Thursday, November 22, 2012

And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles Shields

“All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names.”---Kurt Vonnegut, introduction to his World War II masterpiece, "Slaughterhouse 5, or The Children's Crusade" (1969).  

This is the first major biography  written about the popular and insightful Midwest American author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr (1922-2007).  While "Slaughter House-5" is his most famous novel--a novel inspired by his time in as a prisoner of war of the German during the horrific Allied fire-bombing of Dresden--his best-seller was the culmination of a twenty-plus year career as a professional writer.  

Vonnegut was a product of an upper middle-class German immigrant family of "free-thinkers" in Indianapolis, Indiana.  His great-grandfather had come to America right after the failure of a revolution in Munich, and, with a friend,  had started a business selling goods to those headed west overland to the  gold fields of California. 

By the time Kurt, Jr., came into the world the Vonnegut family had   established three-story  hardware store in the middle of the Indiana metropolis and his father was busy working as an architect.  His mother enjoyed the benefits of high society, and Kurt and his older brother Bernard and kid sister Annie enjoyed long Summer trips in the vacation cabins of Michigan's Great Lakes area, where he could be part of a large extended family.  It was, he said later, the best time of his life. 

But the idyllic times did not last.  The Great Depression put an end to the commissions his father had been receiving, and the family took a downward trajectory.   His mother never adjusted to the circumstances of a smaller house, no trips to Europe and the ostracism that comes from failure and loss of snotty friends.    She carried on, writing short magazine The reduced circumstances were  a factor in the mental illness that caused her to take her own life on Mother's Day in 1943, a few months before Kurt, a university student writing for a top-ranked college paper at Cornell, was about to be called into active  duty in the Army.  

  Bernard was the early star of the family with his keen grasp of science and mathematics.  (The older Vonnegut later became a professor in meteorology, and before that worked for General Electric as  one of the first scientists involved in modern cloud-seeding to produce rain.)      whom he often despised in interviews, blaming him for trying to run his life, and their sister Anne  (the writer's earliest muse, and the one person he said he wrote to in his stories and novels. )    

Having, against dire odds and many inhuman situations, somehow survived life in a POW camp, Kurt came home to Indianapolis  and married.  He and Jane had three kids while he worked for a time as Chicago newspaper man, then got on as a public relations man for the General Electric Company at their giant and luxurious headquarters in Schenectady, New York. 

In a twisted bit of irony, to me at least, General Electric also employed Ronald Reagan in the 1950's and early 60's as a television spokesman.  Reagan toured the GE plants, but the two never met.   

The GE public relations gig was a "dream job" for someone who aspired to a middle class, comfortable existence in the 1950's.  Kurt had got it with help from his older brother Bernard.  But the younger brother secretly resented the help he got from his older sibling, and saw all too well the limits of a life dedicated to making any brand-new technology look good, no mater what it's effects on humans.  

Before he went to work every day, Kurt rose before the sun came up and wrote for a couple hours every day and often through the weekends.  He had a strong desire to be a writer  and, with his wife's full support, they moved to a small town near Cape Cod in Massachusetts.  
Vonnegut turned out four novels and a host of articles and stories for magazines in what was then the "Golden Age" of writing fiction for "The Slick" periodicals, ranging from stories for "The New Yorker" to "Good Housekeeping".  By 1960, he had four more mouths to feed: his brother-in-law died in a transit train accident and just forty-eight hours later he lost his sister  Annie to cancer.  He promised her at her death bed in the hospital he would take care of the children and his wife Jane was game for the task.   The youngest child was adopted by another family.  But for a long time Kurt was the main bread winner for a brood of kids and a wife and had to take teaching jobs here and there to supplement his income. It was a load of pressure for a man whose main goal was to be a freelance writer and one who craved solitude so he could get his writing done. Like most parents, he had his good days with the kids and other times when he rankled against having to try and carry such a financial and emotional load.         

