SO IT GOES
Part II of a Look at the Legacy of Revolutionary Writer KURT VONNEGUT /
A Profile of Revolutionary Library THE KURT VONNEGUT MEMORIAL
LIBRARY with Director JULIA WHITEHEAD
By Tyler Malone
After speaking with Charles J. Shields, Vonnegut’s biographer, in Part I of a look at the legacy of revolutionary writer Kurt Vonnegut, I decided to profile The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. Julia Whitehead, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit, spoke with me about Kurt Vonnegut and the library that, thanks in large part to her, bears his name and continues his legacy.
Tyler Malone: How did the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library get started? Whose idea was it and how did it come about?
Julia Whitehead: I came up with the idea for the Vonnegut Library one evening in 2008 when I was rocking my baby to sleep one night. Having kids made me more creative as opposed to, you know, destructive. I basically put the idea together over the course of a few minutes. The next day, I tracked down Vonnegut’s son Mark in Massachusetts online. I told him I wasn’t just a crazy fan of his dad’s work, but I also had a legitimate proposal for a nonprofit library to honor his father’s work and life. Mark liked the idea of a library as Kurt Vonnegut was such a fan of public libraries. I asked him what he would want it to be like, and he said that beyond a museum, he thought it was important to participate in educational outreach for public schools. I gave him my background, which included writing and editing gigs for Random House, Military Officers Association of America, the Indiana and South Carolina State Legislatures, and Eli Lilly & Co. I mentioned that I had served in the Marine Corps and also took a position during my 20s teaching English to 100 second graders in Bangkok, Thailand. I told him that building this memorial would be the greatest work of my life. He sent me off to start the project with little direction. When I came back one month later with an amazing group of individuals to serve on the board and Krieg DeVault Law Firm willing to create the documents for nonprofit incorporation, he and his sisters Edie and Nanny as well as the attorney for the Vonnegut literary estate gave their blessings and gave us legal permission to use the Vonnegut name. I think it’s really important to note that throughout the process, I asked Mark and his sisters what THEY would like to see in a memorial to their father. Their suggestions and contributions have been so important and appreciated.
TM: Could you give us a brief history of the project? When it opened, etc.?
JW: After we received official 501(c)3 status in December 2009, we were featured in a publication called Indiana Lawyer as several of our board members happened to be attorneys. The attorneys at Katz and Korin, P.C. read the article and contacted us to offer free gallery space for the library. We were delighted with the space, and they have been amazingly welcoming and helpful to us. After we had a secure location, we began to receive artifacts from Mark, Edie, and Nanny Vonnegut. Having their support has been so important to the life of this organization, and I was thrilled to actually meet all of them at the “sneak peek” preview of the library on Vonnegut’s birthday last November and also in April at our annual Night of Vonnegut event. Local foundations such as the Lilly Endowment, Inc., and Allen Whitehill Clowes Charitable Trust kicked in much needed seed money to help us with business planning and developing the space into a museum, art gallery, reading room, and gift shop. I also have to mention our board of directors and volunteers as there is no way we could have put this together without the help of selfless, great Vonnegut fans from around the world.
TM: Why Vonnegut?
JW: Vonnegut was a great American literary master. It’s unusual for a writer to be able to cover novels and short fiction and essays and plays. He did all of those, and he created art beautifully. But he was also more than that. He had something important to say about how we treat each other and the planet. He spoke up for public school education, libraries, environmental protection, diplomatic solutions to problems rather than armed conflict, and support for the common man: factory workers, firemen, soldiers. He had the courage to stand up for his convictions both early in his career and during his final days. He remained relevant his entire life, which is unusual for anyone. He was our conscience. He made us think about the absurdities in life and encouraged us to speak up. And, of course, he was an internationally recognized best-selling author. Any one of those traits would have entitled him to a proper memorial center.
TM: Agreed. Okay, so here’s the other why question: why in Indianapolis?
JW: Vonnegut grew up in Indianapolis, he returned to Indianapolis on regular visits, and he wrote about Indianapolis. He said: “All my jokes are Indianapolis. All my attitudes are Indianapolis. My adenoids are Indianapolis. If I ever severed myself from Indianapolis, I would be out of business. What people like about me is Indianapolis.”
TM: What is the library’s mission?
JW: Our mission is to champion the literary, artistic, and cultural contributions of Kurt Vonnegut. We are a cultural and educational resource facility, museum, art gallery, and reading room. We support language and visual arts education through programs and outreach activities with other local arts organizations and public schools to foster a strong arts and education network for both the local and national community.
TM: Tell us a bit about what we would find if we visited the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library today?
