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The first authoritative biography of Kurt Vonnegut Jr a writer who changed the conversation of American literature In 2006 Charles Shields reached out to Kurt Vonnegut in a letter asking for his endorsement for a planned biography The first response was no A most respectful demurring by me for the excellent writer Charles J Shields who offered to be my biographer Unwilling to take no for an answer propelled by a passion for his subject and already deep into his research Shields wrote again and this time to his delight the answer came back OK For the next year—a year that ended up being Vonnegut's last—Shields had access to Vonnegut and his letters And So It Goes is the culmination of five years of research and writing—the first ever biography of the life of Kurt Vonnegut Vonnegut resonates with readers of all generations from the baby boomers who grew up with him to high school and college students who are discovering his work for the first time Vonnegut's concise collection of personal essays Man Without a Country published in 2006 spent fifteen weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and has sold than 300000 copies to date The twenty first century has seen interest in and scholarship about Vonnegut's works grow even stronger and this is the first book to examine in full the life of one of the most influential iconoclasts of his time


10 thoughts on “And So It Goes Kurt Vonnegut A Life

  1. says:

    A cursory glance at Charles J Shields’s bibliography shows him to have authored a string of hack profiles ranging from Saddam Hussein to JK Rowling plus books on sexual disorders Uruguay and Vladimir Putin Clearly this is the man to write the first full length biography of bouffant satirical demigod Kurt Vonnegut CLEARLY Like him or not he will remain for time immemorial the first and only man to have authority from The Master to write a full length bio or at least a vague thumbs up from a doddery moribund man who he spoke to twice But here we are here it is so it goes and so on Shields has written an extremely workmanlike bio forgoing any textual trickery or temporal twiddling to present a birth to death portrait of the artist as a cranky firecracker partial Mormon and counterculture Baal It zips along nicely Shields’s own hack background clearly mirrors Vonnegut’s career chasing moolah in the slicks so any protests on that front are churlish CHURLISH He describes well the maelstrom of family in Kurt’s life and the agents friends extra kids and sparring partners But there’s one person missing from this bio Kurt Vonnegut I see only a shadow walking through these pages I see his first wife Jane come to life brilliantly—an utterly devoted charmer who never loses faith in Kurt’s ability to become a great writer who Kurt breezily betrays once his career picks up traction His children swirl in and out the novel tormented and amused at this cartoon grump lurking in his office doorway trying to write a novel with very short chapters This isn’t necessarily a criticism—Kurt was deeply insecure and lacking identity His shrewd businessman’s instincts dominated much of his writing life—the famous perm and moustache was cultivated to impress his readership following Slaughterhouse Five’s huge success His advice as a writing teacher was geared towards selling stories for vanishing magazine markets He clearly relished his financial freedom after a long decade grafting largely for financial success He was a free enterprise capitalist not a socialist dreamer There are many unpleasant revelations in this book mostly Kurt’s treatment of women not impressive Embarrassing examples abound including his on campus sexism and philandering in the sixties though this is hardly surprising given the middle aged males dominating the writing courses at the time Basically Kurt was an asshole He acknowledges this many times in interviews and his books He was an overgrown baby who wanted status and respect as an author forever insecure about his place in the pantheon Anyway none of this matters really We have the books Shields isn’t too hot on the canon offering slim synopses and capsule summaries where meatier examinations might have been welcome for the devotee He is also overly harsh about a number of his works lingering on the critically popular ones More drooling devotion might have been welcome Although meticulously compiled from limited scraps the book is frustrating since we don’t get a better sense of Vonnegut outside his autobiographical works Perhaps that’s the point Kurt lived a Jackson Pollock life as anarchic and shambling as his novels and ultimately he was a product of depression era America the 30s and 40s and remained rooted to these beginnings all his life which is hardly a flaw Learning how typically writerly he was “humanises” the man behind the novels and does little to change our opinion of his work His last ten years of life sadly were spent with Jill Krementz whose behaviour towards her eighty year old spouse is not what one might term “affectionate” Kurt really needed Jane in his life in his dotage the poor sap So a solid bio with a throwaway appendix badly endnoted


  2. says:

    This review of the OUTSTANDING book has been revised and can now be found at Expendable Mudge Muses Aloud


  3. says:

