Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007), “the best least-read novelist in America,” taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 1965 to 1967. He was then 43-year old, and married to Jane Marie Cox for 20 years; they had three children of their own and had adopted the three children of Vonnegut’s deceased sister. The writer came to Iowa City with his two daughters, Edith (Eddie) and Nannette (Nannie).1
Kurt Vonnegut’s formal education was in biochemistry and, in the peculiar way typical of him, he also obtained a Master’s degree in anthropology. When he came to Iowa City, he had already published Piano Player, his first novel (1952), The Sirens of Titans (1959), Mother Night (1962), Cat’s Cradle (1963), and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (March 1965).
He had first tried his pen in journalism: in the mid 1950s, Vonnegut worked very briefly for Sports Illustrated magazine. At some point, he was assigned to write a piece on a racehorse that had jumped a fence and attempted to run away. After staring at the blank piece of paper on his typewriter all morning, he typed, "The horse jumped over the f***ing fence," and left. In Vonnegut’s own words, ''[w]hen the magazine was only a glint in the eyes of Luce Publications, they hired a bunch of sports writers from yokel venues who, it turned out, couldn’t write. So then they hired a bunch of writers who didn’t care or know squat about sports. I was part of that second batch, having gone broke as only the daddy of six kids on Cape Cod can hit the big casino. So I roamed far from my immediate responsibilities at the Cornell Club, then at the Hotel Barclay, where everybody else was an unmarried Cornelian insurance salesman. At Time-Life, we got out an issue of S.I. every week, never knowing when the first real issue would be published. And I quit before that happened, exactly in the manner described.''2
When he was offered the teaching job at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Vonnegut was on the verge of abandoning writing. However, while he was at Iowa, Cat's Cradle became a bestseller and he began writing the “Dresden Novel,” the working title of Slaughterhouse-Five, now considered one of the best American novels of the 20th Century.
In Iowa City, Vonnegut was part of a community of writers3 for the first time in his life, and he found the experience exhilarating. In response to an inquiry by Stephen Wilber who worked on a dissertation about the history of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Kurt Vonnegut wrote:
“I was invited to teach at Iowa by a personal friend and former editor, George Starbuck. Nobody else had ever heard of me out there. I was offered the job at the last minute when Robert Lowell [as I recall] decided not to appear.
I left my large family (six children) behind with my wife on Cape Cod, and lived alone out there for the first six months or so. I needed the money. I needed the stimulation. I needed the change in scene.
It turned out to have been a very bright thing for me to do. Suddenly writing seemed very important again. My neighbors on Cape Cod didn’t read me, didn’t read anything, so I had felt like a pointless citizen there. In Iowa City I was central and spectacular. This was better than a transplant of monkey glands for a man my age.”4
Because his education was in science, he had not read many of the great novels that his new colleagues were fond of discussing, so he went on a crash course of reading. For the first time in his life, he was expected to talk about writing, which forced him to think more deeply about his own creative process. During these years, Vonnegut was struggling to write about his wartime experiences in Dresden, and he found it helpful to be able to discuss his work with other writers. His training as a journalist had taught him to keep himself out of his writing as much as possible, but the fiction writers at Iowa told him that this rule does not apply to fiction.
Vonnegut found this advice liberating. He wrote an autobiographical introduction to the hardcover reissue of Mother Night and began to write first-person accounts of his wartime experiences for Slaughterhouse-Five, signaling a new direction in his work. He posted butcher paper over the walls of his office and graphed out the non-linear plotline of Slaughterhouse-Five in crayons – all lines pointed to Dresden.
Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), largely set during World War II, focuses on the capture of American soldiers by the Germans in 1945 during the Battle of the Bulge. The captured men are taken to Dresden to work in hard labor. On February 13, 1945, Dresden is destroyed by an allied air raid. All the inhabitants of the city, except for a few American prisoners and their German guards, are annihilated. The survivors were later asked to dig through the rubble for corpses and to begin the cleanup of the city. This factual background information is key to understanding the writer, the book, and the core around which the other sub-plots revolve. It is all the more relevant, as on the night of February 13, 1945, Vonnegut (who enlisted in the U.S. army in 1943 and was sent to the European front) was sheltered in Dresden in an underground meat locker while the Allies unleashed one of the most relentless air raids of the war. A firestorm was created that essentially annihilated the historic half-timbered city and left some 35,000 people dead. After the raid, the prisoners emerged to the blasted landscape that Vonnegut describes so vividly in Slaughterhouse-Five. For him, the experience became a subject, about which he felt compelled to write but with which he still found it hard to come to terms. In Slaughterhouse-Five, he finally confronts his terrible war memories and tries to put them to rest, just as the main character of the book, Billy Pilgrim, does.
