God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut
The pang of sadness that I felt when I read this morning that Kurt Vonnegut had left this mortal coil was a bit deeper than the mere fact that like a lot of folks of my generation I went head over heels over everything this counterculture idol wrote.
As it is, I work in a rare book and manuscript library that includes the papers of Seymour Lawrence, Vonnegut’s longtime literary agent and friend. I have been able to read first hand — and share with visiting scholars — the marvelous correspondence of these men as Vonnegut went from an unknown who was trying to get his first book published to a bestselling author and social critic who pondered the meaning of human existence with his distinctive pairing of humanist philosophy and trenchant wit, often through the science fiction genre.
I was going through the Lawrence papers one day when I found a brief typewritten note from Vonnegut in which he said that a trip to Germany to research a Playboy magazine article on European architecture had prompted him to consider writing a novel about his traumatic experiences at the end of World War II.
An advance scout, he was cut off from his battalion during the Battle of the Bulge and wandered alone behind enemy lines for several days until he was captured by German troops and sent to a prisoner of war camp in Dresden where he witnessed the infamous firebombing of that city.
That, of course, was the genesis of Slaughterhouse Five, his most famous novel, which was published in 1969 and became a must-read at the height of opposition to the Vietnam War.