Friday, November 11, 2016

Birthday: "True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country."


Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1922-2007)

Hoosier-born Vonnegut was the son of an architect and a socialite Fate had it in for. His mother’s money came from the family brewery, which was closed by Prohibition. His father’s business fell off a cliff when the Great Depression came and everybody stopped building buildings for twenty years. Vonnegut later claimed to have been largely raised by the family maid.

His father became a withdrawn, moody character; his mother obsessed over the family loss of status and tried to write for the big national magazines. None wanted her stories.

Kurt went to public schools (his older siblings has been privately educated, when the money was good), and was admitted to Cornell. His inclinations were artistic but his brother, imprinted with the sear of the Depression, pressed him to read something practical. So Kurt studied biochemistry.

Between the indifferent grades he got from his indifferent studies, and a satirical story he published that got him in trouble with the Cornell administration, Vonnegut lost his ROTC slot and his preferred draft status. So he dropped out and joined the Army.

He was trained near home, and when he got there on leave for Mother’s Day, found his had killed herself. Three months later, he was an Army scout in Europe, and during the Battle of the Bulge, he was captured

Years, later, interviewed by The Paris Review, this is how Vonnegut described what happened next:


And you finally arrived in Dresden.


In a huge prison camp south of Dresden first. The privates were separated from the noncoms and officers. Under the articles of the Geneva Convention, which is a very Edwardian document, privates were required to work for their keep. Everybody else got to languish in prison. As a private, I was shipped to Dresden . . .


What were your impressions of the city itself before the bombing?


The first fancy city I’d ever seen. A city full of statues and zoos, like Paris. We were living in a slaughterhouse, in a nice new cement-block hog barn. They put bunks and straw mattresses in the barn, and we went to work every morning as contract labor in a malt-syrup factory. The syrup was for pregnant women. The damned sirens would go off and we’d hear some other city getting it—whump a whump a whumpa whump. We never expected to get it. There were very few air-raid shelters in town and no war industries, just cigarette factories, hospitals, clarinet factories. Then a siren went off—it was February 13, 1945—and we went down two stories under the pavement into a big meat locker. It was cool there, with cadavers hanging all around. When we came up the city was gone.


You didn’t suffocate in the meat locker?


No. It was quite large, and there weren’t very many of us. The attack didn’t sound like a hell of a lot either. Whump. They went over with high explosives first to loosen things up, and then scattered incendiaries. When the war started, incendiaries were fairly sizable, about as long as a shoebox. By the time Dresden got it, they were tiny little things. They burnt the whole damn town down.


What happened when you came up?


Our guards were noncoms—a sergeant, a corporal, and four privates—and leaderless. Cityless, too, because they were Dresdeners who’d been shot up on the front and sent home for easy duty. They kept us at attention for a couple of hours. They didn’t know what else to do. They’d go over and talk to each other. Finally we trekked across the rubble and they quartered us with some South Africans in a suburb. Every day we walked into the city and dug into basements and shelters to get the corpses out, as a sanitary measure. When we went into them, a typical shelter, an ordinary basement usually, looked like a streetcar full of people who’d simultaneously had heart failure. Just people sitting there in their chairs, all dead. A firestorm is an amazing thing. It doesn’t occur in nature. It’s fed by the tornadoes that occur in the midst of it and there isn’t a damned thing to breathe. We brought the dead out. They were loaded on wagons and taken to parks, large, open areas in the city which weren’t filled with rubble. The Germans got funeral pyres going, burning the bodies to keep them from stinking and from spreading disease. One hundred thirty thousand corpses were hidden underground. It was a terribly elaborate Easter-egg hunt. We went to work through cordons of German soldiers. Civilians didn’t get to see what we were up to. After a few days the city began to smell, and a new technique was invented. Necessity is the mother of invention. We would bust into the shelter, gather up valuables from people’s laps without attempting identification, and turn the valuables over to guards. Then soldiers would come in with a flamethrower and stand in the door and cremate the people inside. Get the gold and jewelry out and then burn everybody inside.

After the war, Vonnegut married and studied for an MA in anthropology at the University of Chicago. After they rejected his thesis, he dropped out and went to work for General Electric as a publicist. He sold some stories to magazines, and moved his family to Cape Cod in 1951, there to be a writer.

Success was slow coming, and Vonnegut made his way in and out of various supplemental income gigs, including teaching school and becoming the first Saab dealer in North America. His first novel, Player Piano, came out in 1952. The New York Times liked it, but mostly it got pigeonholed as a science fiction pulper.

Vonnegut kept at it, publishing three more novels into the early ‘60s, and supporting a family that doubled in 1958: his brother-i-law died in a car wreck, and his sister died of cancer, so Vonnegut adopted their three boys.

His books sold passably, and over time his name began to stand out as a uniquely quirky author. After two years teaching writing at the University of Iowa- they gave him one course a term- Vonnegut won a Guggenheim Fellowship and returned to Dresden. He finally found the key to unlocking, and writing about, his wartime experiences, and the result- Slaughterhouse-Five- went straight to the head of the best-seller lists in 1969. It was lucky timing: the anti-Vietnam sentiment in America provided a ready audience.

Suddenly, Vonnegut was famous. He appeared on TV; he gave commencement addresses; he won lucrative teaching posts; he was a darling of the antiwar movement. He and his wife divorced after her embrace of Christianity collided with his atheism; a son had a nervous breakdown; he himself fell into depression and writer’s block.

His “sophomore novel”- in his new life as the come-from-nowhere author of Slaughterhouse-Five, was Breakfast of Champions, which critics mostly treated as a phoned-in bone tossed to readers wanting more. In the 1980ds he enjoyed a new vogue among a new generation of young people; his last novel came out in 1997.

At 75 Vonnegut- who said he scorned the internet and email- got caught up in an early viral meme. His second wife, the photographer Jill Krementz, wife got an email purporting to contain an MIT commencement speech by Vonnegut that began with the advice, “Wear sunscreen.” She passed it on to friends and family; the Australian director Baz Luhrmann set it to music, and only when he sought copyright clearance did he discover it was written by a Chicago Tribune columnist and that Vonnegut had never spoken at MIT.

By then the genie was out of the bottle and the story circulated online for years. It even spawned a conspiracy theory, with one newsgroup participant declaring, ''This is part of a promotion for an upcoming Vonnegut book,'' the writer wrote. ''One of the characters in the book is a newspaper columnist and guess who her name is: Mary Schmich.''

All told, Vonnegut published fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays and five nonfiction works. In death, as in life, his books are challenged periodically by parents objecting to  their content, and placement in libraries. His rank and worth as a writer is still debated, and only recently has begun to be seriously considered. For thirty-five years, he seemed a hip, merry prankster sort who strung together random thoughts into books, articles and speeches. He died in 2007.

“Here we are,” he wrote, “trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why.”

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