(Portions originally published upon Vonnegut's death -- April 12, 2008)
The pang of sadness that I felt when I read that Kurt Vonnegut had left this mortal coil was a bit deeper than the mere fact that like a lot of folks of my generation I went head over heels over everything this counterculture idol wrote.
As it is, I work in a rare book and manuscript library that includes the papers of Seymour Lawrence, Vonnegut's longtime literary agent and friend. I have been able to read first hand -- and share with visiting scholars -- the marvelous correspondence of these men as Vonnegut went from an unknown who was trying to get his first book published to a bestselling author and social critic who pondered the meaning of human existence with his distinctive pairing of humanist philosophy and trenchant wit, often through the science fiction genre.
I was going through the Lawrence papers one day when I stumbled upon a brief typewritten note from Vonnegut in which he said that a trip to Germany for a Playboy magazine article on European architecture had prompted him to consider writing a novel about his traumatic experiences at the end of World War II.
An advance scout, he was cut off from his battalion during the Battle of the Bulge and wandered alone behind enemy lines for several days until he was captured by German troops and sent to a prisoner of war camp in Dresden where he witnessed the infamous firebombing of that city.That, of course, was the genesis of Slaughterhouse Five, his most famous novel, which was published in 1969 and became a must-read at the height of opposition to the Vietnam War. (And a pretty good movie, too.)
In an article about his experience, Vonnegut wrote that:
"The firebombing of Dresden was a work of art. . . . a tower of smoke and flame to commemorate the rage and heartbreak of so many who had had their lives warped or ruined by the indescribable greed and vanity and cruelty of Germany."
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, perhaps the most straightforward of Vonnegut's 14 books, has always been my favorite.
This comic masterpiece is about the life and times of Eliot Rosewater, a World War II veteran with a bad case of PTSD and volunteer fireman who heads the Rosewater Foundation, which lavishes his family's fortune on the misbegotten.
Rosewater's philosophy, which of course mirrored Vonnegut's, is simple:
"Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — 'God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.' "
I read the book when it was published in 1965, and to this day am tempted to answer a telephone call as Rosewater always does:
"Rosewater Foundation. How may we help you?"
Looking back on life, Vonnegut once remarked:
"Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward."
So it goes.
Photograph by Jill Krementz