Not long before he died, Kurt Vonnegut and I got together for lunch in New York at an Italian place he liked in Midtown. Somewhere around the second glass of red wine for each of us, the conversation turned to his legacy. He worried, he said, that he would be forgotten.
Because Kurt and I had been friends for a half-dozen years at that point, I did what a friend does. I offered reassurance—which, in this case, involved just telling the truth.
Of course he’d be remembered, I told him. He’d written timeless books that dealt with enduring themes.
He shook his head.
“No,” he said. “You’re lucky if you get to have some influence in the time in which you live. That’s all you can expect, and you’re lucky if you get that much.”
Come on, I said, Slaughterhouse-Five alone was going to guarantee he would be read for as long as war was a part of human life.
Kurt would have none of it. He shook his head again.
No, he insisted.
Not even Slaughterhouse-Five would keep his name alive.
Slaughterhouse-Five changed Vonnegut’s life.
Before the book’s publication on March 31, 1969, Kurt was a well-respected writer’s writer. He had published a handful of books. All were well-regarded. None sold many copies.
Most of the money he made came from the short stories he sold to magazines such as Collier’s.
“We called them the ‘slicks’ in those days,” says Sidney Offit, the author of Memoir of the Bookie’s Son and Kurt’s best friend for the last 30 or so years of his life. Offit also edited several posthumous collections of Kurt’s work, including all four Vonnegut volumes in the Library of America series.
Offit had experience with the slicks. Early in his career, he and his wife sweated over a short story they finally sold to a magazine. They got maybe $800 for it, serious money in the 1950s. They rejoiced because it was such a big deal.
“Kurt was routinely selling stories to the slicks at those rates,” Offit says. “He had the touch.”
But magazines weren’t enough to provide a living for Kurt and his growing family. He and his first wife, Jane, had three children. Then, in 1958, Kurt’s sister, Alice, and her husband, James Adams, died within 48 hours of each other, leaving four children without parents. Kurt and Jane adopted and raised their three nephews. The other child was adopted by a Vonnegut cousin.
When the slicks started to go under in the late ’50s and that market dried up, finances grew even tighter. Mark Vonnegut, Kurt’s son, says his father earned $30,000 one year. It was a decent sum for the mid-’60s, but raising six children on it was a stretch. “My sisters and I always had the perception that we had less than everyone around us and that money was always tight,” Mark says. “We were the poorer kids. That’s how it felt.”
To keep afloat, Kurt took on other work. He did public relations for General Electric. He even tried selling Saab automobiles.
“He was a shitty car salesman,” says Marc Leeds, the author of The Vonnegut Encyclopedia. “And he wasn’t very happy about writing other people’s copy.”
But that’s where Kurt was as 1969 dawned. He was 46, a husband, and the father of six children.
And he struggled to pay the bills.
Then came Slaughterhouse-Five.
It did what Player Piano and Mother Night and Cat’s Cradle didn’t do.
A tale of the Allied bombing of Dresden during the waning days of World War II, the book rose to No. 4 on The New York Times best-seller list, the first of Kurt’s books to appear there. All the ones that followed in his lifetime—Breakfast of Champions through Man Without a Country—would find spots on it. Some even climbed to the top.
Slaughterhouse-Five also was made into a movie. Other films drawn from his books would follow.
Kurt started doing television. He appeared on The Dick Cavett Show. He sat down with Charlie Rose. Eventually, he was even on The Daily Show.
He made cameos in movies such as Back to School with Rodney Dangerfield. He did voice-over work for documentaries, including Ken Burns’s The Civil War.
He even did TV commercials. Kurt helped pitch coffee and credit cards in the 1980s and 1990s.
And he hit the lecture circuit, commanding as much as $25,000 a talk.
He never had to sell Saabs again.
Slaughterhouse-Five was an odd bestseller.
The book opens with a famous line, “All this happened, more or less.”
It’s a signal that what follows will blend fact and fiction and blur the lines between reality and make-believe. Things grow stranger still. In the opening chapter that is presented as a true-to-life account, Kurt explains how he came to tell the story and violates a couple of presumed storytelling rules. He says the book is a failure and tells his readers how his tale will start and finish.
“It begins like this:
“Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.
