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And So It Goes

The first serious biography of counterculture hero Kurt Vonnegut reveals a man wounded by his childhood and full of contradictions as an adult.

By Laurence Sears / December 1, 2011


Reading And So It Goes, Charles J. Shield’s stunning new biography of Kurt Vonnegut, has proven to be a very unsettling personal experience. At first I was thrilled to have the chance to read the first serious biography of a hero of my young adulthood and found the book to be compelling reading. But as I went on, I found myself alternating between feelings of sadness and anger.

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It was a bit like finding a trunkload of diaries and letters in the attic of your recently deceased but most special of uncles. A quick perusal leaves no doubt as to their authorship. And, while one is necessarily curious, it becomes hard to ignore two nagging questions. “Do I dare read them?  And if I do, am I really prepared for the revelations about to come my way?”

In hindsight, I realize that I was not.

The current work is Shield’s second effort at the biography of a contemporary American writer. His first, the critically acclaimed, “Mockingbird” was about Harper Lee. It is worthy noting that that was a project undertaken without the benefit of any cooperation from either its subject or any of her close family and friends.

Such is not the case here.

The resulting product is an exhaustively documented (and sometimes exhaustingly detailed) presentation of the author’s life in straight chronological form.

In retrospect, the warning signs were made very clear. In the introduction Shields describes an early interview with the elderly Vonnegut. Shields reports he was expecting the author to present some of the most positive features of his life, stories about his military career, his education and, most certainly, tales of his children.

But that was not to be.

“Kurt surprised me by talking angrily, and at length about his childhood.... He mowed down his father, his mother, and particularly his elder brother, a scientist.  He still blamed them for wounds inflicted on his heart after more than three-quarters of a century.”

And it is those wounds in the end which shape the story that Shields chronicles. Kurt ( Jr.) was born the third child of his well-to-do namesake and his equally wealthy mother on November 11th, l922. It was clear from the beginning that Bernard, the oldest brother, was the favored child. He towered over the other children in meeting his parent’s hopes and expectations.

Alice, his sister, was overprotected because of early childhood illnesses. She was much loved by her younger sibling and the two of them formed a spiritual alliance that would continue long beyond her death from breast cancer in l958. Shields suggests at one point that Vonnegut “was unusual as an author because he wrote for an audience of one; his sister.”

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