And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life

  • Charles J. Shields
  • Henry Holt & Company
  • 528 pp.
  • November 8, 2011

The warts-and-all subject of this fine biography shows a man no less powerful than the cult hero he became to many readers.

Reviewed by Robert T. Tally Jr.

In the “Editor’s Note” to his 1961 novel, Mother Night (which is presented as the autobiographical memoirs of Howard W. Campbell, Jr., hence the role as “editor”), Kurt Vonnegut cautions the reader to remain skeptical about the narrative of a gifted playwright: “To say that he was a writer is to say that the demands of art alone were enough to make him lie, and to lie without seeing any harm in it. To say that he was a playwright is to offer an even harsher warning to the reader, for no one is a better liar than a man who has warped lives and passions onto something as grotesquely artificial as the stage.”

This warning could also apply to Vonnegut, who was himself a playwright and whose best known writings incorporate a great deal of his own life’s story … or, at least, his version of that story. Like the fictional Campbell, Vonnegut’s scattered autobiographical memoires should be taken with a few grains of salt, and a more complete picture would require a well researched, scholarly biography to flesh out the real person who achieved such a cult status in his own lifetime.

At last, with Charles J. Shields’s And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life, the iconic author has received his due in this department. And the time certainly seems ripe. Since Vonnegut’s death in 2007, dozens of studies, remembrances and posthumous works have appeared. In 2011 alone, Shields’s biography joins at least three new scholarly studies of Vonnegut’s work, plus yet another collection of previously unpublished stories (While Mortals Sleep) and the canon-forming Library of America’s volume Novels & Stories, 1963–1973. Thus, the first serious biography of Vonnegut is a welcome addition to a fan’s bookshelves, and it will undoubtedly become touchstone text for the growing numbers of Vonnegut scholars.

Shields, the author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, has certainly done his homework.  And So It Goes is the result of more than five years of patient labor, beginning with his efforts to persuade an at-first reluctant, then enthusiastic 83-year-old writer to agree to become his subject in the summer of 2006. In what may be an appropriately Vonnegutian, darkly humorous or absurd turn of events, just hours after Shields conducted a personal interview with Vonnegut in his Manhattan apartment on March 14, 2007, Vonnegut fell down his front steps, sustaining an ultimately fatal head injury. “So it goes,” to quote the Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorian refrain. Now working without Vonnegut’s direct assistance, Shields persevered, conducting hundreds of interviews while pouring over thousands of letters and meticulously rereading Vonnegut’s entire oeuvre, as well as a great deal of literary scholarship and criticism. The result is an excellent biography of a writer who proves to be more complex than the figure imagined by both fans and detractors.

Vonnegut’s metafictional techniques, folksy wisdom and persistently personal tone understandably led his many fans to identify the narrative voice with his own, all the more so once he began signing his prefaces with his own name, speaking publicly and writing more nonfiction that seemed to offer his own personal views on matters of public controversy. Far more so than with most of his contemporaries, Vonnegut’s fans really felt that they “knew” him, and were sometimes offended when the man himself turned out to be different from the one they gleaned from his writings.

Vonnegut’s life was full of “ups-and-downs, ups-and-downs” (as he described the plot of a popular novel in Slaughterhouse-Five). His bittersweet childhood was punctuated by his mother’s suicide when he was 21. Most famously, he survived the fire-bombing of Dresden in February 1945, which would become the primal scene for his most well known and highly regarded novel. Both his writing career and family life roller-coastered in the next 20 years, as he found some success writing for “slick” magazines, but hardly enough to support a growing family; the tragic, near-simultaneous deaths of his sister and her husband in 1958 left Kurt and Jane Vonnegut, who had three young children of their own, with three others.

Not until the late ’60s, after a brief stint teaching at the famed Iowa Writers Workshop, did Vonnegut begin to have real success, and with 1969’s Slaughterhouse-Five he had a bestseller that would secure his fame and fortune. None of his subsequent eight novels or his several nonfiction books would be as successful as his “schizophrenic-telegraphic” war novel, but with all of his books in print and selling well, Vonnegut finally achieved the kind of career he had left the army hoping for. However, in the aftermath of this victory, Vonnegut would experience further familial trauma (some of it self-inflicted), professional setbacks and personal crises, and even at the height of his celebrity he harbored dark thoughts.

Shields ably recounts all of these stages of Vonnegut’s life, giving equal time to the quotidian aspects of everyday life — the struggles to raise kids, the pleasure of dog-walking, the hopes and disappointments of financial investments — and the artistic life of Vonnegut’s mind. Because of his frequent use of autobiography in his writings, most fans will be aware of much of the story here, but Shields’s objective treatment presents even familiar scenes in a new light.

