Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Vonnegut tribute needed

Kurt Vonnegut oughta have his mug on a U.S. Postage stamp.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Susan Neville on Kurt Vonnegut: Indianapolis Star, 4/5/09

Moderator: Good interview with a wonderful writer. Love Susan's work. Hank Nuwer

Q&A with Susan Neville, Author and Demia Butler Professor of English
Posted: April 5, 2009

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Susan Neville's third-floor office in Butler University's Jordan Hall is usually littered with a dizzying array of novels. But on a recent Wednesday morning, a few of the authors represented there had something in common. From the T.C. Boyle tomes to the paperbacks of Jane Hamilton, all were authors who have visited Indianapolis this year, thanks to Butler University's Visiting Writers Series.

The program, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, was founded by Neville, who has taught the written word at Butler for 25 years.

Neville remembers bringing the first two writers, Kevin McIlvoy and Mary Fell, to speak at the school in 1986 before the series officially began, using $500 left over within the English Department. Soon thereafter, Vivian S. Delbrook provided an anonymous endowment of $50,000 for the program. Three years ago, Delbrook gave an additional $1 million gift, and the series was named in her honor.

Since then, Neville's brainchild -- an annual, free, open-to-the-public series of discussions with great writers -- has grown into a highly anticipated event, drawing such illustrious names as Ray Bradbury, John Updike, Toni Morrison, Allen Ginsberg and Salman Rushdie.
What are you reading now?

I re-read Iris Murdoch about once every five years. And so I just finished re-reading "A Fairly Honourable Defeat." I want to read the new Mary Robison book that just came out. I'm always reading whatever I need for class. . . . I just finished T.C. Boyle's "Tooth and Claw." I'm getting ready to read Jane Hamilton's new book.
You won the Indiana State Library's 2008 Best Book of Indiana Award for "Sailing the Inland Sea." Can you tell me about the title of the book and what it was like to receive that honor?

The book itself is about Indiana, particularly Indiana writers. Oddly enough, one of the lines in the introduction is, "I hope that some of the writers I have written about that have been forgotten will be remembered, and that the book itself will have a place on a library shelf somewhere," and one of the things about that award is that the winners are in the State Library in the Indiana Writers Collection. So . . . that was the perfect one for that award. But the central metaphor of the book is sailing the inland sea through the imagination.

You see yourself as a "keeper of the flame" when it comes to Indiana's cultural history. Do you think it's in need of protection?

I think that cultural history is always in need of protection. . . . I think of myself not as the keeper but as a keeper, as every historian or literary critic is. I have spent a lot of time reading Indiana literature, Indiana history, talking to people in small towns, so a lot of the essays in "Sailing the Inland Sea" are about writers who aren't often mentioned.
You said recently that the literary arts are often thought of last when it comes to arts funding?

I do think that, when you think about what the city funds. We have a large arts museum, theater, music, and often times it seems like the literary arts are a stepchild. . . . I don't begrudge a penny spent on the arts, but one of the things I think we all felt with the series is that it was really important for Indianapolis to have access to the best and brightest, and for that to be free, for writers to come here and for people to go and hear Salman Rushdie or see Kurt Vonnegut or ask Allen Ginsberg a question.
One of your goals of the series was to make this seem like a place that writers could feel they could stay and live in and write about. Have you had any luck on that front?

I think this was from being a writer in my 20s living in Indianapolis and thinking if I were living in New York or California that I would get to go to readings and talk to writers and have that literary life. So one of the goals was to make it possible for writers who were from here not to have to leave . . . The other part of that goal is that writers who come through here will become interested. I mean . . . to be aware that this is a place where people are writing, and that the place will appear in (their) work. Vonnegut, in "Timequake," writes a lot from his experience having visited Butler. Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote a poem about Indianapolis while he was here.
What do you hope for the series' next 20 years?

We're going to be doing things with new media people and graphic artists, graphic novelists, so we can keep up with what's happening. But at the same time, we want to get writers into classrooms and keep the series free. We keep wonderful archives, and I hope that 20 years from now somebody can look at the writers we have in the next two decades and say, "That's a really important and interesting interview."

Monday, March 30, 2009

Great quote from Vonnegut

Came across this fine observation by blogger Roger Aiken • published March 29, 2009

When a friend recommended I read a book by John Bogle, I picked out the wrong book. I found two great stories, however. The first addresses the situation our country is currently in. Bogle tells a story about a party given by a rich hedge fund manager and attended by authors Kurt Vonnegut and his pal Joseph Heller. When Vonnegut informs Heller that their host makes more in one day than all of the book sales from Heller’s popular “Catch 22,” Heller responds, “Yes but I have something that he will never have……enough.” We find ourselves in the mess we are in today because few people ever have enough.

