taring at the keys of the pale blue Coronet XL typewriter, it was easy to tumble into Kurt Vonnegut’s world.
A red rooster lamp provided soft light to write by. Jazz music — Vonnegut’s favorite genre — played over the stereo.
A mid-century modern chair was pulled up to the typewriter, sitting on a low-set coffee table. The model is the same exact kind Vonnegut used to write his most famous novels. Visitors are encouraged to channel their own Vonnegut and type a few lines on it.
The humor, pathos and legacy of one of Indianapolis’ most famous literary natives are preserved inside the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. The library not only preserves Vonnegut’s work and artifacts from his past, but captures the tone that the author soaked his entire life in.
“We want to create this experience for people, since Vonnegut was an author who created a lot of emotion for people,” said Chris Lafave, curator of the library. “He took things that were hard for people and managed to make them laugh. If you can make people laugh at dark things, there’s something very cathartic about that.”
Though Vonnegut lived in New York City from 1970 until his death, he always felt a close connection to Indianapolis, Lafave said.
He was convinced that the city helped make him who he was, saying during an interview in 1986, “All my jokes are Indianapolis. All my attitudes are Indianapolis. My adenoids are Indianapolis. If I ever severed myself from Indianapolis, I would be out of business. What people like about me is Indianapolis.”
“He always talked about how his sensibility was profoundly Midwestern in some ways, cosmopolitan in other ways,” said William Rodney Allen, a founding member of the library’s board of directors. “Part of that is strength of Kurt Vonnegut’s appeal, to an intellectual audience and also to people who are not academics.”
The city has returned the love. A three-story mural of Vonnegut graces a building in the Mass Ave. district. A bust of the author rests in a place of honor in the famous Rathskeller restaurant.
In 2007, the city planned 12 months of activities for the “Year of Vonnegut.” Though the author died on April 11 of that year, book discussions, performances and art exhibitions honored him.
“We have a whole bunch of Vonnegutians here in town who are about the mission. We’re not in this to do anything other than try to give back a little bit of what Kurt gave us,” Allen said.
The impetus for the memorial library came from Julia Whitehead, its CEO and executive director. She had discovered a library dedicated to the works of Henry Miller, and wondered why there wasn’t a physical place to memorialize Vonnegut.
Whitehead contacted Vonnegut’s son, Dr. Mark Vonnegut, who supported the idea of forming a memorial library. Other family members, including his sisters Edie and Nannette, also contributed to the effort.
In January 2011, the library opened in a small storefront in downtown Indianapolis.
Framed prints of his drawings and artwork adorn the walls. A bizarre sculpture of Vonnegut by Latvian artist Ivars Mikelsons is arranged in the corner.
One of the most striking features of the library is a wall-sized mural commissioned by Allen. The four-panel painting is set up like a timeline, starting with the entry, “13.7 billion years: The universe is born and growing fast. Parents unknown.”
Dozens of entries chart the flow of human existence, Vonnegut’s family history and his own life.
“I told (artist Chris King) that I wanted a blackboard effect, almost as if you were writing in chalk, like if you brushed up against it, you might erase it,” Allen said. “Kurt was all about how ephemeral we are and how short time is, and how silly it is to engage in war.”
Visitors are able to explore different aspects from Vonnegut’s life, looking at his family roots in Indiana all the way to his current impact.
His family came to Indianapolis from Germany in the 1850s, founding a hardware store that remained in business with the family for more than 100 years.
Mementos from that time, including a buckle and advertising tag, are displayed in a protective case.
Vonnegut has a brief connection to Johnson County. After joining the U.S. Army during World War II, he was stationed at Camp Atterbury before being sent to fight in the Battle of the Bulge with the 106th Division.
He was captured almost immediately, Lafave said. It was during his time as a prisoner in the city of Dresden that he drew his inspiration for one of his most famous novels, “Slaughterhouse Five.”
The library has a collection of artifacts from Vonnegut’s time in World War II, including the Purple Heart he was awarded, a Nazi sword he pilfered after his escape from Dresden and uniform patches.
One of Vonnegut’s greatest skills as a writer was to diagnose the ills that he saw ailing America and provide common-sense ways to cure that, Allen said. The biggest way to combat those ills was educating yourself.
“Embrace the science side of things and the literary side of things,” Allen said. “He was about integrating the two cultures together, and that the arts was not just something extra for the curriculum if you had enough money. It was something essential to life.”
That mission is carried on in some of the library’s yearly events.
Banned Books Week brings attention to books that have been challenged or banned from schools, titles ranging from “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” by Mark Twain to “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee to most of Vonnegut’s novels.
The week-long event brings in special speakers to talk about these books, secret performances and art auctions. An author is chosen each year to live in the front of the library for seven days, working on an individualized project inside a symbolic prison of banned books.
Vonnegut himself abhorred efforts to censor literature, or cut yourself off from any kind of education, Allen said. That is what makes his message so important.
“We have a very provincial view of the world, as if America is the world,” Allen said. “He was so intellectually cosmopolitan. That was the core of Vonnegut’s legacy: He wanted a more intellectual America, not the tendency toward almost proud ignorance that you see.”
Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library
What: A museum and lending library in honor of Indianapolis native Kurt Vonnegut.
Where: 340 N. Senate Ave., Indianapolis
Hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
5th anniversary ALL IN block party
What: A celebration of five years of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, featuring the opportunity to digitize your favorite Vonnegut photographs and letters, contribute a banned book to the Banned Books Week “prison” wall, write a note to your local/state representative about a cause you believe in and play a game of table tennis, Vonnegut’s favorite.
When: 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: The Athenaeum, 407 E. Michigan St., Indianapolis