Vonnegut's struggle to write this novel had began after his return from the war more than two decades earlier. “… I came home in 1945, started writing about it, and wrote about it, and wrote about it, and wrote about it…. I would head myself into my memory of it, the circuit breakers would kick out; I'd head in again, I'd back off,” he recalled in speech to students at Iowa City in 1969. “It's like Heinrich Boll's book Absent Without Leave — stories about German soldiers with the war part missing. You see them leave and return, but there's this terrible hole in the middle. That is like my memory of Dresden…. “ The breakthrough came when he realized that instead of writing a story about the war, he could simply tell the truth. The Vietnam War was a catalyst that freed him to “finally talk about something bad that we did to the worst people imaginable, the Nazis. And what I saw, what I had to report, made war look so ugly,” he wrote in an essay collected in his 2005 book A Man Without a Country.5
Meanwhile, the Workshop’s leadership was undergoing changes. After Paul Engle resigned in early 1966, the Workshop was put under the English Department supervision and Gene Garber took the acting directorship. Of course, there were rumors as who would become the next director. For example, Verlin Cassill, Loree Rackstraw’s mentor before Vonnegut, met in Iowa City in the summer of 1966 with Paul Engle to voice his disagreement with the changes and to conclude his relationship with the Workshop, “vowing never to return.” He may have thought that Vonnegut had something to do with the changes, as he had asked Loree to arrange for a duel between himself and Vonnegut downtown, in front of Hamburg Inn.6
One important writer Cassill had brought to Iowa City was Richard Yates, the author of Revolutionary Road. After a summer in solitude, spent in his favorite bar, The Airliner, Yates met in the autumn with Vonnegut and they became close friends. Although Yates was a mannerist with style as fine as Flaubert’s and as far removed as possible from the jerky, almost brittle prose Vonnegut was crafting at the time, their almost brotherly relationship became immediately possible simply because they were both infantry privates from World War II’s last phase. Vonnegut wrote about Yates7: “Yates and I get along fine. He sure seems bloody and bowed, though. I guess he’s had a hell of a life. He is an extra-good university citizen, repeating rules and policies and meeting times until he’s got them straight. He’d like to stay on forever, and there’s no reason why he can’t. He is much loved as a writer by the kids, as was evident at registration. Shoals of people want to study under him.”
At the same time—fall 1966—Vonnegut expressed some interest in “becoming the boss of the joint … but we didn’t stay on that razor edge very long … A writer is the thing to be.” The unanimous informal nomination by the Workshop staff was going to George Starbuck. In the early spring of 1967, Vonnegut handed in his resignation to John Gerber, the then chair of the Department of English. In April 1967, Vonnegut heard the news that he had been awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship to research his book in Dresden, Germany.
Thus began Vonnegut’s “emerging from anonymity,” not without the help of “brother-writers” he met at Iowa City. One of them was Bob Scholes who wrote a review in The New York Times Book Review soon after a venerable literary critic, Granville Hicks, had introduced the unknown author to the readers of Saturday Review. In an account of how Slaughterhouse-Five was promoted to the public, Jerome Kinkowitz writes: “A correlation exists between the first two major reviews of Slaughterhouse-Five: each was written by a critic who had heard Vonnegut speak to audiences, and who had been, moreover, impressed by the personal voice in the author’s fictive statement. Not that public speaking was Vonnegut’s chosen profession; rather, his talk at Notre Dame University’s Literary Festival (as heard by Granville Hicks) and his two-year lectureship at the University of Iowa (where Robert Scholes was a colleague) were stopgap measures to generate some income after his customary publishing markets had either closed or ceased to respond."8 Bob Scholes' review was published on the front page of the New York Times Book Review and was accompanied by a background piece on Vonnegut by another former Iowa fellow writer, C. D. B. Bryan. Bryan writes not only about Vonnegut’s “quiet, humorous, well-mannered and rational protests against man’s inhumanity to man” but also reinforces the personal sense of the book by revealing intimacies, including references to Vonnegut struggling to support his family by selling what he could to commercial magazines.
Vonnegut’s home in Iowa City, where part of Slaughterhouse-Five manuscript was conceived and written, was a “big house at the dead end of Van Buren Street,”9 next door to Andre Dubus’s house. It is the well-preserved Victorian brick mansion, built circa 1885, on 800 North Van Buren Street.
Maria Pilar Donoso, who lived in Iowa City, while her husband, the Chilean writer Jose (Pepe) Donoso, was a professor with the Workshop during the same period as Vonnegut, provides a vivid description of the house during a beer party in the winter of 1966 the Vonneguts had thrown in honor of Saul Bellow, not yet a Nobel Laureate at the time:
“For this celebration in honor of such a distinguished writer, the guests would be a mix, not only professors but also students in Kurt's classes, close friends, and the most talented participants in other classes or workshops. Thus, there were also whiskey, scotch or bourbon, so well liked by Americans, and gin and vermouth for dry martinis, fashionable drinks at that time. The Vonnegut house, shared with Eddie and Nannie, their teenage daughters, was not particularly elegant but it was spacious and warm, especially that night with the hidden, lighted fireplace in the great living room filled with lights and animated conversations. It seemed almost beautiful. Outside, light snow was falling, sprinkling the windows with white flakes.”
