Kurt Vonnegut was a counterculture hero, an American Mark Twain, an avuncular, jocular friend to the youth — until you got to know him.
"Kurt was actually rather flinty, rather irascible. He had something of a temper," author Charles Shields tells weekends on All Things Considered host Laura Sullivan. Shields is the author of a new biography of Vonnegut, called And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life.
"But as I also point out in the book," Shields adds, "he was a damaged person."
Shields persuaded Vonnegut to let him write the book, and he spent hours talking to the Slaughterhouse-Five author during the last year of his life. He says he was surprised during their very first conversation when Vonnegut began by complaining about his parents.
"For all the world, I thought I was talking to a much younger person who still had a real beef with the way he had been raised," Shields says. But that oddly youthful outlook was what endeared Vonnegut to generations of disaffected kids.
"When they opened one of his novels, they get the sense that an older person is leveling with them, that someone appreciates the dilemmas that they're feeling."
Vonnegut's public persona was often at odds with the actual man. "He read the signs of what was happening in the country," Shields says, "and he realized that he was going to have to be a lot hipper than a nearly 50-year-old dad in a rumpled cardigan to be a good match with what he was writing about."
As a former public relations man for General Electric, Vonnegut knew how to construct an image, a public version of himself who readers could believe had written books like Cat's Cradle and Breakfast of Champions.
"I don't mean to persuade anybody that Kurt was a cynic," Shields says. "Just the opposite." But Vonnegut was more of a reactionary than a radical, someone who showed up for a meeting with the band Jefferson Airplane dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit and wingtip shoes. Someone who was deeply scarred by his experiences, and longed for the older, gentler America of his pre-war childhood.
"Kurt was a disenchanted American," Shields says. "He believed in America, he believed in its ideals ... and he wanted babies to enter a world where they could be treated well, and he wanted to emphasize that people should be kind to one another."
Shields says Vonnegut could not have written the way he did without being the difficult and damaged person he was. "I don't see it as a complete break. I see his pain as pouring into his works in a kind of wry, droll, unhappy way."