Writing the Life of Kurt Vonnegut

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There are a few basic biographical facts that most readers know about Kurt Vonnegut: humorist, post-modernist, Pall Mall chain smoker. As a private in the army in World War II, he became a prisoner of war and survived the fire bombings in Dresden locked in an old underground slaughterhouse, which was inspiration for his famous novel, Slaughterhouse Five. He was the author of other novels, including Cat’s Cradle, God Bless, You Mr. Rosewater and Breakfast of Champions. But Charles J. Shields wanted to provide greater insight into the life of the writer than what these glazed facts could give us, and so he wrote And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life.

Looking back on his collegiate years, Shields recalls how everyone seemed to have a copy of Slaughterhouse tucked under their arms. After all, Vonnegut was a man whose words evoked the zeitgeist of the 60s, whose anti-war zeal and cultural dismay felt just right as the Vietnam War was churning into action.

Fascinated by the beloved writer, Shields couldn’t conceive of why no one had yet composed his biography. After acquiring Vonnegut’s personal address at E. 48th Street in Manhattan, Shields wrote a “chatty letter” to Vonnegut espousing his talent as a writer, researcher and biographer, in hopes of gaining his approval. A few days later, he received a large envelope in which the author had tucked an 11 X 17 self-portrait, “demurring” at the thought of shields writing his biography. Refusing to interpret this response as a definitive no, Shields wrote another letter. This time, he received a postcard with a little sketch of Vonnegut smoking his idiosyncratic Pall Mall cigarette and an “okay” written atop the authors’ head.

Thus began Shields’s relationship with Vonnegut. Shields recalls receiving phone calls from Vonnegut at strange times, accosting his biographer about the book’s progress: “This is Kurt Vonnegut. How’s my biography coming?” During these calls, it was clear to Shields that Vonnegut just wanted to reminisce: about Indianapolis, about German-Americans, about his favorite place, Lake Maxinkuckee. As Shields tells it, Vonnegut was a lonely, elderly extrovert. He had a lot of literary friends, including John Irving, who helped lend insight into his friend’s character for the biography. Vonnegut could be argumentative, elusive and resentful; “he damned a lot of people who weren’t there to defend themselves.”

Vonnegut and Shields had agreed to a process of meeting together to discuss various aspects of Vonnegut’s life. But one day, while walking his Lhasa Apso, Vonnegut fell, hit his head and lapsed into a coma: on April 11, 2007, Kurt Vonnegut died.

Shocked by his sudden death, Shields was forced to piece together Vonnegut’s life without him. Luckily for the biographer, Vonnegut was an avid letter writer, leaving nearly 1500 letters, both personal and professional, spanning the years 1945-2007. It was with these that Shields hoped to create a coherent narrative of Vonnegut’s life, and which ultimately “created the real spine of the book.” Even without the author’s continued assistance, Shields composed Vonnegut’s biography, the first ever completed on the writer.

 

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