JW: You can view Vonnegut’s typewriter, purple heart, reading glasses, photos, military uniform insignia, volunteer fireman card, the sword he brought back from Germany, his artwork, and many displays related to the history of his life and works. We have a reading room in which we’re trying to recreate his personal writing space in his home in Barnstable, Massachusetts. We have a gift shop and so much more.
TM: Kurt Vonnegut died in 2007. So it goes. Do you remember where you were when you found out? And what you felt?
JW: I was at work, and I felt like an important voice for all Americans was now gone forever. He was going to be speaking in Indianapolis that month, and I was trying to get tickets. I was angry with myself for not trying to make contact with him long before he passed away. I have since learned that Vonnegut was the type of person to respond to letters and calls.
TM: I had that same regret. In fact, it was that regret that forced me to write one of my other favorite writers, and a friend of Kurt Vonnegut, David Markson.
JW: Yes, I wish I had. I wanted to tell him how much I appreciated his work. In a way, I feel like that’s part of the reason I started the Vonnegut Library. I also started it so that fans like my husband and I would have a place to go to learn more about him and to talk about issues that affect us all.
TM: I’m curious which of Vonnegut’s books you personally like the best?
JW: At times I’ve said God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater was my favorite because Eliot Rosewater is a wonderful human being who goes about the world performing random acts of kindness. That book makes me strive to be a better person. But Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle are so amazing. With each reading, I discover new things in these books. These books show why Vonnegut deserves to rank among the greatest American authors of all time.
TM: Which Vonnegut book was the first you read?
JW: I read Slaughterhouse Five first.
TM: That was my first Vonnegut book as well. I think it’s probably the one most people start with. It is certainly one of Vonnegut’s favorites of his oeuvre. In Palm Sunday, Vonnegut graded his own novels.
Player Piano: B
The Sirens of Titan: A
Mother Night: A
Cat’s Cradle: A+
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: A
Welcome to the Monkey House: B-
Happy Birthday, Wanda June: D
Breakfast of Champions: C
Palm Sunday: C
I wonder what you think of his personal grades? Do you agree with the books he liked the best and the least?
JW: I think he was too hard on himself with Slapstick and Welcome to the Monkey House. The critics were hard on Slapstick, and I fear that Vonnegut may have let that influence his own grading of the book. I have learned so much more about his life from reading that and Palm Sunday. I am fascinated with the life he led and his ability to survive the difficult periods even when he contemplated giving up. He used humor to make it through, and we all get to enjoy the fruits of his life and labor.
TM: In high school, it was Slaughterhouse Five that made me want to be a writer, but I had to read it on my own from a friend’s recommendation, not a teacher’s. Why do you think that book isn’t taught in more schools?
JW: I think it’s not known. I was born in Indiana, but I went to high school in South Carolina, where Slaughterhouse Five was not part of the curriculum. I don’t recall anyone ever talking about it in high school except for my History teacher, Jane Wehrle. She’s now the president of our Baltimore Chapter of the Vonnegut Library. Teachers who encourage the reading of Vonnegut tend to be the type that want students to talk about different sides to issues rather than being spoon-fed the usual history book stuff that makes everything look rosey. Did I mention that Howard Zinn was one of our first Honorary Board Members?
Anyway, I think teachers may not know how to teach the book so they avoid it. While teaching the book, teachers really need to teach the history of World War II, the bombing of Dresden, and the political and social themes that were discussed following the war. Ideally, a history teacher and English teacher in a high school would get together and agree to teach World War II history and Slaughterhouse Five together. There are so many important issues that students could discuss while reading this book. Great schools are teaching this book. We offer a free Teaching Teachers to Teach Vonnegut training program each summer to help public school teachers to better understand Vonnegut and how to teach his work to teenagers.
TM: What say you about the recent banning of Slaughterhouse Five at Republic High School in Missouri? Can you tell us about what the library did in response?
JW: The book ban situation was so ridiculous. For three days, we all were asking ourselves what we could do. I spoke with a donor who agreed to offer 150 copies of the book to students in Republic High. Being able to do something positive, giving books away, made us feel great. We weren’t just complaining, we were actually doing something to get the books in the hands of the students. I loved communicating with these students and their parents. The entire world pulled together to support this effort as we received donations from all over the globe. We were interviewed by radio stations in Australia, Russia, England and elsewhere. How embarrassing for the United States that elected officials, the School Board of this town, would take these fascistic measures. We wanted to show that we are not going to stand for this type of slam against our rights under the Constitution.
TM: One thing I’ve always noticed about Vonnegut that seems to me to be almost unique to Vonnegut among literary writers is that everyone loves him. Whether they’ve never read a book before in their life, or whether they’re a pretentious literary snob, everyone loves his writing. I wonder why you think that is?
