Bibliophile Style: Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut wearing a cardigan and button down shirt
Image credit: Library of Congress / No known copyright restrictions

We’re currently right in the middle of November, a time of year known among a certain literary subset as National Novel Writing Month. To mark the occasion, I wanted to write about a particularly prolific author who embodied the industrious spirit of NaNoWriMo. Having just recently worked my way through to the end of a roughly thousand-page collection of Kurt Vonnegut’s complete short stories, his was the name that immediately sprung to mind. As it happens, Vonnegut fans also celebrated his centenary earlier this month on November the 11th. 

The collection — which I found in a dusty second-hand bookshop where the sales clerk openly expressed his disappointment at not having snagged it before I did — is a perfect encapsulation of Vonnegut’s remarkable work ethic. Between returning from WWII to work in a series of unfulfilling jobs and breaking out as a writer of novels in the 1960s, Vonnegut managed to support a wife and six kids as a short story writer for magazines like Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post. His output during this time fills nearly a thousand pages without counting a single play, essay, or any of his novels — not bad going for a decade or so taken from a long and productive writing career.

Vonnegut has always represented for me the very best kind of writing: literary fiction that isn’t boring or forbidding. Smart writing with mass appeal, in other words. The kind of thing that George Saunders (himself cut from this same compositional cloth) evokes so well in his essay ‘Mr. Vonnegut in Sumatra’. Saunders describes encountering Slaughterhouse-Five for the first time as a young man and being puzzled and alarmed by how funny and readable — and yet still hugely affecting — a book about the firebombing of Dresden could be, let alone one written by a first-hand survivor of the same event. It wasn’t at all the kind of ponderous, unpleasant reading experience he had come to expect from something that counted as Great Writing.

I had the same experience reading Slaughterhouse-Five for the first time while at university, proudly joining the legions of students who have carried around tattered copies of Vonnegut novels in their pockets for over half a century. He was first discovered by American college students in the 1960s and quickly became enshrined as a literary hero of the counterculture only to ascend to the mainstream where he has been widely celebrated for his dark wit, his moral vision, and his seamless blending of high and low literary forms. 

Of course, this is a menswear blog and, much as there is to admire and discuss regarding Mr Vonnegut’s writing, we must now attend to the matter of his clothing, which (it has to be said) is not usually a subject that gets top billing in discussions of the author in question. ‘With his curly hair askew, deep pouches under his eyes and rumpled clothes,’ The New York Times once wrote, ‘he often looked like an out-of-work philosophy professor’. 

Even so, I’ve always gotten a real kick out of looking at photos of Kurt Vonnegut. His appearance — much like his work — has a habit of putting a smile on your face. His clothing was largely the kind of thing you would expect an author from the latter half of the twentieth century to wear: sport coats, cosy sweaters, shirts with collars distractedly askew. Occasionally you’ll catch sight of a flat cap or some aviator glasses, or get the chance to admire what seems to be a real proclivity for wearing beige, including shirts, cardigans, trousers, jackets, and coats all in a similar sandy shade. Mostly, though, it’s fairly standard fare, albeit almost universally and endearingly shabby-looking.

Kurt Vonnegut wearing beige
Image credit: cea + / CC BY 2.0

The more distinguishing marks of Vonnegut’s appearance were his distinctive hair and moustache. A caricaturist’s dream, Vonnegut could always be identified by an unruly mop of curly hair and a chevron moustache almost inevitably framing a dangling cigarette just below. This combined with a goofy grin and ample laugh lines — somehow always a surprise given the many tragedies he faced throughout his life — perfectly mirrored the slightly unhinged but entirely lovable nature of his books. Look at Kurt Vonnegut and, to my eyes at least, you find a man who seems to be the spirit of his writing incarnate.

And what precisely is entailed in this spirit, you might be asking? In a word: kindness. Human kindness — both its failure and its triumph — was a theme Vonnegut returned to over and again throughout his writing career. In doing so, as George Saunders puts it, ‘Vonnegut’s goal seemed to be to soften the heart, to encourage our capacity for pity and sorrow’. What better subject could we ask for from an author or his work?

But who better to tell you about it than Vonnegut himself via the title character of his 1965 novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, who summed up his philosophy as follows:  ‘Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”’ 

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