Kurt Vonnegut; Optimistic Pessimist
Tom Sawyer Goes to the Moon
May 31st, 2010
The bombing started in the outskirts. To the men in the now mostly empty meat locker, a few American prisoners of war and their ragtag German guards, these were felt as faint rumblings barely heard or felt three stories under ground. Growing closer they sounded like drums, then like the footsteps of giants and then they rained down right on top of the meat locker. Great crashing sounds making everything shake like earthquakes and hurricanes at the same time. Kurt Vonnegut and his companions in imprisonment sat in the dark of the locker of slaughter house five safe from the bombing, unlike the many thousands of citizens of Dresden who died in houses, bomb shelters, wine cellars and simple basements as the incendiary bombs lit fires that sucked the air from the rooms and left many asphyxiated where they sat, teacups still in front of them (Vonnegut, slaughterhouse, 226)
The American prisoners were given the job of cleaning this mess up. They had to wade into the wreckage, the broken buildings and the buried basements, the simple bomb shelters and the wine cellars and lift the rotting corpses out. With bulging eyes and rotting skin these horrors were carried to piles in the center of town and burned ignobly. Eventually the American prisoners dug only to find the bodies and someone with a flamethrower came and burned the bodies where they lay, a makeshift grave beneath the rubble. Vonnegut and his comrades, silent at first, began to harden at their task and talk and joke about it. Their humanity lost in the face of the horror that had been wrought by their own countrymen.
In his semi autobiographical book Slaughterhouse Five Vonnegut explores his experiences through fiction and science fiction. His character Billy Pilgrim experiences Dresden as he did, arriving in an overflowing city intact and spared the bombing runs that had scarred many other cities in Germany. As his character sits in the bomb shelter and later sifts through the ashes Vonnegut is right there with him. Witnessing the atrocity wrought by his countrymen. Billy Pilgrim masks the awful experiences of war, the stress, the death and the continual sound of fighting by disappearing and slipping off to another time and place in his life. Billy doesn’t do this in a fantasy according to is own belief, he does this in reality having come unstuck in time. Vonnegut explores in this book his survivor’s guilt, his remorse over America’s involvement in the bombing of Dresden, and his clinical depression by using humor, wit, and compassion for the human race.
Vonnegut is unwillingly thrust upon our world
Vonnegut was born to Kurt Vonnegut and Edith Lieber on November 11th 1922, sixteen years after the first Vonnegut in the United States as well as Indianapolis died while taking his daily exercise on a cold winter day. So it goes. He first met his wife, Jane Marie Cox, while they were still in grade school at the Orchard school but he waited until after the war to marry her. Later in high school he reported for, wrote for and edited the CV /Shortridge Daily Echo. After high school he enrolled at Cornell University to study biochemistry rather than architecture as his family had expected. In 1943 Vonnegut enlisted in the army and the army moved him to the University of Tennessee for training in mechanical engineering, something that he didn't use in the army or professionally.
World War II
The next year, 1944, turned into a big year for Vonnegut. On May 14th, the day before Mother’s Day, overwhelmed by depression Edith Lieber Vonnegut, his mother, committed suicide overdosing on sleeping pills. Six months later the Army decided it needed Vonnegut in Luxembourg and he found himself immediately in the battle of the bulge (Kurt).
The Battle of the Bulge, so named for the bulge it created in the allied line, was the last major offensive by the German army during World War Two. Hitler believed that the alliance was weak and could be easily broken by a strong offensive push. The fact that the German army had been in retreat since D-Day didn't matter to him. Three armored divisions, the Sixth Panzer Army, the Fifth Panzer Army and the Seventh Army hit the allied armies in a surprise attack advancing sixty miles into the allied line. The allies also experienced the first ever jet bomber attack with the Luftwaffe attacking train lines and rail yards in order to crush the Allies ability to supply themselves. The initial success was short-lived however since the Germans lacked the fuel to refuel their armored divisions and the First Panzer Division had to abandon their vehicles and make their way back on foot. Six hundred thousand Americans were involved in the Battle of the Bulge. The Americans lost eighty thousand, the Germans one hundred thousand killed, wounded or captured. But Vonnegut said in his letter home to Kurt Vonnegut Sr. dated May 29th, 1945 “but not me.” (Battle)(Vonnegut Letter).
Like Billy Pilgrim, his character from Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut was in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge. They both arrived in Europe in December 1944 right before the German offensive. They were both caught behind German lines for five days before being part of the largest mass surrender of American troops during World War Two. Both Vonnegut and Pilgrim had come to Europe and within two weeks been captured by the Germans without ever having killed anyone. Billy Pilgrim didn't even have a gun, a decent coat or reasonable shoes. They and the others were marched 60 miles to a train depot loaded on unmarked boxcars and left waiting for several days. They were bombed by allied bombing raids and froze in the unheated boxcars as they waited to be moved. Eventually they ended up in Stalag 4B and as Vonnegut was not an officer he was transferred along with others to Dresden for work Duty. So was Billy. Many characters that make brief appearances in his book were people who had made brief appearances in Vonnegut's experiences in Europe.
