Kurt Vonnegut was a counterculture hero, a modern Mark Twain, an avuncular, jocular friend to the youth — until you got to know him.
"Kurt was actually rather flinty, rather irascible. He had something of a temper," author Charles Shields tells weekends on All Things Considered host Laura Sullivan. Shields is the author of a new biography of Vonnegut, called And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life.
"But as I also point out in the book," Shields adds, "he was a damaged person."
Shields persuaded Vonnegut to let him write the book, and he spent hours talking to the Slaughterhouse-Five author during the last year of his life. He says he was surprised during their very first conversation when Vonnegut began by complaining about his parents.
"For all the world, I thought I was talking to a much younger person who still had a real beef with the way he had been raised," Shields says. But that oddly youthful outlook was what endeared Vonnegut to generations of disaffected kids.
"When they opened one of his novels, they get the sense that an older person is leveling with them, that someone appreciates the dilemmas that they're feeling."
Vonnegut's public persona was often at odds with the actual man. "He read the signs of what was happening in the country," Shields says, "and he realized that he was going to have to be a lot hipper than a nearly 50-year-old dad in a rumpled cardigan to be a good match with what he was writing about."
As a former public relations man for General Electric, Vonnegut knew how to construct an image, a public version of himself who readers could believe had written books like Cat's Cradle and Breakfast of Champions.
"I don't mean to persuade anybody that Kurt was a cynic," Shields says. "Just the opposite." But Vonnegut was more of a reactionary than a radical, someone who showed up for a meeting with the band Jefferson Airplane dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit and wingtip shoes. Someone who was deeply scarred by his experiences, and longed for the older, gentler America of his pre-war childhood.
"Kurt was a disenchanted American," Shields says. "He believed in America, he believed in its ideals ... and he wanted babies to enter a world where they could be treated well, and he wanted to emphasize that people should be kind to one another."
Shields says Vonnegut could not have written the way he did without being the difficult and damaged person he was. "I don't see it as a complete break. I see his pain as pouring into his works in a kind of wry, droll, unhappy way."
LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:
This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)
KURT VONNEGUT: A bunch of the boys were whooping it up at the Malamute saloon. The kid that handles the music box was hitting a ragtime tune. In front of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew, and watching his luck was his light of love, the lady that's known as Lou.
SULLIVAN: That's the voice of Kurt Vonnegut reciting a poem he learned almost 70 years earlier as a child in Indianapolis. Author Charles Shields made the recording while researching a biography of Vonnegut. It was March 14, 2007. And later that day, Vonnegut tripped and fell down the steps of his New York brownstone. He hit his head and lapsed instantly into a coma, and he died. Charles Shields spent hours talking to Vonnegut in that last year of his life, and he had extensive access to the man's letters and papers, and he's compiled it all into a new biography, "And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life." Charles Shields joins me now from member station WVTF in Charlottesville, Virginia. Welcome to the show, Charles.
CHARLES SHIELDS: Thank you for having me.
SULLIVAN: You write that one of the first things that you noticed when you sat down to speak to him was how bitter he still was at his relationship with his parents and his brother. What was it that he was holding on to all of these years?
SHIELDS: Well, my theory is that Kurt had a lot of residual pain from his childhood. And when you pile that on top of his experience in World War II - he was in Dresden when it was bombed and saw a city annihilated. When you combine those two things, my impression of Kurt Vonnegut at 84 was that he was a very pained and haunted man. And I was, as you say, surprised when I first started talking to him that he began complaining about his parents. For all the world, I thought I was talking to a much younger person who still had a real beef with the way he had been raised. But you know, I think that's probably part of Kurt's appeal to young people is that when they open one of his novels, they get the sense that an older person is leveling with them, that someone appreciates the dilemmas that they are feeling.
SULLIVAN: "Slaughterhouse Five," of course, was his greatest work. And - well, I guess that's debatable, but it's his most famous work - and he really struggled to write it. I mean, it took him 20 years. He started and stopped and started again. And it seems like the biggest problem he had was this idea that he wasn't - he didn't actually see the bombing of Dresden, that he was just in the basement - he saw the before and the after.
SHIELDS: You're absolutely right. The problem that he was facing was he had no act two. He had an act one, and he had an act three. Kurt realized he had an important story to tell, a moment in civilization, and he was there for it - almost like the sacking of Troy, but he missed the sacking of Troy. It was as if he had, you know, arrived, slept through it and then left again. What he did finally, the solution he hit upon was not to be constrained by time or chronology. If he was going to tell his story for "Slaughterhouse Five," he couldn't tell it in a linear way. He needed Billy Pilgrim, his main character, to ricochet around through the universe doing different things and being at different places at different times.
SULLIVAN: One of the things in the book that is so fascinating to me is that while Vonnegut was considered this icon of the counterculture movement, I mean, it almost seems like he was faking it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SHIELDS: Well, you know, he did work for General Electric in public relations, and he had a pretty good idea about how to pitch an idea and how to create an image. I don't mean to persuade anybody that Kurt was a cynic - just the opposite. He read the signs of what was happening in the country and he realized that he was going to have to be a lot hipper than a nearly 50-year-old dad in a rumpled cardigan to be a good match with what he was writing about. So he, just as, you know, Samuel Clemens was doing Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut began to do Kurt Vonnegut, and it was a big hit.
But, you know, the irony, when you really study Kurt's novels and when you look at the things that he said and also my interviews with him, Kurt was not really so much a radical as a reactionary. What Kurt wanted was an earlier America. He wanted an America that he remembered before World War II, an America of aunts and uncles and swimming holes and things like that. That was the world he wanted to return to. I think a seminal moment that shows the contrast between what people thought of Kurt and what he was actually like was this: Jefferson Airplane asked him if he'd like to brainstorm with them for their next album. So he went to the meeting with Jefferson Airplane wearing a Brooks Brothers suit and wingtip shoes.
SULLIVAN: I'm speaking with Charles Shields. His new book is "And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life." It seems like that there is this disconnect that runs throughout the book about the way Kurt Vonnegut sees himself and the way the people around him saw him.
SHIELDS: Yes. I think one of his nephews said that Kurt seemed a whole lot hipper than he really was.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SHIELDS: I mean, here he is being read by hippies and counterculture types and, you know, he's still being read. I don't mean to say that his work is time-specific, either, but it's true. In the biography, I show a man who was a little bit surly to his kids, who was obsessed with doing his writing, who wanted to make it big and was perceived by his public as somebody who was the ideal avuncular, jocular kind of person, you know, somebody who tells it like it is and somebody who will level with you. Well, Kurt was actually rather flinty, rather irascible. He had something of a temper. But as I also point out in the book, he was a damaged person.
SULLIVAN: How do you reconcile these two people? I mean, the man who wrote "God damn it, babies, you've got to be kind" and this other guy who had difficult relationships, sometimes was not so great to even his agents and publishers and was a little bit irascible?
SHIELDS: Kurt was a disenchanted American. He believed in America. He believed in its ideals. And what he wrote in his books was a kind of an outpouring of his disenchantment. He wanted babies to enter a world where they could be treated well, and he wanted to emphasize that people should be kind to one another. So these were his priorities as a human being. But as you know, so often happens in life, he had a sort of a creative professional side and a personal side. One fed into the other. As one reviewer said recently, you know, Vonnegut couldn't have been the kind of writer that he was unless he was this kind of person. And so I don't see it as a complete break. I see his pain as, you know, pouring into his works in a kind of a wry, droll, unhappy way.
SULLIVAN: Charles J. Shields is the author of "And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life." Charles, thanks so much.
SHIELDS: OK. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.