Kurt Vonnegut’s backstory on Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
Funeral Pyre at Dresden
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. emerged from a stockyards meat locker three levels below the street, and looked out on a scene so catastrophic that his conscious mind could not properly register it.
Dresden, Germany, had been bombed to rubble and dust.
It was a scene of thousands dead, others dying, fires and the eerie discovery that none in the neighborhood but he and his fellow prisoners of war, down in that meat locker among the hanging sides of beef, had survived.
“After that, we were put to work carrying corpses from air raid shelters; women, children, old men; dead from concussion, fire or suffocation,” Vonnegut later wrote to his father, the late Kurt Vonnegut, Indianapolis architect.
“Civilians cursed us and threw rocks as we carried bodies to huge funeral pyres in the city.”
135,000 persons killed
The death toll in that raid by American and British planes is put at 135,000, the largest one-day massacre in European history. Until about 1960, it was something of a classified matter in United States military records.
“As a writer, I always thought I should say something about it,” the Indianapolis native said the other day by telephone from his Cape Cod home in West Barnstable, Mass.
“It’s axiomatic with writers,” he said, “that ‘If you’ve seen a great disaster, don’t bother to try to write about it.’
“A great disaster like that, I don’t think human memory really records it. The best battle writing is done by people who’ve never seen it.
“It recorded in my memory like a tremendous flash.”
Even so, off and on since that day, Vonnegut has tried to jog his writer’s memory as to what he saw, what he experienced. Once he visited a war buddy to see if maybe he could help.
“His wife was sore as hell when I came,” Vonnegut, a Shortridge High School graduate, recalled. The couple had “a lot of children,” and their visitor thought maybe that was the trouble: The wife had neither the time nor inclination to be hospitable to her husband’s “war buddy.”
Slaughterhouse-Five: Glorifying war?
“Finally, it came out,” Vonnegut said. “She thought I was doing a book glorifying war, something for Frank Sinatra or Kirk Douglas in the movies.”
The wife admonished him: “You were just like the babies upstairs. You were babies back then.”
Vonnegut agreed. He was 19 when he was taken prisoner in the Battle of the Bulge, a private in Headquarters Co., Second Battalion, 423d Infantry Regiment, 106th Infantry Division, which had trained at Camp Atterbury.
“I promised her I would make it seem like babies,” he said. Hence the “children’s crusade” in the title.
The other part of the title: Vonnegut and his fellow prisoners were quartered in the fifth building from the main gate of a stockyard that lay in the middle of Dresden.
Slaughterhouse-Five: A phantasmagoria of war in multilevel perspective
Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death, By Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
The “slaughterhouse,” a practically bombproof cement-block structure once the last stopping place of pigs en route to the butcher, becomes the prison workshop of a band of captured Americans in wartime Dresden.
The American soldiers are close-shaven and close-cropped and consequently suggest “children.”
The “duty-dance with death” is the generalization for this mad account of the colossal insanity of killing, roughly, 137,000 men, women and children in a single nighttime air assault and, in effect, of destroying a city which allegedly was doing little or no war work at all.
Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who has been classified as a science-fictionist, has hit in fact on a true science-fiction subject. As an American prisoner, in German hands, he was, we are told, a witness to the Dresden holocaust, that appalling Day of Judgment for thousands — although who deserves to be judged by whom is less obvious than you may think.
In this story — a word whose meaning has to stretch wide and deep enough to cover so unconventional a narrative as this — Billy Pilgrim moves with the ease to a wraith from place to place and time to time. Indeed, he has the facility of being in two places at once, and of having yesterday and tomorrow coincide.
This makes for some confusion, some welcome excitement and also for some trepidation, lest you yourself get lost and find you’re in Ilium, New York, instead of the Dresden vault or the phantasmagorical land of Tralfamadore.
Death, as it is defined in Billy’s, case, is a “simple violet light and a hum.” A score and more of times it is ritualistically dismissed with a curt “so it goes,” a kind of American lingo version of a downgraded requiescat in pace.
Some of the things that appear in these pages and yet couldn’t have happened are the Vonnegut vision of what did happen. Death strikes again and again, all is slaughter — and “so it goes.”