So It Went: A New Biography of Kurt Vonnegut Is a Portrait of an Artist who Cultivated a Scruffy Image

The novelist and master of self-marketing became an icon of the counterculture

19 kv in study getty images So It Went: A New Biography of Kurt Vonnegut Is a Portrait of an Artist who Cultivated a Scruffy Image

Kurt Vonnegut. (Photo by Gil Friedberg / Pix Inc. / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images)

More than any writer of his era, Kurt Vonnegut survives as an image: haggard, mustachioed, nicotine-stained, his hair a tangle—a cat’s cradle, one might say—of curls. As was often noted, he looked like Mark Twain, only cuter. Certainly, he was more boyish than Twain. He was a millionaire who rued, until he died, that his mother had not been a better hugger; a grown man who went swimming, sheepishly, in pants; a father who “painted pertinent quotes on various walls in the house.” He was 6’3″, but small at heart. “If the government assigned heights based on maturity,” he wrote in a letter to his first wife, Jane, “[I] would be much shorter.”

Vonnegut’s fiction was similarly deceptive; he addressed major themes in a minor key. “Mass destruction was a bit of a Vonnegut trope,” as Charles Shields observes in And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life (Henry Holt and Co., 528 pages, $30.00). That this was so is undeniable, and yet the message of Vonnegut’s darkest novels must sound saccharine to many schoolchildren. He believed in common decency and common sense, in mankind over machines. He was big on being nice. Being nasty was a bête noire. To the madness of his century, Vonnegut, who died in 2007, applied the moral vision of a Mouseketeer.

This made him a sympathetic public figure, who was quick to decry the religiosity of the Republican party and the war in Vietnam, but a novelist whose limitations were as conspicuous as his gifts. “There is an almost intolerable sentimentality in everything I write,” as Vonnegut himself admitted. In his greatest satires, Cat’s Cradle (1963) and Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), he envisioned catastrophic events from the perspective of their bystanders. This reflected a truth of his own experience. As an American prisoner of war in Dresden, in 1945, Vonnegut had hidden in an underground meat locker while Allied aircraft firebombed the city. When he emerged, “Lazarus-like,” days later, Dresden was a cinder. “It was as if he had slept through the sacking of Troy and woke just as the Greeks were boarding their ships for home,” as Mr. Shields puts it.

Vonnegut’s genius was to stake out this experience of anticlimax as his novelistic territory. His heroes are bemused bit players whose lives are measured by their distance from great affairs, rather than their proximity to them. It is a worldview inverted in favor of the little guy, and it is as hostile to change as it is to power. Mr. Shields is insightful when he points out that Vonnegut, though revered by hippies, was “less a radical than a reactionary.” On the day of the moon landing, in 1969, Vonnegut went on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, where he could rail against its profligacy in real-time. “For that kind of money,” Vonnegut had already written, paraphrasing a scientist, “the least [NASA] can do is discover God.” He had become the lord of the bumpkins. And indeed, with his frayed Afro and slight stoop, his invariable cigarette, Vonnegut looked the part.

It is surprising, then, to discover the degree to which this look and the persona that went with it were contrived. Mr. Shield’s biography of Vonnegut takes its title from Slaughterhouse-Five, where it occurs dozens of times; it is the perennial refrain of bad news. “He was arrested for plundering. He was tried and shot. So it goes.” The phrase encapsulates the attitude of wistful passivity that readers correctly associate with Vonnegut’s fiction. But it is an ironic title for the biography of the man himself, because Kurt Vonnegut the illustrious author was a strenuous work of artifice, whose fate was anything but thrust upon him. “We are what we pretend to be,” Vonnegut wrote in his third novel, Mother Night (1961), “so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” He was a scrupulous pretender who heeded his own advice.

Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis in 1922. He grew up in a milieu so mistrustful of art that, when it came time for him to go to college, he was compelled, against his wishes, to study chemistry. Yet he discovered his vocation early. Vonnegut wrote columns for his high school and college newspapers, and, after the war, in 1951, he quit a well-paid job in public relations at General Electric to pursue his fiction full-time. But he was already married and a father, and he continued, perforce, to supplement his income by less exalted means. He worked as a high school teacher, a creative writing instructor, a copywriter, a car salesman and a caption writer for Sports Illustrated, where his tenure was characteristically brief. “The horse jumped over the fucking fence,” Vonnegut wrote the day he walked out. He was rarely too proud to stoop to an opportunity, but often too proud to exploit one. “Maybe the problem was not that the agents didn’t know what to do for [Vonnegut],” the SI secretary, Carolyn Blakemore, later reflected, “but he didn’t know what to do in the role of a writer.”

