In Indianapolis, a New Library Celebrates Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
I like to think that if it had been left up to Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., to decide how he would be commemorated, the author might have dedicated a library and museum not to himself, but to his quasi-alter ego Kilgore Trout, the penniless, bottom-feeding pulp science fiction writer who meanders through Vonnegut's novels as a sort of combination one-man Greek chorus and rodeo clown.
After all, Vonnegut, who was born Nov. 11, 1922, in Indianapolis and died on April 11, 2007, after a fall on the steps of his New York brownstone, was that sort of iconoclast. Just as importantly, the author of such visionary classics as The Sirens of Titan and Cat's Cradle was deeply sympathetic to the struggles of unexceptional, luckless people such as his characters Trout and Billy Pilgrim, the sad-sack prisoner of war turned time traveler in his masterpiece Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut's genius was that he managed to convey their pathos -- and the essential injustice of existence -- with a deliciously snarky sensibility that particularly resonated with baby boomers. He was our generation's literary pied piper, a rebellious science-fiction satirist with the luxuriantly curly hair and mustache reminiscent of his idol Mark Twain, who puffed on his unfiltered Pall Mall cigarettes -- the ones that he deadpanned were "a classy way to commit suicide" -- and chided the nation's leaders as "power-drunk chimpanzees." He was our Albert Camus, crossed with James Joyce and a little H.G. Wells -- except funnier.
Fortunately, though, others -- in particular, longtime Vonnegut fan Julia Whitehead and Vonnegut's physician-author son, Mark -- have stepped in to create a fitting shrine to one of the biggest figures in 20th century American fiction. The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, located in Vonnegut's hometown of Indianapolis, is set to open to the public this weekend, with daily hours to start in late January.
Located in the former Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art, the Vonnegut library houses a collection of the authors' papers and signed first editions; a replica of his writing studio; and an assortment of personal items. These include: photos, medals and other memorabilia from his World War II service, his Smith Corona typewriter and a box of rejection letters that he received early in his career. Other displays deal with the Vonnegut family's deep roots in Indianapolis, dating back to its arrival from Germany in the 1800s. Another attraction is a small gallery of Vonnegut's work as an artist. (In case you're not familiar with the visual side of Vonnegut, here are a few examples of his silkscreen work.) There's also a mural timeline of Vonnegut's life by artist Chris King.
One other cool thing about the library, as this Indianapolis Star article notes, is that it will house a reading room for other authors' books -- in particular, 2,000 works by Vonnegut's favorite writers, including Twain, James Joyce and Oscar Wilde. While we sometimes like to think of literary giants as springing fully developed, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, the truth is that Vonnegut clearly was influenced by past generations of literary experimenters, and I like how the library is helping visitors see those connections.
If you're headed anywhere near Indianapolis in the near future, the Vonnegut library sounds like a great side trip. In the meantime, check out the library's new blog, which offers to lead book lovers in a re-reading of Vonnegut's novels in their chronological order. First up, naturally, is Player Piano, Vonnegut's 1952 look at a machine-dominated dystopia, set in mythical Ilium, N.Y. I'm looking forward to experiencing that one anew.
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