The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 14, 2017

FEATURE ARTICLES
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The Regionalist: Vonnegut’s Cradle
Bill Kauffman - 01/21/09
Armageddon In Retrospect bookcover

Kurt Vonnegut, Armageddon in Retrospect, with an introduction by Mark Vonnegut (New York, NY: Putnam, 2008), 232 pp.

“All my jokes are Indianapolis. All my attitudes are Indianapolis. My adenoids are Indianapolis. If I ever severed myself from Indianapolis, I would be out of business. What people like about me is Indianapolis.”
—Kurt Vonnegut, 1986

In the recent Regionalism special issue of the University Bookman, Jeremy Beer, Hoosier boy, ranked Kurt Vonnegut second (behind Booth Tarkington but ahead of Ross Lockridge Jr. and Theodore Dreiser) in Beer’s Genuinely Objective Rankings of Indiana Authors, Twentieth Century Division.

Seeing the silver medal hanging ‘round Vonnegut’s neck gave me a bit of a start. Not that I disagree with Beer’s assessment—though I’d transpose Vonnegut with Lockridge, the most tragic of America’s one-book novelists, who two months after publication of his Whitmanesque Raintree County (1948) sucked carbon monoxide in his garage till he was dead. (An unfounded rumor that I wish were true had it that he died listening to the Indiana high-school basketball tournament on the car radio.)

But Kurt Vonnegut’s inclusion seemed strange because he wore the scarlet letters SF, and other than Ray Bradbury of Waukegan, Illinois, we seldom think of science-fiction writers as tied to any particular place, at least any place smaller than a planet. Billy Pilgrim, the wanderer in Vonnegut’s best novel, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), became “unstuck in time,” and the science fiction shelves in any library would be a lot thinner if the authors and characters thereon had not also become unstuck in place.

Armageddon in Retrospect, a posthumous collection of previously unpublished writings on war and peace, confirms Jeremy Beer’s judgment: Kurt Vonnegut, whatever else he was, was Indianan, not Tralfamadorian. As this product of James Whitcomb Riley School once said, “I trust my writing most and others seem to trust it most when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am.”

He sure was. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was born into a wealthy family, certainly by Indianapolis standards—a magnificent Amberson, of a sort, though the sources of that soon-to-dissipate wealth were buildings on his paternal side and beer on his mother’s.

Vonnegut wrote about his lineage in Palm Sunday (1981), noting with pleasure that in his genealogical digging “I find no war lovers of any kind.” In between one-liners he also discussed his bloodline in his final speech, which he wrote for the Year of Vonnegut, a joint undertaking of various community organizations in his hometown. Vonnegut died two weeks before he was to have given the talk, which was then delivered on April 27, 2007, by his son Mark at Clowes Hall at Butler University and which is reprinted herein.

From the grave, as it were, Vonnegut spoke with pride of his forebears and their accomplishments: the Vonnegut Hardware Company of Clemens Vonnegut Sr.; the architecture of Kurt Vonnegut Sr. and Bernard Vonnegut, the novelist’s grandfather, whose works included a locally famous department store clock. Their descendant, or his shadow, told the gathering that “my grandfather, the architect Bernard Vonnegut, designed, among other things, The Athenaeum, which before the First World War was called ‘Das Deutsche Haus.’ I can’t imagine why they would have changed the name to ‘The Athenaeum,’ unless it was to kiss the ass of a bunch of Greek-Americans.”

Actually, he knew all too well the reason. The name change and the many other manifestations of anti-German hysteria during the War to End All Wars disgusted Vonnegut, as did his parents’ willingness “to make me ignorant and rootless as proof of their patriotism.” But there were to be more egregious crimes committed later against his family’s handiwork. Referring to his hometown’s disastrous episodes in urban renewal, Vonnegut once said: “‘Renew’ is the wrong term, of course. What the city does is architecturally destroy itself. It cannibalizes the types of graceful and delicate architecture that made it a thing of beauty. So I guess there was something harrowing for my father: existing in a city, a provincial capital like Indianapolis, witnessing the systematic replacement of works of art, many of which he helped create, with a bunch of amorphous cinder blocks.”

Vonnegut was conscious of his link to an earlier generation of Hoosier writers. “With the passage of time,” he wrote in his Butler speech,

[N]obody will know or care who [Booth] Tarkington was. I mean, who nowadays gives a rat’s ass who Butler was? This is Clowes Hall, and I actually knew some real Cloweses. Nice people.
But let me tell you: I would not be standing before you tonight if it hadn’t been for the example of the life and works of Booth Tarkington, a native of this city. During his time, 1869 to 1946, which overlapped my own time for twenty-four years, Booth Tarkington became a beautifully successful and respected writer of plays, novels, and short stories. His nickname in the literary world, one I would give anything to have, was “The Gentleman from Indiana.”
When I was a kid, I wanted to be like him.
We never met. I wouldn’t have known what to say. I would have been gaga with hero worship.
Yes, and by the unlimited powers vested in me by Mayor Peterson for the entire year, I demand that somebody here mount a production in Indianapolis of Booth Tarkington’s play Alice Adams.

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