Vonnegut Lives!

Kurt Vonnegut was a Humanist, but he always spoke of people he loved as being “up in heaven now.” He included in that territory his wife Jane as well as Sam Lawrence, the publisher who he said had saved him “from smithereens.”

That same publisher, with a generous boost from Kurt, saved me from smithereens. In fact, Kurt is still saving me from smithereens, providing me work in collecting, editing and writing introductions to his letters, his graduation speeches and now a book of his complete short stories, so I choose to believe that Kurt “is up in heaven now.” I figure he has a townhouse over in the Humanist neighborhood, just east of the pearly gates.

From another viewpoint, it seems he is still alive, not only through his books (they are all still in print) but also through the work of The Vonnegut Museum and Library (VM&L) here in Indianapolis. You have to understand that this particular institution is much more than its name suggests – it does a lot more than just house his books and artifacts like his old typewriter and decorate the walls with his quotes (such as “Man is a dancing animal.”). It carries on the work he believed in.

Kurt was always a crusader for the freedom of expression, and he fought against the banning of books. He would be proud to know that the museum and library that bears his name features a “Banned Books Week” every year when authors and book lovers come and read passages from books that individuals and institutions have tried to ban. People who come to listen are enlightened and often shocked and appalled to hear what silly reasons are given for trying to keep adults, children and students of all ages from reading books that are so powerful and beautiful that fearful people have tried to ban them.

The School Board of Drake, North Dakota, not only tried to ban Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five,” a worldwide bestseller, they actually burned copies of it in the high school furnace. Kurt wrote an eloquent letter to the Chairman of the Drake School Board, in which he said:

…If you were to bother to read my books, you would learn that they are not sexy and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That’s because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hard-working men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.

Once when I went to a reading at Banned Books Week, I heard an eloquent reading by Judy O’Bannon from the wise, lovely novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The “excuse” for banning it? A character used the word “hell.” If you go to The VM&L during Banned Books Week, you are liable to learn something that will shock your socks off.

One day I went to hear Liza Newman, the granddaughter of the labor activist Powers Hapgood of Indianapolis, who I’d read about in Vonnegut’s novel “Jailbird.” I happened to get there early, and a panel discussion was going on with four Japanese-American citizens who had been in the U.S. internment camps during World War II because they were of Japanese ancestry. I found their experience so depressingly fascinating that I later looked them up and interviewed them for an article I wrote in NUVO about that dark chapter in our history.

Oh and the talk about Powers Hapgood – one of Kurt’s heroes – was terrific too, so I got double my money’s worth (but I hadn’t spent a cent – all the programs at The VM&L are free except for dinners and fundraising events). There’s a Vonnegut Book Club, and that’s free too. They meet once a month to discuss a book they’ve chosen to read, and it may be one of Vonnegut’s books, or it may be a book by another author. If the books are by other authors from Indiana, sometimes the author comes and takes part in the discussion.


Once I went to hear James Alexander Thom who lives in the woods outside of Bloomington with his lovely wife Dark Rain; they met while he was researching his novel based on the life of Tecumseh, “Panther in the Sky.” The day I went to hear him at The Vonnegut Library, the book club was discussing his new novel “Fire in the Water,” which is set just at the end of The Civil War when Lincoln was assassinated. Once I went to talk and answer questions about a novel of mine, “Under The Apple Tree,” which takes place on “The Home Front” during World War II.

Kurt was a Corporal in the infantry during World War II (he liked to say he had attained the same rank as Napoleon). He was captured by the Germans during The Battle of The Bulge and survived the firebombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war in an underground meat locker, a nightmare he transformed 20 years later into his classic novel “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

Kurt was loyal and supportive of his fellow veterans, and he’d be proud to know that the museum-library honoring his name brings in thought-provoking speakers and programs the weekend of every Veterans Day. Last year, I heard the Afghanistan war veteran Luis Carlos Montalvan, author of “Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and The Golden Retriever Who Saved Him.” Captain Montalvan came with his dog “Tuesday” and told how service dogs were making a new life possible for veterans who had suffered the physical and emotional wounds of combat. With his faithful Golden Retriever at his feet, Montalvan explained that “service dogs” are not just for blind people but are essential to some of the wounded vets who suffer from PTSD.

Tim O’Brien, the Vietnam vet who wrote the most acclaimed book of that war, “The Things They Carried,” was a featured speaker at The VM&L Veterans weekend several years ago, and he gave one of the most impassioned anti-war talks I have ever heard (along with Kurt’s talk against the first Iraq war that I heard him give at All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City). O’Brien is returning this July to speak at the “Teaching Vonnegut” program that brings in secondary school and college teachers from around the state and the country who use his work in their courses.

