Artist Pamela Bliss’s Kurt Vonnegut mural covers the exterior of a building about five blocks west of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis. (Photography by lobstar28, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Mad man of letters

An Indianapolis library dedicated to Kurt Vonnegut, AM’71, explores the emotional layers of the author’s life and work.

On a television monitor at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis, Morley Safer is talking about ambivalence. If a single characteristic could encompass Vonnegut’s sardonic outlook on life—the intermingled lightness and darkness of his writing, the ragged whimsy of his artwork, the “nostalgic and questioning relationship” with his Midwestern hometown—it is ambivalence.

The Vonnegut quotes adorning the library walls include the delighted sentiment that “We are dancing animals” and, in the next room, a cautionary note about the deception he observed in our nature: “We are what we pretend to be so we must be careful what we pretend to be.”

Safer, a 60 Minutes correspondent and friend of the author, saw Vonnegut, AM’71, as authentically himself, exactly the bracing cocktail of melancholy and eccentricity that his writing suggests. “The first rule of being Kurt Vonnegut’s friend is to not ask him why he’s looking so morose,” says Safer, laughing at the memory of a look he saw often and adding that “most of the time there was this kind of wonderfully mad twinkle in his eye.”

Vonnegut’s work lays bare that emotional mixture. He spent 14 novels, dozens of short stories, and countless throwaway quips reckoning with, as Safer puts it, “man’s stupidity and his nobility.”

In the 84 years before his death in 2007, Vonnegut encountered much of the former—and worse. He witnessed unimaginable horrors, including the firebombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war, an experience that inspired his most famous flight of mind, Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut’s recently published letters include one he wrote to his parents after his release. Reviewing the collection in the New York Times, Kurt Anderson called the 1945 letter “practically a sketch for Slaughterhouse-Five,” which didn’t appear for almost 25 years:

“On Christmas Eve the Royal Air Force bombed and strafed our unmarked train. They killed about 150 of us. The Germans herded us through scalding delousing showers. Many men died from the shock in the showers after 10 days of starvation, thirst and exposure. But I didn’t.” A few months later came the Allied firebombing. “Their combined labors killed 250,000 people in 24 hours and destroyed all of Dresden—possibly the world’s most beautiful city. But not me.”

If not death, Vonnegut experienced a kind of psychological destruction in Dresden, heaped onto the heartbreak of his mother’s suicide not long before. Squinting through life’s rubble, physical and otherwise, he still managed to see the splendor.

In the short story “Where I Live,” he depicts the “barbarous beauty” of the low-tide “glurp” in a working-class Cape Cod community where the homes were “often riddled by termites and dry rot, but good, probably, for a few hundred years more.” Another story, “Who Am I This Time?” follows a man and woman whose empty lives make them pale shadows until they discover themselves, and each other, through the roles they play in community theater. They become what they pretend to be. It’s hard to say whether it’s a happy or a sad ending.

For Vonnegut, perhaps it was meant to be neither, just another probing glimpse of life from his jaundiced point of view, at once true to the gloom he felt and the hope he attached to art. As Safer says, “I think he regarded literature and the arts as the real, conceivable salvation.” A Vonnegut quote on display at the library explains the dark source of his quixotic impulse to write:

“Where do I get my ideas from? You might as well have asked that of Beethoven. He was goofing around in Germany like everybody else, and all of a sudden this stuff came gushing out of him. It was music. I was goofing around like everybody else in Indiana, and all of a sudden stuff came gushing out. It was disgust with civilization.”