When it appeared in 1969, Slaughterhouse-Five turned Kurt Vonnegut—until then an admired, if pigeonholed writer—into a bestselling celebrity overnight. The novel, which drew on Vonnegut’s wartime experiences as an American soldier during the Battle of the Bulge and, most saliently, the Allied firebombing of Dresden, which occurred while he was held there as a POW, was anything but a straightforward war chronicle. With its darkly humorous tone, time-traveling structure and groundbreaking use of the author as a character/narrator, the novel hardly seemed mainstream. But its absurdity struck a chord with America in the midst of cultural upheaval, and Vonnegut’s unique vision spoke to two generations at once: those who had fought in World War II and those who were coming of age amid the turmoil of the Vietnam War.
A journalist outlines the story behind Vonnegut’s masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five, and the wartime trauma that inspired it.
In The Writer’s Crusade: Kurt Vonnegut and the Many Lives of Slaughterhouse-Five, journalist Tom Roston revisits the story behind the book, which Vonnegut struggled to write for many years until he finally found the right voice to use. The engrossing tale Roston reconstructs is twofold. It begins with an absorbing biographical study that explores what made Vonnegut Vonnegut, including not only the events of his war years but also traumas from his Indianapolis childhood and early adulthood that shaped his singular blend of pessimism and humor. Famously quirky in his demeanor as well as in his manner of writing, Vonnegut played by his own rules, even if that meant being incorrectly viewed as only a science fiction writer at the start of his career.
Roston ties Vonnegut’s sometimes peculiar behavior and outlook to his past, and in the latter part of The Writer’s Crusade (whose title is an homage to The Children’s Crusade, the alternate title of Slaughterhouse-Five), he contemplates whether Vonnegut suffered from what has come to be called PTSD. To this end, Roston speaks with other novelists whose work focuses on war, such as Tim O’Brien and Matt Gallagher, as well as with a number of veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He also talks with Vonnegut’s three adult children and others who knew him well. The verdict is inconclusive, but Roston does make a strong case that the roots of the novel—and its ultimate message—stem from Vonnegut’s attempts to process all he had witnessed in the war. Interestingly, Roston suggests that one of Slaughterhouse-Five’s legacies may be the role it played in changing public perception of PTSD, helping Americans recognize its existence and causes.
There will always be mysteries surrounding what is truth and what is fiction in Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut himself was cagey and inconsistent when talking about what happened to him or what transgressions he may or may not have committed in Dresden. “So it goes,” he enigmatically wrote after each death in the novel. Still, Roston hopes its writing brought the author some closure and that Vonnegut was able to make peace with his past.