“It ends like this:
That last word is the sound of a bird singing in springtime, a symbol, perhaps, of rebirth.
Through the course of the story, which bounces back and forth in time and space, people often die. Kurt acknowledges their passing with a mournful refrain: “So it goes.”
The story came from Kurt’s experience.He had been a promising student at Shortridge High School, where he was a member of the class of 1940. He was the editor of the Tuesday edition of The Shortridge Daily Echo. He discovered then that he liked writing and he was good at it.
“It just turned out that I could write better than a lot of other people,” Kurt told an interviewer in 1999. “Each person has something he can do easily and can’t imagine why everybody else has so much trouble doing it.”
College was a different story. He went to Cornell University. He wanted to study in the humanities, but his father, an architect whose career and fortunes had been pounded by the Great Depression, wanted him to pursue a degree that would be more “useful.” He studied biochemistry and struggled with it. His grades weren’t good. In the spring of 1942, he found himself on academic probation. In January of 1943, he left school.
World War II had come.
After dropping out, Kurt served in the U.S. Army. He became a scout and was sent to Europe in mid-1944. It was a difficult time for him. Three months before he was sent over, his mother, Edith Lieber Vonnegut, committed suicide—on Mother’s Day. When he had been in the theater of war for only a few days, Kurt and 6,000 other members of his division were overrun and captured. About 500 were killed.
A prisoner of war, he found himself transported to Dresden.
“It was our misfortune to have sadistic and fanatical guards,” Kurt wrote in 1945. “We were refused medical attention and clothing. We were given long hours at extremely hard labor. Our food ration was 250 grams of black bread and one pint of unseasoned potato soup each day. After desperately trying to improve our situation for two months and having been met with bland smiles, I told the guards just what I was going to do to them when the Russians came. They beat me up a little.”
He added that beatings were “very small time.”
One of the POWs—a “boy,” Kurt called him—died of starvation. SS troops shot two others for stealing food.
Kurt remained a prisoner as Valentine’s Day approached, when U.S. and British planes firebombed Dresden, killing as many as 135,000 people.
During the carnage, Kurt and other POWs were imprisoned in a meat locker.
Afterward, the Germans ordered the POWs to collect and dispose of corpses by the thousands. The six-month-long experience left Kurt with psychological scars that never entirely healed. He often battled depression. He also was hospitalized after a suicide attempt.
His son Mark doesn’t think his father was truly suicidal, but he does believe Kurt struggled with mental health issues from the day he went to war to the day he died. “I think he was a veteran with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder],” he says.
When Kurt came home from the war, PTSD wasn’t called by that name. If it went by any name, it was called “shell-shock” or “battle fatigue.” It often wasn’t treated as a medical condition. Instead, it was considered a character defect or a failure of nerve.
That meant veterans such as Kurt didn’t get the help they might have needed to deal with a mental health condition that leaves survivors trapped reliving horrible events. The consequences could be tragic. People with PTSD struggle more often with severe anxiety, with depression, with chemical dependency, and with other challenges. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports that veterans commit suicide at more than twice the rate of the rest of the U.S. adult population.
Mark says writing was more than a career for his father. After Kurt’s war experiences, it was a lifeline.
“It’s not that complicated,” Mark says. “He saw and was forced to do things no 22-year-old could see and be forced to do without being extremely traumatized. What saved him from being a suicide or hopeless drunk was writing, telling his story.”
Vonnegut encyclopedist Leeds agrees. He says Kurt came back from the war desperate to reckon with his war experience. Part of the reason the early Vonnegut books struggled to find an audience, he says, is that they “were novels of ideas”—attempts to figure out things that troubled him. Kurt couldn’t find a way to tell his war story, but he kept returning to it, searching for a way to put his pain into words and earn himself some solace.
“All the while, he kept saying, ‘I absolutely have to unload this,’” Leeds says.
So Kurt kept writing, both to provide for his family and to save his sanity.
What would have happened if he hadn’t been able to write?
“He would have drank himself to death,” his son Mark writes.
Kurt told me a joke once that cracked him up. It was about a letter he had sent his family about victory bonds during the war.
“I wrote them that if they stopped buying those damn things, I might get to come home,” he said.
