So a City-County Council member wants to rename part of a downtown street in honor of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
High time, I’d say. The late author of Slaughterhouse-Five and more than a dozen other ingenious novels that remain in print is the city’s best-known literary native son and arguably its finest writer.
Let’s hope Councilor John Barth’s colleagues concur with his proposal to make part of Senate Avenue a memorial to the adoptive New Yorker who insisted he never spiritually left his Hoosier home even if it wasn’t always a sweet thing to him.
But while we’re at it, why stop there?
Why, it’s timely to ask, have we been so stingy in thus honoring our large pantheon of local literary artists all along? We’ve got our (Booth) Tarkington Park and our (James Whitcomb) Riley Just About Everything, but look beyond that and you’d think we were reared on war chronicles and the sports page.
If we seek to rectify this glaring slight, we should compile a list. Vonnegut himself is a good place to start asking around.
Whom would Kurt choose among Indianapolis writers?
Certainly, his pal and fellow Shortridge High School alum Dan Wakefield, himself a distinguished author in several genres –- and still with us.
Certainly, Marguerite Young (Miss MacIntosh, My Darling), a poet and novelist called “unquestionably a genius” by Vonnegut and as honored by critics as anyone in her day.
Who else? Exercising my best unscientific methodology, I brought the quest to English faculty at our four universities –- IUPUI, Butler, Indianapolis and Marian –- and was rewarded with a rich roster of nominees. Besides Wakefield, only two –- Mari Evans and James Alexander Thom –- are living.
(Virtually all the respondents, I might add, are first-rate writers themselves).
Wakefield and Young were mentioned more than once, as were Riley and Tarkington, of course. So were Janet Flanner, Ruth Stone, Meredith Nicholson and Margaret Anderson, the magazine publisher immortalized for defying the government at great cost by serializing James Joyce’s banned Ulysses.
Several notable non-Indianapolis Hoosiers, such as Theodore Dreiser (Terre Haute) Lew Wallace (Crawfordsville),Jean Garrigue(Evansville), Gene Stratton-Porter (Wabash County), Ross Lockridge (Bloomington) and Kenneth Rexroth (South Bend) got slipped into the mix.
Among the Indianapolis practitioners, the late Etheridge Knight led the informal balloting. Susan Neville of Butler, Diane Prenatt at Marian, Kevin McKelvey and Elizabeth Weber of U-Indy, and Jim Powell and Karen Kovacik of IUPUI (our immediate past state poet laureate) listed Knight t.
“Poet friends of mine all over the country knew and loved him,” Weber remarked of Knight. “He was also African-American. So that would give some diversity.”
McKelvey and Weber cited Knight’s fellow African-American poet Mari Evans as well.
Knight (1931-1991), the wandering “Prison Poet,” was better known in Boston and New York than in his hometown and is carried in the best anthologies.
Evans, prominent in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, is accomplished across a wide range of genres and can list the likes of Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni as friends –- and admirers.
Other distinguished names? Kovacik noted that Flanner, the great New Yorker stalwart from the Flanner funeral home aristocracy, has her surname all over the place. Neville and Powell also listed Flanner, and they and Kovacik agreed on Stone, a prolific poet who received an array of national awards after age 85.
So it goes. And what do the living honorees think of this little beauty pageant?
Evans, who has been a living wake-up call as regards Indy’s history of racial segregation, simply laughed and said “That’s nice; I’d love that.”
Saith Wakefield, eminent novelist, television writer, memoirist and spiritual guru: “Sounds good to me; any writers will take any honor they can get.”
As for Thom, master of the Indiana-based historical novel: “In the event that my name ever reached the height of a street sign: as long as it wasn't on the drive leading to a Wal-Mart or an adult bookstore, I could live with it.”
As for Thom on the broader issue of naming a street for a writer: “Changing Senate to Vonnegut makes sense. Vonnegut did less harm, in the balance, than any senate ever did.”
Run with that one, Councilor Barth. It should carry the day.