Kurt Vonnegut Remembered. Jim O’Loughlin, Editor. University of Alabama Press, 264p, Cloth $49.95
“When I myself am dead, God forbid, I hope some wag will say about me, ‘He’s up in Heaven now.’” — Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake (1997)
I grew up about sixty miles from Kurt Vonnegut, about fifty years later, in a small, sleepy Indiana town most famous for being the hometown of James Dean, a countercultural icon born for the silver screen, still a novelty in the post-war boom of an increasingly homogenous American culture. Dean was a Hoosier hero. In September 1955, he sealed the deal by ramming his Porsche—“Little Bastard”—into an oncoming Ford on a California highway. So it goes.
Vonnegut would have been approaching his thirty-third birthday at the time, still four years from the publication of his second novel The Sirens of Titan (1959). A decade past his involvement in a war that put America’s military and economic might on full display, a decade that gave us the suburbs, the “nuclear” family, keeping up with the Joneses, and so on. One that paved the way for a culture that valued capitalistic consumption as a sign of virtue, ultimately resulting in popularized teenage angst, in rebels, as the film tells us, without causes. Without that war, would we have gotten Dean?
When that generation reached its collective mid-to-late-20s, they got Vonnegut, another countercultural Hoosier hero. I was a generation late to the game, but no less enamored with the man. I got my bachelor’s degree in English taking most of my courses in Indiana State University’s Eugene V. Debs Hall. Vonnegut loved Eugene V. Debs. Debs was the Socialist Party of America’s five-time presidential candidate, another Hoosier hero. In public appearances and in private conversation, Vonnegut regularly quoted Debs’s famous line, “While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
I think Kurt liked to think of himself this way. In those elements of his public persona he left behind—his novels, stories, speeches, and public appearances—he certainly appears to be the kind of guy you’d want have an unpretentious beer or two with. A kind, wise, affable character who, sure maybe he’s smarter than you, but at least he’s not a jerk about it. One of us. Of course, this character is also a persona designed by the man himself. Still, what’s the difference? And does it matter if there is one?
Jim O’Loughlin’s Kurt Vonnegut Remembered assembles various essays, accounts, and remembrances, together depicting a magnificently complicated human. In many ways, the collection serves as a palliative counterpart to Charles Shields’s And So It Goes (2012), a controversial biography that presents Vonnegut as, in O’Loughlin’s words, “a man driven by grudges, small and large, who could be cruel toward those to whom he was closest.” In the wake of Shields’s biography, many of those who knew Kurt—personally or through his public persona—protested the overwhelmingly unflattering portrayal. Surely, enough people knew him well enough, and in enough ways, to prove that no singular account could really capture the man. And certainly not Shields’s!
So O’Loughlin makes an inspired move: he weaves together multiple perspectives of Kurt at various points in his life, reaching back as far as birthday messages delivered by his childhood friends up to more recent accounts written specifically for this volume. Taken together, what emerges is a more sufficiently complicated and well-rounded depiction than the one Shields presents. Yet it makes no denial that Vonnegut, a man who by his own admission was a dark, “monopolar depressive,” could be temperamental (see Timequake).
Walt Whitman famously wrote “I am large, I contain multitudes.” And, indeed, any sufficiently wise and experienced individual should be so. Vonnegut famously wrote, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be” (Mother Night, 1961). Perhaps much of Vonnegut’s public persona was, indeed, a performance, but, as O’Loughlin puts it, maybe “becoming a generation’s representative required him to be a better person than he actually felt himself to be.” Certainly, Kurt contained multitudes. O’Loughlin’s collection makes this much clear. And you are who you pretend to be.
Notable among the collection’s early stories are those from old “war buddies,” like Bernard V. O’Hare, Jr., the man Vonnegut visited to jog his memory as he prepared to write his “big war novel.” Kurt’s daughter Nannette was with him on one such trip. She writes, “I had never seen my father seem so comfortable, even serene, as he was in the company of this very small, kindly man, Bernard V. O’Hare, his wartime pal and fellow survivor.” O’Hare echoes this sentiment: “Except in generalities, we never presently talk about Dresden or the war,” he wrote in 1982. “This probably is because when together we laugh too much.”
The book often juxtaposes lighter anecdotes with darker ones. For instance, Vonnegut’s first wife, Jane Vonnegut Yarmolinksy, writes about adopting Kurt’s sister’s children after she, Allie, died of “cancer of the everything.” Jane recounts the crushing decision to allow a distant relative to adopt the fourth and youngest of Allie’s children, a decision that reportedly haunted her for the rest of her life. She writes about how Kurt “exploded with frustrated rage” upon learning of the arrangement. And yet, later, just as this fourth, youngest orphan was being taken away, Kurt “was already back in his study at his typewriter, almost as if this was something that was not happening. He got more and more like that as time went by. He had to. His defense against painful events was to pretend they didn’t exist.”
