On Sunday December 7, 1941, as reports of the bombing of Pearl Harbor poured in, the night editor of The Cornell Daily Sun rushed to lay out the pages for a special edition. A chemistry student who was flunking his classes, he spent more time penning columns and pulling campus pranks than studying. His name was Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
By Charles J. Shields
Henry Holt: 544 pp., $30
The Pearl Harbor issue and the night editor who helped put it together are legends at the Sun. Many since, myself included, have flipped through those old issues and read the now-world-renowned author’s columns. One recurring item in the paper, The Berry Patch, featured a witticism framed by a design of berry-heavy vines. As an editor of the Sun, I wrote a number of my own Berry Patches, sometimes quoting lines from Walt Whitman or publishing a newsroom quip. Other days, I reprinted one of Vonnegut’s. The Sun was a link to the past, a record of what had transpired years before we ever took charge. It was also an immediate accounting of the present, and our journalism often felt more real than our classes.
Some nights, I’d leave the newspaper offices and climb back up the steep hill to campus. It would be three in the morning, and I’d walk in the middle of the deserted roads as the snow drifted down. Decades before, Vonnegut had done the same. At the Sun’s 100th anniversary celebration in 1980, he told alumni that he was happiest after putting the paper to bed. The rest of the university people were asleep, he said, tired from “repeating famous arguments and experiments, and asking one another the sorts of hard questions real life would be asking by and by.” He, though, felt as if he were already in the midst of real life: “I am an agnostic as some of you may have gleaned from my writings. But I have to tell you that, as I trudged up the hill so late at night and all alone, I knew that God Almighty approved of me.”
It was with the Sun in mind that I picked up Charles J. Shields’s biography of Vonnegut, And So It Goes. The title is taken from a phrase repeated throughout Slaughterhouse-Five, a novel about the World War II firebombing of Dresden, which Vonnegut lived through as a prisoner of war. The main character, Billy Pilgrim, becomes “unstuck in time,” traveling back and forth from when he was a young POW in Germany to when he is older and kidnapped by extraterrestrials. Throughout this circular narrative, Pilgrim grapples with the horrors of destruction. In crafting Slaughterhouse-Five, Shields writes, Vonnegut “took the everyman perspective of someone bewildered by events,” recognizing “that profound puzzlement is the only way to come to terms with death and mass killing.”
The first Vonnegut book I ever read was The Sirens of Titan. It was a blue, hard-backed copy that sat on the shelf next to my father’s childhood collection of Tom Swift novels. I was ten, and while the tale of space travel was entertaining, its themes of universal determinism and synchronicity escaped me. Later, when I read Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle and found a first edition of Palm Sunday at a used bookstore called Chop Suey Books, I came to appreciate Vonnegut’s searing wit and irreverent humor. At Cornell, Vonnegut was a mysterious figure with whom my peers and I liked to imagine we were connected. “That story about the teapot in Dresden—that’s real,” one fellow student informed me about a scene in Slaughterhouse-Five.
In fact, as Shields clarifies, it was only partly real; the execution of a starving prisoner of war, which Vonnegut witnessed, actually involved a stolen jar of pickled string beans, not a teapot.
Vonnegut, who died in 2007 at age 84, didn’t graduate from Cornell (he enlisted in the Army before he could get kicked out for poor grades), but the writing he did for the Sun influenced his style and shaped his voice. It was as a Sun writer that Vonnegut first met Knox Burger, an editor of a rival publication, the Cornell Widow. Years later, Burger became an editor at Collier’s magazine and then at different publishing houses, and he helped Vonnegut succeed as an author. “You must know how grateful I am for your having given me the chance to do the book, and for your having showed it around to hard-cover people,” Vonnegut wrote to Burger. Later on, Vonnegut would write that his friend, with whom he ultimately had a falling out, “kept me going until he could no longer help me.”
