Saturday, December 1, 2012

Kurt Vonnegut: Four Score & Ten

Last month marked the 90th anniversary of Kurt Vonnegut’s birth in Indianapolis. On a recent trip I discovered that Kurt’s spirit and legacy were alive and well and being celebrated in a small building that resembled the hardware stores that bore his family name and where he worked summers.

Although I never met him, we shared some common experiences and family friends. He wrote for The Shortridge Daily Echo (our high school’s classic building was designed by his family firm of architects…he was there with my aunt) where I was the sports editor my senior year.

He had such respect for my father’s infantry service that he wrote a wonderful blurb for Wendell Phillippi’s military history, Dear Ike: "It is the best, authoritative, personalized book on World War II I have read." This from the man who brought you Slaughterhouse Five. In a sense that was typical of Vonnegut, playing down his accomplishments and playing up the life and work of his fellow Hoosiers.

Watching videos of his friends in the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library you get a sense of what growing up Indiana meant to him. Morley Safer talks about a New Yorker who never lost a sense of where his roots were. My family friend Maije Alford Failey whose new memoir recalls her days at Shortridge High with Kurt, We Never Danced Check to Cheek, tells how he loved the irony of visiting Crown Hill Cemetery, not to visit his family burial plots, but to note the proximity of Hoosiers John Dillinger and James Whitcomb Riley (the children’s poet). The subtitle of Slaughterhouse Five was “The Children’s Crusade.” Indeed, my skinny father in 1940 looked like a teenager.

The point of this post (without a musical connection except Vonnegut was a bard of the boomer-rock generation) is to encourage your support of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library ( his ongoing campaigns against war, book banning and hypocrisy.

His public legacy is housed in a small brick building in the shadow of the Indiana State Capitol and memorials to the Civil War (the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on the Circle is now the world’s largest Christmas tree), World War I & II and the national headquarters of the American Legion. Of these memorials, his is the smallest and most underfunded but (with no disrespect to those have served their country in uniform), the one with passionate followers and perhaps the most important message.

On a Friday after Thanksgiving, it was heartening to find people from around the country comparing favorite Vonnegut novels…he was amazingly prolific…and watching others enjoy his artwork, Army insignia and a manual typewriter in the two-room tribute to him.

It seemed inadequate (his papers are at the Lilly Library at Indiana University) and unassuming...which he would appreciate...a footnote to history and a portal to his amazing work and insights.

Vonnegut fans come in many genres…science fiction, politics and Indiana characters in the middle of the twentieth century. While I enjoy all his work my favorites are the stories he based in my hometown, my high school, my friends’ lives. In those he displayed his journalistic skills, his empathy and his ability to capture reality that Sherwood Anderson, Mark Twain and others have used to preserve the American way of life.

Paul Simon hit a nerve when he wrote: “Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town.”
Kurt Vonnegut told their stories.

Morley Safer's Farewell Sketch: "And so he went."


  1. Frank-
    Beautiful! A wonderful post. Having been around at the inception, I too am pleased to see this important Indiana son's library take its place in an historic section of Indianapolis.

    I interviewed KV in the early 70's. That tape now resides in the Indiana Historical Society archives.

    Thanks for the post and appeal. Your readers should know that you too
    have survived several "Vonnegut moments!"

    "I tell you, we are here on earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different."
    KV Different, Around Here

  2. I just picked up a library copy of "Kurt Vonnegut - Letters", edited by fellow Hoosier Dan Wakefield. I can't wait to get to it but first I have to finish "Cronkite" by Douglas Brinkley.