Kurt Vonnegut was a Midwesterner in a riches-to-rags family who traveled far and wide but never escaped his roots. Charles J. Shields chronicles Vonnegut’s episodic life, triumphs and tragedies, in And So it Goes, a thorough biography that benefits from Vonnegut’s cooperation and access to scores of letters and interviews that fill in the picture. Sadly, Shields only managed a coupe of interviews before the accident that ended Vonnegut’s life at 84.
The Indianapolis Vonnegut family was prominent and moderately wealthy until the Depression wiped out their investments and left them scrambling to salvage a formerly comfortable life. Vonnegut missed the heyday of his family’s wealth—he was the youngest of three children—and he always felt he missed his parents’ attention and approval as well. His mother never adjusted to life without maids, luncheons, travel and society events and ended up committing suicide. His father never achieved the distinction as an architect that was the family heritage. Neither parent had much time for Kurt; what attention they did pay to their children was lavished mostly on his brilliant older brother, a precocious scientist.
Kurt had a talent for writing but agreed to major in science as a concession to family pressure to measure up. He was a serious college journalist but not a dedicated student—eventually he enlisted in the Army in World War II rather than be drafted. It was his personal misfortune and literary bonanza to be a prisoner of war in the firebombing of Dresden, waiting out the carnage that leveled the city in an underground meat locker called Slaughterhouse-5. When he wrote Slaughterhouse Five, his most celebrated novel, many years later, he created a meta-fiction to deal with the fact that he had not witnessed the carnage—he had been underground the whole time. The aftermath seared itself into his memory, though, and his many months as a starving prisoner turned him from a class-clown, zany character into a more sober and pacifist adult.
Marriage to his college-age crush took both of them to the University of Chicago on the G.I. Bill and a fellowship where they studied until Jane became pregnant with their first child. Vonnegut never completed his thesis—his first topic was not approved and his first effort was rejected–and left the university without a degree. That began decades of scrambling to be a successful freelance writer, interspersed with stints of working in public relations for General Electric and taking pick-up teaching jobs to feed his growing family. He and Jane settled on Cape Cod where they added his sister’s four boys to their own three kids after she and her husband died within weeks of each other. It was a generous gesture but unconsidered. The Vonnegut house was messy, uncontrolled chaos. Jane shouldered the burden of daily care, feeding and bill-paying while Vonnegut holed up in his study, chain-smoking and collecting rejections. Throughout her life, she supported his dreams about writing and served as a first reader and critic of his work.
Kurt Vonnegut might never have written his novels if friends in high places in publishing hadn’t taken him on. Magazine articles kept the menagerie going and kept Vonnegut’s vision of himself as a successful writer alive. His earliest books garnered some critical notice, some mixed reactions and underwhelming sales. But he persevered and found an audience, a raconteur’s talent for teaching and, in time, the fame he hungered for. Along the way he began a love affair and lifelong friendship with a woman he met while teaching at the Iowa Writers Workshop, drifted in and out of depressions, paid sporadic attention to the kids, wrote some plays and met the photographer Jill Krementz, who would become his second wife.
Krementz is an irredeemable monster in this biography. She squired Vonnegut around New York’s artsy haute monde and took over his life. Late in their marriage, she changed the locks on his Manhattan townhouse, determined who was allowed to visit, monitored his friendships and harangued him about his personal habits, writing and everything else that met with her disapproval. Meanwhile, Vonnegut, reacting to the reception of his work by a large, college-age audience, developed a marketable persona that became his public face. The clean-shaven Midwesterner let his hair grow, sported a bushy moustache and began to resemble more and more the Mark Twain character he was compared to.
And So It Goes punctures the hot air balloons of fame that lift up a celebrated writer and deliver him to the literary pantheon. Vonnegut was a flawed man and a flawed writer. He left wreckage and a lot of colorful anecdotes in his wake. But he was also beloved, by fans, the friends he didn’t alienate, his family and his students—not always and not blindly. His story is a good story, if not a happy one. He told it, very thinly disguised, in all of his books. Shields has untangled the timeline and fleshed it out for us. The biography made me want to go back and re-read a few of the books to connect the writer with the work that embodies his sense of humor, despair at the human condition and quirky vision.
And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life Charles J. Shields | Henry Holt and Company 2011