Kurt Vonnegut wrote the kind of books that students in the 1960s bought to stoke their outrage and disdain. Outrage over the war in Vietnam, disdain for their conformist, establishment parents.
The books were funny, too.
Vonnegut based his masterpiece, Slaughterhouse Five, on his experience as a prisoner of war during the firebombing of Dresden. Twenty-five thousand civilians died in three days of bombing the beautiful old German city. Vonnegut and the other POWs dug through the ruins to recover corpses.
His novels combined wit, futuristic fantasy and satire. Young people loved them. But they bought Kurt Vonnegut in paperback, which didn’t generate the kind of royalties hardbacks did. He had to pick up work to support his large family, which lived in a shingled Cape on Scudder Lane in West Barnstable.
He was born Nov. 11, 1922 in Indiana, the son of a successful architect and a German heiress. The Great Depression ruined his parents and embittered his mother. He attended Cornell, but dropped out after Pearl Harbor and enlisted in the Army. His mother killed herself with booze and sleeping pills the night before he came home on leave, just before he shipped overseas.
The Germans captured him at the Battle of the Bulge and sent him to live in a slaughterhouse in Dresden, where he worked in a malt syrup factory. During the firebombing, he survived in a meat locker three stories underground.
After the war he returned to the United States and married Jane Marie Cox, who he met in kindergarten. He studied anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked as a crime reporter for the City News Bureau. When Jane got pregnant, he left school without a degree. The faculty had unanimously rejected his thesis anyway.
Vonnegut then got a job doing public relations for General Electric in Schenectady, N.Y. He also wrote short stories on the side. Magazines like Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post paid big money for short stories in the 1950s, and Vonnegut sold two while working for GE. He decided to quit and write full-time, so in 1951 he moved his young family to West Barnstable, Mass., on Cape Cod.
On Cape Cod
- Vonnegut didn’t realize the short story market was drying up. People began entertaining themselves with stories on television rather than in magazines, and Vonnegut found it harder to sell his work. He worked as an English teacher and then an ad copywriter. But his sister died of breast cancer two days after a train wreck killed her husband. Kurt and Jane took in their four children. With three of their own, that made money even tighter.
- He decided to try his hand at a Saab dealership in 1957. He moved the business into a one-story stone building on Route 6A with a mechanic, but business was so slow he had time to write. The problem, he later wrote, was the car required a quart of oil with every fill-up of gasoline. His daughter Edie didn’t find it at all incongruous that a modern fiction writer wanted to sell European cars. “”It felt more about art and cutting edge design than about cars,” she said. As for Vonnegut himself, he said, “I believe my failure as a dealer so long ago explains what would otherwise remain a deep mystery: why the Swedes have never given me a Nobel Prize for literature.”
- He volunteered to work for John F. Kennedy’s campaign for president. On Aug. 4, 1960, he typed a letter to “Senator John F. Kennedy, Hyannisport, Mass.” “I would like to volunteer my services on behalf of your campaign,” he wrote. He described himself as a freelance writer. “I am thirty-eight, have been a freelance for ten years. I’ve published two novels, and am a regular contributor of fiction to The Saturday Evening Post, Ladies’ Home Journal, McCall’s, and so on. On occasion, I write pretty well.”
- He served on the board of the Sturgis Library, one of the oldest in the country. He didn’t do it happily. Vonnegut called the Sturgis a ‘clapboard tomb’ and complained his books would never have reached its shelves if he didn’t live four blocks away.
- He loved the Barnstable Comedy Club though, and served as its president. He once performed in a leopard skin. Vonnegut gave the club permission to perform any of his plays for free — in perpetuity. The Comedy Club inspired one of his best short stories, “My Name Is Everyone.” Renamed “Who Am I This Time?” it was made into a television movie in 1982, starring Christopher Walken and Susan Sarandon.
- Kurt Vonnegut wrote a short story in 1966 about Barnstable for “The Friends of Crane Duplicating Service.” He called it, “So You’ve Never Been to Barnstable?” In it, he poked fun at the “anachronistic, mildly xenophobic, charming queernesses of Barnstable Village.” A Sherman tank, for example, stood in the middle of a miniature golf course, a memorial to the veterans of World War II. Vonnegut wrote that the village would never accept the tank because, “it has a policy of never accepting anything if it can help it.”
He left Cape Cod for New York in 1971 when his marriage broke up. The children had all left home, and Jane became a devout Christian, which clashed with his atheism. After marrying again, he died in 2007, though his twitter feed lives on.
Image of Kurt Vonnegut and family: By Unknown; copyright held by Edie Vonnegut. – http://historicindianapolis.com/hi-mailbag-kurt-vonnegut-and-the-red-key-tavern/, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41335823. This story was updated in 2020.