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

As the publication date drew near for Slaughterhouse-Five, on which Vonnegut had worked, fitfully, for 20 years, he brooded over his author photo. He was clean-cut, clean-shaven, a bit paunchy—in 1969, an unlikely candidate for cultural eminence. He decided “to cultivate the style of an author who was in.” “To meet the expectations of his audience was key,” Mr. Shields writes. “He lost weight, allowed his close-cropped hair to become curly and tousled, and grew a moustache. … He looked like an avant-garde artist and social critic now, not rumpled Dad-in-a-cardigan.” His upper lip would never reappear. Slaughterhouse-Five became a number-one New York Times best-seller, and its tousled (not rumpled) author became an icon of the counterculture.

In retrospect, the acuity with which Vonnegut marketed himself seems to demonstrate an insight into his era that is close to cynicism about it. Mr. Shields’s thoroughgoing biography does little to dispel this impression. (Mr. Shields, in turn, can demonstrate a thoroughgoingness that is close to comedy. When he quotes from Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, he footnotes it, play, act, and scene.) Vonnegut became an idol to a demographic to which he personally remained aloof. He did not get hippies, and they, up close, did not get him. When he met with Jefferson Airplane to brainstorm lyrics, they could only apologize to each other. “As a friend wrote to [Vonnegut] sometime later, ‘Your writing has the peculiar quality of only reflecting the reader’s beliefs back on him.’”

Mr. Shields is a rather bland reader of his subject’s fiction. “The more autobiographical his work became,” he observes, “the less space he devoted to fiction.” Still, he has a nose for its author’s contradictions. The sentimental old man of American letters could be a cold fish in the flesh. A holder of rousing political opinions, Vonnegut “had only been mildly interested in politics most of his adult life”—until he realized that “his audience expected him … to moralize.” A salty Midwesterner, he fed “at the trough of celebrity up to his ears.” A stormy foe of the Vietnam war, he was also a stockholder in “Dow Chemical, the sole maker of napalm.”

And Vonnegut, who championed family to his readers, was reckless with those closest to him. “The persona, the ‘ghost’ of him, as he called it, became like an itching, second skin he couldn’t slough off,” as Mr. Shields writes. In 1972, while living in Manhattan with the photographer Jill Krementz, whom he married in 1979—“I taught Kurt to play tennis and to make love”—he asked his estranged first wife to file his taxes. “That would give him more time to write.” He spurned the agent, Knox Burger, to whom he owed his career, and the publisher, Sam Lawrence, to whom he owed its resurrection. When critics, after Slaughterhouse-Five, began to pan his novels, “he charged [them] with one of his favorite accusations: they were just snobs.” Still, he “badly … wanted to teach at Harvard.”

“Perhaps it was possible to live too long,” writes his biographer. Vonnegut aged ungracefully. His writing declined, his relationship with Ms. Krementz staled—to his children, he referred to their marriage as “his disease”—and, in 1984, he attempted suicide. “I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all,” Vonnegut wrote. Yet Vonnegut himself seems to have been the victim less of a series of accidents than of the voracity of his own designs on fame. “Thinking about his behavior usually led to periods of depression,” Mr. Shields writes, “which in turn interfered with his work.”

This was a truth that Vonnegut, characteristically, could deal with only in doodles. In the 1970s, “he began adding six quick strokes of a felt-tip pen under his signature—an asshole. … He was an asshole, he explained …; however, ‘being human was an asshole condition.’” So it goes.

editorial@observer.com

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.