Almost 60 years after he had returned from the war, Kurt laughed so hard he almost cried.
The breakaway success of Slaughterhouse-Five came at a cost.
“I think my father would have agreed that money and fame is a pretty awful thing to do to someone,” Mark says.
Kurt enjoyed some of the trappings of celebrity. He liked good food and good wine. He enjoyed seeing doors opened to him that had been closed before.
But in other ways, he was ill-equipped to deal with the sudden rush of attention. It left him feeling exposed and cut off at the same time.
“He was a very, very self-conscious man,” Mark says. “Someone said something once about his skinny legs and he refused to play tennis in shorts ever again.”
Kurt didn’t know how to cope with those who saw him as a target. He couldn’t disengage from hangers-on and semi-stalkers.
His friend Sidney Offit says Kurt couldn’t say no to requests for blurbs. He wasn’t gifted at polite evasions. Many times, he would find himself trapped at a party. Someone would press him to read a manuscript or a screenplay or an essay, and Kurt didn’t know how to beg off with a smile and an excuse.
“He had no capacity for false dialogue,” Offit says. “When someone pressed him, he didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t deal with it. He just would leave—and almost leave in depression.”
Kurt’s inability to confront people who wanted to use him, Mark says, brought “parasites” into his life. They drained him of energy, of time and of focus. They created a barrier between him and the people he had been close to before he became famous.
He was always on stage and all alone at the same time.
“That wasn’t good for him,” Mark says. “And it certainly wasn’t good for the rest of us.”
Offit says Kurt learned how to find places and people who offered him respite. Offit had been a television personality in New York for years and could commiserate with Kurt about fame’s challenges.
They formed a “three amigos” kind of friendship with the late Morley Safer, the veteran CBS newsman and star of 60 Minutes. Kurt, Offit, and Safer got together for lunch or dinner on a regular basis, moments, Offit says, that had a soothing effect on Kurt.
“Once, when we were all together, I asked why it was that the three of us got along so well and had such a good time together,” Offit recalls. “Morley said, ‘It’s because we don’t need anything from each other.’”
Once, Kurt and I were at an event in Indianapolis together. He was signing copies of his books. The line contained hundreds of people, many of them holding several Vonnegut volumes in their hands.
He asked me to get him a Scotch and soda.
When I came back from the bar, glass in hand, Kurt was gone.
I found him hiding, all by himself, in a dark corner under a staircase. I handed him the drink. He took one sip, then another.
“They started coming at me in waves,” Kurt told me, as he hunched further in the corner, clutching the Scotch. “I just had to get away.”
Some of the damage fame did to Kurt’s life involved more than social discomfort.
When Slaughterhouse-Five was published, he had been married to the former Jane Marie Cox for nearly 25 years. She had been his girlfriend when they both were students at Shortridge High School. They had known each other since kindergarten.
Mark says his mother supported Kurt’s writing, that she encouraged him to keep submitting stories even when sales were slow and rejections were many. He says his father might have quit writing if it hadn’t been for Jane’s encouragement.
Offit echoes that.
“I thought she was the perfect wife for him,” he says. “She got him. She understood him and supported him.”
But after the success of Slaughterhouse-Five, “it was clear he had grown bored with the repetition of that marriage.” Kurt was enamored, Offit says, with the entrée to elite social circles his new fame allowed him.
Mark says his father thought that meant he had arrived. Kurt, Mark claims, always felt that people measured him against his older brother, Bernard, and found him wanting. Bernard had been a star student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology while Kurt’s academic career had been checkered with, among other things, withdrawals from school and rejected dissertations. Bernard found professional success as a chemist early and secured 28 patents over the course of his career. Kurt’s literary career didn’t take off until he was a middle-aged man.
The pattern continued throughout his literary career. Kurt believed other, less-talented writers earned more respect than he did. No matter how many books he sold or how many fan letters he received, he thought of himself as the underachieving younger brother, hungry for attention.
For that reason, Mark says, “I think he had a bottomless pit of a need for praise.”
Kurt’s hunger for acceptance and approval, he adds, were disorienting for the entire family.
“One day I was looking around and wondering where all these rich people came from,” Mark says.
