Charles Shields, “And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life” (2011) (read aloud by Fred Berman) – Poking around the goodreads review of this book, I saw someone make a good point: you can’t object to the fact that a middlebrow hack wrote this biography, in a classic middlebrow hack way, because Kurt Vonnegut was, by his own admission, a middlebrow hack. Moreover, Vonnegut was a man who wanted to be loved, showered with affection and awards, even more than he eventually came to be after he lived to become one of the most beloved figures in American literature towards the end of his life, for being that middlebrow hack.
I think this goodreads person raises a good point, but I disagree with it. Being a middlebrow hack — the dude wrote a lengthy essay about how John Lennon’s “Imagine” is the “song of the [twentieth] century,” which, when you consider it’s a puling sentimental plea for a pretty dystopian-seeming utopia written by a man with an extensive record of violence, does make some sense but not in the way Shields wants it to — Shields can’t see the miracle in front of him. Kurt Vonnegut, with every temptation of his times and of his own character and circumstances, produced some of the best American literature of the century. The middlebrow hack – by his own self-hating description – who couldn’t break out of Saturday Evening Review for years is one of the greats- and I’m pretty sure his biographer, here, just is not.
His work is both respected and genuinely loved- Vonnegut’s the only good writer I used to see name-checked regularly in online dating profiles, when I was looking at them more. It deals with the biggest, heaviest themes of literature in an accessible, humorous style. Vonnegut was sufficiently experimental with form and narrative that he gets slotted into the “postmodernist” box, but not being a pedant or intentionally obscure – he always prized clarity in writing – that assignment really doesn’t stick, as far as I’m concerned. His many imperfections as a writer became signatures of personal style. His imperfections as a man, which Shields lovingly details here, did not lead to him being posthumously “cancelled” – he is, arguably, the only one of the big straight white male writers of the American midcentury who has entered the 2020s with his reputation more or less intact. Some of that is probably down to his presentation of self, but, and maybe I’m being romantic here, I really do think the quality of his writing has done a lot to keep it alive.
Shields doesn’t talk much about that. It’s clear from the outset that this is, indeed, “a life,” as publishers often subtitle tedious biographies. That is, it traces the subject’s parentage, childhood, education, publishing career, marriage(s), affair(s), friendships (especially with other famous people), children, grudges, decline, etc. To the extent such books pay attention to the books the author wrote (“a life”-style biographies are especially common for writers, but not unknown for actors, painters, even politicians), it’s to figure out some very basic themes that tie back with the author’s points about the subject’s psychology. Any reference to literature outside of the subjects’ work usually only happens in the context of the subjects’ publishing relationships- and publishers and editors tend to document themselves well, write a lot of letters, et al, so relations between authors and publishers and editors feature a lot in such biographies.
That’s more or less the model this biography follows. We learn a lot about Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s upbringing in the bosom of a wealthy and cultured German-American family in Indianapolis, which curdled pretty early on as the family’s fortunes declined. Vonnegut’s mother killed herself, and his domineering older brother insisted that Kurt ignore his inclinations towards writing to become a physical scientist, like him. Shields depicts young Kurt Jr as sensitive and humorous, swinging between easy successes and baffling failures. Plenty of grist for the psychologizing mill, here.
Probably the most interesting thing about all of this is a glimpse at the pre-1941 German-American milieu, back before the two world wars ground German identity in this country into kitschy dust. The Vonneguts identified their German-ness with education, culture, success, humanism, contributions to the civic spaces in which they lived, and so did a lot of German-Americans. There was almost an idea they were better Americans than the Anglos, with their yahoo-ism and crooked institutions. World War One was a massive blow to this community, with laws passed against the teaching of German, imprisonment of German cultural and political leaders, even a ghastly massacre of German dog breeds. There was less febrile backlash with World War Two, but arguably, something worse happened- many German-Americans, the Vonneguts included, were skeptical about the war. This was understandable, given what had happened in World War One, but turned out to be wrong… and then the enemy in the next war that they were wrong about turned out to be committing some of the worst atrocities in history in the name of the supremacy of Germans. Not, as they say, a good luck. The German-Americans had a deal — a full, undisputed embrace of postwar white normalcy — and they took it.
Whether or not he embraced isolationism as a college cut up at Cornell — he did, and was no fan of FDR, either — Vonnegut still joined the army after dropping out of Cornell. This, of course, proved to be one of the pivotal events of his life. It solidified his hatred of authority and his pessimism regarding humanity, and witnessing the firebombing of Dresden provided the basis for, arguably, his greatest and most successful novel, “Slaughterhouse-Five.” Like a lot of dudes who came back to the States after seeing some shit overseas, he wanted two fundamentally incompatible things: he wanted calm and prosperity, complete with its conventional accouterments of wife, kids, house; and he wanted to not deal with bullshit, he wanted to do something with the perspective he gained, to tell and live the truth.