From Hank: Amen, Kurt.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Wonderful item in Des Moines paper

Carlson: 'Slaughterhouse' man returned to quiet D.M. life


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There's a reference in Kurt Vonnegut's classic book "Slaughterhouse-Five" to some American soldiers loading a fellow prisoner of war into a wheelbarrow and hauling him through the streets of Dresden, Germany.

They manage to convince German guards the man is sick. In truth, "he got into a lot of wine" and was drunk. Their deception saves the man from almost certain execution.

Vonnegut's book was a work of fiction based on fact. The author, who died in April, was one of the American soldiers being held in Dresden in 1945. They were "green," mostly untrained and were captured during the Battle of the Bulge.

Held with Vonnegut was Bob Allen, the man pushing the wheelbarrow, who lived most of his life in Des Moines with little fame or acknowledgment of his military service.

"A lot of people who knew Dad for years really didn't know about what happened and that he was part of that book," said Bob's son, Jerry Allen of Minneapolis. "He was like so many other veterans of World War II. They went through terrible times in the war, came home, raised their families and never talked about the experience."

Jerry thinks people in Iowa should know about his dad.

"He died on Jan. 4 at the age of 91," Jerry said. "He didn't open up and say much for probably 40 years. I was amazed at what I heard."

A good part of Bob's story came out eight years ago, when Jerry, and his wife and daughter joined Bob on a trip to Dresden. It was the old soldier's first and only time to revisit the scene of the horror.

Historians still argue about the February 1945 Allied bombing raids that burned much of Dresden. Critics say the city was of no military value and there was no need for the three days and nights of what was known as a firebombing. Defenders say it was necessary to convince German leaders their cause was hopeless.

Tens of thousands of civilians died. Among them were hundreds of American prisoners of war.

Bob, Vonnegut and the other prisoners were held deep in the underground meat locker of a livestock slaughtering facility - Slaughterhouse Five. The fact they were so far below ground is likely why they survived the relentless bombing that incinerated much of the center of the city.

It wasn't long before some of the soldiers wondered if it might have been better to have died in the fires.

The starving men were forced by their guards to crawl through the rubble and remove the charred bodies.

Bob Hays of Truro, commander of Amvets Post 2 in Des Moines where Bob Allen was a member, said he heard the stories.

"Bob talked about how the American soldiers had to go into the buildings and bring out the dead and stack them up," Hays said.

"They'd stack them up in piles of 500 and then burn them. There was nothing else to do with all the bodies. Bob told me he couldn't get the image out of his head, and he couldn't talk about it for a very long time."

Said Jerry: "The stories Dad told were gruesome. Almost indescribable. I know it was hard for him. He weighed about 190 pounds when he enlisted. He weighed about 130 when he got out of Dresden."

Bob came home to Iowa, raised his family in a one-story house at 56th and University and worked as a truck driver and freight manager at H&W Motor Express. He talked to his pals at the Amvets post and loved playing cribbage. In fact, he was runner-up in the cribbage tournament at the Iowa State Fair at the age of 88.

The Allen family trip to Dresden in 2000 brought back more memories. The horror, certainly. A guard who showed a kindness. That Christmas in 1944 when Bob's only gift was a single cigarette. Saving the life of the drunken soldier in the wheelbarrow.

"Dad was animated on that trip and really opened up," Jerry said. "He talked about knowing Kurt Vonnegut and seeing him at reunions over the years. The funny thing is, I don't know that he ever read 'Slaughterhouse-Five.' Maybe he couldn't bring himself to do it."

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

O'Hare's dad's diary:

This is marvelous, if sad, reading:

But for one week, my father chronicled his post-release experiences in amazing detail. Just twenty-two at the time, he was a pretty good writer himself. Occasionally, he mentions Vonnegut, who was just a "minor being" at the time. For the next few days, I'll share my dad's thoughts with you, day by day.


Our mangy but well-fed crew left DiHille's at noon today. We proceeded over the Elbe to Russian headquarters in the city and after much confusion - due to our ignorance of the Russian language and vice versa - we were directed to the Hitler Caserne on Konigsbage Strasse. Here we find ourselves confronted with the perpetual situation of no one knowing anything about anything. However, we are being looked after like pet children by the Russians. We have been here only four hours at the most and have already been fed twice, showered, de-loused and billeted. As near as we can gather from speaking to the limeys and G.I.'s here, we are to stay put until our troops come seeking us. Except for the anxiety that we all have concerning our parents and families, we don't give a damn how long it takes them to root us out.