    As someone who conceitedly fancies himself a Vonnegut scholar I like to think that I’m an expert on all things Vonnegut Every time I read a new book of KV criticism I huff and sneer demeaningly thinking “Pfff I could write that because I’m so great; I just haven't done it yet” Shields' biography is what I could only dream of writing So Charles J Shields my hat is off to you kudos for putting me in my place The depth and breadth of research that went into this is staggering I read endnotes just because I enjoyed seeing where each Vonnegut tidbit came from than I did in Infinite Jest Shields secured access to Vonnegut’s personal collection of correspondences and interviewed a whole slew of his family members friends and former acuaintances Every biography I read will forever be weighed against Boyd’s two volume Nabokov masterpieces works that I never expect anything to counterbalance; this comes very very close The only thing that is missing is the in depth criticism of each Vonnegut novel; however that’s not a reuisite for a biography and the fact that this focuses on Vonnegut “the man” is just fineVonnegut “the man” and Vonnegut “the fictional character” are so often viewed as the same person and Shields does a wonderful job addressing this In fact this was the most disappointing aspect of the book for me Reading about the real Kurt Vonnegut I often felt like the little boy at the end of Joyce’s “Araby” disappointed disillusioned Kurt does not seem like he was a very good father He seems to have been an even worse husband Jane seems to have supported him just like Vera supported Vladimir; however Kurt childishly depended on her for everything acted like a self centered patriarch and had multiple affairs—even cheating on one mistress with another So many of the noble principles espoused in his writings prove to be nothing than ideals That’s totally fine but learning that my hero couldn’t exactly live up to those ideals is saddening “Kurt had made choices consciously or unconsciously that had created multiple and even contradictory identities 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 man who had left his ‘child centered’ home to save his sanity but then married a younger woman who was leading him into fatherhood again; a satirist of American life but feeding at the trough of celebrity up to his ears” 351 This book just pulled back the curtain on my hero and made me realize the very lesson he gave his creative writing class at Harvard “‘people are not wholly bad People are not wholly good either Try not create characters in terms that are absolute—real people aren’t like that’” 277 This book made me recognize that my hero was only human There is perhaps one exception to the above rule Jill Krementz Kurt’s second wife really does seem like a complete “cunt” to use the poignant word that Nanny told me Kurt had once used to describe herPerhaps because the “characters” in this biography were so human I actually shed a tear when there was family discord or when someone who has been dead for ten or twenty or fifty years died The fact that I do know what members of the Vonnegut clan have passed means that for me to be so affected by their passings Shields really did make them come to life again in this biography Phenomenal biographyps To re create how he liked to workHe posted his grandchildren's drawings on the refrigerator door tacked a few drawings of his own to the walls and displayed in the kitchen a bumper sticker uoting him YOUR PLANET'S IMMUNE SYSTEMIS TRYING TO GET RID OF YOU 409That very bumper sticker the one formerly displayed in his kitchen is now on my Kurt Vonnegut Bookshelf by my desk


  4. says:

    As I read And So It Goes I thought I was going to regret having done so It's a sobering experience to discover someone I admire has feet of clay There is no doubt that Kurt Vonnegut was a deeply flawed and troubled person uick to anger a user of those who thought they could trust him a philanderer and a distant father But given the unbearable circumstances of his life a mother who committed suicide a beloved sister dying young of cancer and being a not only a prisoner of war but being imprisoned while the Americans bombed Dresden where he was held it was miraculous that he wasn't worse Charles Shields does an admirable job telling Vonnegut's story especially since Vonnegut died at the beginning of the project Shields has an evident sympathy and admiration for Vonnegut but never lets his admiration hold back from telling the often ugly truth of his life It was truly a fascinating life I don't think I will hold Vonnegut in such high esteem now knowing the sordid details of his life but I will still read him So it goes


  5. says:

