Remembering Vonnegut, so it goes

BY BRIAN DAU | APRIL 09, 2009 7:30 AM

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So it goes.

It’s a recurring theme in Kurt Vonnegut’s famous novel Slaughterhouse-Five, a remark used whenever death is mentioned — which is often (the sentence appears in the novel more than 100 times).

The saying seems particularly appropriate around this time of year. Saturday marks the second anniversary of Vonnegut’s death at age 84 due to a brain injury resulting from a fall. Among those celebrating the American author on that day will be Loree Rackstraw, whose new book, Love as Always, Kurt: Vonnegut as I Knew Him, is scheduled for release on Saturday.

More than just a flippant way to brush off death, however, “So it goes” reveals something of the intelligent method in which Vonnegut’s complex satire moved audiences during his life and continues to attract new readers today.

“He was a very unusual writer,” Rackstraw said. “He played a huge role to young kids during Vietnam, and anyone who cares about American culture and literature needs to know as much as they can about any writer who has played a role in influencing the value system of our country.”

Love as Always, Kurt is Rackstraw’s account of a relationship and correspondence she had with Vonnegut over the course of 40 years, beginning with their first meeting at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1965. At that time, Rackstraw was a student in Vonnegut’s Workshop class.

Both left the Workshop not long after and pursued their writing separately, but they stayed close through mail. Rackstraw saved the letters Vonnegut sent her, and she uses many of them in her book to piece together a biography of Vonnegut’s life and a more intimate portrait of a man most readers only know through his semiautobiographical fiction.

“I really felt a responsibility to share the information I had from his personal letters to me over those many years,” she said. “He was such an important figure in American culture and history. A lot of people felt very strongly about him and really loved him, and I decided that because I had that privilege, it would be sort of my gift to the world.”

Vonnegut wrote 14 novels over more than 40 years, from 1952’s Player Piano to 1997’s Timequake. Additionally, he published plays, collections of short stories, and essays — including the posthumously released Armageddon in Retrospect — and various sketches and drawings.

Nancy Andreasen, who holds the Andrew H. Woods Chair of Psychiatry in the UI Carver College of Medicine, is among those still living in Iowa City who knew Vonnegut. In the 1970s, she conducted a study of faculty and writing fellows at the Writers’ Workshop that discovered a pattern of psychiatric illness — mostly mood disorders — and creativity in writers and their families. Vonnegut was intensely interested in her work.

“I think for whatever reason he felt a really strong attachment to me,” Andreasen said. “Not only because of the fact that he had some problems, but that his family members had problems, too. Then, in the last two years before his death, I wrote a book on creativity, and Kurt was thrilled to write a blurb for it.”

His contribution? “This book was written by a woman with whom I had a love affair many years ago,” a quotation that, Andreasen assures people, has no basis in fact.

It’s a testament to Vonnegut’s resolute ability to laugh at the world that he was able to write things such as that, even when life around him was falling apart. In 1944, Vonnegut’s mother committed suicide on Mother’s Day, when he was 21 years old. In 1984, Vonnegut attempted suicide. As he got older, he also had to struggle with outliving many of his friends and family members, each year attending funerals of those who were close to him.

Despite the negativity Vonnegut dealt with in his personal life, Rackstraw remembers him working tirelessly to keep people entertained, especially during the many speaking engagements he had each year at college campuses around the country.

“He was trying to cheer people up at a time when scary and not very good things were happening,” she said. “He would leave people with a note of cheer by doing a little dance as he left the stage. I thought that was really sweet of him he didn’t -really do that until the last decade [of his life].”

Although Vonnegut said “life is no way to treat an animal,” he also stressed a belief in the good in people, famously addressing babies with “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind,” a line from his 1965 novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. And although he spent many years shunned by some of his peers in the academic and literary communities, as time passes, he continues to receive recognition for his philosophy of life and body of work.

“He was an admirer of Mark Twain,” Andreasen said. “And I think that as the cards shake down over the next 50 to 100 years, Vonnegut will have a position in American literature similar to what Twain has now — as someone who created this persona of an ironic satirist and social critic but who couched in that position a lot of things that had to be said.”

So it goes.

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