'Slaughterhouse-Five' At 50 Fifty years ago Kurt Vonnegut published his anti-war novel Slaughterhouse-Five. NPR's Renee Montagne revisits an earlier conversation she had with the author about the book.
NPR logo

'Slaughterhouse-Five' At 50

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/739154414/739154415" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Slaughterhouse-Five' At 50

'Slaughterhouse-Five' At 50

'Slaughterhouse-Five' At 50

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/739154414/739154415" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Fifty years ago Kurt Vonnegut published his anti-war novel Slaughterhouse-Five. NPR's Renee Montagne revisits an earlier conversation she had with the author about the book.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

When it was published 50 years ago, Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five" was an instant hit, an anti-war novel that was searing, satirical, strange and darkly funny. It revolves around a controversial moment in World War II, the firebombing of Nazi Germany's loveliest city.

It was 1945, and the end was in sight. The Germans were losing. Hitler was already in the bunker where he would die. And nobody expected the allies to lay waste to the jewel-like Dresden. As Vonnegut would later write of every irony, dreadful or mundane, so it goes.

In real life, he happened to be in Dresden, too. He was a prisoner of war, an Army private among a ragtag group of American POWs held deep in the basement of a slaughterhouse, slaughterhouse No. 5. After the first night feeling the shake of endless bombing, they emerged to find, Vonnegut wrote, a moonscape.

Back in 2003, as new wars heated up in Iraq and Afghanistan, I spoke with Vonnegut about why it took him 25 years to finish his novel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KURT VONNEGUT: Well, we all came home, you know, with stories. And we were all selling them. We had - you know, we'd just been teenagers, early 20s and had seen real stuff - you know, death, explosions, fire - all that. And we all wanted to cash it one way or another and tell a story. And, well, I just couldn't get it right, as I kept writing crap, as they say (laughter).

MONTAGNE: Over the years, as he wrote other novels, Vonnegut took to referring to his stalled masterpiece sarcastically as, my famous Dresden book. In the '50s and '60s, as he struggled to get something good on the page, other war novels were finding their way to the screen with big stars like Humphrey Bogart, Burt Lancaster, John Wayne. Finally, Vonnegut decided to track down an old war buddy, a fellow prisoner in Dresden. When he knocked on Bernard V. O'Hare's door, Vonnegut was carrying a bottle of Irish whiskey and hopes that O'Hare had stories to share.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

VONNEGUT: Just having him help me remember some interesting stuff, and his wife was listening to us, Mary O'Hare, and she blew her top because we were trying to think up nifty war movie stuff, you know, because there'd been a lot of war movies, so I could make some money after all. And she blew up. And she said, you were nothing but babies then.

And that was the key, really - is that war is, in fact, fought by children, not by Frank Sinatra and Duke Wayne. And I started all over again. And I thought of a subtitle for the book, which was "The Children's Crusade." And what Mary O'Hare was saying, in effect, is, why don't you tell the truth for a change?

MONTAGNE: With that, Vonnegut had found his protagonist, a child, really, the hapless Billy Pilgrim, a 20-year-old innocent. He escapes the horrors of war by traveling through time and space, even to another planet. Readers today might see this as an example of PTSD, a term not yet invented when "Slaughterhouse-Five" came out.

For Vonnegut, it was important to include the gruesome details, the details that other novelists had mostly stayed away from.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

VONNEGUT: Part of it was a fashion set by Ernest Hemingway in a story - I think it's called a "Soldier's Home." And this was from the first world war. And it was very rude to ask him what he'd seen when he got back home. I think a lot of people clammed up when a civilian would ask about battle or anything. It was fashionable. And one reason it's unspeakable, of course, is that war is murder and war veterans have committed murder. And that's a rather serious thing to do.

MONTAGNE: And when you say, you know, about Ernest Hemingway and other writers, it was fashionable to not speak of it, that fashion would have to do with, in some sense, romanticizing it? Or we're silent men who've lived - done heroic things?

VONNEGUT: Well, it would be the most impressive way to tell your story is to refuse to tell it.

(LAUGHTER)

VONNEGUT: It's - so, you know, the civilians would have to imagine all kinds of deeds of daring do and...

MONTAGNE: And they probably wouldn't, in fact, imagine something like what is in "Slaughterhouse-Five," a group of schoolgirls being boiled to death.

VONNEGUT: Yes. Well, it was - well, Dresden - the whole city was burned down. And it was a British atrocity, not ours, as they were night bombers, and they came in and set the whole town on fire with a new kind of incendiary bomb. And it was a military experiment to find out if you could burn a whole city down by scattering incendiaries all over it.

Of course, as prisoners of war, we've dealt hands-on with dead Germans - digging them out of basements because they suffocated there and take them to a huge funeral pyre. And I heard - I didn't see it done, but, finally, they gave up this procedure because it was too slow. And, of course, the city was starting to smell pretty bad. They sent in guys with flamethrowers.

MONTAGNE: When you wrote "Slaughterhouse-Five," you tried to look up some information about Dresden after the war and was told most of the information was still secret government information. And you, in the book, say, secret from whom?

VONNEGUT: I said that? Good for me.

MONTAGNE: (Laughter) You did. And it was the natural reaction, I should imagine, of someone who's been there. And it got me wondering, was there something about the time, 1969 - of course, the Vietnam War was in full swing - that freed you to write the book?

VONNEGUT: I think it not only freed me, I think it freed writers because the Vietnam War made our leadership, our motives so scruffy and essentially stupid. We can finally talk about something bad that we did to the worst people imaginable, the Nazis (laughter). And what I saw, what I had to report made war look so ugly. You know, the truth can be really powerful stuff if you're not expecting it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: I spoke with Kurt Vonnegut in 2003, four years before his death. His novel "Slaughterhouse-Five" was published in 1969, 50 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.