Like so many of his generation, award-winning biographer Charles Shields became fascinated with the writings of Kurt Vonnegut as a college student in 1969. He says Vonnegut’s most known novel Slaughterhouse-Five “broke over our heads like a storm.”
“It captured the bewilderment and confusion that so many of us felt as we were trying to make the 1st moral decisions of our lives,” Shields told the crowd assembled tonight at the Politics and Prose bookstore to hear him discuss his latest work And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life
Searching for a subject after completing Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, Shields, a former English teacher, decided upon Vonnegut. After some initial reluctance, the author agreed. “Kurt felt he was under appreciated,” Shields said. “He was a little miffed that no biography had even been written about him.”
On their first meeting, Shields said Vonnegut greeted him at the door of his New York residence and said, “‘Hey. You want to come up and see my room.’ It was like a thing one boy would say to another.” Vonnegut and Shields then left to have dinner at the author’s favorite neighborhood Italian restaurant. Shields was ready with a few questions to break the ice, but Vonnegut immediately launched into a “litany of grievances” against his family. “Even after all those years, it was like he was an aggrieved adolescent seeking vindication,” Shields said. “If the voice were higher, I would have thought I was talking to a 13-year-old.”
After years of studying Vonnegut, Shields believes this adolescent anger, spread throughout his writings, may be one of the chief reasons Vonnegut continues to be popular with college-aged readers who are coming to grips with the fact that authority figures are not always right.
Over time, Vonnegut warmed to the biography project. He would call Shields late at night and ask “Hey, how’s my biography coming?” Or he would introduce Shields as “This is my biographer.”
However, after 3 lengthy interview sessions, Vonnegut took sick. He died a few days later. But even without the author’s first-hand accounts, Shields was able to draw upon more than 1,500 lengthy letters the author had written. “I think he used letters as a warmup for his writing,” Shields said.
During his early years as a writer, Vonnegut struggled and his writing was consigned to science fiction pulp racks. In 1965, he was a last-minute choice to head the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, “It all congealed for him there,” Shields said. “He realized that he didn’t have to be constrained.” In 1969, Slaughterhouse-Five became a success, bringing with it the fame and financial security Vonnegut had so long sought. “He moved to New York. He bought into the life he had always wanted. If a writer can achieve the American Dream, he did,” Shields said.
But personal happiness was to remain elusive. There were long bouts with depression. There was an attempted suicide. Shields said he found Vonnegut to be an extrovert who couldn’t maintain friendships. Near the end of his life, he would sit alone on a street bench. When someone would approach and ask “Hey, aren’t you Kurt Vonnegut?” Vonnegut would dismiss them with a gruff “not now.”
The author constantly fretted about his place in literature cannon, steadfast in his belief that he deserved more serious acclaim than he was receiving. Finally, he rationalized that it was his simplistic writing style and his “and so it goes” fatalistic universal outlook that was the cuplrit. “Anything that seems simple can’t be worthy,” Vonnegut reasoned.
But Shields believes Vonnegut’s legacy will last. “He belongs in the cannon. He brought post-modernism into the mainstream. He made it popular,” Shields says.