Kurt’s short stories are especially popular with high school students. I learned that personally a few years ago when I went to pick up my goddaughter from Miami Senior High School. She was anxious to tell me about a really “cool story” she had read in her Language Arts class that day. She didn’t remember the name of the story, but she said it was about a boy who lived in the future at a time when the government tried to make everyone equal by wearing weights that kept down their particular talents. This one boy defied the rules and refused to wear the weights, and he was the hero of the story. “Was that story called ‘Harrison Bergeron?’” I asked her. “Yes! How did you know?” she said. “I know the guy who wrote it,” I said. “A guy named Vonnegut.”

That course for teachers at The VM&L will introduce other students to the work of “that guy named Vonnegut” whose imaginative stories and novels open up new ways of looking at things, of questioning assumptions and of pointing out “the elephant in the room” that everyone else is embarrassed or afraid to mention. WARNING: His writing is in fact a kind of literary “gateway drug” that makes young people want to read more, discover other authors, maybe even lead to Dostoevsky and the novel Kurt’s wife Jane required him to read on their honeymoon, “The Brothers Karamazov.”

Reading Vonnegut, the odds are you’ll learn something unexpected. It was true of the man as well as his work. In the last 15 years of his life, I was living and teaching in Miami, but at least once a year, I went to New York, and I always looked forward to a lunch with Kurt. I can’t remember a time when he didn’t say something that stuck in my memory.

Once when we were walking back to his house after lunch, he said, out of the blue, “You know, Dan, we never had to leave Indianapolis to be writers because there are people there who are just as smart and just as dumb, just as kind and just as mean, as people anywhere else in the world.” It’s obvious, yes, but I’d never looked at it that way before. Now here I am, living and writing in Indianapolis, and at least several times a week, I hear his voice in my head, saying those words, and I smile.


The Dream

I published my first book when I was 29, and I was proud of “Island in the City: The World of Spanish Harlem,” my journalistic account of a New York neighborhood. And yet, I hadn’t achieved my most important goal.

Writing a novel was not just a goal; it was my dream. In the 1950s before memoirs became popular (except for statesmen, generals and actors), the novel was like the Holy Grail. All the young writers I knew wanted to write a novel. My friends and I could all recite the lyric last lines of “The Great Gatsby” and bemoaned the tragic fate of Peyton Loftis, the heroine of William Styron’s “Lie Down in Darkness,” as if she were a real person, someone we’d met at a party in Greenwich Village.

Salinger’s “Holden Caulfield,” “Ward Stradlater” and “Old Jane Gallagher” seemed like people we had gone to school with rather than characters from “The Catcher in the Rye.” Movies were for brainless entertainment; novels were the dramas of real life.

After “Island in the City” was published – to great reviews and few sales – I wrote 50 pages of my first novel. I asked my literary agent to send it to my publisher to see if he thought it was good and ask for an advance on the novel, which would give me time to write it (it didn’t cost me much to live on in 1959).

A month or so later, he called to tell me that the publisher, Houghton Mifflin, a distinguished old Boston publisher, said they would pay for me to come from New York to have lunch with them at one of the great restaurants of Boston and discuss my proposal.
 “Is this good news or bad?” I asked my agent.

“It could be either one,” said James Oliver Brown, that loyal and courtly literary agent of the old school, whose kind will never come again.

Bracing myself but hopeful, I took that magical train ride between the two great cities, immortalized in the short stories of John O’Hara. O’Hara himself, that arbiter of taste, would have approved of the restaurant my publisher chose for our momentous meeting – Locke Obers, tucked away on a cobblestone street behind Tremont, without anything so brazen as a sign to announce or identify itself. One simply knew where it was. (In the following decade, it was known to outsiders as a favorite haunt of John F. Kennedy who was known to request extra lobster in his stew.)

The editor of my first book, only an assistant in the hierarchy of Houghton Mifflin, was not even present at the grand occasion. My host and hostess were the publisher and managing editor of the venerable firm – the loftiest executives. They selected the wine to accompany our lobster thermidor, the specialty of the house. I drank and ate apprehensively, awaiting the judgment.

“We think you’re a wonderful young journalist,” I was told, “and we’d like to publish all your journalistic books.”
After such blessing, the hammer fell. “But you’re not a novelist.”

I thought the worst that could happen was that I’d be told they didn’t like the 50 pages of the novel my agent had sent them. I was not expecting a judgment on my life’s dream, my chosen identity. On the train home, I lost the lobster thermidor, but I did not lose my identity, my dream. It was battered and tattered, but it was still there. I kept it hidden for a long time.

