Few American writers were as popular in the late 1960s and ’70s as Kurt Vonnegut, the ironist and satirist who captured the zeitgeist in such brilliantly authority-defying novels as Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five.
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And few writers, it would appear, were as full of despair and self-doubt, born of the certainty, on Vonnegut’s part, that he was forever to be an outsider. Though a teacher at one of America’s foremost writing programs, the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, and a bestselling writer for much of his career, Vonnegut never seemed to shake those misgivings.
Beloved but reserved, stylistically simple but psychologically complex, Vonnegut provides endless enigmas for the critic and student. We caught up with Vonnegut biographer Charles J. Shields, author of And So It Goes, to talk about what he learned about his subject while writing his book.
You mention early on that you spent several years writing this biography. Unusually, it started, it seems, as an authorized project, but then encountered resistance once Kurt Vonnegut died. Why do you suppose that happened?
Kurt’s permission wasn’t enough for his estate or his widow. I received a note from him in October 2006 shortly after we began working together. It began, “Please proceed with my biography. What a pal!”
The first sign of trouble came the following month when he called and said his wife was giving him “holy hell about this book.” I offered to send him a letter promising him the right to review the manuscript and “remove anything that is untrue or hurtful to a family member.” He said, “That would be so nice.” Then shortly after his death in April 2007, his longtime agent and co-executor of the estate, Don Farber, remarked to my agent, “Kurt could do what he wanted while he was alive.”
In June, I went to New York to meet with Farber, and he cancelled the appointment. A few months later, the estate hired someone to write a biography of Vonnegut, but there was a falling out and it never happened. When I sought permission from the estate to quote short passages from about 13 percent of the 1,500 letters I collected, the estate refused.
Apart from that difficulty, were there any other stumbling blocks—any particularly vexing parts of the book, say, that took longer to sort out than others?
The chapters on the Battle of the Bulge, and especially on Dresden, were emotionally very hard to write. I interviewed men who fought at the Bulge. A few, I’m convinced, are still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. One stuttered as he tried to talk about his experiences; another began to tell me about the fight and then said abruptly, “I just can’t go back there,” and hung up. Men who were in Dresden with Vonnegut tended to have long gaps in their memory, almost like blackouts. Writing about the pattern bombing of Dresden and its aftermath was so upsetting that I lost weight and had bad dreams.
You bring forth many incidents and anecdotes from across the course of Vonnegut’s long life. Is there any one of them, any single moment, that you would say best represents his character overall?
He caught one of his teenage daughters kissing her boyfriend in the barn on the Vonneguts’ Cape Cod property. He raged at both of them, and when she tried to apologize, he fell to his knees and imitated her pleading in a sing-song voice. She was so shocked she didn’t know what to think.
Vonnegut was caught in liminality—he was a boy-man with unresolved issues about his worth and competence. I think that’s why young people believed he was speaking to them—they saw him as their ally.
Was there anything particularly surprising—for you and/or us—that you learned about Vonnegut while researching and writing your book?
Kurt Vonnegut is often likened to Mark Twain. That was a deliberate choice on his part—Kurt dressed in white suits at the beginning of his popularity. Twain was a brand and an immediately recognizable one, which to Vonnegut, a former public relations man for General Electric, had real value for getting attention. It was surprising to me how consciously Vonnegut performed as Twain, and how ironic it was that Samuel Clemens performed as Twain, too. The similarity between the two writers is mainly how they shared a particular persona, not their writing.
Would you care to make any bets on how Vonnegut will be thought of, say, 20 years to come? Will he still be read as widely as today?
As long as there are young adults who are beginning to question authority, who realize that a lot of conventional wisdom is nonsense, who believe that they are misunderstood, Vonnegut will have readers. He addressed important questions, paradoxes and injustices. Critics who label him as a science-fiction novelist or a cult writer don’t appreciate how hard it is to propel novels with ideas, instead of relying on plot, or even character. He was a high-wire performer, and audiences will always want to watch and be thrilled.