Ms. Blakemore misjudged her colleague. One thing Vonnegut did do was rise at 5 every morning to write. And when his moment finally came, he seized it with an alacrity that is hard to distinguish, in Mr. Shields’s telling of the story, from opportunism.

Comments

  1. beauregard says:

    “And Vonnegut, who championed family to his readers, was reckless with those closest to him.”

    I’m not so sure about the recklessness. I understand he adopted four children, three of them his deceased sister’s and one other who was not a blood relative. 

    1. mugsey says:

      I read Vonnegut on my youth. I recall his wonderful irony, a kind of overwhelmed passivity mixed with a diffident provocativeness. Wonderful comment on NASA, underscoring the profligate pointlessness of space exploration that couldn’t even locate God for us. Will follow up the biography. So he wasn’t perfect. So he was ungrateful. No one could emerge from the horror that was Dresden without being seared from the inside out, without locking into a jaded and cynical depression as default position. Was his anti-Viet Dow-stock hypocrisy merely a play on the irredeemable amorality of humanity that even he felt the futility of trying to rise above? 

  2. Lee6181 says:

    Vonnegut was an admirable writer and an ideosyncratic person but certainly not cuter than Mark Twain!!

  3. Lee6181 says:

    Vonnegut was an admirable writer and an ideosyncratic person but certainly not cuter than Mark Twain!!

  4. Lomkey says:

    “That this was so is undeniable, and yet the message of Vonnegut’s
    darkest novels must sound saccharine to many schoolchildren. He believed
    in common decency and common sense, in mankind over machines. He was
    big on being nice. Being nasty was a bête noire.”

    Well, I’ll just get off your lawn. But don’t worry, I certainly don’t understand anything about common decency or being nice!

  5. Leebellavance says:

    Interesting that the opus is virtually dismissed. Despite the blend of creativity and humanity.  And the way Man Without a Country has been sanitized out of the picture.   

  6. Sand says:

    To me the most worthwhile characteristic of Vonnegut was his clear view of how foolish humanity is and how the most obvious quality of human aspiration is complete idiocy. I most admire his “The Sirens of Titan” where he views all the accomplishments of the human species as the means to produce a minor failed part of an interstellar space ship built to carry a meaningless message of a robot. There is much Voltaire in his works.

  7. Anonymous says:

    This Mr. Shields sure asserts a lot (in clunky prose), but does he have any actual evidence to back his character assassination?

  8. Rallen says:

    Mr. Camp:

    You are a hack. Your review, which accepts Charles Shields’ craven biography as the gospel truth, shows no real knowledge of Vonnegut’s work, or why he’s considered, around the world, as one of the handful of most important American writers of the second half of the 20th Century.

    This reply comes not from a “hippy” or a teenaged lover of sci-fi but from a Duke Ph.D. who has published five scholarly books and is on the Board of Directors of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis. What junior college did you attend?

    In the future, try to keep from embarassing yourself by not presuming to write about things you don’t understand.

    Rodney Allen

    1. Bluetick Hound says:

      My, such impressive credentials.  I would have liked to read, especially from one as certified qualified as yourself, some counterargument.  But alas, there was none.   We’ll set aside the snobbish comment about junior colleges, but I think that if you re-read your sentences you will find a theme: that the opinions of others are the things that matter to you.  I don’t recall whether Kurt Vonnegut dealt directly with this subject, but I think there is a clear sense in his writing that he would find a person who writes as you have to be a fool.

      You must be from Indianapolis, a place that shapes ones thinking in the much the same way that foot binding once affected Japanese women’s way of walking.  Some people, like Vonnegut, react by creating art.  Others compensate by getting a Ph.D. from Duke.

      (Duke?  Duke!!! You’re no Hoosier!)

    2. Anonymous says:

      Rallen says that Vonnegut is “considered, around the world, as one of the handful of most important American writers of the second half of the 20th Century.” This is a true statement, but also pointless. One could just as easily say that  “Vonnegut is considered, around the world, as one of the handful of the least important American writers of the second half of the 20th Century.”  His comment tells me more about Rallen than it tells me about either Vonnegut or the article writer.

    3. Autodidact says:

      Vonnegut was probably the first author whose books made me feel like I wasn’t alone. I’m so glad I discovered him at just the right age. I’m also a high school dropout and very sorry to know that there are stuck-up, small-minded people like you out there waving his banner. You should forfeit your seat on the Board to someone who isn’t a dick.

