For me, Indianapolis is my home airport, my closest major city, and it is a city that I know relatively little about. I adopted Indiana as a homeland in my mid-twenties during a victory lap in college (grad school), and in doing so, came to the Hoosier heartland at a disadvantage, having not been raised on the cultural touchpoints and local sports teams. Upon my return to the Midwest, I didn’t settle in the city, but out in the environs in a college town. True to the name alma mater, the college town can suckle all of its denizens quite well–providing forever-young energy, cosmopolitan culture, intelligent conversation and sporting events. There is no need for the big city here. Unlike Columbus, Ohio or Lansing, Michigan; Indianapolis just doesn’t have that same energy–despite its three major universities and vibrant bar scene in Broad Ripple. Perhaps I was missing what is appealing about Indianapolis, save for that rat race around the oval every Memorial Day weekend?
My critique of Indianapolis ends where the mural above begins, a homage to one of the greatest American writers, Indianapolis native Kurt Vonnegut. This town produced that talent. Was it something in the water? Anyone who has seen the White River might not sip so deeply to find out. When it comes to Indianapolis, Vonnegut didn’t shrivel from showing his affections, nor sneer down an intellectual nose at his provincial origins. In fact, he credited so much of his world view, his empathy and pathos, to the Circle City. This is quite unlike his near-contemporary John Steinbeck’s disdain for his homelands. Of the Hoosiers, he reflected on what all Midwesterners know; a vibrant social and intellectual life lives in the Heartland. He said:
“It was all here for me – music, science, people so smart you couldn’t believe it, people so dumb you couldn’t believe it, people so nice or so mean you couldn’t believe it.”
In preparing for a business meeting, I found a gaping hole in my schedule, leaving me abandoned in Indianapolis for the afternoon. And I decided to fill that time with a “reality tour” based on the author of Slaughterhouse Five. I found very little in the blogosphere about Vonnegut’s Indianapolis, except for some major touchstones. Several other authors didn’t get why the worldly Vonnegut liked this vanilla fly-over capital at the Crossroads of America. I’d have to investigate more closely on my own.
The Vonneguts in America
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was a fourth-generation German-American. His great-grandfather, Clemens Vonnegut, owned a modest hardware store in post-bellum Indianapolis. His son, Bernard Vonnegut, became an architect and the creator of many Victorian-era buildings in Indianapolis, including the Athenauem (above) and the Student Building at my alma mater, Indiana University. The Athenaeum was known in Bernard Vonnegut’s day as Das Deutsche Haus, serving as the town hall for the German-Americans who called Indianapolis home. The building looks as if it was salvaged from Dresden and relocated to the Midwest. The building was a community center–home to beer gardens, club meetings and weddings and special events. During the anti-German years of World War I, the building was renamed, its Teutonic decor muted for a bit. Today, the building is again in service as the home to social clubs (the Y, Rotary International) as well as a fine German restaurant, the Rathskellar, which serves some of the best wuerst this side of the Rhine. When in Indianapolis, this is one of my favorite retreats, just east of the city off of Massachusetts Ave. (Nearby is another Indy landmark–the Murat Temple–a moviehouse-mosque now used for touring musicals–the German Townhall across from the Ottoman Mosque give the impression of meandering through Epcot Center.) Deep in its cavernous interior is a quiet meeting room, dedicated to the Vonnegut family. The room is actually named for the architect Grandpa Vonnegut. But Kurt’s bronze noggin smirks over the head of the table, keeping watch over serious diners and ready to spear them with his quick wit.
Kurt’s Childhood in Indianapolis
Vonnegut’s childhood neighborhood was in Indianapolis’s Butler University area–a neighborhood still noted for stately homes–and near the State Fairgrounds. Kurt’s father, Kurt Sr., took over the family architectural firm in 1910. Kurt Sr. married Edith Lieber, the wealthy daughter of a local brewery owner, and Kurt Jr. was born into a well-to-do family in 1922.
Nearby was Vonnegut’s old high school, Shortridge High. Shortridge was among the oldest public schools in Indiana. It was also built by his grandfather. Reopened as a Magnet school for public policy, the school works to add another generation to its noted alums. Vonnegut said of Shortridge:
“[Shortridge is] my dream of an America with great public schools. I thought we should be the envy of the world with our public schools. And I went to such a public school. So I knew that such a school was possible. Shortridge High School in Indianapolis produced not only me, but the head writer on the I LOVE LUCY show [Madelyn Pugh. And, my God, we had a daily paper, we had a debating team, had a fencing team. We had a chorus, a jazz band, a serious orchestra. And all this with a Great Depression going on. And I wanted everybody to have such a school.”–Now: A Tribute to Kurt Vonnegut. PBS.
He repeated the sentiment, in his essay collection Fates Worse Than Death:
“That city gave me a free primary and secondary education richer and more humane than anything I would get from any of the five universities I attended.”