Sure. But he gave at least some such events great care and attention at the typewriter.
In his final novel Timequake, Kurt writes touchingly about Allie, about her death, and about her husband’s tragic and surprising death two days before hers. He writes about taking the kids.
Does it matter?
Kurt’s son Mark, named after another of America’s great satirists Mark Twain, writes of his father’s volatility, reporting that he was “a little afraid to play” chess with his father until Kurt “was about sixty, when his game and mood around chess improved quite a bit.” When a game was going rather badly for him, Kurt “could throw the board pretty far.” And Nanette writes of his distance: “My father kept standard, nine to five working hours. In those hours my father became a mumbling ghost to all of us.” And yet Mark writes, “My father was not average. He was a better writer than Hemingway or Fitzgerald.” And Nanny: “Starting at around age 10, my dad would occasionally give me something he had written to read” and during her reading, her father “would come running into the room if I laughed. He had to know exactly what it was that made me laugh.” Love is hard.
It took Kurt twenty-three years to write his famous book about the firebombing of Dresden. That’s a while, but he got there.
In 2016, I published an essay about Kurt’s various attempts to write that one. It’s called “About Edgar Derby: Trauma and Grief in the Unpublished Drafts of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.” I read a bunch of false starts and unpublished drafts alongside boxes and boxes of Vonnegut’s personal correspondences and notes from those twenty-three years, all stored at Indiana University’s Lilly Library, and I found that Kurt kept coming back to the same person: Michael Palaia, a fellow prisoner-of-war executed for the crime of plundering. Palaia stole a jar of pickled string beans from the basement of a burned home while he and other prisoners were obeying their orders to remove charred remains from the rubble after the firebombing. Everyone did it, stole food when they had the opportunity. I’ve read multiple first-hand accounts that say so!
Palaia’s most obvious fictional incarnation, Edgar Derby, is assassinated for stealing a teapot. The third sentence of Slaughterhouse-Five tells us this much. It later tells us that Vonnegut wanted to make Derby the hero of the novel. Another interesting thing about Michael Palaia: he slept horribly, often tossing and turning and talking in his sleep, and as a result was generally not very popular amongst his fellow soldiers. These characteristics were given to the novel’s protagonist Billy Pilgrim. Shields writes that Pilgrim was based on a soldier named Joe Crone, an Episcopalian minister’s son. I write that, in twenty-three years’ worth of false starts to the novel, “the fictionalized versions of Crone and Palaia were alternatingly conflated and separated, so that characteristics of each got psychically ‘stuck’ to the other.” I also write that “Derby dies so that Pilgrim doesn’t have to.” So it goes.
Vonnegut famously finished Slaughterhouse-Five during his brief stint teaching at the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where, in O’Loughlin’s words, “Vonnegut proved a popular teacher who took a genuine interest in students’ work.” Accounts from former students such as former North American Review Fiction Editor Loree Rackstraw, Gail Godwin, Maria Pilar Donoso, Andre Dubus, and his most famous student John Irving attest to this claim.
Perhaps no one captures Kurt’s paradoxical nature as well as former student Suzanne McConnell, whose collection of Vonnegut’s writing advice, Pity the Reader: On Writing with Style, will be published in November of this year. As McConnell recalls:
He himself teetered on the edge of giving up, had black holes of depression, smoked and drank too much, was contradictory, complex, moody. Yet he wrote all his life in protest against human vileness, used his considerable wit and craft to point it out, and spent his heart in a humanist appeal to the greater angels of our nature.
Moreover, as one after another of the collection’s authors note, Vonnegut took a keen and vested interest in the work of both his students and fellow writers, evincing his faith in those greater angels during his classroom workshops as well as at favorite bars and restaurants with writer friends.
Back when I was doing the archival research, I came across a letter Vonnegut wrote to Stephen Turner in 1995. “I myself suffer from Survivor’s Syndrome,” he wrote, “not because of the firebombing of Dresden, which was a great adventure for a youngster, but because of all the first-rate writers I’ve known personally, who shriveled and died for want of a living wage.” Indeed, Vonnegut impressed the importance of that living wage on his friends, students, and protégés quite regularly. After all, what good is a pot to piss in if you don’t have a window to throw it out of?
Indeed, Vonnegut impressed the importance of that living wage on his friends, students, and protégés quite regularly. After all, what good is a pot to piss in if you don’t have a window to throw it out of?