There are some real surprises as well. Who knew that Vonnegut’s father, whom Vonnegut almost always depicted as a dreamy and unworldly artist, pulled off a technological and engineering feat that won him national (albeit brief) renown? (Kurt Sr. managed to relocate a large office building 100 feet without anyone inside missing an hour of work; power, water, gas and telephone lines operated throughout the move, as enthralled office workers could look out their windows and see the view changing bit by bit.) Also, Vonnegut’s iconic, Mark Twain-esque moustache and bushy hair were at least partly the result of a canny self-promotion; the writer who showed up to teach at Iowa in 1965 was clean-shaven, with a buzz-cut. Shields frequently reminds us that Vonnegut excelled in public relations during his brief tenure at General Electric, and he used his advertising skills well in generating interest in his stories and speeches.

Given the familiar narrative voice and avuncular tone of his writings, fans cannot help but like Vonnegut — not just admire the gifted author, but genuinely like the man. Some of those fans may be troubled by the more fully fleshed-out biography Shields provides. This Kurt Vonnegut frequently comes off as a louse. Vonnegut’s failings as a husband, a father and a friend are hinted at in his own writings, of course, but some readers may be surprised at how cruel he could sometimes be to his supportive and long-suffering wife, how distant and petty in his interactions with his children, or how he could casually double-cross a lifelong friend, ally and tireless promoter of his work. Beyond some foibles of personality, some readers might feel positively betrayed to learn that the avowed socialist and crusader for the environment also profited from his stock in major corporations, including mining and drilling companies infamous for their anti-union policies. Heck, Shields writes, Vonnegut even invested in Dow Chemical, “the sole maker of napalm during the Vietnam War,” presumably with money earned from his anti-war bestseller Slaughterhouse-Five. Impatient readers might even accuse Vonnegut of rank hypocrisy.

However, I think that would be a mistake. Vonnegut certainly did at times gild the lily of his own reputation, but at no point did his self-regard lead him to deny his own humanity. Being human, all-too-human (as Nietzsche rightly called it) means accepting the bad with the good. A gifted writer and praiseworthy humanitarian can also be an insensitive husband, neglectful father and unreliable friend; likewise, the same sonuvabitch can prove to be a devoted spouse, a loving parent and a faithful chum.

Shields also points out that many readers, enamored with the ideas transmitted through the novels, often projected views onto Vonnegut that he did not really hold. Even when he was a struggling writer in the 1950s, Vonnegut played the stock market, for example. And although he clearly enjoyed the near-cult status he achieved among the hippies and other counter-culture youths of the early 1970s, Vonnegut himself remained a fairly conservative, Brooks Brothers-suit wearing capitalist and even “establishment” figure. (Shields recounts an uncomfortable encounter between Vonnegut and Jefferson Airplane, who wanted to collaborate on an album; as Vonnegut put it, “The vibrations were just awful, I wanted out as fast as possible.”)

Of course, this is not to say that Vonnegut’s nostalgia for a simpler America translated into support for conservative policies. Vonnegut championed free speech and the plight of the poor, often combining the two as he helped lead campaigns to raise funds for charity or to aid struggling writers. The world-weary curmudgeon showed glimpses of starry-eyed idealism at times, and for all of his flaws as a man and a writer, including some real selfishness and egotism, Vonnegut also displayed genuine empathy and concern for the troubles of others. Details about some such matters might offend many of Vonnegut’s friends and admirers, but I believe that Shields’s biography offers the proper corrective lens by which to view the great humanist’s life and work. In Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel, I have characterized Vonnegut’s prevailing perspective as one of “misanthropic humanism.” Vonnegut explores and celebrates the human condition, a condition that is not infrequently (and often deservedly) solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short, but also sometimes wonderful. Vonnegut’s work reminds us to be aware of both sides, and Shields’s biography demonstrates the degree to which Vonnegut himself lived with the positive and negative aspects of being human.

As Shields mentions in his introduction and again in the final chapter, it pained Vonnegut to know that his dictionary did not have an entry devoted to him, although Jack Kerouac was in there. Vonnegut never thought he was taken seriously as a writer, and he worried that his books would be forgotten once his time had passed. But with And So It Goes, Vonnegut has finally received the biography he deserves, one that is thoroughly researched, well written, entertaining and poignant. One comes away from this biography with a much better sense of the man readers thought they already knew, and the warts-and-all version of Kurt Vonnegut depicted here is, I believe, even more powerful than the cult hero he had become for much of the world.

Robert T. Tally Jr. teaches American and world literature at Texas State University. He is the author of Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel: A Postmodern Iconography (2011), Melville, Mapping and Globalization: Literary Cartography in the American Baroque Writer (2009) and the forthcoming Spatiality. He is also the editor of Geocritical Explorations: Space, Place, and Mapping in Literary and Cultural Studies (2011) and the translator of Bertrand Westphal’s Geocriticism: Real and Fictional Spaces (2011).

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