I heard my first radio program since I was captured. Dannine and I went across the compound and fell in with a few Tommies who have a wireless set in their flat. We heard an A.M.G. broadcast from Hamburg. That American music certainly sounded good. The Tommies surprised us before the evening was over with a meal of spuds, meat and beans. We rejoined our crew with a full stomach and a highly satisfied mien. I don't believe I'll ever get up out of bed again. Goot nacht.

2 of 2

In a public radio interview, Vonnegut speaks of a conversation he had with my father, some twenty years later.

"What did you learn?" Vonnegut asks.

"I will never believe my government again."

Churchill, who had advocated the firebombing, was knighted.


We moved over to the other compound today. That seems to be the chief benefit accruing to those who have been deloused. The rooms here are much cleaner and better equipped. We eat three times per day restaurant style and the shilly (chile?) is both good and thick - a happy set of circumstances not found readily in Germany. We spent most of the day getting our loot in order and this afternoon learned to our gratification that we were scheduled to move out. About an hour later a sergeant from the 1st Rangers division put in an appearance and announced that trucks were on their way to bring us either to Riesa or Leipzig where there are concentrations of former P.O.W.'s. I had no idea the sight of a G.I. would be so sensational. Needless to say, the limeys hogged him before any of his own countrymen had a chance to learn much from him concerning the good old U.S.A. Well, the trucks finally arrived and after the normal red tape we piled into them and took off. Approximately two hours later we found ourselves in Riesa. Temporary quarters were provided for us in some Jerry barracks. We are supposed to move in the morning to some other place in town where there are more G.I.'s. Our present barracks aren't at all bad except for the lack of anything soft upon which to lay our weary bones. There are some limeys here who have been waiting to get out for almost a month. It seems that Stalag W-B was liberated by the Russians on April 23.

Bernard V. O'Hare III releases Vonnegut letter

So It Went

By Kurt Vonnegut
December 24, 2007 (Blog published in Allentown paper)

It became 'Slaughterhouse Five'

What follows is a letter that the writer Kurt Vonnegut sent to family and friends in 1945. It was made available to The Morning Call by Bernard V. O'Hare III of Nazareth, who first posted it on his blog,

O'Hare's father, the late Bernard V. O'Hare Jr., was imprisoned with Vonnegut in a German POW camp. He went on to have a law practice and serve as district attorney in Northampton County. His family kept in touch with Vonnegut until his death on April 11 of this year.

The younger O'Hare said his ''packrat'' brother found the letter after a biographer asked the O'Hares for information about the friendship between the former soldiers. Vonnegut had sent it to his family not long after he and O'Hare were released at the end of World War II. The younger Mr. O'Hare noted, ''In many ways, this three-page letter is his first draft of 'Slaughterhouse Five.' (Vonnegut's 1969 novel and his best-known.) Vonnegut sent my family a copy of that letter, apparently as a Christmas present, in 1996.''

Dear people:

I'm told that you were probably never informed that I was anything other than 'missing in action.'' Chances are that you also failed to receive any of the letters I wrote from Germany. That leaves me a lot of explaining to do -- in precis: I've been a prisoner of war since December 19th, 1944, when our division was cut to ribbons by Hitler's last desperate thrust through Luxemburg and Belgium. Seven Fanatical Panzer Divisions hit us and cut us off from the rest of Hodges' First Army. The other American Divisions on our flanks managed to pull out. We were obliged to stay and fight. Bayonets aren't much good against tanks: Our ammunition, food and medical supplies gave out and our casualties out-numbered those who could still fight -- so we gave up. The 106th got a Presidential Citation and some British Decoration from Montgomery for it, I'm told, but I'll be damned if it was worth it. I was one of the few who weren't wounded. For that much thank God.

Well, the supermen marched us, without food, water or sleep to Limberg, a distance of about sixty miles, I think, where we were loaded and locked up, sixty men to each small, unventilated, un-heated box car. There were no sanitary accommodations -- the floors were covered with fresh cow dung. There wasn't room for all of us to lie down. Half slept while the other half stood.

We spent several days, including Christmas, on that Limberg siding. On Christmas eve, the Royal Air Force bombed and strafed our unmarked train. They killed about one-hundred-and-fifty of us. We got a little water Christmas Day and moved slowly across Germany to a large P.O.W. Camp in Muhlburg, South of Berlin. We were released from the box cars on New Year's Day. The Germans herded us through scalding delousing showers. Many men died from shock in the showers after ten days of starvation, thirst and exposure. But I didn't.