And, indeed, the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five earned Kurt a permanent place on the bookshelves of the literati and larger reading public alike. After stints as a publicist for General Electric (a job he got in 1947 because his older brother Bernie was a scientist there), as a Saab dealer (the country’s first, in 1957), and as a writing instructor (at Iowa from 1965 to ’67), Vonnegut’s famous war novel finally all but ensured a lifelong living wage. Perhaps it was his failures and struggles as a copywriter and car dealer that so endeared him to those whose writing and work are at odds with one another. “I think memories of that struggling period of his life contributed to his generosity with would-be writers,” writes Peter J. Reed in an essay written specifically for this collection. A small, token example of this: Most authors who write about meeting Kurt for dinner or a drink mention that Kurt insisted on paying.
Not long after the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five in 1969, Vonnegut left both his job at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and his first wife Jane and took up in New York City with photographer Jill Krementz, who eventually became Vonnegut’s second wife after the finalization of his and Jane’s divorce in 1979. Kurt Vonnegut Remembered presents several accounts from this decade from people who witnessed Vonnegut’s emergence as a “literary celebrity,” including Krementz (“I like being married to Kurt. It’s interesting. He’s an extremely kind man, and very supportive”); former son-in-law Geraldo Rivera (“Kurt struck me as a very unusual guy, a lot like the characters he wrote about: unhinged, awkward, out of place on this planet”); Joe David Bellamy (“He is moody, truculent one instant, laughing contagiously the next”); and a friend to Kurt and scholar of his work Jerome “Klink” Klinkowitz, who tells stories of Vonnegut’s quirky generosity (as when Vonnegut mailed Klink the contents of his wallet, minus cash).
Kurt would hate that last sentence, full of the punctuation mark he most despised. The semicolon!
But yet when I’m being especially generous, flatteringly so, with myself, I tell myself something Klink reports: “‘I trust my writing most, and others seem to trust it most,’ Kurt has said, ‘when I sound like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am.’” Norman Mailer quotes Vonnegut saying, “‘Well, I finished my novel today and it liked to killed me.’ When Kurt is feeling heartfelt, he tends to speak in an old Indiana accent.” I trust myself when I talk like a guy from Indiana, too, though I last lived there nearly two decades ago.
Indiana University’s Lilly Library has a copy of a letter Kurt wrote in March 1983 to a Professor John Latham at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. I present it here in its entirety:
Dear Professor Latham,
I have just read your sneering, impossibly conceited attack on my dear brother in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, and now understand that your smiles during our meeting in Manchester last month were as friendly as those of Count Dracula. Maybe you think you are funny, but you are as stupid as all the people who said Louis Pasteur was wrong about germs. They will have to find some real snotty English actor to play you when they make a movie about my brother’s life. England may not be much good at science any more, but she sure has the actors still. We’ll find one, by God, to nail you good.
How delightfully Midwestern—how Hoosier—of Vonnegut to write this letter, one that, while defending Bernie, only briefly addresses the central conflict, one whose insults are of the kind you can utter in polite company around children, and one that suggests that the accused will be played in a filmic adaptation of the event by a good actor. In Todd Davis’s words, “Kurt’s writing and speaking persona—one that I believe was as close to the real thing as possible—was two parts Hoosier and hospitality and one part depression-era kindness.” Hospitable and kind, even in anger with a relative stranger.
And, yet, Kurt was also a man who loved the joke “Oh my god, don’t say ‘fuck’ around the B-A-B-Y!” Klink, in his second account included in the collection, presents Vonnegut in fine form, telling this joke in “mock horror.” Kurt wrote it into Timequake, too.
The later essays in the collection wax nostalgic and mournful and are no less enjoyable than the early stuff. Andrew Leonard remembers Kurt as having “an incomparable way of mixing bleak pessimism with avuncular warmth,” the overwhelming impression left by Kurt Vonnegut Remembered. Joseph Timmons tells a sweet story of a chance encounter with Kurt on the subway and then meeting him again at a party later that night. Kurt eventually quietly slips out: “He said, ‘I always leave early and unannounced, so nobody can follow me home.’” Likewise, John Irving notes that Kurt “was notorious for sort of being the most entertaining person at a dinner party until he abruptly got up and went home.”
Some remember a man in good humor, later in life, despite the emphysema the unfiltered Pall Malls had earned him. “Kurt Vonnegut’s laugh started like a cackle, veered to a wheeze, then culminated in a series of coughs,” writes John Krull. And John Irving: “I mean, if anybody was gonna get emphysema, it would’ve been Kurt with those nonstop Pall Malls over the years.” I think everyone thought the cigarettes would get him. They got his dad. In characteristic form, Kurt himself wrote that, “starting when I was only twelve years old, I have never chain-smoked anything but unfiltered Pall Malls.” And he complained that, “for many years now, right on the package, Brown & Williamson have promised to kill me. But I am eighty-two. Thanks a lot, you dirty rats” (A Man Without A Country, 2005).
It was ultimately a failed attempt to walk the dog that got him. He fell walking down the steps of his NYC, brownstone home and landed in a coma. He died weeks later, on April 11, 2007. So it goes.