This doesn’t excuse, or necessarily even make sympathetic, the kind of things Vonnegut and others like him (his friend Norman Mailer went even more off the rails) did in response to this dynamic, primarily treating families they started in the first postwar flush of normalcy-seeking shoddily. Vonnegut came to treat his drive to be a great writer not just as though it was his sole motivator, but that it should be his family’s, as well- and his first wife, Jane, went along with it, uprooting her life to move around with him, cooking and cleaning and raising his kids as he left a good job as a General Electric PR flack (secured by his brother, the genius scientist) and decamped them to Cape Cod, pecking out stories, plays, eventually novels. This is where Shields’ seemingly endless resource of publisher gossip comes in. Does it shock you, dear reader, to find out that Kurt Vonnegut was something of a primmo donno, that he wasn’t the most reliable producer of drafts, that he was foolish with money? Well, if it does, you’ll have a shit ton of fun with this book. Same goes for the idea that Vonnegut, especially left on his own when he takes a teaching job at the Iowa Writers Workshop, was something of a philanderer, and not that nice to either his wife or his mistresses, seeing them basically as adjuncts to his becoming. When they became inconvenient, like Jane did once she became a god-bothering Christian and there weren’t that many kids in the house anymore and he had money besides, he tended to leave them aside.
As it happens, I do think stuff like that belongs in a Vonnegut biography. I think it can be useful to relate a writer’s personal life to his output, in a variety of ways. It doesn’t deserve the proportion of “And So It Goes” that it gets, at the expense of analysis that Shields clearly isn’t interested in, and probably hasn’t got the chops for- doesn’t claim to. Beyond that, it’s just not that interesting. Moreover, I don’t think Shields has the degree of insight he thinks he has, even as he admits only meeting Vonnegut twice before he died and never really interviewing the guy. You don’t need that much in the ways of interviews to get that Vonnegut was a lifelong melancholic depression sufferer, who also experienced hard blows like a mother and sister committing suicide and, you know, surving a terrible war atrocity. Being a depression sufferer doesn’t make the behaviors that depression can encourage any better- it doesn’t make the people the depressed person harms any less harmed. Vonnegut didn’t always tell the truth about himself, but he seldom hid that he was a depressed, often petty (he was always mad he didn’t win enough literary awards), somewhat lecherous, not generally pleasant man.
Shields does some “artist compelled by demons” stuff here but doesn’t get at what actually made Vonnegut special. Nowadays, when someone describes something as “touching” it sounds like ad copy for the Hallmark channel, and when some calls something “relatable” it’s a joke about how bizarre the world has become (something Vonnegut would have gotten, even if he was arguably lucky to die before the internet became what it became). But even when his characters were getting “unstuck in time,” evolving into seal-people, flying to Traflamadore, freezing the world with Ice-9, etc., they were embedded in human dilemmas and realities that we need, but often fail, to touch, that we can relate to but seldom have related to us by official culture. Vonnegut both got the mire of existence in which we live, and could envision other realities, other ways of being- which got his novels slotted into scifi pulp publishing for most of his early career. Speaking of dilemmas, he honored the scifi writers – his saintlike Kilgore Trout was based on Theodore Sturgeon – but did not want to be one, for basically petty reasons- money, esteem.
Shields is almost troublingly – dare I say “touchingly”? – blind to almost all of this. He gets that people came to like Vonnegut. He gets that Vonnegut’s writing discussed various themes and issues before many other major writers took them on. He places Vonnegut in the context of the social changes we associate with the sixties and the decades thereafter, which is relevant enough, even if most of what Vonnegut had in common with his hippie readers was a certain fecklessness. He points to parallels between characters in Vonnegut’s novels and people Vonnegut knew, situations in novels and situations in Vonnegut’s lifes, of varying levels of picayunity. And that’s about it, as far as actually understanding Vonnegut’s books go.
Less than being annoyed by this, I’m baffled. In what world is Vonnegut’s middle-aged philandering and drinking more interesting than trying to understand the thought-world that created his work? It is not “hot goss” that writers show up at Iowa unprepared to teach in any meaningful sense and to buy time and make contacts for other projects. It’s not that interesting that Vonnegut’s kids had kind of lousy times, in part because of their feckless, sometimes harsh dad. So why write this? Is it just a souvenir for fans? I guess it’s my own fault for not looking harder for a more analytical biography- as Vonnegut would recognize, people often make their own issues, even if they are, at the same time, “overdetermined” (to use the kind of word Vonnegut never would). Oh, well. **