Under the Geneva Convention, Officers and Non-commissioned Officers are not obliged to work when taken prisoner. I am, as you know, a Private. One-hundred-and-fifty such minor beings were shipped to a Dresden work camp on January 10th. I was their leader by virtue of the little German I spoke. It was our misfortune to have sadistic and fanatical guards. We were refused medical attention and clothing: We were given long hours at extremely hard labor. Our food ration was two-hundred-and-fifty grams of black bread and one pint of unseasoned potato soup each day. After desperately trying to improve our situation for two months and having been met with bland smiles I told the guards just what I was going to do to them when the Russians came. They beat me up a little. I was fired as group leader. Beatings were very small time: One boy starved to death and the SS Troops shot two for stealing food.

On about February 14th the Americans came over, followed by the R.A.F. their combined labors killed 250,000 people in twenty-four hours and destroyed all of Dresden -- possibly the world's most beautiful city. But not me.

After that we were put to work carrying corpses from Air-Raid shelters; women, children, old men; dead from concussion, fire or suffocation. Civilians cursed us and threw rocks as we carried bodies to huge funeral pyres in the city.

When General Patton took Leipzig we were evacuated on foot to ... the Checkoslovakian (sic) border. There we remained until the war ended. Our guards deserted us. On that happy day the Russians were intent on mopping up isolated outlaw resistance in our sector. Their planes (P-39s) strafed and bombed us, killing fourteen, but not me.

Eight of us stole a team and wagon. We traveled and looted our way through Sudetenland and Saxony for eight days, living like kings. The Russians are crazy the American lines at Halle in Lend-Lease Ford trucks. We've since been flown to Le Havre.

I'm writing from a Red Cross Club in the Le Havre P.O.W. Repatriation Camp. I'm being wonderfully well fed and entertained. The state-bound ships are jammed, naturally, so I'll have to be patient. I hope to be home in a month. Once home I'll be given twenty-one days recuperation at Atterbury, about $600 back pay and -- get this -- sixty (60) days furlough!

I've too damned much to say, the rest will have to wait. I can't receive mail here so don't write.

May 29, 1945

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Kurt--a charming program

And I’m Shirley Griffith with PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English. Today we tell about Kurt Vonnegut, a writer and thinker who shook up the country with his unusual writing style and subjects. He helped energize huge numbers of young people to protest the Vietnam War and to always question the powers that be.



It took Kurt Vonnegut about twenty-five years to write his most famous book, “Slaughterhouse-Five.” It was published in nineteen sixty-nine. The book remains required reading in high school and college English classes across the country. It includes this description of the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, by Allied forces during World War Two, as witnessed by a soldier named Billy Pilgrim:


“There was a fire-storm out there. Dresden was one big flame. The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn.

It wasn’t safe to come out of the shelter until noon the next day. When the Americans and their guards did come out, the sky was black with smoke. The sun was an angry little pinhead. Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead.

So it goes.”


Kurt Vonnegut, a prisoner of war like Pilgrim, witnessed the bombing of Dresden. The waste of human life and other treasures greatly angered him. His novels contain some of that anger. But Vonnegut always balanced his work with humor and the use of wildly unlikely events presented as normal.

For example, in "Slaughterhouse-Five," Billy Pilgrim visits the make-believe planet Tralfamadore. He and a beautiful movie star named Montana Wildhack fall in love there in a clear ball of a house. They are studied by the Tralfamadorians and find happiness.

Kurt Vonnegut compared the science fiction in “Slaughterhouse-Five” to the clowns in the plays of sixteenth century English writer William Shakespeare. Vonnegut believed such literary devices give the reader a rest before the story gets serious again.



Kurt Vonnegut’s own life was also filled with tragedy and laughter. He was born in nineteen twenty-two in Indianapolis, Indiana. His father was a building designer. His mother was from an extremely wealthy family. She suffered from mental illness and unhappiness as a failed writer. Vonnegut said his mother would have periods of madness where she would emotionally abuse his father. Vonnegut said his father was the gentlest man on the planet. Edith Vonnegut killed herself on Mother’s Day, in nineteen forty-four. The act affected her son his whole life.

In nineteen fifty-eight, Kurt Vonnegut’s sister and her husband died within two days of each other. Vonnegut and his wife at the time adopted the couple’s three children.


