A celebration of Kurt Vonnegut on the Cape
The village, Kurt Vonnegut once chided in a short story, was “anachronistic, mildly xenophobic.” Despite the new encyclopedias acquired by the local library, “the school marks of the children and the conversation of the adults have not conspicuously improved.” And although the setting was Cape Cod, he wrote, this burg existed “for itself” and “specialize[d] in hastening tourists onto paradises elsewhere.”
Needless to say, the irascible Vonnegut loved it there.
Six decades after the former public relations man moved his young family to Barnstable Village to pursue the very unsure dream of becoming a fiction writer, the town is set to celebrate. Sturgis Library, where the beloved author served as a trustee back in the 1960s, is hosting a three-day series of events (www.sturgis
library.org/vonnegut-celebration ) over the Columbus Day weekend (Oct 10-12) honoring the rich bibliography and deep local roots of Vonnegut, who died in 2007 at 84.
The schedule includes panel discussions, memorabilia, a writing challenge, a screening of the 1972 film version of perhaps his most famous novel, “Slaughterhouse-Five,” and a staged reading of his play “Happy Birthday, Wanda June.” The festivities conclude Sunday with a chowderfest featuring Kurt’s Farmhouse, a limited-edition microbrew produced by Cape Cod Beer to mark the event.
The idea for the celebration arose during informal conversations on walks along Sandy Neck Beach among community members and Edie Vonnegut, a painter and the author’s second child. She lives with her husband in the renovated barn behind the family’s home on Scudders Lane, where Kurt and his high school sweetheart, Jane Marie Cox, raised six children — their own three and three nephews, adopted after the deaths within days of each other of the writer’s sister, Alice, and her husband. (Much later, Vonnegut adopted a seventh child, with his second wife, the photographer Jill Krementz.)
The main home, where Vonnegut moved the family in the mid-1950s, is now used as an occasional writer’s retreat. Until the breakup of his first marriage in the early 1970s he was a local fixture, active at the library, the Barnstable Comedy Club, and the old Orleans Arena Theatre. He also sold more than a few Cape Codders their cars, operating the area’s first Saab dealership before earning his first real success as a writer.
Vonnegut’s hometown, Indianapolis, hosted its own inaugural VonnegutFest last November. But Barnstable can lay at least as much claim to the writer, says Lucy Loomis, director of the Sturgis, which was founded in the oldest building to house a public library in the United States.
“People feel very connected to the Vonnegut family in general,” she says, and the patriarch “wrote some of his best work here.” That includes the novels “Slaughterhouse-Five,” “Cat’s Cradle,” and “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,” which introduced Vonnegut’s recurring alter ego, Kilgore Trout.
Somewhat infamously, Vonnegut once disparaged the Sturgis as a stodgy institution. But Loomis, who has been director for 11 years, says the staff doesn’t take it personally.
The comment was made as a kind of challenge to his trustee successors, she says, at a time when the library was expanding its space in the early 1970s.
“If we were now becoming a great modern library, he wanted us to do it for real,” Loomis explains. “To me, his humor and those comments he made were pointed. They were meant sincerely, not mean-spirited. He encouraged the community to rally to get the library to step up to the plate.”
Known to generations for his pithy, epigrammatical observations, Vonnegut left behind a body of work that lends itself easily to literary celebrations, says Mark Vonnegut, 67, his oldest child.
That’s especially true now that his father is no longer around to show up, he jokes: “He’s more dependable in terms of what he’ll say.”
Mark Vonnegut, who made a name for himself as the writer of “The Eden Express,” a 1975 account of his youthful battle with schizophrenia, is a pediatrician in Quincy. Conferences like the Vonnegut Celebration amuse him, he says, and he’s happy to participate.
“It’s not like, Oh, people are going to forget about my father,” he says. “They’re not.”
But he’ll attend when he can. In Barnstable, he will take part in a panel discussion on Saturday alongside the author of “The Vonnegut Encyclopedia,” the director of Indianapolis’s Kurt Vonnegut Public Library and Don Farber, Vonnegut’s longtime agent.
Mostly, he says, he’s there to keep the conversation in check: “Every once in a while somebody will say something outrageous that I’ll correct.” When a scholar claims an opinion on behalf of the writer, his son will confirm or deny its accuracy.
“I actually remember an awful lot of what he said and how he said it,” he says. “I literally remember hearing the typewriter going.”
In fact, Mark Vonnegut caused a mild flareup a few years ago upon the publication of Charles J. Shields’s “And So It Goes,” the first major Vonnegut biography. He took exception to the author’s depiction of his father as a bitter old man who had invested in Dow Chemical, a maker of napalm — a tidbit that came as a blow to Vonnegut fans who looked to the writer for his mockery of war and humankind’s treatment of the planet. The bit about the investment is not true, his son has said.
Not that his father wasn’t a complicated man, Mark Vonnegut acknowledges. “On any given day, what kind of father he was going to be, and what he was proud of or not, was up for grabs,” he says. “And that was fine.”
“I don’t think anybody is capable of writing a decent biography of Kurt,” says Farber, Vonnegut’s literary executor. “You have to know the person, and Kurt didn’t know himself.”
Loomis says she spoke with Shields, who conducted some of his research at the Sturgis, about the festival. He declined to attend, in deference to the family.
“It’s a tricky thing when someone writes a biography about someone you love,” she says.
The library will have plenty of Vonnegut memorabilia on display, including two signed prints by “60 Minutes” correspondent Morley Safer, an old friend and fellow doodler. One, a birthday card, depicts Vonnegut as a Picassoesque artist. The other, which Safer drew upon receiving the news of Vonnegut’s death, shows him at his typewriter, a cigarette in hand. The caption plays on Vonnegut’s trademark phrase: “And So He Went.”
Farber, 90, recalls his friend as “remarkably skilled.” Vonnegut played the clarinet, occasionally jamming with Woody Allen at his longstanding Dixieland pub gig in New York.
“Not many people knew he played a mean piano too,” says Farber.
Mark Vonnegut says he still rereads his father’s books, and he’s come to appreciate them even more since his death.
“This is going to sound stupid,” he says with a laugh, “but I’m astounded at how well my father wrote. I thought he was a somewhat talented brat who got off a few good books. Now I can appreciate how much more of a craft was involved.
“I grew up when he wasn’t that successful,” he says, “so I was always a little nervous about critics and this and that. Now that all that nervousness is gone, I think I can more fully appreciate” the work his father left behind.
Any reviewer who lays into a novel, Kurt Vonnegut once groused memorably, “is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.”
Given his father’s well-known penchant for bon mots, says Mark, “I always thought if the books hadn’t gone well, he could’ve written Hallmark cards.”