“ […] At the party Kurt assumed the assigned role of the host. He would mix and serve drinks in the living room corner, achieving control of his shyness in that way, that shyness that's always with him; in front of the typewriter, in front of his friends and students, and at the bar in his house, with a straight drink of whiskey that he'd drink as if it were a prescribed medicine. […] Although Vonnegut is a very timid human being, the night of Saul Bellow's party he was quite relaxed and animated. Perhaps this was because the guests were professors and students, everyday characters, who freed him of the tensions produced by meeting new people.”
“ […] That afternoon, Pepe and I had attended Bellow's [lecture] in an overfilled auditorium. I remember that I listened attentively and left satisfied, specifically with what he said about American universities, that they were the antennas of the twentieth century in this country and it was there that the most significant artistic movements were produced and the most important works were created in any field.” 10
The house looked differently about 15 years later, according to the description of an University of Iowa former student who lived nearby in the early 1980s:
“It was a big spooky house, and every May Day there would be a party there, a BIG party, no invitations needed because everybody in town knew about it ... kegs, food, drugs, and a big ol' bonfire. Which was always a little dicey due to the fact that beyond the house was the woods. Anyway, ripping parties every year, quite often live music, and always fun. Eventually, the people that hosted the annual fest moved away, and even though the new people didn't want to continue it, for a couple years people kept showing up and having a party in their yard.”
Vonnegut’s legacy lives on in the memory of the people who met him in Iowa City.
JOHN IRVING: “I met him in '65, and I was in the Workshop from '65 to '67. I spent the lion's share of my time at Iowa with Kurt, and we've been close friends ever since. The only criticism he ever made of my writing was making fun of my fondness for semicolons, which Kurt never liked very much. He called semicolons '’transvestite hermaphrodites.’ And so, whenever we had a correspondence, I would try to write him a letter that was one sentence connected by an infinite number of semicolons. But he was a great guy, and a particularly important influence on me at a young time, because I certainly knew from reading Dickens that you could break the rules in terms of putting comedy and tragedy in the same story or even the same scene. But Vonnegut was such a flaunting example of that in contemporary terms. He could write the most condemning stuff about human nature while being both funny and kind.
"I watched the Six-Day War in Vonnegut's kitchen in Iowa City. My now-eldest son Colin was then two years old, and Kurt didn't have any kids that age, so there weren't any toys around for Colin. Kurt and I were trying to watch the war, but it's tough to watch a war with a two-year-old. So Kurt got the idea that if we took all the pans and pots out of the kitchen cabinet, and gave Colin a couple of wooden spoons, then he could entertain himself, and we would have the appropriate background music for watching a war. And so that's what we did. We gave Colin two wooden spoons, and all the pots and pans in Vonnegut's kitchen, and turned up the volume.
"Kurt was a troubled guy. He had issues and episodes with depression—his mother had killed herself. I think the thought of suicide was one he held at bay, and the issue of depression was one he lived with, often by laughing at it. He was notorious for sort of being the most entertaining person at a dinner party until he abruptly got up and went home. And you kind of expected that from him. I was a neighbor of his for a number of years when I lived in Long Island—my year-round house was around the corner from Kurt's summerhouse—and I would often come down to make coffee in the morning and find him sitting on the porch of my house smoking a cigarette. And he always said, 'Oh, I just got here, and I just wondered if you were up,' and he'd come in, and we'd have a cup of coffee, and he'd leave, and he'd say 'Well, I'll let you get to work.' And then my kids would go outside and count the number of cigarette butts on the lawn, and by that we could come up with a fair estimation of how long he'd really been sitting there, waiting for someone to get up and make some coffee. His eccentricities were real.”11
MARVIN BELL: “Kurt was a genius of the Absurd. He saw that mankind was courting doom and was able to blend the spectacle with the horrific so that we laughed and squirmed. He was an original. I once came out of a bar on a fall evening to find Kurt walking quickly down the sidewalk – backwards. One of his favorite jokes was of the guy strapped into the electric chair who is asked if he has any last words and replies, ‘Yeah, I guess this will teach me a lesson.’ He used to attend our weekly nickel-dime-poker games, stay an hour, drink one beer, lose $10 and leave. Returning at an advanced age to speak in Iowa City, he articulated a doomsday view of planetary changes, then brightened and said, 'But hey! This isn't my problem. I'm outta here.' "While a teacher in the Workshop, Kurt won a Guggenheim. It would allow him to track down the German guards with whom he had survived the Dresden firebombing. A short time later, he was back in town. 'Couldn't you find them?' I asked. 'Oh, I found them,' he said. 'No one remembers a thing.'
