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.
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.
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.”
Kurt’s father, whose skills as an architect were decidedly less than those of his own father, was distant at best. Edith, his mother, is described as behaving “like a guest in her children’s lives. To her way of thinking, parenting came under the general heading of ‘household tasks’ which, as a wealthy woman, she could pay others to do.” The coming of the Great Depression “pushed the Vonnegut’s’ upper class life towards a financial precipice.”
Edith never recovered from this financial decline. She is pictured, at one point, as roaming “the house, wrapped in a ghostly drug-induced mist, rattling doorknobs and dishes like a poltergeist.” She would later take her own life, doing so, apparently purposefully, during a Mother’s Day weekend visit by her son just before he was to leave for the post D-Day military campaign in Europe.
Shields makes it abundantly clear that Vonnegut battled throughout most of his life against some form of depression, often using alcohol as his form of self-medication. He would, eventually, attempt his own suicide in 1984. And though he married twice and became either the biological or adoptive father of nine children, he was certainly not either the husband or the father many of his loyal readers might have imagined him to be.
He published 15 books of fiction and non-fiction during his working life. Shields takes time to analyze each one of them in some detail. I am certain that this effort on his part will become the subject of much heated academic debate in the coming years.
I ended my time with “And So it Goes” by coming to terms with the distance I had discovered between my ideal of Kurt Vonnegut and the complex picture that Shield’s biography presents. It was Shields who finally rescued me. Near the end of the book he writes that Vonnegut "was a countercultural hero, a guru, and leftist to his fans; a wealthy investor to his broker; a champion of family and community, and yet a distant father; a man who left his ‘child-centered’ home to save his sanity, but then married a younger woman who was leading him into fatherhood again; a satirist of American life, but feeding at the trough of celebrity up to his ears.”
And, yes, so it goes.