This year, the 10th anniversary of the death of author, essayist, playwright, and American thinker Kurt Vonnegut, sparked a Year of Vonnegut, proclaimed in 2017 by Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett. A calendar of community-led programming centers around the theme, “A Little More Common Decency,” a message the Hoosier native Vonnegut highlighted in his many novels and as an activist.
Born on Armistice Day, 1922, Vonnegut often talked about the fact that Armistice Day, which later became Veterans Day, was originally intended as a day to highlight peace. Vonnegut had served his time in the military, a young man out of Cornell University who chose to enlist rather than enter the service as an officer. Vonnegut came home on leave for Mother’s Day to discover that his own mother had died – some say it was because of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs – others say suicide. Vonnegut always believed his mother committed suicide.
Several months later, Vonnegut found himself with an infantry unit on the front lines of the Battle of the Bulge, surrounded by Nazis who force-marched their captives 60 miles in the snow to board a train to Dresden, Germany. Vonnegut suffered frostbite on this march. And after Vonnegut boarded a train headed to Dresden, Germany, the Royal Air Force bombed the train, thinking it was transporting war material rather than Allied soldiers.
Upon arrival in Dresden, Vonnegut was placed underground in a meat locker. Slaughterhouse Five, which became the title of his internationally acclaimed novel, detailed the images he saw on the train and during his captivity. The novel also included elements of science fiction such as the creation of the planet “Tralfamadore,” and other additions to help the reader understand the trauma experienced by a prisoner of war. The main character, Billy Pilgrim, is not Vonnegut himself but was based on a young man from New York, Ed Croan, who lost the will to live and died in front of his fellow soldiers. Billy Pilgrim survives the war, though. And Vonnegut survived the war as well, but was never the same, of course. He had survived not only Nazi mistreatment, but he also survived the Allies’ attack on Dresden while he was underground. This three-day firebombing left the city destroyed, and Vonnegut’s gruesome task of burying the victims, which included women, children, pets, the aged, and others, left him thinking war was absurd, perhaps, the beginning of his plea for common decency and peaceful coexistence. The release of Slaughterhouse Five in 1969 during the Vietnam War launched Vonnegut’s career, following previous successes with Sirens of Titan, Player Piano, and Cat’s Cradle.
Vonnegut started a family, raising three children with his first wife, Jane, and one child with his second wife, Jill. He also raised three of four nephews belonging to his sister, following their parents’ death, occurring just days apart. All of these children went on to do meaningful work in their communities. Vonnegut held different jobs over the years as he continued to write, and following the release of Slaughterhouse Five, people all over the world recognized the name Kurt Vonnegut. His folksy Hoosier charm with solid experience as a war veteran gave him credibility to speak out against the Vietnam War. In Bluebeard, he wrote:
"Fathers are always so proud the first time they see their sons in uniform," she said.
"I know Big John Karpinski was," I said.
He is my neighbor to the north, of course. Big John's son Little John did badly in high school, and the police caught him selling dope. So he joined the Army while the Vietnam War was going on. And the first time he came home in uniform, I never saw Big John so happy, because it looked to him as though Little John was all straightened out and would amount to something. But then Little John came home in a body bag.
He often wrote about topics of caring for our veterans, our community, curing the “terrible disease of loneliness,” and the need for families to provide the village for which children can grow and learn. He covered these difficult topics through poignant passages followed by the extraordinary sense of humor that helped set him apart from other writers. And we see his popularity growing as teachers are anxious to introduce students not so much to technical literary criticism but to the importance of personal narrative, mechanisms available in the humanities for coping with the adversity of life, and decision-making techniques that lean toward human decency and civility. As Vonnegut said, “We are what we pretend to be so we must be careful what we pretend to be.”
The Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library in Indianapolis is finding that this writer, Kurt Vonnegut, who was sometimes mislabeled as a “science fiction” writer and sometimes disregarded or regarded negatively by critics, will continue to bring great value to general readers, teachers, veterans, and students because of his clear writing style, his ability to make a personal connection with readers through his work, and his outspoken criticism of individuals, governments, religious institutions and others who may not always be focused on peaceful coexistence. So it goes. Tip a glass to Vonnegut during this Year of Vonnegut, and pick up a copy of Man Without a Country or God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. You may be surprised that his words are just as relevant today as they were 50 years ago.
Julia A. Whitehead is the founder and CEO of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library. Her favorite Vonnegut Book is God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Her favorite Vonnegut character is the little boy “Joe” from the short story DP in Welcome to the Monkey House. Julia’s heart breaks every time she reads this story, yet she continues to reread it.