Movie review: A Writer’s Roots: Kurt Vonnegut’s Indianapolis (2016)

The person introducing this documentary about Kurt Vonnegut described it as filling a void: no documentary existed about Kurt Vonnegut. (However, a quick Internet search brings up another documentary released this year.) This documentary, A Writer’s Roots: Kurt Vonnegut’s Indianapolis, was produced in partnership between PBS station WFYI and the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis.

Kevin Finch, the Director/Producer/Writer, and Jim Hall, Associate Producer/Writer, attended the showing at the 25th Heartland Film Festival and fielded questions after the movie.

Kevin was asked: What was the most surprising thing you learned about Vonnegut? His reply: Learning about his connection to Lake Maxinkuckee, a lake in northern Indiana where the Vonnegut family—and the muckety-mucks of the Indiana novelists, playwrights, and songwriters—summered.

What surprised me in the film? Mistaken associations about gravesites in Crown Hill Cemetery. No, really. Vonnegut was quoted as placing Dillinger near Riley. (Their graves are on separate sides of the cemetery.) And in the documentary, someone mentioned the Vonnegut family plot as being on the Crown, the hill where James Whitcomb Riley is buried. (The Vonnegut family plot is near the Crown but not on the Crown. Kurt himself is not buried there. His actual resting place is unknown.)

The documentary starts with Kurt’s eldest son Mark reading a speech written by Kurt on April 27, 2007 at Clowes Hall on the Butler University campus in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Indianapolis mayor, Bart Peterson, had declared 2007 the Year of Vonnegut and celebrations were planned. Kurt was planning on delivering the speech in Clowes Hall. But then tragedy hit. He passed away April 11 from severe brain damage following a fall.

The documentary focuses on the intersection of Vonnegut and Indiana. A Writer’s Roots shows his life in Indiana and beyond, how he escaped Indiana to gain perspective on his past, and how Indiana continued to pop up in his works—and how he continued to return to Indiana throughout his life.

A Writer’s Roots includes interviews with important people in Kurt’s life, such as his daughter Nanette, son Mark, and friend and fellow author Dan Wakefield. Experts such as curators at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library provide historical bits and show artifacts from the library, such as the umpteen rejection letters Kurt received from writings that he submitted.

Although coming from a family of freethinkers who moved in artistic and creative circles, his father insisted that Kurt not pursue the arts. He was only allowed to attend college if he studied something practical that he could make money doing. Kurt’s father did not want Kurt’s financial success (or viability) to be dependent on the whims of the economy. He decided that Kurt’s major field of study would be chemistry.

His father’s insistence was somewhat understandable given his life experiences. Kurt’s father and grandfather were responsible for some amazing architecture in Indianapolis, such as the Athenaeum. But the Depression hit and his father’s architectural business and the family fortunes never rebounded.

Kurt started with chemistry and finished his time in college studying engineering. He attended classes at several different universities but never completed his studies or received an undergraduate degree.

Kurt ended up going into the army to fight during World War II, where his experiences informed his later novels. He was part of the Battle of the Bulge and a prisoner in Dresden. He had the unique opportunity of watching the beautiful buildings of Dresden be obliterated and of helping to bury the women and children killed in the attacks. (The bombings of Dresden just killed civilians. The men were all off fighting in the war.)

He came home, married, attempted graduate work at the University of Chicago, and ended up in New York. He never returned to live in Indianapolis after leaving for the University of Chicago, but Indianapolis remained with him for the rest of his life.

Kurt had a love/hate relationship with Indianapolis. He loved his childhood, which was idyllic as the member of wealthy families of freethinking Germans—at least until the Depression hit and the family businesses of alcohol and architecture disappeared. Kurt established deep ties to friendships formed growing up and had fond memories of Shortridge where he attended high school. He maintained these friendships throughout his life.

The love/hate relationship that Kurt had with Indianapolis was mutual. Indianapolis celebrates Kurt’s roots, much more than other past famous Hoosier authors (Riley, Tarkington, Nicholson—to name a few). In some ways though, he was not accepted or embraced by his hometown, witness the dearth of attendees to his book signing In Indianapolis for Slaughterhouse-Five.

Does Indianapolis really accept him as one of their own, or do Hoosier resent his depiction of them in his works? I would argue that the freethinking tradition (for lack of a better word…kind of ironic referring to freethinking as a tradition) of the Vonnegut family (and other educated German families) never really took root and was not accepted by the Hoosier population at large. Kurt’s ideas are foreign to the conservative and insular culture of Indiana, which rejects or ignores them.

According to Kevin Finch and Jim Hall PBS stations across the country are showing a shorter version of this documentary. (Why not the whole documentary—it is only 86 minutes in length? Presumably the shorter version is to fit into the standard hour-long slot.) The documentary is well worth the watch.

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