    I just finished And So It Goes Kurt Vonnegut a Life by Charles Shields This could easily be one of the most jilted half assed biographies I've ever read Shields opens the book with his desperation to get Vonnegut to allow him to be his biographer and allow him to write his book Kurt initially refuses the reuest and then eventually allows it Shortly after Kurt Vonnegut passed awayThe major problem in this book though is that Shields appears to hate Kurt Vonnegut He seems like a man who had only read Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse 5 in high school and then had to suffer through the rest of his work after getting the jobSourcing is a huge issue in this work It seems like Shields' main source of uotes seem to come from his ex wife or his daughter Nannette who clearly had issues with her father The effect it creates is Sheilds comes acrossed looking like a jilted lover himselfA biography should have the fullest account possible of the subjects life good and bad This is what the reader expects from a biography a full true account In the case with authors a behind the scenes account of what was happening in the author's life also adds a new layer of perspective to an authors workShields instead chose to focus on everything bad about the man His drinking rage infidelities etc are all the focus here The book itself assumes that these are the reasons a reader comes to it Writing was just a by product of what Vonnegut did in the few times he wasn't too busy being an egocentric prick to pass some timeShields even go so far as to make his own psychological evaluations of everything from KV's childhood to old ageHe did a cut and paste of a Saloncom article in which Peter Fonda claims that Kurt Vonnegut reached in his desk and pulled out a joint This part of the book was troubling to me so I looked it up The uote was there alright Here's why this troubles me though In Cold Turkey an essay that was published in 2004 he says he has only smoked marijuana once in his lifetime with the Grateful Dead Why would Kurt lie? Especially once we consider that Peter Fonda's uote came from his book in 1969? Given the popularity of other Leftist authors of the time like Hunter Thompson and Jack Kerouac who would care about his pot usage in 2004? Maybe Cold Turkey wasn't on Shields' reading list Shields also then cuts out the saloncom article which ended with What a wonderful family it's fairly obvious why that part was left out though it goes against his making Vonnegut look like an asshole vibe which he continues the next paragraphThe worst part of all this is now it'll be another few years before someone else tries to do a better job


  6. says:

    Yes that was pretty terrible although less awful than most biographies of female writers much less prurient description of Vonnegut's love life for one thing It was also unsettling how we were just supposed to unuestioningly accept Vonnegut's second wife as a cast iron bitch probably because she chose not to cooperate with the biographer see Ted Hughes Sonia Orwell c c I did enjoy learning totally useless facts about Vonnegut such as his favourite program being Law and Order What else is modern American literary biography for?OTHER USELESS FACTS ABOUT VONNEGUT He was Geraldo River's father in law He appeared in a coffee ad He owned a failed Saab dealership shades of Rabbit Lily Vonnegut the daughter from his second marriage appeared as Montana Wildhack in a 2010 play well I got that from the net He never got in a fistfight with Norman Mailer Well I deduced that from its non appearance Wait didn't Aristotle say you can't prove a negative? We can never prove Vonnegut didn't get in a fistfight with Mailer? Whoops


  7. says:

