Ilium, Iowa City: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five

October 23, 2013

For someone interested in the twentieth-century epic, Slaughterhouse Five is a no-brainer.  How else would one call a story set in Ilium, talking about war, about death and the counterfactual?

But did I ever stop to think about the city on which Ilium was based?

I was put to shame when I started talking about the novel to a roomful of people, all of whom had seen the Victorian house on Van Buren Street where Kurt Vonnegut had lived when he was writing its early chapters.

He was a young novelist then, a new teacher.   After his two-year stint he went to Germany on a Guggenheim to do his research for the novel — on the firebombing of Dresden.  

John Irving, one of his students at Iowa, would go on to write The World According to Garp also in that house.

I love Iowa City: its lowkey downtown, almost free of chain stories, with the Prairie Lights Bookstore as the main hangout, and the entire city revolving around the labor-intensive art of writing.  It’s not for nothing that its best known institution is called a workshop.

But Iowa City was also severely flooded in June 2008, with the University taking a major hit.   All the artwork in its museum had to be moved to churches, high schools, community centers — perhaps the good thing to come out of the climate-change-related environmental disasters that are now our “new normal.”

If Vonnegut had been alive now, maybe Slaughterhouse Five would have had a sequel, also set in Ilium, featuring water rather than fire.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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