Literary daybook, Feb. 13

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published February 13, 2003 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"
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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. Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five" is the most famous fictional record of what resulted -- 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. Vonnegut and fellow POWs hid in an underground cold storage room of the slaughterhouse where they were quartered. Their old job had been to make a vitamin supplement for pregnant women; their new one was to dig up whatever corpses they could find, 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," or "The Children's Crusade," was published in 1969, Vonnegut saying that it took him 25 years to be able to face or articulate his experience. It came out to Woodstock and the My Lai massacre, and it became an instant popular classic, many looking to Billy Pilgrim or Vonnegut for some perspective on the 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.

At the beginning of a 1990 speech delivered at the National Air and Space Museum, Vonnegut said that the only person to clearly benefit from the Dresden bombing was him: "I got about five dollars for each corpse, counting my fee tonight." The rest of the speech then took up the crusade again, and "an assertion by that A-plus student, the heavy thinker George Will, that I trivialized the Holocaust with my novel 'Slaughterhouse-Five.'" It reiterated Vonnegut's view that the Dresden bombing was not militarily significant but "a work of art": "It was religious. It was Wagnerian. It was theatrical. It should be judged as such." When the speech was published in "Fates Worse Than Death" (1991), Vonnegut included this revised perspective in the preface:

"The Russian Empire has collapsed. All the weapons we thought we might have to use on the USSR we are now applying without stint and unopposed to Iraq, a nation one-sixteenth that populous. A speech our President delivered yesterday on the subject of why he had no choice but to attack Iraq won him the highest rating in television history, a record held many years ago, I remember, by Mary Martin in Peter Pan ..."

Several months ago, at 80 -- "I'm mad about being old and I'm mad about being American" -- Vonnegut spoke again, and again about Iraq, to the antiwar rally in New York's Central Park.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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