Indisputably one of the 20th century's most important literary figures, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. needed "repeated reassurance" that the batches of personal and professional ephemera he sent over a period of 10 years to the IU Lilly Library "were actually wanted," according to Seth Bowers, one of four undergraduate IU students who curated "Mustard Gas and Roses: The Life and Works of Kurt Vonnegut," an exhibit that runs at the Lilly main gallery through Sept. 8.
Even after the Lilly Library officially secured the bulk of Vonnegut's letters and manuscripts in 1997, the complex iconoclast, who many regarded as the Mark Twain of 1960s counterculture, continued feeding materials to the library until shortly before his death in April at 84.
A lean representation of the entire collection, the exhibit includes correspondence, sketches, photographs, drafts of manuscripts and even rejection letters, all of which humanize the larger-than-life Indianapolis native who achieved celebrity both in and out of wonkish book circles with his piquant, politically subversive brand of satire and noisy contempt for social injustice wherever he saw it.
The exhibit was organized by Bowers, Lisa Dunk, Sarah Taylor and David Pavkovich, all Wells Scholars who were on the heels of another collaborative Lilly project before catching wind of the Vonnegut gold mine through their exchanges with the library's director, Breon Mitchell.
"We were wondering what we could do next, and when we suggested putting the exhibit together, Breon agreed to let us," Bowers says. "He trusted us."
Unusually sophisticated for their ages, all four seem keenly aware of what an extraordinary gig they landed in being able to spelunk through precious literary artifacts for eight months and have their efforts culminate in a top-notch exhibit.
The precocious foursome gives big shout-outs to Rebecca Cape, head of reference and public services, and Mitchell for their contributions as de facto advisors throughout the project.
"Dr. Mitchell helped conceptually, and Becky had a lot of direct, hands-on involvement," Bowers says.
Pavkovich, a self-described student of Vonnegut since the sixth grade, culled the exhibit's title from the absurdist 1969 masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five.
The novel's protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, gets a nocturnal, drunken call from someone (intended to be Vonnegut himself) whose breath the narrator describes as smelling of "mustard gas and roses" - one of many motifs repeated throughout the novel.
"I thought it was a wonderfully ironic juxtaposition," Pavkovich says. "In such a short phrase Vonnegut managed to convey an image laden with desolation and beauty or even death and life."
Based in part on his own harrowing experience as a prisoner of war during the Allied bombing of Dresden, Slaughterhouse-Five was Vonnegut's decisively anti-war, metafictive meditation on the big themes cited by Pavkovich, along with an underlying exploration of theodicy.
The exhibit features three radically different and painstakingly crafted drafts of the novel's first chapter - peppered with Vonnegut's boldly handwritten notes - as well as copies of the tour de force in 25 different languages.
Another display reveals Vonnegut's softer side, as well as the obvious delight he took in knowing that his papers would remain safe in the hands of the Lilly Library. A year and a half before his death, the writer was approached through correspondence by an exuberant Los Angeles teacher and his fifth grade army of baby Vonnegut enthusiasts.
The class was elated when their hero not only wrote back but made a surprise call to Mr. Sigler. The display features the children's lovingly assembled book of Vonnegut quotes and a note penned by Vonnegut to the students, ending with, "P.S. your artwork will be preserved for all eternity with my papers at Indiana University!"
Bowers says that many of the writer's personal papers were destroyed in an apartment fire in 2000, but that he appeared to be thankful that the remaining items would be preserved by the Lilly Library.
Bowers adds that Vonnegut was also aware that the exhibit was being organized in the months leading up to his death, and he "seemed excited."
"He was in frequent contact with Dr. Mitchell and was actually planning on coming to Indianapolis for the city's 'Year of Vonnegut' activities."
Vonnegut died in April - before he could make the Indianapolis trip - from irreversible brain injuries related to a fall he took several weeks earlier. The exhibit was still being developed, and Dunk ruefully recalls her personal reaction to the icon's death.
"After spending so much intimate time with his materials and memoirs, it was as though his work had come to feel like 'my baby,'" she says. "The process of going through captions and other writings related to the project, and changing them to past tense, was surreal, and very sad."
A July reception for the exhibit, attended by many, including Vonnegut's official biographer Charles J. Shields, demonstrated that the writer still has unqualified appeal even in death.
Dunk is not surprised that a contemporary audience would go gaga over a cult figure from the 1960s.
"I think he still has a definite presence," she says. "The themes he explored are so resonant: war, tragedy, human expression and of course the terrible things he saw personally."
Indeed, the way in which Vonnegut's humanistic ideas - sometimes misinterpreted as misanthropy - about an often topsy-turvy, increasingly entropic world, will undoubtedly continue to capture the imaginations of those looking to art for clarity.
As Pavkovich puts it, "I will always be amazed by his belief that despite whatever terrible deeds humanity has committed or deplorable conditions we have set up in ignorance or depravity that there is still a part of us that is good."
As Vonnegut himself was fond of saying, "And so it goes. So it goes."
Lori Canada can be reached at .