    4. Owen Caterawaul says:

      Geez, I don’t know Mr. Allen, but if I were you, teaching at a high school in Louisiana, I probably wouldn’t go about throwing stones at “junior college”. It’s not only elitist, it’s stupid, and contributes little to the strength of whatever argument you are attempting to make. 

      And despite what you claim in your wikipedia hagiography, it is beyond unusual for any high-school teacher to claim the title of ‘professor’.

      So it goes.

    5. Neal Bailey says:

      I can’t speak to the article’s facts or a lack of facts, or whether the writer is a hack or not, but I can say with the authority of an avowed plebian that someone with such aforementioned credentials should have already learned that an argument from authority is, to wit, ridiculous, and refuted the article you decry instead with arguments and facts that stand up for themselves.

      As such, I define you a troll, sir. Truth outs. Ad hominem does not.

  9. Andy says:

    Those who can , do.  Those who can’t, write biographies.  Those who haven’t a shit’s show, review them.

    1. Noser says:

      And those who comment on them…?

  10. mugsey says:

    It strikes me as odd to impute inauthenticity to an American author whose genius lay in the exquisitely laconic originality with which he depicted ineffable, nonplussed human experience beyond the capacities of most to articulate…

  11. Michael Moore says:

    Mr. Vonnegut did not hide in a meat locker during the fire-bombing of Dresden, the meat locker was where the Germans housed he and his fellow prisoners. “Hidden” implies a lack of moral courage, an unfair portrayal of Mr. Vonnegut

    1. “Saved by Kurt Vonnegut” revised 11-25-11. Kurt was so great — & by happenstance I had filmed him several times. One evening in the 90’s I came upon Kurt strangely sitting alone on a stoop on Prince Street in SOHO in NYC, in front of a building later destined to become the Apple Store. We had a nice exchange & I got some intimate close in footage.

      Later that evening with great style & panache Kurt successfully defended me at the upstairs art gallery opening against a very upset art dealer incensed by my videoing his exclusive champagne opening for his superstar woman artist April Gornik. It was a dramatic stand off in the very center of things. The huge dealer seemed actually about to assault me & continued making a scene. “What do you mean coming in here with your camera blazing?, etc., etc.,”

      So Kurt who I hadn’t noticed there until now just walked up between us & put his arm around me & defused it all with a few words — bravely with authority telling the dealer he should be quite happy I was there to record the event for posterity. (Actually I don’t use lights & it’s just me with a small camera without a crew as usual) The dealer quickly came to his senses & acceded to Kurt’s correctness & I continued interviewing the artist & her huge beautiful landscapes. This by the way was the only time I had ever had trouble with an art dealer at the thousands of events I’ve filmed from Castelli, to Gagosian to Boone, the Guggenheim, the Whitney, etc..

      A year or so later I videoed the extremely classy celebrity opening of his wife Jill Krementz’s excellent portrait photography & book signing in another SOHO gallery. Both she & Kurt signed & gifted me a book with his signature almost a sketch itself I still treasure. Kurt & I always got on well — quite amusing each other. I interviewed many people & celebrities that night & captured some excellent moments but spent much time focussing on Kurt & a writer friend of his Sidney Offit. Also remember running into Larry Rivers heading to the opening with a male friend who daringly performed & actually made out for me.

      As both painter & filmmaker will put at least a bit of that into my Pollock film. “PollockSquared” about the last decades of the NY art world. 

      Bill Rabinovitch

      rabinart@aol.com

  12. As with a lot of people, my Vonnegut phase lasted through my early twenties. He was fashionable, sometimes funny, and a quick read. But it was easy to get too much of him- his “so it goes” attitude became infuriating, all the more so since it was meant to be transparent camouflage for a superior man who cared so much more than the common ruck of humanity for the common ruck of humanity. Or something. P.S.- Mugsey, step away from that dictionary before someone gets hurt.

    1. mugsey says:

      Just trying to keep it short Mr Phillips…meanwhile disappointed in what I thought was a grownup literary blog turning out to a petty slagfest like the million “common ruck” others that descend to personal abuse (i.e. where someone often actually does get hurt!). 