The Great Depression wiped away much of the family’s successes and lead to family tragedy, as Edith killed herself after Mother’s Day, 1944. Yet it is clear from his reminiscences that time left only good feelings for Indianapolis. Nonetheless, he would not make Indiana his home again. Shortly after his mother’s death, Kurt Jr. was off to the Battle of the Bulge, imprisonment, surviving the bombing of Dresden, and then, to acclaim as a writer. After the war, he worked as a reported in Chicago, then he settled in the east, first as a failed car dealer in Connecticut, then to New York City. And it seems that Indianapolis had forgotten about Vonneguts for awhile as well.
In 2011, the Indianapolis Star explored the love-hate relationship that Indianapolis had for it’s wily native sage. Vonnegut never really changed from his high school years–an erudite pacifist full of contradiction. However, Indianapolis did change, from a town of German immigrants to a segregated community, from a pro-union Democrat town to a Nixon stronghold. Lost was the Gemütlichkeit of the old German hall replaced with open warfare between urban decay and the white flight to suburban Carmel. As retold from the Indianapolis Star:
“On May 2, 1969, acclaimed writer Kurt Vonnegut sat at a table at Indianapolis’ top bookstore, pen handy, copies of his new best-seller handy, fully expecting to move some merchandise. His “Slaughterhouse-Five” had just been released, a book that would be hailed as one of the greatest books ever written using English. Vonnegut already had published five novels and was “an unimitative and inimitable social satirist,” Harper’s Magazine said at the time. He was “our finest black humorist,” Atlantic Monthly said. Vonnegut lived in New York but had returned to his hometown, to the L.S. Ayres bookstore in Downtown Indianapolis, in triumph. It was a perfect spring day, warm and dry, and Hoosiers were certainly up and about. A sellout crowd of 1,300 filed into the Murat Temple’s Egyptian Room for the annual “500” Festival Breakfast, where Mayor Richard Lugar handed “the key to the city” to, for reasons that are today foggy, TV actor Clu Gulager. Several blocks away at the Vonnegut appearance, however, not one person showed up. That’s not quite true — not one person outside Vonnegut’s family showed up.Vonnegut was crushed and wrote a note to his friend and fellow Indianapolis-born novelist, Dan Wakefield: “I sold three copies — all of them to relatives, I swear to God.” — The Indianapolis Star, Nov. 10, 2011.
While the old L.S. Ayers–the location of the episode above–is long gone, the tea room, built by his dad’s firm, still stands and serves up 20th century chicken pot pies and chicken velvet soup at the Indiana State Museum.
Prudes explain that the whole of Indiana may have been turned off by Vonnegut’s love of the four-letter vernacular, or perhaps his cartoonish “Middle City” in his Breakfast of Champions, believed to be Indianapolis in caricature. It is true, perhaps. Vonnegut was banned in schools for many years, the coarse language, the irreverence, the truth-telling, the anti-jingoism. That sort of thing plays well in the salons of the elites on the coastlines, but in flyover-country? Emily Post, not Gertrude Stein, reigns.
“We Hoosiers got to stick together.” —Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut
Certainly by the end of Vietnam and Nixon era, when authors and pacifists were proven right in the end, did Vonnegut’s reputation repair in his native land. And by 2007, the City of Indianapolis returned to its senses and honored the contributions of their native son, and family, to the community, and to the world. Mayor Bart Petersen declared “The Year of Vonnegut.” The accolade left Vonnegut, in his words, “thunderstruck.” In an 2007 AP interview, Vonnegut noted that:
“This Indianapolis thing, it’s a charming thing because it’s about books and it’s about reading. They’re able to build it around me, so I’m glad to be a convenient hitching post for that…”
In addition, a downtown library, the Vonnegut Memorial Library, opened in his honor, now serves as a living memorial. Visitors are welcome to sit in his chair at his writing desk and type out a note. His beloved Pall Malls are nearby, as well as his Red Rooster Lamp and personal artwork.
“To all my friends and enemies in the Buckeye State. Come on over. There’s room for everybody in Shangri-La.” —Deadeye Dick, Kurt Vonnegut
Vonnegut’s character in Deadeye Dick was speaking of the Himalayas, but I think he meant Indiana. No matter the tug that takes you from your home, home is always home. His son, Mark, told the New York Times in 2010 that his dad remained “the kid from Indianapolis.” He also offered an epitaph of a kind, saying:
“I think his values are very much in line with the Midwestern values of Abraham Lincoln, Carl Sandburg and Mark Twain.”
When I begin to loathe the monotony of the endless horizons of flat cornfields in the Heartland, my peers on the eastern seaboard have corrected my attitude.
“It’s not boring, it’s liberating. No people, no traffic.”
I am not sure everyone from Boston to Washington DC pines for zen-like vistas, but there is truth to that idea. Cornfields can make the largest of egos feel small. And as Vonnegut would say:
“So it goes.”
Vonnegut Mural Photo credit: Jared Cherup / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Vonnegut Memorial Library Office Photo credit: UAJamie1 / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)
LS Ayers Tea Room http://www.indianamuseum.org/host-an-event/ayres-tea-room
Indianapolis Skyline Photo credit: MCC_Indianapolis / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)