On January 12, 1944, German soldiers transported 150 American prisoners of war, including Private Kurt Vonnegut, from Stalag IV-B in Mühlberg to Dresden, thirty miles to the south. Vonnegut had been captured on December 19, caught behind enemy lines during the early stages of the Battle of the Bulge. Along with other prisoners, he endured a forced march of sixty miles without food, water or sleep, then was crowded into an unheated box- car, where he spent the remainder of the year, before the miserable cargo of starved soldiers was unloaded at Stalag IV-B on New Year’s Day. In Dresden, Vonnegut would serve as part of a work detail housed in an abandoned slaughterhouse, and witness the most destructive aerial bombing of World War II.
Between February 13 and 15, the British Royal Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Force dropped almost four tons of explosives on Dresden. The city center was destroyed and at least 25,000 people were killed. The scale of destruction was matched by its apparent senselessness. The military barracks, outside of town, were not targeted, nor were bridges and railway stations. But the aerial bombing inflicted damage on 19 hospitals, 11 churches, 39 schools, 640 shops, the zoo, the opera house and more than 100,000 residences. Some military targets were taken out, notably a few production facilities, but the overall impact of this man-made cataclysm in ending the war was negligible. Twelve weeks later, World War II was over in Europe, and Soviet troops had taken control of the rubble that once was Dresden.
The events of that period exerted a powerful, lasting impact on Kurt Vonnegut. His horror and disgust were heightened by the historical accounts published after the war, in which this unprecedented fire-bombing was usually ignored or mentioned in passing. "The extent of the success had been kept a secret for many years after the war," Vonnegut writes with sarcastic venom in Slaughterhouse-Five; "a secret from the American people," he clarifies. "It was no secret from the Germans, of course, or from the Russians."
For years, Vonnegut mulled over possible ways of transforming this searing first-hand experience into fictional form. Shortly after the war, he drew on his POW experiences for a short story entitled "Brighten Up!" but it was rejected by editor Charles Angoff at American Mercury magazine, and Vonnegut turned his attention to graduate school and newspaper work. But the idea continued to germinate, although a quarter of century would elapse between the bombing of Dresden and the publication, in 1969, of Slaugherhouse-Five.
Vonnegut addressed the main challenge of writing a novel about the Dresden bombing in the opening section of Slaughterhouse-Five. His book, he admitted, was "short and jumbled and jangled" because "there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds.
"And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like ‘Poo-tee-weet?'"
Vonnegut took exactly that same jumble and jangle, and tried to make a virtue of it. He had already proven that he knew how to construct a brilliant novel out of fragments: his book Cat's Cradle (1963) consists of 127 tiny chapters that flash by like a film on fast forward. Now his atomistic style was matched with an ideal subject. A book about turning a city into a rubble doesn't fit with a sweeping narrative of Tolstoyan grandeur. Instead, such a subject warrants Vonnegut's prose, a kind of literary shrapnel that can make a biting point in a page or a paragraph or even a sentence.
He also brought in the birds as well. And they get the final line in the novel, which is, appropriately, poo- tee-weet?
Vonnegut drew on many elements he had already used in previous books, even ones that might, at first glance, seem incongruous. In The Sirens of Titan, he had contrived a protagonist who could not control his movements in time and space, and he incorporated this same peculiar twist into his Dresden novel. The idea of mixing time travel into a historical novel about World War II must stand out as one of the strangest literary strategies of the 20th century, but Vonnegut understood that this plot device would justify and amplify his "jumbled and jangled" tale.
Thus Vonnegut gives us Billy Pilgrim, who has become "unstuck in time." Our hero "has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941. He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963. He has seen his death and birth many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between."
What could be a more fitting symbol of the plight of a prisoner-of-war than a person who no longer has control over his time or space? But the conceit of a man jumping around to different stages of his life also allows Vonnegut to juxtapose the tragic and the trivial, the dark and the droll, the humorous and the heartbreaking. Vonnegut can draw on his skill as a comic writer without detracting from the acerbic social commentary and macabre historical narrative that are at the core of Slaughterhouse-Five. Instead of detracting from his story with the imposed sci-fi elements, our author has found a way to accentuate the sardonic intensity of his fractured and funny biography of Billy Pilgrim, a man whose time, like Hamlet's, is "out of joint."
This style of juxtaposition is exemplified in the most famous phrase from the novel: "So it goes." Vonnegut inserts this whenever a death occurs in his tale, and its sense of fatalistic acceptance can be taken as either a philosophical attitude or a parody of philosophical attitudes. Tragedy or comedy, take your pick.
Vonnegut never does things in moderation, even when arguing on the side of moderation. So in addition to time travel, he also inserts a subplot about aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. And he borrows some of his favorite characters from his other books, such as Kilgore Trout and Eliot Rosewater, although their role in the plot of Slaughterhouse-Five is happenstance and almost arbitrary. But when you are writing a novel that is, by intent, a "jumble and a jangle," strange cameo appearances are to be expected.
In Dresden, Vonnegut encountered a terrible destiny. But he also found the core subject of his life's work. Even in his other stories that don't mention this searing historical event, the bombing of a 800-year-old center of art and culture—"possibly the world's most beautiful city," Vonnegut wrote to his parents in his first letter after the end of the war—lingers in the background, an archetype evoked by other man-made catastrophes. In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut finally grappled with his big personal story in hand-to-hand combat, and though nobody can actually subdue times past—instead, like Billy Pilgrim, we can at best relive them from a different perspective—the struggle produced, in this instance, one of the great literary masterpieces of its time.