“Idols are best when they’re made of stone,” Joan Baez wrote in a song about Bob Dylan, the songwriting voice of a generation. It could also apply to a man many viewed as being the literary hero of the counterculture. As Charles J. Shields shows in his outstanding biography of the author, Vonnegut was far from a flawless person or author. Yet his fallibilities helped create his literary legacy.
And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life is an “authorized” biography of Vonnegut. In 2006, having just published Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, Shields sought and eventually obtained Vonnegut’s agreement to work with him on a biography. Unfortunately, after just three meetings, Vonnegut fell and suffered irreversible brain injuries that led to his death in April 2007. After Vonnegut’s death, his literary executors told Shields they chose someone else to write the “authorized” biography. As a result, they denied Shields permission to quote from some of Vonnegut’s letters. (The new authorized biographer was told by the estate six months later he was no longer the authorized biographer)
Yet And So It Goes (a title based on a repeated phrase in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five) is about as thoroughly researched as they come. Not only did Shields interview 125 of Vonnegut’s contemporaries, friends and family members, he still had access to some 1,500 personal letters, nearly all of them never before seen. He never quotes at length from any of those letters but provides plenty of footnotes (many chapters have 150 or more) for those interested in the source material. More important, his background as a journalist gives the book a straightforward style that makes it a pleasure for the reader who isn’t worried about where each statement comes from.
One of the most appealing aspects of the book is its balance. Approaching it chronologically, Shields details aspects of the author’s life that Vonnegut and others felt affected him psychologically and emotionally, but doesn’t meander into the pop psychoanalysis seen in some biographies. The book does not hesitate to explore Vonnegut’s often unusual relationship with his first wife, Jane, his occasional (and at times long-term) dalliances, and his perhaps even more unusual relationship with his second wife, Jill Krementz, but, for the most part, Shields lets the participants or those with firsthand knowledge speak for themselves. (Krementz refused to be interviewed for the book.) He examines the source and meaning of material in Vonnegut’s works, but doesn’t go romping off in “lit crit” analysis. He talks about the discrepancies between the public persona and the private person, but lets the reader decide whether and how it affects their view of Vonnegut.
Readers of Vonnegut’s books often encountered parts of his life, whether as part of the story or in introductions to the work. This, of course, is most notable in Slaughterhouse-Five, based on Vonnegut’s own experience as a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany, when it was firebombed. In explaining how Vonnegut wrote, and often struggled with, his novels, And So It Goes delves deeper into how those experiences affected him and, moreover, influenced his writing. And while Vonnegut went on to become, or at least be perceived as, a spokesman for the left, Shields shows that even that isn’t as clear as it seems. To some extent, Vonnegut created the style and cast the role for himself. That isn’t to say these weren’t honestly held beliefs; it’s simply that practice is often different than theory. While he was acclaimed by many protesting the Vietnam War and critical of the capitalist system, among the investments in that spokesman’s portfolio were a strip mining company and Dow Chemical, the manufacturer of the napalm used in Vietnam. If anything, the fact he wasn’t the same age as his fans may have been to his benefit. “He was the establishment,” writes Shields, “which added gravitas to his indictments of ‘the system.'”
Shields concludes, and most readers will likely agree, that Vonnegut was “a reluctant adult,” more a man of contradictions and multiple identities than a paragon of literary or other virtue.
He was a counterculture hero, a guru, and a leftist to his fans; a wealthy investor to his broker; a champion of family and community, and yet a distant father; … a satirist of American life, but feeding at the trough of celebrity of to his ears.
So what can we conclude from Shields’ thoughtful exploration of Vonnegut, his struggles and his successes? From the standpoint of this longtime Vonnegut fan, we should be damn glad Vonnegut was the way he is portrayed in the book. Otherwise, his mark on our literary landscape and culture may not have been as profound.
So it goes.
…journalism had acted like a grindstone on his prose, shearing off pretension until plain English was left.
Charles J. Shields, And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life