Although Vonnegut spoke bitterly of his family pressuring him to become a scientist, the influence of his chemistry courses at Cornell and later his public-relations work for General Electric—which often focused on cutting-edge technology—emerged in his stories. Early critics tended to classify him as a science-fiction writer, but, as Shields discusses, Vonnegut belongs to a postmodernist literary group that includes Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, William S. Burroughs, and other writers who stretched the bounds of genre and threaded metafiction through their work. Indeed, autobiography seeps into much of Vonnegut’s fiction, and many times the author’s voice is inseparable from the characters’.
It’s this twisting of fact and imagination that And So It Goes attempts to unwind. Engaging and well paced, the book fills in the reality behind Vonnegut’s work, portraying a complex man whose life doesn’t quite square with his speeches and published writing. Through extensive research, Shields details the difficult family life that shaped Vonnegut’s neuroses and permeated his relationships. Readers of the mostly nonfiction collections Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons; Palm Sunday; and A Man Without a Country, will find Shields’s biography a refreshing, thorough complement to Vonnegut’s version of the events in his life. In Palm Sunday, for instance, Vonnegut relates how his mother, Edith, believed she was descended from nobles. He dedicates the book, “For my cousins the de St. Andrés everywhere. Who has the castle now?” Her grandfather did have a castle in Düsseldorf, and Shields goes into more depth about this history, elaborating on the factors that may have led to Edith’s suicide, which contributed to Vonnegut’s enduring sense of failure and the fear of never having enough money.
Resentment, too, is a recurring theme, though that trait of Vonnegut’s may be what allowed Shields to compose this biography: Vonnegut, it seems, was insulted that no one had yet written a serious book about his life. The first time they met, Vonnegut asked Shields to look up his name in the dictionary and then to look up Jack Kerouac’s. There was no entry for Kurt Vonnegut, but there was, of course, one for Kerouac.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the counterculture movement adopted Vonnegut. While Vonnegut’s writing and speeches take on such topics as man versus machine, anti-war policies, and freedom of speech, he was not the leftist, liberal hippie some believed. He wore Brooks Brothers suits, Shields writes, and wasn’t against free enterprise—he wanted it to work for everyone. When Vonnegut finally had wealth, after years of scraping by selling stories to middlebrow publications—he opened an account with Merrill Lynch, investing in the types of big businesses he railed against in public, including, according to Shields, Dow Chemical, the only producer of napalm during the Vietnam War. Shields examines these seeming contradictions in Vonnegut’s life, comparing the legend to the man whose cynically humanist books still outsell contemporary authors:
He was a counterculture hero, a guru, and a leftist to his fans; a wealthy investor to his broker; a champion of family and community and yet a distant father; a man who had left his “child-centered” home to save his sanity, but then married a younger woman who was leading him into fatherhood again; a satirist of American life but feeding at the trough of celebrity up to his ears.
In September 2005, Vonnegut was again the featured speaker at a Cornell Daily Sun banquet. The occasion was the paper’s 135th anniversary. Leaning his six-foot, three-inch frame on the podium, he told us that “the Cornell Sun, thank goodness, showed me what to do with my life, and I did it.” Then he asked if we had heard about his class-action suit against Brown & Williamson, the maker of Pall Mall cigarettes, which were as much a part of his persona as guns and drugs were a part of Hunter S. Thompson’s. Vonnegut was suing the company, he said, because the packages promised that cigarettes would kill him, and at 83, after chain-smoking Pall Malls since the age of 14, he was still alive.
Then he talked about how, as he was getting older, his writing was becoming shorter and shorter; soon it would just be one word, he said, and we all knew what that word was. Still hitting the punch line, still employing crudeness to elicit a response, still getting at the anger that garnered him attention, still anti-war, still complicated in his politics, he said that he wanted to leave us with something he’d just written that morning: “George Bush is so dumb it wouldn’t surprise me if he thought Peter Pan was a washbasin in a whorehouse.”
So it goes.