I continued writing articles to pay the rent and feed myself on spaghetti and wine. I only spoke of my novel with two people – a poet and a girlfriend. The “girlfriend,” who became a friend for life, let me use her apartment in the afternoons while she was off teaching school and I could work on the novel – or variations of the novel – away from the apartment where I spent the night and wrote for my daily bread the articles I not only needed for the modest checks they brought in, but that I worked to make as well as I could make them, and for which I was, and still am, proud.

The poet was May Swenson, who I was lucky to meet with other fine writers who also became crucial friends when we were Fellows at The Bread Loaf Writers Conference in Vermont, the first and still the best of its kind. I believed then and still believe that May Swenson was and is one of the great American poets.

I still know and can recite lines from some of her great ones, like the opening of “Mortal Surge”: “We are eager / We pant / We whine like whips cutting the air…” And my favorite, “The Key to Everything:” “Is there anything I can do / or has everything been done / or don’t you trust me to do it or what?…” The last line is “…I could find your name for you / but I’d be gone then, I’d be far away.”
 She did “find my name for me.” She believed in me. She believed in the novel I would someday write. She said so in one of her books she inscribed for me, inscribing that belief in me and in the novel.

I didn’t write it the next year after I was told I was not a novelist, or the next year, or the next, or the next, though I kept trying; I kept writing and throwing away the writing I knew was not right, and it was not until nearly a decade later that I sat down and said to myself “This is it.” I wrote one whole summer to get the first page, to get it right, and then the pages came one or two at a time. Then after almost a year of writing more and more, the pages began to flow, and it was like I was taking dictation. I finished, and Kurt Vonnegut reviewed the novel in Life magazine. My novel, “Going All The Way” became a Literary Guild selection and made it to the Time magazine Best Seller List. I sent the first copy to the publisher of Houghton Mifflin.

I learned a great life lesson: Don’t let anybody tell you who you are.


The First on Our Block to Fly

When I was a kid growing up at 6129 Winthrop and going to School #80, a favorite pastime was to go out to the airport and “watch the planes come in.” We would sit for hours, entranced at the sight of the big passenger planes landing. Somehow, taking off didn’t seem quite as dramatic since it was assumed they knew how to get up into the air, but setting down such a huge piece of flying machinery on a narrow strip of land seemed more of a challenge.

There was always the tense moment as they drew lower and closer, perhaps tilting a little in the wind, then settling the front wheels on the runway and the tail touching down, which we greeted with a sigh of relief and sometimes applause. It never occurred to us – either kids or adults – that someday we would take off and land in one of those planes ourselves, rising above Broad Ripple and all of Indianapolis, onto some exotic far off land within our own country, like, say, Pittsburgh or even New York.

It’s hard to remember now how new this whole thing was – the first revolution of passenger planes took off in 1936 with the Douglas DC 3, pioneered by American Airlines. Three years later, when I was in the first grade, my “rich Uncle Crawford” and his Southern belle wife Aunt Susie flew (“took an airplane” as we said back then) to Mexico!

Uncle Crawford, one of the owners of the four Harbison Drugstores in Indianapolis at the time (my father was pharmacist at their store at 16th and Central), was a strange combination of the past and the future – he was the only man I knew who still wore high button shoes, which had gone out of style circa WWI, but this same old-fashioned man took Aunt Susie on that flight to Mexico in 1939.

What tales they returned with! My favorite was Aunt Susie in a Mexican café with a mariachi band as she stood up and sang – in her molasses’ slow South Carolina accent – a hit tune of the time, “South of the Border, down Mexico way…“

Just being related to such people made me feel like royalty, but Uncle Crawford topped it the following year (1940). He gave tickets to my father, my mother and me to fly to New York to see The World’s Fair! The most exciting thing wasn’t that we were going to The World’s Fair but that we were flying to New York!

All the neighbors came to the airport to see us off. This was the event of the year for our block – or maybe of all the 12 years I lived there. To make things more awesome, the plane we would be boarding was “an American Airlines Flagship.” (I didn’t know until I did some research on the subject that all American Airlines planes were called “flagships” back then. The marketing department knew what they were doing! You weren’t just flying on any old run-of-the-mill airplane; you were going on a flagship. It brought to mind the great ocean liners of the time that were the standard means of trans-Atlantic transportation.)

My parents and I were dressed for the big event as if we were going to a wedding. My mother was wearing a new dress, high heels and a wide-brimmed hat. Miss Leah Justice, a “practical nurse” who lived across the street, asked my mother what seemed at the time a “practical” question:
 “Miz Wakefield, you’re not going to wear that hat when you get on that airplane, are you?”

My mother hadn’t really thought about it but said she supposed that she would.
 “But Miz Wakefield,” Miss Justice exclaimed, “it’ll blow right off up there!” 
 A few neighbors giggled, but a few looked concerned. My mother bravely kept the hat on as we boarded, just as if she were going to church.