      I have not read all of Vonnegut’s novels, but of what I have read and recall, my impression of him as an author was that  he was a supremely intelligent and gifted humanist compelled to write his way through a life haunted by his war experiences, by the horrors he witnessed, by the amorality and hypocrisy of  the razing of Dresden, among other Allied atrocities. He was a shell-shocked war hero who somehow managed to depict the follies of man for the world in his own wry way, despite his profound dismay and occasionally suicidal depression. I’ve had the privilege of working with war veterans and their families, lives damaged sometimes for generations by a vet’s endless struggles to shut down his feeling self in order to forget, simply just to live. So for me it’s difficult to understand how a biographer can take the moral high ground over a little self-marketing by Vonnegut: in his private life he had many children to support and he stepped right up to the plate – perhaps imperfectly, but heroically in my view. Give a marvellous writer and war hero his due, I say.

  13. GaryP2727 says:

    Having met a biographer or two, including Albert Goldman, one of the main things I’ve noticed is that most biographies are in fact autobiographies. The subject is sometimes almost irrelevant. Maybe reviewers too. 

    1. anonymous says:

      Having met one or two biographers, you have noticed that “most biographies are in fact autobiographies.”  What kind of a world would we live in if all generalizations were based upon a sample of one or two?  Don’t be a fool.

  14. Troicha says:

    Dearest Beans, 

    You are a lone skank in the flooded maw of literary reviews. 

  15. Owen Caterawaul says:

    I guess I really don’t care what Vonnegut’s private life was like. It was his public life as an artist that he chose to share with his readers. Many artists were unlikeable to odious in their private lives. Renoir was a vicious anti-semite and royalist (and a very sentimental picture maker), Cezanne allowed his wife and child to live in poverty in order to maintain his allowance, Celine was a Nazi, Degas a misogynist and the beat goes on.
    Vonnegut may have been consumed  by self doubt and even self loathing, but he lived his public life with decency and generosity. I once saw him speak and he was charming, witty, hopeful, and patient with the audience. 
    Mr. Shields will fade from memory.

  16. Barfiller says:

    Vonnegut’s books are full of humanity. No more to be said.

  17. “Saved by Kurt Vonnegut” revised 11-25-11. Kurt was so great — & by happenstance I had filmed him several times. One evening in the 90’s I came upon Kurt strangely sitting alone on a stoop on Prince Street in SOHO in NYC, in front of a building later destined to become the Apple Store. We had a nice exchange & I got some intimate close in footage.

    Later that evening with great style & panache Kurt successfully defended me at the upstairs art gallery opening against a very upset art dealer incensed by my videoing his exclusive champagne opening for his superstar woman artist April Gornik. It was a dramatic stand off in the very center of things. The huge dealer seemed actually about to assault me & continued making a scene. “What do you mean coming in here with your camera blazing?, etc., etc.,”

    So Kurt who I hadn’t noticed there until now just walked up between us & put his arm around me & defused it all with a few words — bravely with authority telling the dealer he should be quite happy I was there to record the event for posterity. (Actually I don’t use lights & it’s just me with a small camera without a crew as usual) The dealer quickly came to his senses & acceded to Kurt’s correctness & I continued interviewing the artist & her huge beautiful landscapes. This by the way was the only time I had ever had trouble with an art dealer at the thousands of events I’ve filmed from Castelli, to Gagosian to Boone, the Guggenheim, the Whitney, etc..

    A year or so later I videoed the extremely classy celebrity opening of his wife Jill Krementz’s excellent portrait photography & book signing in another SOHO gallery. Both she & Kurt signed & gifted me a book with his signature almost a sketch itself I still treasure. Kurt & I always got on well — quite amusing each other. I interviewed many people & celebrities that night & captured some excellent moments but spent much time focussing on Kurt & a writer friend of his Sidney Offit. Also remember running into Larry Rivers heading to the opening with a male friend who daringly performed & actually made out for me.

    As both painter & filmmaker will put at least a bit of that into my Pollock film. “PollockSquared”

    Bill Rabinovitch

    rabinart@aol.com

  18. GB says:

    Apparently reduced as it is through the bindings of my Indianapolis home, according to one commenter, my view of the Shields biography is one of gratitude. For those of us who have actually read it, the treatment is kind in the sense of understanding that no human is perfect. Indeed, isn’t that what V seems to talk about so much? We do terrible things to each other. We never live up to what we imagine we could be. Not to include V’s private life in a survey of his literary life would be bizarre. He lived his life IN his work. For God’s sake, does any casual reader of his not know about his depression, which high school he attended, his family life, etc.? The stories aren’t merely informed by his life, they often were his life, broken down into fantastical – and blunt – ways of viewing it. Good going, Mr. Shields.