On this day, Kurt Vonnegut — a prisoner of the Germans after being captured during the Battle of the Bulge — witnessed the firebombing of Dresden. Over three days, more than 1,300 American and British bombers — one of them, ironically, navigated by one of Vonnegut’s fraternity brothers from Cornell University — flew over the Baroque city and destroyed 15 square miles, killing more than 25,000 people, the exact number will never be known. Vonnegut survived the attack because he and his fellow prisoners were held in an underground meat locker called by the Germans Schlachthof Funf (Slaughterhouse Five).
After the firebombing, Vonnegut and the other prisoners were put to work gathering the dead. As he described in a letter to his family: “women, children, old men; dead from concussion, fire or suffocation. Civilians cursed us and threw rocks as we carried bodies to huge funeral pyres in the city.” The task grew so overwhelming that the Germans used flamethrowers to incinerate the bodies in place.
Three months later, Vonnegut and his fellow soldiers were freed by the Russians. The horrors of war and indiscriminate attack stayed with Vonnegut and became the theme for his novel “Slaughterhouse Five” and at least six other works.
When “Slaughterhouse Five” was published as a Franklin Library edition in 1976, Vonnegut in the introduction wrote:
“The Dresden atrocity, tremendously expensive and meticulously planned, was so meaningless, finally, that only one person on the entire planet got any benefit from it. I am that person. I wrote this book, which earned a lot of money for me and made my reputation, such as it is. One way or another, I got two or three dollars for every person killed. Some business I’m in.”
BONUS: Biographer Charles J. Shields discusses the problems he encountered writing about Vonnegut’s experiences in World War II.
Also on this date in literary history:
1933: Big changes come to Dagwood Bumstead and his girlfriend, Blondie, as they get married. For three years, the comic strip named after her chronicled the comic adventures of a millionaire playboy and his flapper girlfriend. But times were changing, and an editor at King Features approached the cartoonist, Murat Bernard “Chic” Young, and suggested “Why don’t you have them marry? You know more about married life than you do about dating anyway.” Young agreed, and “Blondie” began moving from a comedy of high society to middle-class suburbia. (Cartoon courtesy the Library of Congress.)
1898: Oscar Wilde publishes “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” During his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, which caused him much heartbreak and anguish, he had been incarcerated in Reading for two years after being convicted of homosexual offences in 1895. The complete poem which can be read at Wikisource, has one particularly noteworthy stanza:
Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard.
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word.
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
1974: Alexander Solzhenitsyn is expelled from the Soviet Union over “The Gulag Archipelago,” his account of the Soviet Gulag system.
Born: Ivan Krylov, fablist, Moscow, 1769; Ricardo Güiraldes, novelist, Argentina, 1886; Georges Simenon, novelist, Liège, Belgium, 1903; Elaine H. Pagels, religious historian, Palo Alto, Calif., 1943.
Died: Benvenuto Cellini, sculptor, goldsmith, memoirist, Florence, 1571; Cotton Mather, theologist, essayist, poet, psalmist, Boston, Massachusett Bay Colony, 1728; Rafael Sabatini, novelist, Adelboden, Switzerland, 1950; Elizabeth MacKintosh (ps. Josephine Tey, Gordon Daviot), novelist, playwright, London, 1952.