Monday, December 5, 2011

And So It Goes

48. And So It Goes, Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Shields

I had the opportunity to meet Charles J. Shields and his wife Guadalupe at The Writer's Center in Bethesda, MD. The only authorized biographer of Vonnegut was a wonderful speaker, I wished I'd had him to speak the rest of the book to me, for as thorough and direct as his prose is, plus a prodigious knack for hitting all the most interesting details, his speaking was even more entertaining. In the Introduction, he writes of his first attempt to convince Vonnegut that he was a worthy biographer. His initial plea produced a mailed self-portrait from Vonnegut, with the caption “A most respectful demurring by me for the excellent writer Charles J. Shields, who offered to be my biographer.” In person, Shields recalled that it was his wife who "fastened on the word 'demurring'" and convinced him to try again, which he did with success. That little tidbit was left out of the book, as were the details of Shields' personal interviews with Vonnegut, which he described for the audience. However, I really have to admire Shields for keeping himself out of the book to the extent that he does. When reading, it really does feel like you're in the mind of Vonnegut and his friends and family, NOT Shields, just as a biography should be.

The character that emerges from Shields’ portrait is of a petulant, embittered, and attention-seeking man, who felt that his parents and brother misunderstood him, that publishers, editors, and critics undervalued him, and that even his first wife Jane, mother of their three children, never really loved him. Yet, Vonnegut could be remarkably kind, charming, and thoughtful. While teaching in the creative writing program at the University of Iowa, he noticed that the anonymous critiquing sessions that welcomed students from all classes had become a platform for bullies. He suggested that “sections should meet separately…with an instructor to guide the discussion,” that submissions no longer be anonymous, and overly subjective criticism be banned. All of these changes were implemented. Later in his career, after he became famous, a young writer disguised himself as a reporter in order to meet with him. Vonnegut called the young man’s bluff, but met with him anyway and encouraged him to write the article he had claimed to be commissioned for.

The Vonnegut estate would not allow Shields to quote directly from the 1,500 letters that he acquired over the course of his research. When asked at the event, Shields said he thinks they do not want the image of Vonnegut, as the crotchety, Mark Twain-like figure, to change. He concludes in the book that Vonnegut’s decision to adopt the Twain brand was a very deliberate affectation. Although Vonnegut is often associated with the Left due to his anti-war ethos, Shields argues that he was in fact a reactionary and an active capitalist. Vonnegut’s numerous stocks and investments in large corporations support this claim. The content of the letters, however, is pervasive throughout the biography. Two hundred were to Vonnegut’s sometime friend, editor, and agent, Knox Burger, to whom the biography is dedicated. Vonnegut wrote to Burger about his difficulties getting published in the early years, later about the failure to take his works seriously, being “cooped up with all these kids,” and also, about his affairs.

The first serious affair, which began a relationship that would last in some capacity for the rest of his life, was Lora Lee Wilson, a student in one of his creative writing classes at Iowa. Despite his lifelong love of women, Shields shows that Vonnegut held some very traditional ideas about women’s roles, which affected his relationship with Jane, his wife of thirty-four years. While Vonnegut wrote, Jane ran the household and raised the children, including his nephews. Shields writes, “He expected Jane to be a traditional wife who would blend her identity with his.” When they fought, his reaction was to run off and sometimes to chase after other women. Even after their divorce, they remained friends and he continued to write long letters to her. Occasionally, he would write a letter to Jane and then immediately after to a girlfriend. His second wife, Jill, whom Shields was not able to interview, appears in the book as a difficult, demanding woman who wanted to control whom Vonnegut was allowed to socialize with. Their marriage was also fraught with tension and included a few periods of separation.

In addition to the most private details of Vonnegut’s life, Shields also places his oeuvre in a biographical context. Shields notes that unsatisfactory sex is a pattern in Vonnegut’s earlier works, from Player Piano to Cat’s Cradle. “His affair with Loree [Lora Lee Wilson],” Shields writes, “would change the way he wrote about relationships in his novels.” She is the model for Montana Wildhack in Slaughterhouse-Five with whom Billy Pilgrim has a mutually satisfying sexual relationship.

Shields’ rendering of Vonnegut’s life, while not flattering, still manages to be respectful and interested in how Vonnegut captured the imagination of a generation, and continues to capture young minds; “if he had been a fully mature adult, it’s likely he would not have been able to frame young adults’ worldview so well.” From Vonnegut’s own assessments of his self, it’s likely that he would have agreed.

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