Like many, I fell for Kurt Vonnegut as a teenager. A favorite teacher, an offbeat man in a straight-laced school, assigned us “Cat’s Cradle” in tenth grade, and from there it was on to “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “Breakfast of Champions” and his essays and speeches and other nonfiction, which I preferred. Much of what he preached was typically dystopian: Authority figures are stupid and groupthink is rampant and the world is destined for rubble. But Vonnegut took no glee in relating the news, a quality that endeared him to high schoolers like me, who wore cynicism like a leather jacket but found the cowhide kind of irritated their skin and really would have preferred a nice cotton sweater.
Unlike many, I have not dumped Vonnegut from my personal pantheon as I’ve grown older. I’m proud of our common geography, an association he would call a granfalloon: I grew up a few towns over from where he wrote his first short stories, in Schenectady; I vacationed a few towns over from where he wrote his most famous books, in Cape Cod; and we went to college in the same town, Ithaca.
More than that, though, I share a belief, no doubt ingrained by his books, in what Vonnegut held as the one cure for the tragedies of the world: community. I’ve moved around, but wherever I go I attempt to center myself in a circle of friends and family, a bulwark against misfortune and incubator of joy. It might sound a little slippery — who wouldn’t believe in something so vague and nice-sounding? — but it’s an idea from which I draw a lot of meaning, and from which I believe a lot of meaning can be drawn. My favorite Vonnegut quote is from a Playboy interview: “Human beings will be happier not when they cure cancer or get to Mars or eliminate racial prejudice or flush Lake Erie but when they find ways to inhabit primitive communities again. That’s my utopia.” Every winter, when I’m most housebound and lonesome, I find myself taking a Vonnegut book off the shelf or borrowing one of the dwindling few I have yet to read.
It was in that frame of mind I picked up Charles Shields’ recent biography, “And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life,” the first time I contemplated Vonnegut from another writer’s perspective. Shields’ portrayal of Vonnegut is balanced, but it revealed behavior I had not expected from an advocate of community. As the book tells it, the man invited his three orphaned nephews into his home, then quarantined himself in his office while his wife, for years, struggled to raise the three boys and her own three children, essentially by herself. When he wasn’t writing he was often aloof and grumpy and sometimes downright mean. One year he sought to escape his family by taking a teaching position at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he began a long affair with a student. Soon afterward he moved to New York to live a more bohemian life, leaving his family on the Cape.
As one of Vonnegut’s nephews says in the book, “there was a definite disconnect between the kind of guy you would imagine Kurt must be from the tone of his books, the kind of guy who would say, ‘God damn it, you got to be kind,’ and the reality of his behavior on a daily basis.”
I knew Vonnegut was no saint. But when you recognize the influence a person has wielded over your own beliefs, and he falls short of those beliefs himself, you’re left disheartened. What to do with the Vonnegut I thought I knew? Diminish him, and keep his ideas? Certainly the concept of community wasn’t invented by Vonnegut.
Besides, it’s something to which we grow accustomed, the discarding of heroes. First it’s a favorite childhood athlete who switches teams. Then it might be a politician who espouses family values, only to be caught in an affair. By the time we reach adulthood, the hero has disappeared. The men I know don’t speak of their heroes. We speak of “the heroes,” maybe, the nameless police officers and firefighters and soldiers. We may call a loved one facing a deadly disease “my hero,” but never a person forging the raw material of day-to-day life into a solid mass, an object to be admired.
To call a curmudgeonly writer a hero, especially one who did not always practice what he preached, seems preposterous. It’s a step too far for me, in Vonnegut’s case, a judgment that probably held even before I read his biography.
I still believe in his ideas, though, and I still admire the man himself. Knowing what I do about him, and having read a 424-page sketch of his life, I don’t believe he was disingenuous. As Vonnegut’s nephew said: “I think he admired the idea of love, community, and family from a distance, but couldn’t deal with the complicated emotional elements they included.” No matter how successful or unsuccessful he was in meeting those ideals himself, he still devoted his writing to them, and felt them important enough to promote them, over the course of a decades-long career, to an audience of millions. It may not be heroic, but it’s certainly admirable.
You’d look long and hard for a person whose behavior never strayed from his professed beliefs. Certainly some, if not many, come closer than Vonnegut did. But if he valued what’s important, and when he failed, did so humbly, what else can you ask of a man?
Check out the rest of our “Men and Heroism” section.
The “Men and Heroism” section was run and edited by Dave Kaiser.
—Photo Joe Gill/AP