If Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five had come out a few years later, we might never have heard of itS

Charles J. Shields has written the first real biography of Kurt Vonnegut, due out in November. And he's been blogging about Vonnegut for a while over at his Writing Kurt Vonnegut blog, which is well worth adding to your RSS.

Among other things, Shields has posted a story that didn't make it into the biography, about Vonnegut's troubles in high school and his attempt to confront the school's basketball coach about his role in playing a cruel prank on Vonnegut. (Vonnegut went to the coach's house, only to discover an unsettling secret about the coach's wife.)

But also, the latest update at the Writing Kurt Vonnegut site is pretty thought-provoking. Shields, who also wrote a biography of Harper Lee, is speculating that To Kill a Mockingbird wouldn't have achieved popularity if it had come out five years earlier, in 1955. And he also speculates that Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five would have sunk without a trace if it had come out five years later, in the mid-1970s. Both books, which bracketed the 1960s, achieved stunning success because they hit at just the right time.

It's a fascinating exercise in literary alternate history, but also shines a light on just why Slaughterhouse-Five was so important: it came out just as the Vietnam War was escalating. Vonnegut had low hopes for his novel, which he'd spent twenty years trying to write, and he figured that nobody would be interested in a war novel, a quarter century after the fact. Writes Shields:

Then two weeks before Slaughterhouse-Five arrived in bookstores in early March 1969, the North Vietnamese attacked Saigon and more than one hundred South Vietnamese towns and military targets, killing approximately one hundred Americans in the first fifteen hours. During the first week of March, 453 Americans died, the highest losses in nearly a year. All 10,000 copies of the first edition of Slaughterhouse-Five sold out almost immediately, and the novel that Vonnegut had complained, "reads like a telegram" reached number one on the New York Times Best Seller list.

Had it appeared five years later, by which time most Americans regarded the handling of the war in Vietnam as a debacle, it's hard to imagine Slaughterhouse-Five would have carried the same weight as an indictment of war.