The Titan of Sirens: Mark Vonnegut talks about his legendary dad Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. — and his own love for Dizzy Dean

Nov 26, 2008 at 4:00 am
Mark Vonnegut has refused to turn his celebrated father Kurt into a cottage industry. So why is he speaking about him in St. Louis next week? You can credit this appearance to two passions: first, to the ardor of St. Louis Actors' Studio founder and producing director William Roth, who has been a Vonnegut devotee ever since he read Cat's Cradle in 1976; and second, to the younger Vonnegut's admiration for Hall of Fame St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Dizzy Dean. "Does St. Louis still remember and revere Dizzy Dean?" Vonnegut asked during a recent phone conversation. Although Mark has never before visited the home of baseball's Gashouse Gang, Dizzy "made me want to come to St. Louis. I'm hoping there's stuff about him for my six-year-old son to see."

It is, of course, as a son himself that Mark will be coming to town. His program, which is sponsored by the Actors' Studio but which will occur at the Ethical Society, is titled Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: His Life, Art & Politics. "I welcome this opportunity," Mark explains, "to talk about Kurt, not as an icon or a culture hero, but to talk about his intellectual roots in the Midwest. Some readers think that he invented himself in the 1960s, and that's not true. He came out of the people who founded St. Louis and Indianapolis [Vonnegut's birthplace]. Even though he lived much of his adult life on Cape Cod near the sea, he always talked about himself as a freshwater person, not a saltwater person."

Vonnegut also feels that the timing is right for this talk. "I think Kurt would have been thrilled with the results of the recent election," he says. "He said over and over that the most inspiring thing he saw in his lifetime was the way in which black people bore up under the humiliating and horrible circumstances that white people forced them to live in. He would talk about how during the Depression he heard some black people saying, 'Things are getting so bad, white people are going to have to take care of their own children.'"

Taking care of children was not always an easy task for Vonnegut, either. Mark says he was comfortable being the son of a celebrity "only because it came after having grown up as the son of a man who I saw as a noble but failed writer who couldn't make a living, couldn't support his family. I was accustomed to rooting for him as an underdog." Mark was fifteen when Cat's Cradle became his father's first best-selling novel, in 1963. By the time Slaughterhouse-Five was published, he notes, "I was 21 and out of the house."

Way out of the house. While dropping mescaline in an alternate micro-culture in British Columbia, Mark was diagnosed as schizophrenic. His 1975 memoir The Eden Express (now back in print) is a raw and vulnerable account of his exhausting struggle to return to normalcy. I wondered if those harrowing experiences helped him to deal with his father after Vonnegut's reported suicide attempt in 1984. "When you look closely at any event," Mark cautions, "it's not 100 percent as it seems." He pauses then continues, "I think I was able to be of help. It wasn't that I said, 'Oh, I empathize and identify.' I more or less told him that if he ever pulled crap like that again, I was going to come down on him like a ton of bricks."

Vonnegut died last year at age 84 following a fall. What's the most surprising thing the son has learned about his father since then?

"How much he wrote, and what a craftsman he was. He used to say that he saved nothing. He claimed to have thrown all his early drafts away. But it turns out that he didn't. I now have something like 400 scanned files of drafts of short stories he wrote over and over and over. The care and craft with which he put together his words astounds me."