"It was George Starbuck who, as Director of the Workshop, hired Vonnegut. George hired Nelson Algren at the same time. Afterward, Algren claimed that Vonnegut's students preferred Nelson and came to his classes, but the truth was just the reverse. Algren's students preferred Vonnegut.”
TOM WOLFE: "There was never a kinder and, at the same time, wittier writer to be with personally. He was just a gem in that respect. And as a writer, I guess he's the closest thing we had to a Voltaire. He could be extremely funny, but there was a vein of iron always underneath it, which made him quite remarkable. He was never funny just to be funny."12
Vonnegut’s Plaque on the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk reads: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
Before the age of 24, Vonnegut experienced a string of disturbing events: a childhood stirred by the Great Depression, the death of his mother by suicide, and becoming a prisoner of war while fighting in World War II. After returning from World War II, Kurt Vonnegut married his childhood sweetheart, Jane Marie Cox, writing about their courtship in several of his short stories. The couple separated in 1970. He did not divorce Cox until 1979, but from 1970 Vonnegut lived with the woman who would later become his second wife, photographer Jill Krementz. Krementz and Vonnegut were married after the divorce from Cox was finalized.
He raised seven children: three with his first wife, three more born to his sister Alice and adopted by Vonnegut after she died of cancer, and a seventh, Lily, adopted with Krementz. Two of these children have published books, including his only biological son, Mark Vonnegut, who wrote The Eden Express: A Memoir of Insanity, about his experiences in the late 1960s and his major psychotic breakdown and recovery; the tendency to insanity he acknowledged may be partly hereditary, influencing him to take up the study of medicine and orthomolecular medicine, which he later disavowed. Mark was named after Mark Twain, whom Vonnegut considered an American saint. His daughter Edith, an artist, was named after Kurt Vonnegut's mother, Edith Lieber. She has had her work published in a book titled Domestic Goddesses and was once married to the talk show host Geraldo Rivera. His youngest daughter, Nanette, was named after Nanette Schnull, Vonnegut's paternal grandmother. She is married to realist painter Scott Prior and is the subject of several of his paintings, notably "Nanny and Rose". Of Vonnegut's four adopted children, three are his nephews: James, Steven, and Kurt Adams; the fourth is Lily, a girl he adopted as an infant in 1982. James, Steven, and Kurt were adopted after a traumatic week in 1958, in which their father James Carmalt Adams was killed on September 15 in the Newark Bay rail crash, when his commuter train went off the open Newark Bay bridge in New Jersey, and their mother—Kurt's sister Alice—died of cancer. In Slapstick, Vonnegut recounts that Alice's husband died two days before Alice herself. Her family tried to hide the knowledge from her, but she found out when an ambulatory patient gave her a copy of the New York Daily News a day before she herself died. The fourth and youngest of the boys, Peter Nice, went to live with a first cousin of their father in Birmingham, Alabama as an infant. Lily is a singer and actress.13
A Posthumous Note from Mark Vonnegut:
In accord with Kurt's wishes, a brief memorial service attended by family and close friends was held on Saturday, April 21, 2007 at the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan. An impromptu jazz group played traditional New Orleans music and guests sang along on "I'll Fly Away," "Down by the Riverside," and "Amazing Grace." There was a lot of laughing and crying. Prior to the service, dirt from his garden was deposited at The New York Public Library, the Chrysler Building, Grand Central Station, Times Square, and three places in Central Park -- the statue of Balto, the Avenue of Literature, and the Dairy Building. We're all a little puzzled about what to do next but we'll think of something.14
A Posthumous Note from Eddie Vonnegut:
I never expected Kurt to actually die. He was supposed to break the code and live forever. I’m pretty disillusioned right now. When I was very young, like 12, I went to his study to ask him for answers to this world. He said he didn’t know any more than I did and that he was experiencing everything I was at the very same time. I think it was during the Cuban missile crisis and I was scared. He said he didn’t have a clue. From there on out I regarded him as a fellow clueless comrade who had no extra advantage or wisdom above me. He pulled no rank as ‘Father’ and for that I am eternally grateful. Though he was the smartest man I ever met and I am rather limited. Even so he made me feel equal at a very early age and taught me to question authority wherever I found it. Thank you everyone out there for getting him and loving him and missing him.
A posthumous homage by The New York Times: Kurt Vonnegut, Novelist Who Caught the Imagination of His Age, Is Dead at 84, by Dinita Smith (April 12, 2007).
Text by: Zlatko Anguelov
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