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Part II: The Creator of Eliot Rosewater

May 7, 2024

Hopefully, you’ve read my previous blog about the Rosie Books and what they mean to me. So, let’s explore who Eliot Rosewater was!

…or rather, who he wasn’t. Eliot Rosewater wasn’t exactly an Indiana resident, but rather a fictional character created by Hoosier author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Photo of Shortridge Daily Echo Editors ca. 1940 (Vonnegut Jr. first from left), Indiana Historical Society, M0482

Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis on November 12, 1922. He graduated from Shortridge High School and attended Cornell University before enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1943. While serving during World War II, he wrote his father to detail his capture, imprisonment, and treatment as a prisoner of war as well as surviving the bombing of Dresden while being forced to work in a slaughterhouse. His acclaimed novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, was partially based on this event in his life.

Photo of Vonnegut Jr. and an excerpt from his letter to his father in 1945, Indiana Historical Society, M1155

Vonnegut married his childhood sweetheart, Jane Cox, in September 1945. While he pursued other activities, he eventually gave them up for a writing career in 1951. He published his first novel, Player Piano, in 1952. In the 1965 novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Eliot Rosewater, namesake of the Rosie Awards, first appeared. Rosewater is also found in Vonnegut titles Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), Breakfast of Champions (1973), and Hocus Pocus (1990). Note: The last should not be confused with the 1993 fantasy comedy film of the same title.

Selection of works by Vonnegut Jr., Indiana Historical Society, General Collection

Jane and Kurt Vonnegut divorced in 1971. He married Jill Krementz, a photographer and author, in 1979, with whom he remained married until his death in 2007. He was honored with many awards for his literary works and for his influence on the literary world. Throughout my research, I came to find that Vonnegut’s depression and experiences during World War 2 probably shaped his crass and blunt sense of humor. It made me feel a warm sense of kinship with the Indiana author. The Indiana Historical Society holds the Charles J. Shields Research Papers Collection (M1155), where I got to know the funny side of him.

Excerpts from letters and notes from Vonnegut Jr. to friends, Indiana Historical Society, M1155

The collection includes copies of letters and notes written by Vonnegut. To a friend, he wrote, “Dear Maria Pilar—That was a fine beginning; now it’s the 11th—I got as far as “Dear” on July 2, and then something happened, which is the story of my life in Barnstable, Mass…” In one of many notes to Fred Rosenau, he wrote “So far, Rinehart and Scribner’s [Charles Scribner’s Sons] haven’t cared for the first nine chapters of the book. Squares.”

Honestly, though, my favorite Vonnegut quote is from his 2006 Rolling Stone interview, where he sarcastically threatened to sue the makers of Pall Mall cigarettes for false advertising, stating: “And do you know why? Because I’m 83 years old. The lying bastards! On the package Brown & Williamson promised to kill me.”

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (right) at the Indiana Historical Society Opening, Indiana Historical Society, Digital Collection

While I’m sad to learn that I was not able to appreciate Kurt’s life and works while he was alive, I’ll be thinking of him whenever I read a title nominated for the Eliot Rosewater Indiana High School Book Award. To learn more about Vonnegut, you can visit us at the Indiana Historical Society and the Kurt Vonnegut Museum & Library a few blocks from the Society in downtown Indianapolis.

Chloe Redman is an Assistant in the Archives and Library. She is pursuing an MLIS at Indiana University-Indianapolis. She spends her summers at a fishery in Alaska and reads books as fast as Kirby devours buffets.

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