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.
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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.”Skip to next paragraph
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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.