His parents fought over the direction of their lives and their marriage. Jane had become more devout in her Christian faith. Kurt’s spiritual beliefs wavered between agnosticism and atheism.
Kurt’s celebrity exacerbated those tensions.
“Ultimately,” Mark says, “it destroyed my parents’ marriage.”
Kurt and Jane separated in 1971, two years after Slaughterhouse-Five was published, divorcing in 1979.
Slaughterhouse-Five’s success cut Kurt off in other ways, too.
He was a painstaking writer, one who revised and revised. He didn’t write just to please himself. He wanted to connect with an audience. He needed feedback to refine his stories.
That became more difficult after his breakthrough book was published.
According to Leeds, Kurt found it harder to get good editing. “After success on the scale of Slaughterhouse-Five, who was going to question his judgment?” he says.
Mark says his father’s work suffered after Slaughterhouse-Five came out. He doesn’t think the books that followed Kurt’s most celebrated work are as good as the ones that came before it.
“And I think he felt that way, too—that the early books were better than the later ones,” Mark says.
Offit and Leeds disagree. They argue that a powerhouse performance like Slaughterhouse-Five would make almost any other book suffer by comparison.
“One’s masterpiece should not become the standard,” Leeds says. “That’s not a fair way to judge.”
Offit puts it even more simply.
“How do you follow something like Slaughterhouse-Five?” he says. “It can’t be done.”
Leeds says he often rereads Kurt’s later novels—particularly Bluebeard and Timequake, both of which deal with some of the themes in Slaughterhouse-Five—and he finds the books satisfying.
Offit argues that all of Kurt’s books worked on some level because he was such an acute observer of humanity and a gifted storyteller.
“Kurt couldn’t express anything that wasn’t totally entertaining,” Offit says.
The reality, though, is that Slaughterhouse-Five flipped things for Kurt. Before that novel’s publication, he was something of a critic’s darling, a writer whose books didn’t sell many copies but always were well-reviewed. After Slaughterhouse-Five, he sold lots and lots of books, but the critics often were less than glowing in their assessments.
When Breakfast of Champions came out four years after Slaughterhouse-Five was published, The New York Times book reviewer said Kurt “self-destructs” as a novelist in the book’s pages. Other critics were even more harsh.
Although some of Kurt’s later books earned critics’ praise, that praise often was slight, even dismissive. When Deadeye Dick came out in 1982, The New York Times review dismissed his post-Slaughterhouse-Five body of work as “mannered.”
Almost as if it were an afterthought or anticlimax.
Kurt called me once to ask for a favor.
His passport had been destroyed in a fire. He needed a copy of his birth certificate as fast as possible so he could replace it, but he didn’t know how to get one. I called some people in Indiana state government and got one overnighted to him.
When I called him back to say it was on its way, I asked what the rush was.
“Well, John,” he said, “you know they do have these things called the Nobel Prize for Literature, and I’ve got to be ready.”
Then he laughed.
As was often the case with Kurt, though, the joke gave voice to frustration, even pain. He thought his writing wasn’t respected because it was accessible. He believed his peers—Norman Mailer, William Styron, and John Updike, for example—were held in higher regard than he was.
“There are critics,” Kurt told me, “who think that any idea that can be easily understood by definition must not be profound.”
When I tell Mark about Kurt’s Nobel Prize joke, he laughs, then shares one of his own.
Kurt was convinced, he says, that the Swedes on the Nobel committee had a dislike for him that went back as far as his days as a failed Saab salesman.
“He always said the Swedes had long memories and short dicks,” Mark says, and laughs again.
Kurt could not accept his own success, his son says. He felt he wasn’t respected or treated seriously.
“He had specific grudges against The New York Times, against The New Yorker, specific grudges against critics who dismissed him,” Mark says.
I ask Mark if his father would take any satisfaction from the fact that, in death, he’s outselling his onetime contemporaries and competitors—and that his books have remained in print, while some of theirs haven’t.
Mark laughs once more.
“Nah,” he says, “he’d still be bitter about Updike and Styron and Mailer.”
The questions linger: Why was Slaughterhouse-Five Kurt’s breakthrough success? What made it a classic, the book against which all his other work would be judged?
