Kurt Vonnegut in Chicago: Some Footnotes
AND SO IT GOES
Kurt Vonnegut: A Life
By Charles J. Shields
Henry Holt and Company, $30
Novels & Stories 1963-1973
Sidney Offit, editor
The Library of America, $35
Very early in Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut talks about living in Chicago after World War II. “While I was studying to be an anthropologist [at the University of Chicago],” he remembers, “I was also working as a police reporter for the famous Chicago City News Bureau for twenty-eight dollars a week. . . . We were supported by all the newspapers in town, and the AP and the UP and all that. And we would cover the courts and the police stations and the Fire Department and the Coast Guard out on Lake Michigan and all that. We were connected to the institutions that supported us by means of pneumatic tubes which ran under the streets of Chicago.”
Vonnegut’s recollection of the City News Bureau preserves in print a Chicago institution already slipping from memory (it shut down in 1999). As for his allusion to the AP and the UP? The Library of America, which recently released Slaughterhouse-Five as part of its first Vonnegut collection, provides a footnote: “Associated Press and United Press Association (later United Press International, or UPI), dominant American news agencies of the twentieth century.” On behalf of future generations: Thanks. Let’s hope that one day, following a disaster of Vonnegutian proportions (see Cat’s Cradle, also in this volume), the LOA doesn’t have to explain what Lake Michigan once was. Eheu, fugaces labuntur anni.
Vonnegut deploys that Latin epigram—it’s from the Roman poet Horace and means “Alas, our fleet years slip away” (thanks again, LOA)—early in Slaughterhouse-Five. It’s a lament, similar to but ultimately unlike the novel’s more familiar and philosophical refrain: So it goes. Charles J. Shields uses the latter phrase as the title for his recent biography of Vonnegut, though he inexplicably1 sticks a conjunction in front of it. And So It Goes recounts Vonnegut’s Depression-era youth in Indianapolis, his pivotal experiences during World War II (his mother’s suicide and the destruction of Dresden), and the 60-plus fruitful, tumultuous, celebrated, and bitter years that followed.
To all that, Vonnegut’s two years in Chicago may seem a mere footnote. Shields, however, underscores the importance of that experience. He attributes Vonnegut’s “ironic distance as a novelist” to his anthropology studies at the U. of C. and his style as a writer to his time on deadline with the City News Bureau. He quotes Vonnegut: “I mean, a lot of critics think I’m stupid because my sentences are so simple and my method is so direct: they think these are defects. No. The point is to write as much as you know as quickly as possible.”
Vonnegut was accepted at the U. of C. in October 1945, just eight months removed from the fire bombing of Dresden, which he survived as a scared POW huddled in a subterranean meat locker. (Turns out the university admissions counselor that interviewed him had participated in the bombing raid. “Well, we hated to do that,” he whispered to Vonnegut.) With help from the GI Bill, Vonnegut planned on pursuing a master’s degree in anthropology; his wife, Jane, who had worked for the OSS in Washington during the war, would study Russian literature. They had an apartment at 3972½ South Ellis Avenue—alas, the building is gone—and were living there in May 1947 when their first child, Mark (named after Mark Twain), was born.
Shields explains why Vonnegut found the U. of C. so alluring. “The campus,” he writes, “attracted skeptics, nonconformists, and left-wingers, completely different from the preppy atmosphere of Cornell [where Vonnegut had studied before the war]. There were Progressives, Christian socialists, former Communists, and ‘pinkos’ of every hue.” Two anthropology professors exerted a strong influence on Vonnegut: Robert Redfield, who emphasized the importance of small, interrelated “folk societies,” and James Sydney Slotkin, who proclaimed, “At the outset, let us delimit the field to be studied and the approach to be used.”
Vonnegut’s teachers rejected his initial ambitious idea for his master’s thesis—which would have linked the Cubist painters of Paris to the Indian Wars of the American West—but encouraged his second proposal, “Mythologies of North American Nativistic Movements.” While attending school, Vonnegut also submitted his short stories to the country’s major magazines, where they were summarily rejected. In addition, he worked on and off as a police reporter for the City News Bureau. Surprisingly, Shields doesn’t mention Vonnegut’s first assignment, a dramatic incident recounted in Slaughterhouse-Five. A young veteran-turned-elevator operator is killed in a freak accident after his wedding ring gets caught in the elaborately ornamented elevator cage. In the novel, Vonnegut describes how the unlucky vet “was hoisted into the air and the floor of the car went down, dropped out from under him, and the top of the car squashed him. So it goes.”
In September 1947, with most of his class work finished, Vonnegut left the U. of C. without completing his thesis. He moved his family to Schenectady, New York, and took a job as a publicist for General Electric. Twenty years later, while teaching at the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, he resumed work on his thesis, now entitled “Fluctuations Between Good and Ill Fortune in Simple Tales.” The U. of C. rejected it, claiming Vonnegut “had not done any work that qualified as ‘anthropology.’” (Vonnegut, says Shields, was “incensed.”) But in 1970, a suddenly famous Vonnegut convinced the faculty to accept Cat’s Cradle in lieu of a thesis. He finally had his master’s degree.
After all that, it’s kind of funny to see Vonnegut flaunting his academic credentials during a PBS interview near the end of his life. “Look, I don’t meant to intimidate you,” he told David Brancaccio in 2005, “but I have a master’s degree in anthropology”—a revealing moment tucked away in a footnote at the back of Shields’s bio.
A coda to Vonnegut’s Chicago years can be found at the end of the Library of America collection, a remarkable little essay called “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets.” Found after among Vonnegut’s papers at Indiana University after his death, as the LOA notes explain, the unpublished manuscript was undated but carried the Ellis Street address. Vonnegut’s own checklist reveals that Harper’s, The Atlantic, The American Mercury, and the Yale Review rejected the piece. (Another LOA note cites Amos 5:16 as the source of its evocative title.) Here we see Vonnegut very early in his career already grappling with the horrors he had witnessed as a prisoner of war. “I felt then as I feel now,” he concludes, “that I would have given my life to save Dresden for the World’s generations to come. That is how everyone should feel about every city on Earth.”
Library of America has done a wonderful job with this collection, which also contains the novels God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and Breakfast of Champions, as well as some stories and speeches. It also includes a thorough chronology of the author’s life (one of my favorite features in these LOA volumes), and as always, the book has been scrupulously edited—there’s even a short list of the minor corrections made by the editor to the original texts. So it was mildly amusing when I came across a typo introduced by LOA. It appears, eheu, in one of its own footnotes.2
1. I did a digital search (thank you, Amazon) of SH-5 and found 58 “So it goes” and zero “And so it goes.” The latter was actually the longtime sign-off from the TV journalist Linda Ellerbee and the title of her first memoir.
2. Page 848, note 503.25, where “the” is rendered as “he.” The horror.