    And So It Goes The sad life of Kurt Vonnegut JrThe face that peers out at you from the cover is immeasurably sad It’s the face of a man in middle age weighed down by lifetimes of tragedy The man — one of the most remarkable novelists of the 20th century — is Kurt Vonnegut known throughout much of his adult life as Kurt Vonnegut Jr In And So It Goes Charles J Shields plumbs the depths of Vonnegut’s sadness He began work shortly before Vonnegut’s death in 2006 and conducted lengthy interviews with his children his first wife contemporary writers business associates and neighbors The intimacy and detail of the book is remarkable a whole man emerges from its pages Vonnegut struggled through the first four decades of his long life — he died at 83 — then gradually gained readers through the 1960s until with the publication of Slaughterhouse Five in 1969 he became famous “overnight” as he neared the age of 50 After years of eating cereal for dinner and scraping for pennies selling what he regarded as hack stories for the popular magazines of the 1950s and 1960s he and his wife suddenly found themselves rich as royalties poured in from reprints of his earlier work and as each succeeding book good or bad lingered on the best seller lists for week after week Like the best of his novels — Cat’s Cradle published in 1953 as well as Slaughterhouse Five — Vonnegut was deceptively complex In public Vonnegut affected the manner even for a time the moustache and the white suit of his literary hero Mark Twain Like Twain he was folksy and often screamingly funny A rigid moralist and a plain spoken opponent of war and defender of freedom of speech he was idolized by a generation of students and was one of the most popular speakers on college campuses throughout the country during the 1970s and 1980s In public appearances Vonnegut generally came across as avuncular considerate and witty often leaving audiences gasping from laughter At the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop he proved himself to be a popular and talented teacher The man himself however though consistently witty throughout his life bore little other resemblance to his long time public image He treated his long time first wife Jane with undisguised contempt ignored his children and frightened their friends betrayed his own friends by summarily ending decades long business relationships and in his final years became intolerably grouchy Reflecting the truism that “what goes around comes around” Vonnegut’s childhood was deeply troubled His mother having been raised in luxury and dependent on servants for even the most mundane tasks was emotionally upended by the Crash of 1929 when the family’s circumstances were sharply reduced She spent the rest of her life sleeping for days on end and moping about the house finally killing herself when Kurt was just 21 — on Mother’s Day 1944 His feckless father a talented engineer trapped in life as an architect like his brilliant father paid little attention to Kurt as a child and almost never encouraged him in any way All the family’s attention was fastened on Kurt’s older brother Bernard a gifted scientist who later in life discovered the techniue of cloud seeding to induce rain When Kurt announced his interest in pursuing studies in the arts Bernard insisted that he enroll at Cornell to study science and the younger brother was powerless to resist He lasted two years there and later pursued an anthropology degree at the University of Chicago with a similar lack of success Years later he persuaded the Chicago Anthropology Department to accept his novel Cat’s Cradle in lieu of a thesis and was awarded an MA Though tragedy in other forms continued to dog Vonnegut in later years one event stands out as central to his character and his career the fire bombing of Dresden in 1945 Vonnegut had enlisted as a private in the US Army the year before and as his luck would have it his unit was eventually sent to the Western Front in Europe — positioned at the farthest forward salient in the Allied lines Shortly afterward the Germans attacked in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge Vonnegut and his buddies were uickly taken prisoner along with thousands of other Americans and marched overland to POW camps in Germany Eventually Vonnegut and a small number of his fellow prisoners were taken into Dresden and housed in a old slaughterhouse– very shortly before the horrific fire bombing attack that killed than 60000 civilians The Americans survived by hiding in a basement They were put to work once the attack had ended — collecting and stacking corpses Is it any wonder why Kurt Vonnegut was cranky? Naturally none of what he endured can excuse his bad behavior But it certainly does begin to explain the current of profound sadness that ran throughout Vonnegut’s life So it goesFrom wwwmalwarwickonbookscom


  8. says:

    In the spring of 1967 Kurt Vonnegut spoke at Reed College where I was freshman I attended his lecture which I don't remember I also dropped in on a group discussion he held in the common area of my dorm He hooked me there Mainly Vonnegut talked about his struggle to write a book about the firebombing of Dresden I was surprised to learn of this event and uite impressed with Mr Vonnegut When the book he was working on Slaughterhouse Five was published it was not the book I expected but than lived up to my expectations For many years I read each new Vonnegut book Mostly I enjoyed them though none ever seemed to be as uite as good as Slaughterhouse FiveThis biography is extensive and well documented with lots of footnotes giving you the informant for most of incidents reported Charles Shields summarizes each of Vonnegut's books linking characters to real people and situations in Vonnegut's life Shields describes a complex and changeable man capturing the mood of each period of his life He resists the temptation to pick a persona for Vonnegut and emphasize that throughout the book Vonnegut's 2nd wife refused to talk to Shields and comes off as uite the shrew in the book Clearly she really alienated Vonnegut's friends and relatives who provided much of the information to Shields I see an opening for a uite different biography written with her blessing Stay tuned


  9. says:

    Perhaps people familiar with Kurt Vonnegut's media persona will not need a book that serves to humanize the curmudgeonly author But for people like me who only know him through reading a few of his books this is a fascinating if depressing story It paints a picture of a man scrambling and grasping for respect in a field that often doesn't seem inclined to provide it It shines a light onto a troubled family life and personal grievances both justified and not It examines two marriages that can most simply be described as difficult And through it all it describes as much as possible Vonnegut's frame of mind and reference for writing his many books At one point near the end it is noted that Vonnegut is a man torn among several identities among them a domineering and blustery father a relatively conservative Midwesterner and a liberally anti war firebrand Who is the real Kurt Vonnegut? Reading this book may not provide the answer but it will provide a front row seat to his own struggle with the uestion


  10. says:

    Charles J Shields seems to really not like Kurt Vonnegut This is a problem since the market for this book is people who do like Kurt Vonnegut And I'm not saying that just because of all the dirty laundry about his personal life but because he has no appreciation for his actual literary work The best part of the book is at the very beginning past the awful part where he talks about how he got to write the book the part about Vonnegut's family and school years This should have been a better book Disappointing but not wholly without value