Jersey Reflections: Vonnegut’s Tale

By: Vince Farinaccio

Turning WWII memories into a book took the writer 20 years of coming to terms with probable PTSD.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, a novel included on many high school reading lists. However, the core of the book’s plotline and inspiration behind its title can be traced to an event in the author’s life that occurred 74 years ago. 

Vonnegut acknowledged as much in his introduction for the Franklin Library limited edition print: “This book is about something that happened to me a long time ago (1944)—and the book itself is now something else that happened to me a long time ago (1969).” 

Slaughterhouse-Five has always been about history, particularly World War II, specifically Dresden, Germany and most notably the 150 American POWs, including Vonnegut, whose lives were forever changed when, on January 12, 1945, they were selected to leave Stalag IV-B in Mulhberg, Germany to work at a converted slaughterhouse serving as a prison in Dresden. That’s where they were on the night of Tuesday, February 13, 1945 when the British air force, the RAF, commenced firebombing the city, turning Dresden into an inferno. 

The POWs were spared when their German guards ushered them into the lower of two basements of an adjacent warehouse, what Charles J. Shields, in his Vonnegut biography And So It Goes, refers to as “two levels…so deep they provided natural cold storage for hanging sides of meat.” It was here, 60 feet underground, that the Americans were protected from the attack. They were not, however, spared the vision of devastation awaiting them when they returned to the streets above the next morning. 

As a survivor of the bombing, Vonnegut couldn’t remove the sight of the aftermath from his memories after he was discharged. His intention to turn those recollections into a literary account took more than 20 years, during which time he searched for the right way to tell the tale and deliver the message he intended. 

He began in 1947 with a short story entitled “Brighten Up” that was rejected by American Mercury magazine. By 1965, his recollections had evolved into a novel of which “the chapters were in various stages of revisions,” according to Shields, who reports that “for twenty years, he had been strangely confounded about the book and intellectualizing its problems hadn’t helped.” The solution was to rethink how realistic the novel needed to be. 

What Vonnegut accomplished over the next several years became Slaughterhouse-Five. What began as a realistic rendering of what Vonnegut witnessed in Dresden became an amalgam of naturalistic novel, sci-fi narrative, and historical fiction. Its moods range from dramatic to humorous, heartbreaking to horrifying, as it follows the existence of Billy Pilgrim, its Everyman protagonist, whose life is always just beyond his control.

“The story proceeds backward and forward in time,” Shields writes in his assessment of the book, “going from Pilgrim as a young man held by the Germans in Dresden, to Pilgrim as a senile widower imprisoned by extraterrestrials called Tralfamadorians, to Pilgrim in middle age at a convention of fellow optometrists. The form of the narrative, twisted like a paper loop into a figure eight, over which characters seem to be gliding along the curves but keep meeting again at the point of self-intersection, is the culmination of Vonnegut’s experiments with technique…”

The explanation for Billy existing in a concurrent past, present and future, a notion that takes a page from quantum physics, is that he has become “unstuck in time,” witnessing life as the Tralfamadorians do. But in an essay from the New York Times Book Review earlier this year, Kevin Powers offers another viewpoint: “…we begin to understand that for a man who witnessed the horrors that Billy has, the Tralfamadorians’ belief that the past, present and future are merely notions of Earthlings starts to sound like a comforting explanation for the intrusive nature of traumatic experience.” 

An interview with Vonnegut’s daughter Nanette in the New York Times this year reports that she believes her father, who died in 2007, suffered from PTSD, the symptoms of which can be seen in Billy’s portrayal. “He was writing to save his own life,” she said, “and in doing it I think he has saved a lot of lives.”