianapolis.
Shields writes of the iconic author he admired: “He was Kurt Vonnegut Jr.—writer, wit, and mischief maker.”
He learned to be amusing and entertaining to usurp talented older siblings, Bernard and Alice.
At the dinner table I was the lowest ranking thing there.
Radio was a sort of training ground for Vonnegut, who developed an ear for comedic timing and delivery listening to situational comedy sketches, such as Vic and Sade.
His mother, Edith Leiber, unable to cope with the family’s financial decline during the Depression, would eventually succumb to suicide one tragic Mother’s Day. Vonnegut would also attempt suicide with pills and alcohol in 1984.
Shields writes about the connection to Vonnegut’s novels:
His stories are rife with loneliness, bad relations between parents and child, unsuccessful attempts at romance and a kind of chilliness of the heart that prevents the protagonist from feeling emotion.
Compelled to write, Vonnegut found opportunity to hone a clean journalistic style as a student columnist on the Cornell Daily Sun. He also developed a keen eye for scientific discoveries as a publicist for General Electric in the company’s dynamic and innovative years.
Inspiration for his first novel, Player Piano, about a character displaced by technology, came from a series of lectures by the anthropologist Robert Redfield. Vonnegut was intrigued by Redfield’s concept that folk society was possible anywhere members have a strong sense of belonging together.
The outlandish premise and characters of the Hugo-nominated Sirens of Titan would confound readers and critics, but also showcased Vonnegut’s optimism. Humanity is connected through a cosmic coincidence and a wrinkle in time, the chrono-synclastic infundibulum.
Drafting another promising novel, Mother Night, Vonnegut writes about Howard Campbell, a radio personality and double-agent accused of aiding the Nazis. Published in 1961 as a paperback, the novel was ignored by reviewers, but developed a strong following of younger readers.
Vonnegut wrote famously in the foreword of a later edition of the novel:
We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.
Running out of money, he acquired a teaching job at a school for behaviorally-challenged boys. Shields writes that Vonnegut was a natural at teaching—“relaxed, friendly, ready to talk to the boys about ideas, and encouraging.”
The school became inspiration for Harrison Bergeron, Vonnegut’s best-known short story published in October 1961 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
Cat’s Cradle, published as a hardback in 1963, was based on an idea from his days at General Electric: a form of water that solidified at room temperature. In the novel, a tribe of people embrace Bokononism, a religion that organizes humans into groups to carry out God’s will.
Belonging to one of these groups, a karass, gives a person a sense of purpose. A random accident releases the substance Ice-9 in a chain reaction turning all the world’s seas, rivers, and groundwater to solid.
The scanty reviews he received for Cat’s Cradle made Vonnegut “feel subhuman.”
His career gained momentum in 1965 with the novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater or Pearls Before Swine. He received good reviews from the Washington Post and the New York Times and soon after earned a faculty spot at the University of Iowa creative writing workshop.
Vonnegut gloated about being ignored by literary snobs since Player Piano:
I have been a sore-headed occupant of a file-drawer labeled ‘science fiction’ ever since and I would like out since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a tall white fixture in a comfort station.
In March 1969, Slaughterhouse-Five was published after two decades of false starts and revisions. The novel is the narrative of his experience as a World War II POW when the allies fire-bombed Dresden.
I felt after I finished Slaughterhouse-Five that I didn’t have to write at all anymore if I didn’t want to. It was the end of some sort of career.
Vonnegut had turned 50 and young people began making pilgrimages to his home in Cape Cod.
After the release of Breakfast of Champions in March 1973, Vonnegut showed he could publish anything and earn money. His novels and short stories found readers in language arts classrooms in the 1970s.
The relevance of his earlier work propped up later novels, Jailbird, Deadeye Dick, Galapagos, Hocus Pocus and Timequake.
In March 1992, he was inducted to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. According to Shields, Vonnegut’s 1963 novel, Cat’s Cradle, sold 34,000 copies in 2005, while his 1969 novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, sold nearly 66,000.
And So It Goes by Charles J. Shields is a highly worthwhile read with a gem of Vonnegut’s own writing advice:
Are you willing to pander to popular tastes to be published? That is how I supported myself more or less for about 12 years. I do not feel dishonored. I write with a big black crayon, you know, grasped in a grubby, kindergarten fist.
Category: Nonfiction, Biography