February 2010 image of the slaughterhouse where, sixty-five Februaries previously, Kurt Vonnegut survived the Dresden firebombing

One of my undertakings for this winter is to re-read the Kurt Vonnegut catalog. Like many, I read Vonnegut extensively in high school and college but got away from him over the years, though I did return to Slaughterhouse Five from time to time. Vonnegut is one of those writers one can return to at different points in one’s life, reading him with fresh eyes from the changing perspectives of one’s age. I intend to read both the fiction and non-fiction. I will have to do a literature review before diving in fully, but I am considering some type of project in which I analyze the World Wars on Vonnegut’s family. I know that a fair amount has been done on Vonnegut but I think there are some threads left to untangle. If this happens, it will not be until summer or fall.

Vonnegut in uniform during the Second World War, circa 1943-45

Again it has been a while since I have read him, but I recall him discussing the effect that the anti-German hysteria had on his family in Indiana during the First World War. Vonnegut, born in 1922, was a young enlisted man during the Second World War and famously survived the February 1945 firebombing of Dresden Germany as a prisoner of war. That experience in turn was the basis of Slaughterhouse Five, usually considered his most important work. He often downplayed the role that his Second World War experiences played on his personal life, claiming that people often go through cataclysmic events with little to no impact on their own psyches. That may or may not be true. It is without question true that the Second World War played a huge role in his writings. His mother’s 1944 suicide was also a factor in his worldview.

Right now I am focusing on the early novels. I finished God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater on Friday and started Mother Night yesterday. I am struck by how little science fiction there is in these considering that he is usually put in the Sci Fi/Fantasy genre. Some of those devices, time travel, etc., would come in later works but I would hesitate to put him in that category. A second thing that strikes me on reading these novels today is that, when Vonnegut was writing them, the Second World War was more current events than history. I never saw it that way when I was reading them in the 1970s & 80s because to my perspective the Second World War was already part of Ancient History. My sense and perspective on time has changed entirely now that I am in full blown middle age. So it goes.

If I indeed pursue some type of project on Vonnegut, perhaps a series of articles here on the Strawfoot, I may try to tie it in with Rod Serling. Perhaps it might be a compare and contrast of the two men and how they were influenced by their experiences in the Second World War. In some ways these are still current events: it is striking to see how the problems created by the events of the twentieth century are touching the world we live in today.

(images/top, Keith Gard; bottom United States Army)