Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Kurt Vonnegut and the Hoosier Aristocracy

In Timequake, the very odd book by Kurt Vonnegut I'm reading these days, Vonnegut says that once upon a time he almost wrote a novel about how his mother, who committed suicide when Vonnegut was 12, was killed, in a way, by her father, Vonnegut's grandfather.

The novel would have been a realistic novel and true to life.

The premise would have been that the sins of a parent are often visited upon his children.

Vonnegut's grandfather was a properous businessman in Indianapolis, a member of the upper-crust with higher ambitions. He believed, writes his grandson, "that America was going to have an aristocracy based on the European model."

Vonnegut's grandfather, whose name was Albert Lieber, was training to join that aristocracy when it finally materialized. One way to recognize an aristorcrat, according to Albert Lieber, was his choice in wives. An aristocrat married a woman whose job in life was to be an ornament. One of the sad results of this was that Lieber raised his daughter to be an ornament---"useless" in Vonnegut's word---and as an ornament, with no real work to do later in her life, was she had no defenses against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and the, finally, against the depression that overwhelmed her and took her life.

But that depression began in her childhood.

Albert Lieber's first wife, Vonnegut's grandmother, died giving birth to Vonnegut's uncle, her third child. Vonnegut's mother had been her first. Albert Lieber married again. His second wife was an accomplished violinist, probably a talented amateur. I think Vonnegut would have mentioned it if she'd been a professional. There were plenty of women who were professional concert musicians a hundred years ago. But a professional wouldn't have been an ornament. She'd have been a person in her own right. Albert Lieber wouldn't have married her then.

The second Mrs Albert Lieber turned out to be crazy.

The symptom of her lunacy was a malevolence towards her stepchildren that was so pure and vicious that it makes stepmothers in fairy tales suddenly plausible.

Vonnegut writes, "She hated his kids with a passion. She was jealous of his love for them. She wanted to be the whole show."

"This female bat out of hell, who could play a fiddle like nobody's business, abused Mother and Uncle Pete and Uncle Rudy so ferociously, both physically and mentally, during their formative years, before Grandfather Lieber divorced her, that they never got over it."

Vonnegut doesn't describe how he'd have used this family history in a novel to tell how a father could cause his grown daughter's suicide. I don't wish he hid. I wish he'd written the novel.

Vonnegut doesn't wish he had. He's glad he didn't write it. He doesn't think he could have pulled it off. He doesn't think anyone would have wanted to read it anyway, even if he had been able to write it.

Maybe he's right. An intimate family drama set among the German-American aristocracy of Indianapolis at the turn of the last century? There might not be much of an audience for that.

There might not be an audience for such a novel written by Kurt Vonnegut, just because it doesn't sound like a novel Kurt Vonnegut would write.

Vonnegut has written realistic novels. Bluebeard and Jailbird and Player Piano. A lot of people thought that Player Piano was science fiction, Vonnegut says, even though he meant it as a realistic depiction of the General Electric plant in Schenectady, New York where he worked and lived for a time. I thought it was when I read it as a kid, and I was living in Schenectady. My father and grandfather and the fathers and grandfathers of most of my friends worked for General Electric too.

But I knew Vonnegut wrote science fiction so I thought Player Piano was science fiction, a dystopic fantasy like Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451.

Famous authors do get boxed in by their reputations. The number of readers panting for a realistic family romance written by Kurt Vonnegut is probably as great as the potential audience waiting for a comic science fiction novel by Alice Munro or serious novel of ideas by Robert B. Parker.

Vonnegut, however, sees the difficulty as a technical problem. In order to tell the story he wants to tell, he says, he'd have to explain, "from scratch," the society his grandfather moved in and into which his mother was born and from which she was in essence exiled from when the Depression hit, and he doesn't think readers would sit still for that.

Vonnegut writes by way of explanation: "The great critic H.L. Mencken, himself a German-American,, but living all his life in Baltimore, Maryland, confessed that he had difficulty in concentrating on the novels of Willa Cather. Try as he might, he couldn't really care a whole lot about Czech immigrants in Nebraska.

"Same problem."

I was surprised when I read this this morning that Vonnegut didn't mention two great American novels that have already done a lot of the kind of spade work Vonnegut thinks the kind of novel he decided not to write.

The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington and Jennie Gerhardt by Theodore Dreiser.

Tarkington's novel is set in Indianapolis and is about the society that Vonnegut's grandfather aspired to join and Dreiser's novel is about the social ambitions of German-American immigrants in Indiana at about the time Vonnegut's grandfather would have been a young man. And Dreiser's other great novels, Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy, altough not set in Indiana, share themes and ideas and character types, not to mention a part of American history that Vonnegut's imagined novel would have tapped into.

Mentioning Dreiser might remind readers of Sinclair Lewis' novels about Midwestern social climbers, Main Street and Babbitt and Elmer Gantry---they're not about Hoosiers or German-Americans but they are thematic, historical, and literary cousins.

Start thinking like this, and even Willa Cather and her Czech immigrants become relevant.

There's a great strain of American literature that a novel like the one Vonnegut conceived about his family can draw from. The readers who could appreciate such a novel are there. I think the real reason Vonnegut never wrote that book is that he knew of one important reader of his work who would want to have nothing to do with it. Couldn't bear to read that stuff.


It's not that he isn't interested in his mother's story.

It's that he's spent his life putting distance between himself and the place her story is anchored to.

As a writer, Vonnegut has none of Thomas Wolfe's nostalgic longings for a childhood lost. You Can't Go Home Again, Wolfe insited with the title of one his gigantic novels, but he spent his whole writing career trying to do that imaginatively, recreate the world he grew up in on paper. Vonnegut doesn't want to go home to Indianapolis in his imagination any more than he wants to go back there to live.

In another part of Timequake, but very close to where he describes the novel about his mother and grandfather he never wrote, he writes about all the friends and relations he grew up with in Indiana who left there as soon as they could. Somewhere else I think he quotes Theodore Dreiser's brother, the songwriter Paul Dresser, who said, "A lot of great men came out of Indiana...and never went back."

Speculating as to why he and all his kith and kin got out, Vonnegut says he thinks it might have been that they were "escaping the powerful pull of Crown Hill Cemetary."

Crown Hill is where Indiapolis' rich and famous are buried. The poet John Whitcomb Riley lies there. So does John Dillinger.

"Crown Hill got my sister Allie," Vonnegut writes. It didn't get his first wife, though, and "It won't get my big brother Bernie. It won't get me."

The Depression killed off what remained of that would-be Hoosier aristocracy and the society into which not just Vonnegut's mother but he and his brother and sister were born. Once that was gone, there was no place for the smart and ambtitious children of the aristocrats. So they left.

Some of them, like Vonnegut himself, didn't leave so much of their own accord. World War II dragged them out of there. But once out, they saw there was no point in going back.

So maybe the reason Vonnegut didn't write his novel was that he still saw no point in going back.

Maybe writing that book would have felt like a trip to Crown Hill to bury himself.

I still would have liked to read it.


At 10:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting post! Thanks very much.

A small possible error - according to my copy of Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut, Kurt's mother committed suicide in 1944, when Kurt was 22, not 12. Heartbreakingly, she died on Mother's Day, or the night before. I've often wondered what can be made of that in Kurt's book title Mother Night.


At 12:30 PM, Blogger Lance Mannion said...

Dan, thanks.

You're right about when she killed herself. This is actually my back up blog. My main page is here:


I post early drafts over here to be sure they're saved. The post on the main page has Vonnegut the right age and in the Army when his mother committed suicide.

I hope you'll visit over there.


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