50 years after the publication of the now literary (and film) classic Slaughterhouse-Five, our editor Alan Bisbort looks back on some of his personal encounters with Vonnegut, and speaks to the author of a new oral biography, Kurt Vonnegut Remembered.
Fifty years ago, a writer of mass market paperback science fiction novels published a book that elevated him from college cult status to bestselling author and literary demigod. That book was Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, which is now in its gazillionth printing and is likely to never fall off the required reading lists for high school and college students. The author was an unlikely rabble rouser, an avuncular, somewhat melancholy, Einstein-haired Midwesterner with a mischievous glint in his eye and cigarette-ash-flecked moustache. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. He pretty much remained that way for the rest of his long life.
I was lucky enough to spend some time with Mr. Vonnegut. That is, I worked as an assistant for a number of years to his wife, the photographer, journalist and author Jill Krementz. My encounters with Kurt were few during those years but always memorable.
The first time I met Vonnegut, he was sitting on the stoop of his Manhattan brownstone on East 48th Street, eating pretzels and smoking cigarettes. I had arrived to help Jill Krementz assemble the text for another of her many books of photography. Not expecting to run into Vonnegut, I was suddenly stricken by that paralysis that afflicts all of us in the presence of a famous person. Do I say anything? Will it bug him if I pretend to make conversation? Or will it bug him more if I pretend he’s not there?
Thankfully, Vonnegut smiled, said hello, offered me a pretzel and invited me into the house all the while asking me about my writing and interests. [Sadly, Vonnegut would take a fatal fall down those same front steps and, irony of ironies, he died on my birthday, April 11, in 2007].
Another encounter stands out from the rest. I had arrived at the Krementz-Vonnegut brownstone on a different occasion to work on some text for another publishing project Jill was completing. I let drop that I was also in the city to visit the Outsider Art Fair, held that year at the Puck Building near SoHo. The more I talked about the fair, the more interested Vonnegut became. The work of completely untrained artists from all over the world? Some of whom were mentally challenged? Some of whom lived in converted school buses or shacks way out in the bayou or were shut-ins who’d conjured the sorts of apocalyptic visions that only isolated souls, prodded by Sterno or grain alcohol, can produce?! This was right up Kurt Vonnegut’s alley!
After a few minutes, both he and Jill decided to accompany me to the Outsider Art Fair. Jill brought her camera and Kurt brought his cigarettes, and we hopped in a cab and headed downtown. Here I was leading one of America’s most famous and recognizable writers (even the cabbie instantly knew Vonnegut’s mug) on a trip into the bizarre.
My longtime friend Mike Smith, owner of the At Home Gallery in Greensboro, N.C., had encouraged me to come to the Outsider Art Fair while I was in the city that day.
Mike was working with other dealers at the fair who were exhibiting the work of Royal Robertson, James Harold Jennings, William Hawkins, Martin Ramirez, among many other folk artists. Mike is the real deal, a gifted photographer and writer who, over the years, has compiled a book’s worth of images and text of the artists he collected and sold. Unlike many of the dealers, he had been in the game long before outsider art—or Art Brut—became the newest collecting fad, and certainly long before Howard Finster painted album covers for R.E.M and Talking Heads. Mike treated his artists fairly and they, in turn, thought of Mike as “family.” Mike is also something of a prankster, one of the funniest people I know. I couldn’t wait to turn the tables on him by dragging Kurt Vonnegut and Jill Krementz to his booth and introducing them to him as “my colleagues.”
As I approached Mike, I could see his eyes widen, and I could practically hear the gears turning in his head. Without missing a beat, even before I could pull off my affected introduction, Mike was on his feet, his arm about Kurt Vonnegut’s shoulder. The next thing I knew, Mike was leading Kurt and Jill on a tour of the fair. At each booth, he would fix a dealer with a bemused gaze and loudly proclaim, “Allow me to introduce you to my GOOD friends Kurt Vonnegut and his wife, the talented Jill Krementz.”
These flabbergasted dealers were falling all over themselves to adjust their normally jaded countenances to ones of adoration and awe. Of course, these other dealers were far more moneyed than Mike, with his humble stable (the name of his gallery is no lie: it’s actually located inside his modest home on a backstreet in Greensboro). So his prank allowed him a tongue-in-cheek chance to bask in reflected glory.
Jill was happily snapping away with her ever present camera, and I was pulling up the rear, pretending to be part of the entourage and laughing to myself at how Mike had turned my prank into his own, much more productive piece of performance art. The best part was the fact that Vonnegut loved the art, loved being part of Mike’s show. When I recently asked Mike what he recalled of the day, he said, “Prank?! No way! Kurt and I were bonded by the end of the day! I remember while posing for a photo (as Jill fumbled with her camera), I remarked, “You know in another ten seconds, we will all be legally married.’ Vonnegut laughed out loud and said, ‘That’s an old Groucho Marx line’.”