His son, his best friend, and the scholar who compiled the encyclopedia of his work all say timing played a factor. The book came out at a point when the concern, skepticism, and revulsion over the Vietnam War had intensified.
But there were many anti-war novels published in those days. Few of them are read or even remembered today, and Slaughterhouse-Five is a fixture on the reading lists for many colleges and high schools. When the Random House Modern Library surveyed scholars to determine the best novels of the 20th century, Slaughterhouse-Five came in at No. 18.
That’s 33 places higher than Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice landed at No. 96. None of John Updike’s novels made the list.
Slaughterhouse-Five now belongs in the canon of modern literature.
“It’s part of the pantheon,” Leeds says.
One reason is the book’s tone. It’s written more in sorrow than in anger. That’s what separates it from many other anti-war tomes.
It didn’t start out that way.
Kurt had been trying to write about his war experiences almost from the moment he had them.
“The Germans herded us through scalding delousing showers. Many men died from shock in the showers after 10 days of starvation, thirst and exposure. But I didn’t,” he wrote in a letter to his family on May 29, 1945.
Further down in the letter, he wrote:
“The Americans came over, followed by the R.A.F. Their combined labors killed 250,000 people [sic] in 24 hours and destroyed all of Dresden—possibly the world’s most beautiful city. But not me.”
When Kurt got home from the war and was trying to launch his literary career, he wrote an account of his Dresden experience, “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets.” Fury bubbled just beneath that piece’s surface, too.
Kurt kept working at it, though, because his war experiences gnawed at him. He wrote in the preface to the 25th anniversary edition of Slaughterhouse-Five that he tried to craft “a nonjudgmental expression of astonishment at what I saw and did” and the loss of innocence that followed.
The refrain “so it goes” was his attempt to accept what he had experienced.
Leeds believes working on Slaughterhouse-Five in the late ’60s was almost like therapy for Kurt. “This is a guy who sits you down with a Pall Mall in hand and says, ‘This is what I’ve seen. This is what I’ve done. This is what we did to other human beings—what human beings did to each other. And I’m still trying to deal with it all,’” he says. “That honesty speaks to us.”
Kurt gave Slaughterhouse-Five a subtitle: “The Children’s Crusade.”
At another of our lunches, Kurt and I talked about the harsh economics of writing. He knew what had happened to him didn’t happen to many people. Roughly one author in 200 makes enough money to live off his or her books.
All the others struggle, as he did before Slaughterhouse-Five became a hit.
“You can’t write for money, because for most writers, there won’t be much money,” he said. “You have to write for the same reason you do any art—because it feeds your soul.”
Mark Vonnegut says he has reread several of his father’s books in the years since Kurt’s death.
But not Slaughterhouse-Five.
He hasn’t been drawn back to it, he says. He also says the book is not his favorite among his father’s works. That honor goes to The Sirens of Titan. Mark says he finds Slaughterhouse-Five “a bit facile.” He doesn’t think some of the characters are fully developed. And he responds more to the honest anger and pain in his father’s earlier writings about the war.
He acknowledges, though, that his judgment may not be objective. He says he may have conflicted feelings about the book perceived to be his father’s masterpiece.
“I see it as a transition,” Mark says. “It took away the father I grew up knowing and transformed him into the public figure he became. It’s difficult for me to see it the way other people do. It’s hard for me to see it as just a book.”
Kurt Vonnegut died 12 years ago, in the spring of 2007. He was 84.
So it goes.
Slaughterhouse-Five is 50 years old. Thanks to its place in high school and college curricula across the country, the book now draws its fourth and fifth generations of readers. Leeds says Kurt continues to sell more than a quarter-million books a year—and that probably at least a third of those sales are copies of Slaughterhouse-Five.
The book is the reason a new word was coined to describe Kurt’s work: “Vonnegutian.” To Leeds, it suggests a wry acknowledgment of tragedies too deep for tears.
There’s little sign Slaughterhouse-Five will disappear any time soon.
“The book has lasted because it’s dealing with a universal theme,” Offit says. “And that’s the awful stupidity of war.”
For that reason, Kurt’s best friend says, Slaughterhouse-Five will remain eternal, as perennial a fixture on bookshelves and reading lists as the annual return of spring.