Six Degrees of Kurt Vonnegut

Loree Rackstraw met Kurt Vonnegut in 1966, when she was a graduate student in his fiction writing class at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. What started as a brief love affair between the then-unknown author and his student soon matured into a joyful, lifelong friendship—and in her new book, Love as always, Kurt, Rackstraw distills four decades of her memories and Vonnegut’s letters. She answered some questions about their friendship:

How did you become friends with Kurt Vonnegut?
In 1965, he arrived in Iowa City to teach in the Writers’ Workshop MFA graduate writing program, where I was a second year student. He taught my Fiction Writing section, so I worked closely with him in that genre, and we became family friends.

What was he like?
He had a great sense of humor and satire and was always making people laugh. But he also had an underlying melancholia and perhaps even anger about the unfairness of politics and the socio-economic history of our country, particularly as it seemed unfair to powerless people. He was especially kind to those who were powerless. He loved to be on the go, and was easily bored.

What were his most important contributions to American culture?
His important contributions to American culture were, first of all, his books: He had a cult following when I first met him in the mid-sixties, but it became a national and even international following after Slaughterhouse-Five was published in 1969. He also began making public lectures about that time, and was especially popular at university and college campuses, where he had a strong student following. But he was also very popular among literature faculty, too–his unorthodox writing style and structure and his liberal ideas were intriguing.

Probably his most important contributions to American culture had to do with his ability to use the bully-pulpit he gained for insisting on a socio-economic structure to benefit the lower classes, the social and personal value of being of use to others, the general unfairness of war but especially of unilateral political decisions related to war and power in our democracy.

For me, it was his mind and how he thought that most intrigued me. His “E=mc squared” insight that “life is no way to treat an animal” was his expression of the central paradox of life as he saw it: the only thing about humans that is sacred is their awareness, yet it is this very awareness that allows them to misjudge and to create images or symbols or language that blind them to the positive—to kindness, and beauty and/or to goodness. The ease with which we can “become what we pretend to be” can blind us to the fact that we sometimes do harm when we think we are doing good, etc. His books almost always dealt with this paradox, in one way or another. But these serious issues were often camouflaged by the whimsy of his language and narratives, so that I think the deep intellectual content of how he did this with images or events or historical parallels or “revisions” in his books sometimes went unrecognized by scholars, who insisted he wrote largely comic “fluff.”

This was part of his own personal dilemma: he loved to make people laugh, but readers’ laughter could actually blind them to his deeper insights. I wasn’t the only one who saw this irony: he was like the sad-faced clown in the circus.

How did his experience of the Dresden fire-bombing affect his writing and life?

It pretty much established the principle of “Accident” as a central function of life, and as it connected with paradox: e.g. captured and imprisoned by Germans when he himself was born of German-American father, and bombed (by accident) by his own American military Air Force, etc. His life was remarkably influenced by accidents.

How did his knowledge of anthropology, history, drama, literature and the arts influence his writing?
These disciplinary fields were strengths of his, and he interwove them into all his novels. He especially loved drama, did some amateur acting, did some adaptations of his own novels (Cat’s Cradle) for the theatre and wanted to write more plays. Happy Birthday, Wanda June was staged and produced in NYC following publication of Slaughterhouse. His characters often reflected anthropological influences (cf. Slapstick, in which the USA is disintegrating socially and economically into a rebirth of the Middle Ages. To help people survive loneliness, he has his protagonist, Wilbur, become president and give everyone in the country middle names of animals or plants to assure everyone they can always find a cousin of that same name and be related to them.).

Loree Rackstraw will be at Magers & Quinn on Saturday, April 18, at 5:00pm. We hope you can attend.–David E