I guess the point of this anecdote is that Vonnegut, in person, was exactly as you would picture him: kind, agreeable, a bit baffled and bemused by it all.
Jim O’Loughlin, a professor of English in the Department of Languages & Literatures at the University of Northern Iowa, has collected many similar stories for his book Kurt Vonnegut Remembered (University of Alabama Press). The contents are arranged chronologically and include the voices of Vonnegut’s son, Mark, and daughter, Nanette, many of the former GI’s who were with Vonnegut during World War II (including fellow POWs in Dresden), Gail Godwin, Loree Rackstraw, John Irving, John Updike, Peter Fonda, Norman Mailer, and many other lesser lights whose lives intersected, if only briefly, with Vonnegut’s, including yours truly.
We spoke to Jim O’Loughlin about Kurt Vonnegut and his new book.
PKM: There are so many great nuggets about Vonnegut in your book, so many voices and perspectives brought together, offering the good, the bad and even at times the ugly. Did you find yourself thinking, as you were compiling this book, “I thought I knew Kurt Vonnegut…but now I realize there was so much more to know”?
Jim O’Loughlin: The Kurt Vonnegut I knew before I started this book was Vonnegut the icon. To be fair, that is a part of who he was—after all, he was one of the most famous authors in the country for the last half of his life—but it isn’t all of who he was. I came away from the book with a greater understanding of a man whose life moved in unpredictable ways that he could neither predict or necessarily control, and that was both good and bad, like it is for all of us.
PKM: How did you get introduced to the writings of Kurt Vonnegut?
Jim O’Loughlin: I dedicated Kurt Vonnegut Remembered to my mother, Joan Connolly O’Loughlin, who handed me a copy of Cat’s Cradle when I was in high school because she thought I would like it. She was right, and I still have that dog-eared paperback on my bookshelf.
PKM: This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five, the novel that vaulted Vonnegut into the American literary pantheon. Do you feel that he, like many returning World War II veterans, wanted to put the experiences behind him as quickly as possible and get on with his life? But the horrors of Dresden and the Battle of Bulge would just not stay suppressed—bubbling up 20 years later in Slaughterhouse-Five.
Jim O’Loughlin: I’ve thought a lot about this issue and discuss it in an essay I’m still trying to publish. Vonnegut writes in the opening of Slaughterhouse-Five about how many years he spent trying to write his “Dresden novel” and the many false starts and unfinished drafts he had. He says, “I would hate to tell you what this lousy little book cost me in money and anxiety and time.” But I’ve come to see the ways in which Vonnegut was fortunate to have this book to work on for two decades.
There was no such diagnosis as post-traumatic stress disorder when Vonnegut was drafting and eventually publishing Slaughterhouse-Five, but more recent criticism on the book sees how both the experience of Billy Pilgrim and the way the novel lurches through time can be understood through the lens of PTSD. Vonnegut himself was a likely PTSD sufferer, and I have to think that he was able to use narrative, the act of authoring Slaughterhouse-Five, as a form of what we would now call “self care.” He was fortunate to have this novel to be working on, to be able to mull the experience over and return to it year after year, until the right constellation of conditions appeared that allowed him to finish the book.
PKM: I’ve always felt that Vonnegut was the sort of writer who was perfect for a certain time in one’s life. Specifically, smart and sensitive high school and college-aged readers. Do people over the age of, say, 35 still read Vonnegut for enjoyment?
Jim O’Loughlin: I think it is true that most people are introduced to Vonnegut when they are young—the story “Harrison Bergeron” has become a go-to text in a lot of high school English classes—and that’s probably when they read most of his better known books. It will be interesting to see what the impact will be of the upcoming Vonnegut TV adaptations. As I write, three books are in various stages of production: Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, and The Sirens of Titan, and that will introduce Vonnegut to a lot of potential readers. But even without that kind of exposure, Vonnegut, among the postmodern writers of the 1960s and 1970s, remains the most popular author, and I have to think that some of Vonnegut’s later works, like Jailbird or Galápagos, are due for a re-appreciation, perhaps by older readers.
PKM: From my admittedly limited personal contact with Vonnegut and what I’ve read since his death, I think that the public Vonnegut is what he himself preferred over his private self because there was still too much internal darkness for him to want to examine—Dresden, his mother’s suicide, his sister’s sudden death that doubled the size of his family when he adopted her kids, the guilt over his divorce, etc. Do you think he was still processing all that until the end of his life?
Jim O’Loughlin: On the positive side, one of the effects of having achieved fame late in life is that he knew what to compare it with, and, as I write in Kurt Vonnegut Remembered, he often aimed to be the kind, humane type of person that his fans wanted him to be. But in his writings, he looked the demons that pursued him throughout his life straight in the eye.
Both those things were true, and this juxtaposition was one of many that Kurt Vonnegut was able to maintain throughout his career.