He’s up in heaven now. Huzzah! Amen!
One particularly touching eulogy, written by Todd Davis who confesses that he never met Kurt but nevertheless has “missed him like I’d miss a favorite uncle,” asks, “What is the reason for all this mourning among strangers? It’s simple, really: Kurt’s writing made people feel like they belonged to a family of sorts...” A family in which Kurt “believed we all needed to belong for good mental health and for a feeling of purpose in life.” Kurt did indeed feel that extended families are good for people, that the trappings of modern civilization have, for so many, removed us from our extended families or shrunk the size of the average one. It leaves us in a lurch: “When a couple has an argument nowadays they may think it’s about money or power or sex or how to raise the kids or whatever,” Kurt observes. “What they’re really saying to each other, though without realizing it, is this: ‘You are not enough people!’” (A Man Without a Country).
I never met Kurt Vonnegut, either, and I feel the same way Todd Davis does. I miss the man. And I feel kinship with others who love his work.
I’ve met some of the people in O’Loughlin’s collection, though. I met Suzanne McConnell, for instance, quoted above. And Nanny Vonnegut. I met both of them in Bloomington, Indiana, at the second annual Granfalloon, a celebration of Kurt’s life and work. I met Dave Eggers there, too, whose own writings about Vonnegut are conspicuously absent from the collection. At the Granfalloon, he spoke of Kurt’s humanitarian and humane views in light of Eggers’s own fatigue from white, male fear so abundantly visible in 2019. Everyone at the Granfalloon who’d also met Kurt spoke with great care and fondness for the man. All were, in their own ways, inspired by him.
Why was I at the second annual Granfalloon? Because of that essay about Michael Palaia.
Fourteen months after its publication, I was contacted by the Pentagon. By Ed Burton, an historian at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. Palaia’s family contacted him, claiming that Edgar Derby was based on Michael. I said that I believed that both Derby and Pilgrim were based on the man. His family wants to have his remains exhumed and returned to the United States for a proper burial. Burton said that my article added a “literary flair” to their case.
As a sign of appreciation, Burton sent me fifty-one pages of declassified materials, including interviews with soldiers closest to Palaia’s execution—Privates Hull, Kingston, and Topics along with Private First Class McClea. The materials mention others who witnessed the incident and helped bury Palaia, but nowhere is Vonnegut himself mentioned by name. Still, the documents illustrate that the US government has known the whereabouts of Palaia’s unmarked grave since 1946. It’s about seven miles from the infamous slaughterhouse that protected Kurt Vonnegut and Bernard V. O’Hare and Michael Palaia from the infamous firebombing. Within a couple weeks of that firebombing, Palaia was executed by a squad of four Nazi soldiers. His remains still lie in that unmarked grave. So it goes.
I guess someone got wind of the whole ordeal and thought I should be there in Bloomington at the Granfalloon, alongside Suzanne and Nanny and Dave Eggers and Marc Leeds, author of the Vonnegut Encyclopedia (1994), and Neko Case, whose connection to Kurt remains a mystery to me but who can nevertheless belt a beautiful tune. Indiana University Professor of English Ed Comentale put the thing together, and I have never attended an event that blurred the lines between an academic conference and a public, cultural event so seamlessly and beautifully.
Look: Vonnegut was cynical sometimes, but he was no cynic, not deep down and not all the time, as many of the accounts in O’Loughlin’s collection attest. After all, it is well known Kurt had an allergy to human cruelty. And, still, he enjoyed challenging Christians with the Beatitudes as much as he liked quoting the Hoosier socialist Eugene V. Debs to the midwestern conservatives he grew up amongst. Is that cruel? No way, José!
At the Granfalloon, the Lilly Library’s own Isabel Planton gave a wonderful talk about Debs’s influence on Vonnegut. It was called “A Hoosier Hero’s Hoosier Heroes.” Like James Dean and Eugene V. Debs, Kurt Vonnegut is, indeed, a Hoosier Hero. He’s certainly mine.
Five years before Kurt’s death, John Krull gave Kurt a copy of his book Emily’s Walk (2002), which he inscribed as follows: “For Kurt Vonnegut, a great man who is also a good guy—no easy thing.” No easy thing, indeed. But it’s true. The vastness and complexity of this particular truth are given corpus, a body, in Jim O’Loughlin’s revelatory collection. And if that isn’t nice, what is?
Jeremy C. Justus is an Associate Professor at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown where he teaches courses in American Literature and coordinates the university’s Multimedia and Digital Culture program. His essay “War and Empathy in Vonnegut’s ‘Fates Worse than Death’” appears in the Fall 2011 issue of the North American Review, and his essay “About Edgar Derby” (2016) appears in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction.