Why Vonnegut stays relevant

I was asked by the director of the Middletown (PA) public library to answer questions from his readers about the work of Kurt Vonnegut. Since I have edited and written introductions to three books of Vonnegut’s works, and I had the pleasure of knowing him for more than forty years, it was assumed I would know all the answers. I didn’t. There was one answer I felt good about, though. It was the last question I was asked, by John Grayshaw, director of the library. He asked

“Why do you think Vonnegut’s works are still so popular? What is their staying power?”

This is what came out of my head in response:

Other contemporary writers of his era seem “dated,” like Updike and Roth, who were writing of their time – Vonnegut was writing of past, present and future. Young people are not interested in the suburban life of the 1950s. Vonnegut transcended that.

He gave people hope. He showed he cared for the planet. What other writer of his time did that?

Mailer? Mary McCarthy? Fitzgerald or Hemingway?

He cared about the clumsy, the poor, the downtrodden. He saw that they too had a right to be fed, clothed, and housed against the elements.

He refused to write battle scenes of war, knowing that they made people see slaughter as glamorous. He wrote a war novel in which there are no battles. Saturation bombing is not a “battle.” It is only a devestation.

Next to The Beatitudes the lines he quotes most were from his fellow Hoosier Eugene V. Debs:

“As long as there is a lower class, I am in it; as long as there is a criminal class, I am of it; as long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

He asked why people don’t say things like that anymore. He said them. He dramatized them. He built stories around them. He fed our imagination. He knew were hungry.

Nuff said.

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Vonnegut’s Teachers (and Mine!)

“Mister Vonnegut, where did you get your radical ideas?” a radio interviewer asked the author of Slaughterhouse Five and The Man Without a Country.

Kurt Vonnegut answered without hesitation: “The Public Schools of Indianapolis.”

I loved his answer, for I felt the same way. I was reminded of Miss Louise McCarthy, my seventh grade history teacher at School #80. She was telling our class about America taking the Philippines, and we were shocked at the revelations of ruthless conquest (Mark Twain wrote that “We have pacified some thousands of the islanders and buried them, destroyed their fields, burned their villages, turned their widows and orphans out-of-doors. . .”) Miss McCarthy broke our historical virginity by asking “Do you think America is always right, seventh-graders?’ Wagging a finger back and forth in our wide-eyed faces she said “Not at all, seventh-graders, not at all!”

(I thought of Miss McCarthy during the Vietnam War, the First Gulf War, The Iraq War, the War in Afghanistan…)

If This Isn't Nice What Is?

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Vonnegut often spoke of his teachers in the popular graduation speeches and talks on other occasions (collected in If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?) like his address to The Indiana Civil Liberties Union when he said “Our chemistry teachers were first and foremost chemists. Our teacher of ancient history, Minnie Lloyd, should have been wearing medals for all she did at The Battle of Thermopylae. Our English teachers were very commonly serious writers.”

He reported that one of his English teachers, Marguerite Young, “went on to write the definitive biography of Indiana’s own Eugene V. Debs, the middle-class labor leader and socialist candidate for President of the United States.” Ms. Young also went on to gain literary acclaim for her novel Miss Macintosh, My Darling.

Though Kurt didn’t mention it in that particular talk, he often spoke with pride of another writer who graduated from Shortridge two years before him, who he knew when they both were in the Literary Club, Madeline Pugh. Ms. Pugh became the first head writer of the “I Love Lucy” show, television’s first popular sitcom.

Vonnegut had a question he liked to ask at the end of his talks (or sometimes at the beginning.) This is how he put it in his address to the graduating class of Agnes Scott College:

“How many of you have had a teacher at any level of your education who made you more excited to be alive, prouder to be alive, than you had previously thought possible? Hold up your hands, please. Now take down your hands and say the name of that teacher to someone else and tell them what that teacher did for you.”

Now let’s ask our legislators to ask themselves that question and tell the name of that teacher to a fellow elected official and ask them to do the same, as they decide to invest tax dollars in our teachers.

“All done?” Vonnegut asked. “If this isn’t nice, what is?”

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Going All The Way Back

After many years of exile I was lured back to Indianapolis in 1987 by Ophelia Roop, the colorful events-planner back then for The Central Library. She assured me it was “safe” to return now that seventeen years had soothed angry reactions to my novel Going All The Way – and the once-controversial work was read and discussed in book clubs at The Library. (Kurt Vonnegut had predicted in his review of the novel in Life magazine that “Having written this book, Dan Wakefield will never be able to go back to Indianapolis – he will have to watch the 500-mile race on television.”)

Having a great time on that return and meeting old friends, I came back a year later when a New York publisher issued a new edition of the novel. [I still had no idea back then that I would ever come back to actually live here, as I did in 2011.] I was interviewed by Will Higgins, the young editor then of an alternative publication called The New Times, a kind of pre-cursor to Nuvo. In the course of the interview, Will proposed that we plan a Going All The Way Bus Tour, stopping at some of the sites I wrote about in the book, like The Red Key Tavern, The John Herron Art Institute, and Crown Hill Cemetery (where the young anti-heroes of the book go to muse on their future.) Now a star reporter of The Indianapolis Star, Will recalled “You and I met over breakfast at the old Stouffers Hotel, on the top floor of their dining room. The idea of the tour hit me then and there and I blurted it out and you liked the idea. The rest is history.”

Thanks to Will Higgins, history repeated itself last November, when he revived the idea of the Bus Tour, organized the whole thing, announced it in The Star, and the next day had enough responses to fill the forty-eight seats on the bus (plus a waiting list.) When the first tour was held in 1988, when my lifelong friend Ted Steeg, the former Shortridge and Wabash football star who served as the “model” for the character “Gunner Casselman” in Going All The Way, came down from New York to join me on the tour. The two of us passed the mic back and forth as we joked and reminisced and shared memories of high school days and “Indy in the ‘50s,” when the action of the novel took place.

The irreplaceable “Gunner” died last year, and I wondered if I could bring off a running commentary by myself. I knew it wouldn’t be the same, but I had the support of Will Higgins as co-host, and I enlisted the aid of friends who read appropriate passages from the book as we stopped or slowed. Travis diNicola, founder and director of IndyReadsBooks; Karen Kovacik, IUPUI professor and former Poet Laureate of Indiana, and Judy O’Bannon, widow of the former governor, were eloquent in their readings when we stopped at some of the featured sights.

As we had before, we began and ended the tour at the legendary Red Key Tavern,   where “Sonny” and Gunner” meet up in the novel. This time we added a stop in front of the house I grew up in at 6129 Winthrop, where I sat on the roof of the porch and looked for enemy airplanes as a “Junior Air Raid Warden” on The Home Front in WWII, just like the character “Artie” in my novel Under The Apple Tree. From there we went down Meridian Street and stopped at Shortridge High School. We went inside to the first floor hallway, where Judy O’Bannon and I and another Bus Tour traveler, the Pulitzer Prize photographer Bill Foley, have our plaques on the wall of The Shortridge Hall of Fame (along with Kurt Vonnegut, and my classmates from the Class of 1950, Indianapolis Indians President Max Schumacher and Senator Richard Lugar (he and I wrote sports columns for the Shortridge Daily Echo. )

We stopped outside the former Herron Art Institute, which is now one of the leading high schools in the state, and Karen Kovacik read the passage in Going All The Way when “Sonny” and “Gunner” go there in hopes of expanding their minds by “looking at art” and trying to figure out the appropriate comments and stances and length of time spent at each painting to appear to be aficianados. Instead, they spot an attractive young woman, who they find it far easier to appreciate.

Will directed our bus to The Riviera Club, which was one of the havens of summer for neighborhood kids in Broad Ripple when I was growing up, and we got out to stand by the November-empty pool with a gracious host from The Club. I read a passage of the novel when Gunner recalls a dark memory from high school of him and his friends being turned away because one of the boys with them was Jewish (based on an incident with me and some of my Shortridge friends back in the ‘forties.) Such an incident couldn’t happen now in the Club that identifies itself as “a place for everyone, a truly inclusive and unique club representative of the many diverse neighborhoods and individuals around us. Today the Riviera Club is a welcoming family-friendly environment for people of any background.” Some things do change for the better.

Our intrepid driver took us next to the top of Crown Hill Cemetery, which still affords the best view of the city. It was there that “Sonny” and “Gunner” went to contemplate their future, by the statue of James Whitcomb Riley, “The Hoosier Poet.” Everyone got off the bus to stretch and enjoy the view, when a cache of beer, soda and mineral water was found, with a note attached that said

“Hey, Bus Guys – As you’re contemplating your future, have one on me! – best, Tom Cassleman.”

“Tom Casselman” was the name of the fictional character known as “Gunner” in the novel. Now it can be revealed that the drinks and the note had been cleverly stashed there beforehand by tour organizer Higgins.

For the sake of historical accuracy, I explained when we got back on the bus that Crown Hill was not only visited by high school kids who went to the top to exchange deep thoughts, but also by those who found its darkened, winding pathways good places to “park” at night with a date, and not be interrupted by the intrusive beams of prowling police.

Back at The Red Key we told more stories, renewed acquaintance with old friends and made new ones, played old favorites on the legendary jukebox (surely no other jukebox in town or maybe in the whole country has Benny Berrigan’s classic 1939 recording of “I Can’t Get Started”), and ordered the famous Red Key burgers with Dolly’s home-made potato salad.  I thought of the words of poet William Herschell (often erroneously attributed to James Whitcomb Riley) “Aint God good to Indiana? Aint’ he fellers, ain’t he though?” That epic verse hung on the wall of the old Broad Ripple Branch Public Library, attached to School #80 (now a condo), where I learned to read.

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Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield