Literary Daybook, Feb. 13

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published February 13, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Feb. 13, 1976, Billy Pilgrim dies.
-- "Slaughterhouse-Five" (1969)
by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
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Today in Literary History

On the evening of this day in 1944, British and U.S. air forces began the 48-hour bombing of Dresden, Germany. The decision to carpet-bomb with incendiaries created a firestorm that destroyed 85 percent of the "Florence by the Elbe" and killed upward of 135,000 people, most of them civilians and POWs. One survivor was 22-year-old Kurt Vonnegut, an infantry scout captured at the Battle of the Bulge and transferred to Dresden to work on the production of a vitamin supplement for pregnant women. When the sirens sounded, Vonnegut and fellow-POWs hid in an underground cold-storage room of the slaughterhouse where they were quartered. Twenty-five years later, in "Slaughterhouse-Five" (1969), Vonnegut was finally able to articulate the horror and absurdity he felt at finally emerging from his hideout -- "It was cool there, with cadavers hanging all around" -- to 11 square miles of destruction, and to his new job of digging up whatever corpses remained, from shelters that "looked like a streetcar full of people who'd simultaneously had heart failure. Just people sitting in chairs, all dead." "Slaughterhouse-Five" is as much sci-fi and "Catcher in the Rye" (the subtitle is "The Childrens Crusade") as war chronicle, but it came out in the year of Woodstock and the moonwalk and the My Lai massacre, and it became an instant classic for a generation looking for some perspective on their own traumas and times:

"Robert Kennedy, whose summer home is eight miles from the home I live in all year round, was shot two nights ago. He died last night. So it goes.
Martin Luther King was shot a month ago. He died, too. So it goes.
And every day my Government gives me a count of corpses created by military science in Vietnam. So it goes.
My father died many years ago now -- of natural causes. So it goes. He was a sweet man. He was a gun nut, too. He left me his guns. They rust."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

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