Shields, who only met Vonnegut twice in 2006-7 and talked to him a few times on the phone before his subject's death, does rather go hard on Vonnegut at times--especially at the public and private parts of the author's life and how they 
sometimes weren't a perfect mesh. Shields writes: 

"His readers assumed the voice they trusted in the novels was rooted in a combination of wisdom and sophistication, but the truth was different.  Vonnegut was more like his readers than they could have guessed.  His themes of community and extended family for persons who are naïve or lonely had much to do with how he saw himself, and he idealized some of his boyhood.  His summers at Lake Maxinkuckee had been his communal paradise lost…"

He also makes note of the fact that Vonnegut held  stock in companies like  Dow chemical (maker of napalm for America's wars ) and also held financial interests in mining companies and commercial real estate developers. 

Those who would deride the author for being a hypocrite  have plenty of ammunition in this information--a liberal icon of the anti-establishment who fancied himself a gadfly yet wanted to make money for his family.    But  might wish to recall first the years where he needed to feed his sister's kids, and his own. 

  It's doubtful one less canister of Dow Chemical death from above would have fallen on a Vietnamese village with or without Vonnegut's investment strategy, but how many thousands of people have been awakened to the realities of war and human folly from reading Vonnegut's  novels and later essays and speeches, as well as other flaws in the Great American Dream?     The bombing of Dresden he somehow survived haunted Vonnegut,  and it was a lesson he would not be silent about.  For this, unlike Shields, I feel he deserves a degree of slack.   

His other undisputed masterpiece,  "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" (1965) is the story of a philanthropist and former Army infantry officer named Eliot Rosewater, who gives his family empire's money away to anymore who needs help.  He eschews his powerful father--a reactionary Indiana US Senator who actually despises those of his constituents who make up the working poor,  but stays in office by playing to the worst and most selfish instincts of the crowd. 

Eliot, the head of the Rosewater Foundation, is considered a "crackpot saint" by his father, and he plots to have him declared insane by a scheming lawyer for the crime of caring for people too much, for staying in the little Indiana town of his ancestors and answering the phone at the fire station he lives in (he's a volunteer there) at all hours to try and help all who are distressed in Rosewater, Indiana.  Some of the most mordant and important views  of Vonnegut's attitude to American life are in this one book, like this exchange between Senator Rosewater and his eccentric  son:

“You're the man who stands on the street corner with a roll of toilet paper, and written on each square are the words, 'I love you.' And each passer-by, no matter who, gets a square all his or her own. I don't want my square of toilet paper.'

I didn't realize it was toilet paper.”
― Kurt VonnegutGod Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

“Thus did a handful of rapacious citizens come to control all that was worth controlling in America. Thus was the savage and stupid and entirely inappropriate and unnecessary and humorless American class system created. Honest, industrious, peaceful citizens were classed as bloodsuckers, if they asked to be paid a living wage. And they saw that praise was reserved henceforth for those who devised means of getting paid enormously for committing crimes against which no laws had been passed. Thus the American dream turned belly up, turned green, bobbed to the scummy surface of cupidity unlimited, filled with gas, went bang in the noonday sun.”
― Kurt VonnegutGod Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

"You know, I think the main purpose of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps is to get poor Americans into clean, pressed, unpatched clothes, so rich Americans can stand to look at them.” --K.V.

“There's only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you've got to be kind.”--K.V.

   In the end, Eliot is defeated as so many Vonnegut heroes are, but in the larger sense he succeeds in showing how far apart the American  spirit is from the true meaning of the religion(s) many profess to believe in.  Vonnegut described himself as a "hopeful agnostic" who found solace in The Serenity Prayer used by Alcoholics Anonymous, and in the spiritual messages contained in the faith inspired poetry of William Blake. 

People who have read his work will find a lot here of interest, some of it a bit sad---the(nearly)  affair he had while teaching at th Iowa Writer's Workshop in the mid-60's, a second wife who was younger and more cosmopolitan than the loving and loyal first wife, but who treated him as a old fellow not wanted in his own home eventually, and the celebrity author who still was doing sketches and lithographs but often felt "wrote out" as a fiction writer and unappreciated at the end of his life.  But he had something of value to say, even at the last.    

     "And how should we behave during this Apocalypse? We should be unusually kind to one another, certainly. But we should also stop being so serious. Jokes help a lot. And get a dog, if you don't already have one ... I'm out of here."--Kurt Vonnegut. 

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