What Early Drafts of Slaughterhouse-Five Reveal About Kurt Vonnegut’s Struggles
The first chapter Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 anti-war masterpiece about a hapless American soldier who becomes “unstuck in time,” the author indicates that he wrote more than five thousand pages by 1965. Before he arrived at the final draft, he had already thrown out all his pages. There are approximately five hundred pages in his archives at the Indiana Lilly Library. Slaughterhouse-Five Drafts. In tracing Vonnegut’s 23-year crusade to write his most famous novel, I sought to pair his literary struggle with his personal development from his experiences as a soldier during World War II.
It is difficult to determine the sequence of these early versions, but, as a whole, they demonstrate Vonnegut’s creative progress toward writing about his experience in Dresden (where he was a prisoner of war after being captured by German forces during the Battle of the Bulge), a subject he, for the first time, put in the first person in one of his novels when he added an introduction for the 1966 reissue of Mother Night. “135,000 Hansels and Gretels had been baked like gingerbread men,” he writes darkly of the firebombing. (Vonnegut never revised his reliance on disgraced historian David Irving’s discredited tally despite the number being corrected to approximately 25,000 killed by more authoritative sources. “Does it matter?” That’s what Vonnegut told Marc Leeds, author of The Vonnegut EncyclopediaIt is. “If I had been born in Germany, I suppose I would have been a Nazi, bopping Jews and gypsies and Poles around, leaving boots sticking out of snowbanks, warming myself with my secretly virtuous insides. So it goes.” This is also the first time he used the famous tagline he would go on to repeat throughout Slaughterhouse-Five
The introduction addresses Mother Night’s general subject of ambiguity and its tone of absurdity, but the author’s first-person reflections on his connection to the material is incongruous with the fictional tale that follows. Nowhere else does the novel make reference to the author’s military experience, and by doing so it effectively reframes the story. Vonnegut’s upcoming Dresden novel was clearly gestating. And it was the beginning of Vonnegut’s signature approach to anchoring his future novels with introductions where Vonnegut, the first-person author, speaks to the reader.
There are two Early Access Points at the Lilly Library Slaughterhouse These attempts are quite different to the end book. One, with the title “Magic Fingers,” is about a character who experienced the Dresden bombing, who visits a friend named Bernard O’Hare during the World’s Fair and is fixated on the mechanical beds named in the title. Another version, which is over 130 pages long and has very little to do with the storyline of this book. Slaughterhouse but centers on a character named Billy Pilgrim who is a Pontiac car salesman in the Midwest (glimmers of 1973’s Breakfast of Champions (available here), and who saw the bombardment of Dresden. The story, which tells of Pilgrim’s relationship with a gay lodger in his home who sells washing machines, doesn’t have much dramatic pull.
“I was a hack. I’d write anything to make money, you know,” Vonnegut later wrote in Without a Country, a Man is a Man. “And what the hell, I’d seen this thing, I’d been through it, and so I was going to write a hack book about Dresden.” Vonnegut found much glee in disparaging himself, especially in print.
“I tried,” he added. “But I just couldn’t get it right. I kept writing crap.”
He’s not kidding. I find myself returning to the discarded drafts. He really did write some toilet paper–worthy material. No judgments. This is where I will need your support. I am going to trust that you and I can maintain two potentially inconsistent thought processes in our big brains—appreciate Slaughterhouse-Five as it is written and also ferret around how Vonnegut wrote it—without suffering from cognitive dissonance. You might lose a passion for the book. Or a lack of respect for their creator. Although he may be a gifted writer, it was difficult to create a style that seemed natural and effortless. All those drafts are proof. Vonnegut worked tirelessly to make accessibility an art form.
Author and Vonnegut fanboy Steve Almond has worried that it may be “dirty pool to go mucking through his early efforts,” but Almond does it anyway in his long essay, “Everything was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt.” I do, too. The book, and also the man are important to us. We might be able understand our own behavior if this is possible. Almond also writes, “Writers evolve simply because they tire of their own mistakes.” I want to see that evolution.
Vonnegut thought about whether to write the story with a less harsh view of war and more financial motivations, even as late October 1966. Knox Burger, his friend and editor at the time, wrote that Vonnegut had spoken to a Los Angeles literary agent who encouraged him to play Kirk Douglas’ role in his movie adaptation. But it didn’t work, he wrote, half ruefully, “because the war I saw wasn’t really that way. It seems that I will remain with fine arts. Maybe I’ll get the Nobel Peace Prize, which is 60 G’s.”
You can choose from a variety of Slaughterhouse-Five versions that appear to be much closer to the final book—with no less than eighteen different openings. Harold Moon, David McSwan and Billy Pilgrim are the most common names for the lead character. In some, a different character, the mother of a dead POW, challenges the narrator about glorifying war and refers to soldiers as “babies.”
There are also versions that include an O’Hare son who is going to fight in Vietnam and one where Billy Pilgrim is gay. He constantly wavers on calling the first section a “preface” or “chapter one.”
Vonnegut submitted his final draft, less then ten months after returning from Dresden on a research visit. Slaughterhouse FIVEIt was. Weeks before, he had mocked his effort when he wrote in a letter to Scholes, “It sure has been hard. It isn’t very long. From now on I am going to follow familiar models and make a lot of dough.”
Vonnegut’s book editor Seymour Lawrence was known to have had a very light touch as an editor. Jerome Klinkowitz (author of several books on Vonnegut) believes Lawrence may not have made any changes to the manuscript beyond a semicolon. With the publication date set for March 1969, Vonnegut’s popularity was cresting. Lawrence helped to publish more than 200 000 mass-market paperbacks of Vonnegut’s book. The Sirens Of Titan The 150,000 Cat’s Cradle There were also paperbacks. In that month hundreds of American troops died in a North Vietnamese invasion, the biggest loss of American lives during wartime. An emerging author with a young following was able to publish an anti-war novel at the right time.
Much later, explaining how he was finally able to complete his Dresden novel after more than two decades, Vonnegut wrote, “I think the Vietnam War freed me and other writers, because it made our leadership and our motives seem so scruffy and essentially stupid. It was finally possible to talk about what we did the Nazis. The truth was that I did not see it, but I could report what I saw. It made war look awful. You know, the truth can be really powerful stuff.”
Vonnegut insists that he does not believe his wartime experiences have had any effect on him. “If I told him he had PTSD, he’d tell me to go soak my head,” says his son Mark Vonnegut.
Vonnegut never spoke out or wrote about the emotions he felt in wartime. The closest we come to hearing from him may be in the letter written by his uncle Alex in 1945, when the young Vonnegut tearfully exclaimed, “The sons of bitches! The sons of bitches!” after telling his family the story of his fellow American POW Michael Palaia, whom he eventually based the character Edgar Derby on.
In one unusually candid interview in 1996, Vonnegut admitted, “I saw a hell of a lot of death, and I saw a hell of a lot of it during the Battle of the Bulge when my division was wiped out. Then, in Dresden, I witnessed a mountain full of people dead. And that makes you thoughtful.”
You are thoughtfulIt is. This is a great understatement. But just as this suggests he is admitting something intimately, painfully personal, Vonnegut adds, “It . Made. . Made. Made. You can think about. You should think about It is. . Death. I also said that it was something I would never have missed. It was an amazing adventure. As long as you keep your eyes open, it was an amazing adventure. [are] going to see something, see something really thought provoking.”
Vonnegut refused to be put in the same boxes as others. And I believe he didn’t want to be pinned down as another writer traumatized by war. “I suppose you’d think so, because that’s the cliché,” he told Playboy In 1973. “The importance of Dresden in my life has been considerably exaggerated because my book about it became a bestseller. If the book hadn’t been a bestseller, it would seem like a very minor experience in my life. And I don’t think peoples’ lives are changed by short term events like that. Dresden was astonishing, but experiences can be astonishing without changing you.”
Calling what he witnessed during the war a “minor experience” seems like Vonnegut doth protest too much. And there is plenty of clinical evidence that a “short term” experience, if it is harrowing enough, can in fact forever change a person. But Vonnegut’s position remained consistent. He wrote in 1981’s Palm Sunday: “Being present at the destruction of Dresden has affected my character far less than the death of my mother, the adopting of my sister’s children, the sudden realization that those children and my own were no longer dependent on me, the breakup of my marriage, and so on.”
The following is an adaption of the text from the newly published book The Writer’s Crusade: Kurt Vonnegut and the Many Lives of Slaughterhouse-FiveAbrams Press published the book.