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WOODWORKING

BY DAVE WOOD

Encounters with Vonnegut

In English departments across the nation the saying goes that many students major in literature because they like to read good books, so they go to graduate school and read TONS of good books, only to finally get a teaching job at a worthy institution of higher learning, where what they do for the rest of their myopic lives is read dull essays written by freshman enrollees who don’t find the time to read any books, let alone good ones.

A typical load would be four sections of 25 students, who are required to write 500word essays. That adds up to about 500,000 words to stumble through, each semester, while all those great books lie gathering dust on the professorial mantel.

That was my personal story as I traveled from Bowling Green to Augustana College to Illinois State University, UWStevens Point, Ball State University and, finally, Augsburg College in Minneapolis. That was when I left the groves of academe to work at the Minneapolis Tribune and to eventually become the book review editor of its Sunday books section. It was a big deal, because the Tribune sported one of the biggest book sections in the country, and this old English teacher got to read novels and poetry that was not yet published by writers like Judith Guest, Jon Hassler, Jon Updike, Garrison Keillor and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. I also got to meet them and know them as human beings.

As it happened, however, I had had opportunity to meet Vonnegut himself when I was one of those beleaguered assistant professors at the undistinguished institution of Ball State, Ind., located a few miles from Vonnegut’s birthplace. Back in the 1960s in those dissident times Kurt Vonnegut was on everyone's list for his incisive novels like “God Bless You Mr. Rosewater,” “The Sirens of Titan,” and his most famous, “Slaughterhouse Five,” inspired by the World War II firebombing of Dresden, while he was there as a prisoner of war.

What a blast to meet a witty satirist like this in person and slip away from grading yet another dull freshman essay! One autumn day, Vonnegut showed up at Bowling Green and stayed a week to be wined and dined by a grateful Hoosier public. He was a pretty shaggy looking dude, with a mop of curly hair. At one of several cocktail parties thrown for him, a Ball State faculty member approached him and said that he was the department's Science Fiction specialist. “If you're suggesting that I'm a science fiction writer [because of the “Sirens of Titan”] you're full of Bull….” He flopped down on his host's sofa and fell fast asleep.

In the following year, stunned by Vonnegut's performance, the faculty voted to invite Richard Nixon's cousin, Jessamyn West, the author of “Friendly Persuasion.” A safe bet if ever there was one.

As Vonnegut's fame grew and mine remained obscure at Augsburg College, I had an officemate, Douglas Ollila, a religion prof who knew Vonnegut well. “When I was a seminary student at NYU I sat next to Kurt almost every morning on the train into to town. As I recall he was working at a PR job at General Electric, and he was one depressed young man. But very witty.”

The 80s rolled around and in my new role as Books Editor, I was traveling around the country interviewing folks like George Plimpton, Calvin Trillin, Louise Erdrich. One stop was the American Bookseller's convention in Las Vegas. I was happy to hear that I'd be seated next to Vonnegut, as his publisher threw a dinner for him to promote his new novel. Unbelievably, he recognized me from the sofa episode and wondered if I still taught at “Fruit Jar U,” a name sometimes used to describe Ball State because it was donated to Indiana by the Ball Brothers, who manufactured canning jars. And then he arose to promote his book. “There's not much to say about it except I have here my publisher's catalog for this year, and I'll read the blurb from the catalog.” To the great amusement of the audience, he proceeded to read the entire fulsome description. He ended with the comment: “I wrote it myself. 'Twas the hardest thing I ever did since I worked at General Electric.”

Locals still jaw about Kurt Vonnegut's huge convocation at UW River Falls back when the University college featured blockbuster appearances by the likes of James Dickey, Alan Ginsburg and Kurt Vonnegut, which elicited a huge crowd.

Here's the backstory. My friend Charles Loney was scheduled to haul Vonnegut from the airport to Emma's Bar and then on to the auditorium for his speech. Something came up and Charles couldn't make it to the airport. So he sent one of his favorite students, who had recently read Charles's Ph.D. dissertation, in which Charles wrote about authors who had one successful novel, followed by a bunch of duds, F. Scott Fitzgerald for one, and Vonnegut for another. On the way back to River Falls, the favorite student mentioned the dissertation to Vonnegut.

Vonnegut had a drink at Emma's as was the custom back then (oldtimers remember when they had a difficult time getting James Dickey OUT of Emma's!)

And then it fell to Charles Loney to introduce the speaker of the night. Vonnegut arose, thanked Loney for the fulsome intro and said, “I was told on the way here to River Falls that there's at least one person in town who thinks it might have been better if I’d died before I wrote the book I’m here to talk about tonight.”

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715426-9554.

November 23, 2021