Our flight landed in Washington, D.C., and then proceeded to LaGuardia. The stewardess (as they were then called) gave us gum to help relieve our ears popping when we landed. She was an attractive young blonde woman, and my father was so entranced by her, his eyes instead of his ears were popping. My mother never tired of reminding him about the stewardess for years afterward.

When he could focus his attention elsewhere, my father took photos of the sky (blue with white clouds) out the window of the plane with his new home movie camera (another first on our block!). He also took pictures of the stewardess.

When we got to The World’s Fair, we saw the famous “trylon and perisphere” that were symbols of the fair – a large needle-like thing and a huge ball-shaped thing beside it. (I still don’t “get it.”) More dramatic was the synchronized diving and swimming of the beautiful young women in “Billy Rose’s Acquacade.”

My father took movies of the “Acquacade,” starring Johnny Weismuller (the first “Tarzan” of the movies), and Eleanor Holm, who finished fifth in the 1932 Olympics but was thrown off the 1936 Olympics team when the team doctor found her in a coma induced by alcohol after partying on the ship going to Europe. Impresario Billy Rose made her the star of his “Acquacade,” married and divorced her; she got a handsome settlement and a movie role as “Jane” in the movie “Tarzan’s Revenge.” (Maybe it should have been called “Jane’s Revenge.”)

For me, the big moment of The World’s Fair was going to see “Elsie, The Borden Cow.” She was famous in Borden’s ads throughout my childhood, and as far as I was concerned, she was a far bigger star than Eleanor Holm. (My father did not agree, though even Eleanor Holm played second fiddle to the stewardess.)

One brief piece of that home movie survives, thanks to Betsy Blankenbaker, who managed to take from it a shot of my mother and I waving goodbye as we left the house en route to the airport, and included it in her documentary film of my memoir, “New York in the Fifties.” If I can find that home movie again, I will send it to The Smithsonian, or better still, my “archive” at The Lilly Library at Indiana University. It is surely historic for the fact that my mother is wearing her wide-brimmed hat, which despite Miss Justice’s fears, did not “blow off up there.”

We continued to “dress up” in our finest new clothes (bought for the occasion) the whole time we were in New York. Courtesy of Uncle Crawford, we stayed at The New Yorker Hotel. Every day when we came out to go to The Fair or to see other sights in New York, we were immediately surrounded by people offering us “Tour of Chinatown,” “Boat Trip Around Manhattan,” “Tour of Rockefeller Center” and every other tourist attraction in the city.

“How do they know we’re from out of town?” my father wondered, and so did my mother and I. We blithely walked on, resplendent in our white summer outfits, the latest finery from Blocks, Ayres, Wassons and L. Strauss and Company. All the New Yorkers seemed to be wearing black or other dark clothes. Were they all going to funerals? (It was early May and chilly.)

My only other memories of that trip to New York include going out to dinner at a restaurant that looked from the outside as if it were within our price range. After being seated and given our menus, my father whispered that we must all order the ham with potato and vegetable. It was the only thing we could afford, and even at that, from the strained look on my father’s face, I think we just barely got out of there without having to wash dishes. I distinctly remember the bare look of that thin slice of ham with the lonely boiled potato beside it.

My father had looked forward to hearing Cab Calloway at The Cotton Club (he loved Cab’s “Hi De Hi De Hi De Ho’s.”). My father and my mother had decided that I would be safe enough in the hotel room for a few hours (a bold move), but perhaps out of my fear of the big city, I got a terrible stomachache, and they had to cancel their great adventure. What a wimp I was! Still, the whole trip was a great success, and we had the home movie to show to our friends and neighbors for years to come. We each had our golden memory: my mother’s hat did not blow off, my father had film of the “flagship” stewardess and I had met Elsie, the Borden Cow.

Afterward, I have a distinct memory of lying around on the floor of my Greenwich Village apartment reading The New York Times one Sunday 17 years after my trip to The World’s Fair. I came across an article with a prediction that seemed so impossible, I read it aloud to my roommate. “Can you believe this? The Times says that someday, more people will go to Europe by plane than take the boat!” We both laughed. It was another 15 years before I flew to London.

On a magazine assignment in 1995, I again flew to London but this time on The Concorde. It seemed rather plain inside, but the lunch was elaborate: first a salad, then wine, then an entrée, then dessert, followed by an aperitif, then coffee. As I finished my coffee, we were descending into Heathrow Airport. The flight had taken three and a half hours. Sadly, the Concorde was sidelined due to the cost of the gas it took to fly faster than the sound barrier. Now it takes a little more than twice that long to fly to London. It still beats the five days it takes to cross The Atlantic on The Queen Mary, the fastest of the great ocean liners.

Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield