Cover image of "And So It Goes," a Kurt Vonnegut biography

The face that peers out at you from the cover is immeasurably sad. It’s the face of a man in middle age weighed down by lifetimes of tragedy. The man — one of the most remarkable novelists of the 20th century — is Kurt Vonnegut, known throughout much of his adult life as Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. In And So It Goes, his Kurt Vonnegut biography, Charles J. Shields plumbs the depths of Vonnegut’s sadness. He began work shortly before Vonnegut’s death in 2006 and conducted lengthy interviews with his children, his first wife, contemporary writers, business associates, and neighbors. The intimacy and detail of the book is remarkable: a whole man emerges from its pages.

Vonnegut struggled through the first four decades of his long life — he died at 83 — then gradually gained readers through the 1960s until, with the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five in 1969, he became famous “overnight” as he neared the age of 50. After years of eating cereal for dinner and scraping for pennies selling what he regarded as hack stories for the popular magazines of the 1950s and 1960s, he and his wife suddenly found themselves rich as royalties poured in from reprints of his earlier work and as each succeeding book, good or bad, lingered on the best-seller lists for week after week.

And So It Goes—Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Shields ★★★★★

Like the best of his novels — Cat’s Cradle, published in 1963, as well as Slaughterhouse-Five — Vonnegut was deceptively complex. In public, Vonnegut affected the manner, even for a time the mustache and the white suit, of his literary hero, Mark Twain. Like Twain, he was folksy and often screamingly funny. A rigid moralist and a plain-spoken opponent of war and defender of freedom of speech, he was idolized by a generation of students and was one of the most popular speakers on college campuses throughout the country during the 1970s and 1980s. In public appearances, Vonnegut generally came across as avuncular, considerate, and witty, often leaving audiences gasping from laughter. At the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, he proved himself to be a popular and talented teacher.

The man himself, however, though consistently witty throughout his life, bore little other resemblance to his long-time public image. He treated his long-time first wife, Jane, with undisguised contempt, ignored his children and frightened their friends, betrayed his own friends by summarily ending decades-long business relationships, and, in his final years, became intolerably grouchy.

A deeply troubled childhood and life-long depression

Reflecting the truism that “what goes around comes around,” Vonnegut’s childhood was deeply troubled. His mother, having been raised in luxury and dependent on servants for even the most mundane tasks, was emotionally upended by the Crash of 1929, when the family’s circumstances were sharply reduced. She spent the rest of her life sleeping for days on end and moping about the house, finally killing herself when Kurt was just 21 — on Mother’s Day, 1944. His feckless father, a talented engineer trapped in life as an architect like his brilliant father, paid little attention to Kurt as a child and almost never encouraged him in any way.

All the family’s attention was fastened on Kurt’s older brother, Bernard, a gifted scientist who later in life discovered the technique of cloud-seeding to induce rain. When Kurt announced his interest in pursuing studies in the arts, Bernard insisted that he enroll at Cornell to study science, and the younger brother was powerless to resist. He lasted two years there and, later, pursued an anthropology degree at the University of Chicago with a similar lack of success. (Years later, he persuaded the Chicago Anthropology Department to accept his novel Cat’s Cradle in lieu of a thesis and was awarded an M.A.)

A prisoner of war in World War II Dresden

Though tragedy in other forms continued to dog Vonnegut in later years, one event stands out as central to his character and his career: the fire-bombing of Dresden in 1945. Vonnegut had enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army the year before and, as his luck would have it, his unit was eventually sent to the Western Front in Europe — positioned at the farthest-forward salient in the Allied lines. Shortly afterward, the Germans attacked in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge.

Vonnegut and his buddies were quickly taken prisoner along with thousands of other Americans and marched overland to POW camps in Germany. Eventually, Vonnegut and a small number of his fellow prisoners were taken into Dresden and housed in a old slaughterhouse — shortly before the horrific fire-bombing attack that killed more than 60,000 civilians. The Americans survived by hiding in a basement. They were put to work once the attack had ended — collecting and stacking corpses.

Is it any wonder why Kurt Vonnegut was cranky? Naturally, none of what he endured can excuse his bad behavior. But it certainly does begin to explain the current of profound sadness that ran throughout Vonnegut’s life.

So it goes.

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