Kurt Vonnegut was interested in writing from at least his teenage years. He worked on his high school’s newspaper. Later he studied at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York and became an editor of that school’s newspaper. Vonnegut studied biochemistry. He followed in the footsteps of his older brother, Bernard, who was a scientist. However, Kurt Vonnegut was not a very good student. He left Cornell in nineteen forty-three and joined the army during World War Two. German forces captured him during the Battle of the Bulge in Western Europe.

Vonnegut’s experiences as a soldier and the bombing of Dresden were among the major influences in his life. He was a pacifist, someone who opposes war and violence for settling conflict. He once said: “You can teach people savagery. They may need savagery, but it’s bad for the neighbors. I prefer to teach gentleness.”

He was not always gentle on himself, however. He battled depression for most of his life. In nineteen eighty-four, he tried to kill himself by taking too much sleep medicine. He said later that children of a parent who committed suicide will naturally think of death as a sensible solution to any problem.



After World War Two, Vonnegut married a childhood friend, Jane Cox. They moved to Chicago, Illinois in nineteen forty-five. They had three children. Vonnegut studied anthropology at the University of Chicago. He also worked as a reporter.

Kurt Vonnegut also began writing short stories. They were published in literary magazines. In nineteen fifty-two he wrote his first novel. “Player Piano” was influenced by Vonnegut’s work at the power company, General Electric. Vonnegut said it was there that he got the idea of everything being controlled by computers. He told Playboy Magazine in nineteen seventy-three that it made perfect sense to have little clicking boxes, as he called them, make all the decisions for humans. But he said it was not good for human workers to be replaced by machines.

Vonnegut said that he wrote science fiction because General Electric was science fiction to him. “Player Piano” describes a place called Ileum where the humans have surrendered to a computer.

Writers of science fiction are often considered less serious than writers of other kinds of fiction. As a result, Vonnegut’s work was published in paperback and ignored by critics for several years.


But people started listening more closely to Kurt Vonnegut’s literary voice in the nineteen sixties. There was great public anger and protest over American military action in Vietnam. Distrust for the United States government was growing. Young people and minorities especially were speaking up against America’s leaders and cultural restrictions.

Vonnegut’s statements about America, its people and its leaders mixed perfectly with that atmosphere. His novels became favorites of many people involved in the anti-establishment, politically progressive movement of that time.

“Cat’s Cradle,” published in nineteen sixty-three, is one example. It tells the story of a fictional scientist who helped invent the atomic bomb and something even more dangerous – a substance called ice-nine. “Cat’s Cradle” is an extremely funny condemnation of many things. These include the arms race at the time -- efforts by countries to increase their nuclear weapons. It also makes jokes about organized religion and the United States government.


In nineteen sixty-four, “Cat’s Cradle” won a Hugo Award for science fiction. Also that year, Kurt Vonnegut began teaching at the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. He was a professor for many years and taught English at several universities and colleges. He wrote at least fifteen more books, including non-fiction.

''Breakfast of Champions''
One of those books was “Breakfast of Champions,” published in nineteen seventy-three. Vonnegut tells the story of a wealthy and crazy car salesman named Dwayne Hoover. Hoover reads science fiction books written by a man named Kilgore Trout. Hoover becomes more and more sure that the books are not fiction but reality.

Here Kurt Vonnegut reads from an early version of “Breakfast of Champions.” The reading took place in New York City in nineteen seventy.


"My name is Dwayne Hoover and I am an experiment by the creator of the universe. I am the only creature in the entire universe who has free will. I am the only creature who has to figure out what to do next and why. Everybody else is a robot.

I am pooped. I wish I were a robot too. It is perfectly exhausting having to reason all the time in a universe I never made."


Kurt Vonnegut and his wife Jane separated in nineteen seventy. Vonnegut married photographer Jill Krementz nine years later. They adopted a daughter.

Vonnegut continued to be politically outspoken. He used the American political crime called the Watergate scandal in his novel “Jailbird.” He was also an early environmental activist. He spoke often and loudly about the long-term dangers of fossil fuel use, pollution and waste of natural resources. Vonnegut also condemned the Bush administration and the war in Iraq that began in two thousand three.


Kurt Vonnegut published his last book in two thousand five. “A Man Without A Country” is a collection of his opinions of many subjects, including issues in modern American society.

He died in two thousand seven after suffering brain injuries from a fall in his home. He was eighty-four. Kurt Vonnegut’s children placed notes of thanks to his fans on the Vonnegut Web site. His daughter Nanny wrote: “I am so sorry for your loss as well as mine.”



Our program was written and produced by Caty Weaver. Jim Tedder read the "Slaughterhouse Five" passage. I'm Steve Ember with Shirley Griffith. You can learn about other famous Americans at And join us again next week for PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English.