JW: Some scholars talk about his ability to speak to the common man, similar to Mark Twain. I think that is very important. But there’s a lot more to Vonnegut. He was a real character! His personal history, wartime experience, upbringing in Indianapolis, and role as a parent of 7 children helped him to be viewed as a decent and hardworking person who wanted his voice to be heard. He wanted great public schools, great public libraries, air we can breathe, peace for our children. He wanted things we all want for ourselves and our families, and he used his humor and his story to convey those wishes. He taught us or reminded us that we have these rights if we hold our politicians to a higher standard. He was a one-of-a kind citizen.
TM: In what ways do you think he’s a revolutionary writer? Or what makes him, as I’ve heard you say in previous interviews, “perhaps the greatest American writer”?
JW: I think my previous answer speaks to this but I’ll add that he was somewhat unique in that he added his own life story and thoughts into his fiction, sometimes completely moving away from the story to share something related or maybe even only loosely related, but putting himself in his literature is one of the things people love about him. We feel connected to him. We understand him. And he understands us.
TM: “So it goes,” the phrase of his (from Slaughterhouse Five) that is most often quoted is one of seeming apathy, a giving in to the chaos of the world, and yet he was a pretty political guy, far from apathetic. How do you reconcile, in your own reading of Vonnegut, these opposing strands of his personality and outlook on life. After all, he does say in Slaughterhouse Five that writing an anti-war book is as futile as writing an anti-glacier book. And yet, he goes ahead and writes an anti-war book (of sorts).
JW: I always took “So it goes” as a way for Vonnegut to deal with an upsetting situation without completely falling apart. This is a guy whose mother committed suicide shortly before he experienced that war is hell. I think he struggled throughout his life to try to focus on the positive in an effort to survive the negative.
I certainly see Slaughterhouse Five as an anti-war book. There’s so much more to the story of Slaughterhouse Five. For example, Billy Pilgrim is based on a real person named Ed Crone, who actually died in captivity as he lost the will to live. Crone was a sweet, young boy scout who wanted to be a preacher. He was mistreated by everyone, and he chose to starve himself to death. Vonnegut based his most famous novel character on this young man who died an unnecessary death. Vonnegut knew that war would continue on because he understood how governments and corporations work and he understood anthropology. But I think he also knew that we could choose a different way if we wanted to just as we no longer accept dueling as a solution to solving disputes.
He was a true revolutionary. He realized that our country was going in a direction where we are increasingly desensitized to violence and, depending on who is in power, we are encouraged to show hatred toward our fellow “brothers and sisters” around the globe. All I have to say is “Freedom Fries” and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Vonnegut was a citizen of the world, and he wanted Americans to educate themselves on other cultures and people in an effort to be more compassionate. If we are more compassionate, perhaps we can stand up and say that our children will not fight for big oil. And even though we still have war, Vonnegut has caused millions of people to consider taking better care of our returning members of the military.
TM: What are some of the ways the library gives back to the local community and the community at large?
JW: The KVML gives scholarship money to high school students, gives grant money to Vonnegut’s high school to support their student newspaper, helps to start school spelling bees in those public schools in Indianapolis that do not have one, offers a free week-long workshop for Teaching Teachers to Teach Vonnegut, and holds children’s books in our library collection. Our response to the Republic, Missouri book banning in which we offered 150 copies of Slaughterhouse Five to students is just another way we are trying to be a positive voice in the world. We are starting a university chapter program so that university students can discuss his books and benefit from our resources. We are working with several local organizations such as Ball State University, our local public broadcasting station and others to make our exhibits more interesting. We are creating a traveling display to take around the world to cities such as Dresden, Germany, and Hangzhou, China, that have invited to come share Vonnegut’s story. We also touch people in other ways, such as through our typewriter, where visitors can come and “pay their respects” to Vonnegut and type a message to him or about him for others to see.
The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library is a public benefit, nonprofit organization championing the literary, artistic, and cultural contributions of the late writer, artist and Indiana native Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. The KVML is a facility that serves as a cultural and educational resource center, functioning as a museum, art gallery, and reading room for readers, writers, and students. In addition, the library will support language and visual arts education for the local community. It is located at 340 North Senate Avenue, Indianapolis, IN, 46204.
Julia Whitehead is the Library’s founder and executive director.
Julia Whitehead interviewed by Tyler Malone
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography Courtesy of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library / Additional Photography by Joe Schildhorn for Patrick McMullan.com
Design by Marie Havens
Julia Whitehead w/ Kurt Vonnegut’s Daughters, Photography Courtesy of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library
Kurt Vonnegut, Private Screening of CAPOTE hosted by United Artists and Sony Pictures Classics, Sony Screening Room, NYC, September 20, 2005, Photography by Joe Schildhorn for Patrick McMullan.com