Dresden was overflowing with refugees. As one of the only cities not bombed up to this point the beautiful Dresden overflowed with people. Pilgrim and Vonnegut and the other American prisoners were housed in a barracks that were formerly a meat locker the name of which in English translated to Slaughter House 5, the name eventually given to the semi-autobiographical novel that was both the birthplace of Billy Pilgrim and his finally his book describing the experiences he had in Dresden. He speaks of Dresden in many of his writings. He loved the city. The beauty and age of the city fascinated him and he wanted to see it for its beauty. But allied firebombing annihilated the buildings and killed over thousands of Germans. Vonnegut mentions 250,000 in his letter home (Vonnegut letter) but the number was really about eighteen to twenty-five thousand according to the most recent findings by the Dresden Commission of Historians for the Ascertainment of the Number of Victims of the Air Raids on the City of Dresden on 13/14 February 1945 (Taylor).
Slaughter House Five, or the Children's Crusade
Slaughterhouse Five came out Vonnegut's desire to write about his experience in World War II as well as about the city of Dresden. He carried the idea around for years first really talking about it during his time at General Electric in their publicity department. Trying to get some resolution and to prompt his memory he called an old friend that had been their with him. He visited this old friend, Bernard V. O'Hare, another private that was with him in Dresden. He arrived to find his friend was hospitable but Bernard's wife Mary was not. She imagined Vonnegut was going to write another war hero story with parts played by Frank Sinatra or John Wayne in the movie version. Vonnegut assured her he was not going to do that. That there would be no parts for Sinatra or Wayne in his book and that he thought he might name it "The Children's Crusade". The book is dedicated to Mary and Gerard Muller, the cab driver that they met while in Dredsen (Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse, 17-19).
Vonnegut took twenty-three years to finally finish his "short, and jumbled, and jangled" (Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse, 24) novel. Why so long? Vonnegut looked into his head and found it empty of memories of the bombing. He called buddies from that time and asked them about their memories and found that they were lacking as twell. It seems that they had buried the memories as well. the long process of unencumbering his memories and piecing the story together was "an important step in the recovery from PTSD" or post traumatic stress disorder (Vees-Gulani). Vonnegut struggled with depressing memories, survivors guilt, and PTSD all his life contributing to the depression that was already present in his family.
Billy Pilgrim, his main character from Slaughterhouse Five represents how Vonnegut saw many of his fellow soldiers on both sides of the war; propelled along by the circumstances of their individual situation. Somewhat helpless they are in a way like those bugs in amber the aliens mention to Billy, frozen in time. Billy is an unheroic hero. Not too connected to his fellow man he was in a way Vonnegut's Charlie Brown. He represented the loneliness that Vonnegut often felt, disconnected from his fellow man. If he tried to tell of the air raid in Dresden as he saw it often people would come back with the awful things that the German's did as a University of Chicago professor did at a cocktail party when Vonnegut tried to do just that. "All I could say was, "I know, I know, I know." " (Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse, 13).
Vonnegut caught sometimes in the position of saying "I know, I know, I know." wrote Billy as a valve to release his feelings about the war and his experiences in Dresden. Vonnegut once said in an interview as Robert Merill and Peter Scholl point out in there essay Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five: The Requirements of Chaos, "Everything is a lie, because our brains are two-bit computers and we cannot get very high grade truths out of them." (Merrill, Scholl). Billy Pilgrims comfortable lie was that he had come unstuck in time and that everything was unchangeable as if we were bugs in amber. This allowed Billy to deal with the havoc he had seen his countrymen inflict in Dresden as well as helping him cope with a life that he didn't feel comfortable in. His fear of change became acceptance of the inevitable.
Vonnegut also uses Pilgrim to counterpoint his beliefs. Billy Pilgrim blandly accepts his marriage, his life, his son fighting in Vietnam. He sees everything as inevitable so he doesn't fight it or try to change it.
Kurt Vonnegut finally got his wish on the 11th of April, 2007. A fall at home finally ended the "comfortable lie" of his life two weeks after his regular "If I should die letter to his son "Two weeks later he fell, hit his head, and irreversibly scrambled his precious egg." (Vonnegut, Mark). He passed away later in a Manhattan hospital. So it Goes. Ironically his Pall Malls didn't do him in. Gravity did. A fact he would have loved.
Vonnegut, Mark. "Introduction." Armageddon in Retrospect. G. P. Putnam's Sons. New York. 2008. Print.
Vonnegut Jr, Kurt. Slaughterhouse Five or The Children’s Crusade. New York. Randon House. 1997. Print.
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Encyclopedia of World Biography. Advameg, Inc. 2010. Web. 28th, April 2010.
Vonnegut Jr, Kurt. Letter to his father. May 29th, 1945. Armageddon in Retrospect. G.P. Putnam and Sons. New York. 2008. Print.
Taylor, Frederick. “Death Toll Debate; How Many Died in the Bombing of Dresden.” Spiegel Online International. 02 October, 2008. Spiegel Online. 2008. Web. 28th April, 2010.
Vees-Gulani, Susanne. "Diagnosing Billy Pilgrim: a psychiatric approach to Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five." CRITIQUE: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 44.2 (2003): 175+. Academic OneFile. Web.
Merrill, Robert, Scholl, Peter A. " Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five: The Requirements of Chaos." Critical Essays on Kurt Vonnegut. Ed. Robert Merrill. G. K. Hall & Co. Boston. 1990. Print.