Philip Webb and Dr. Trent Hickman, American Literature
Some historical events, singular in their atrocity and horror, are not easily forgotten. Every nation, culture, and religion, claims one event and remembers it with solemnity. For Japan, it was Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For Jews, the Holocaust. Now in Indonesia, it is a devastating tsunami. For America it could be Pearl Harbor or September 11. Germans are no exception. They remember the night of February 13, 1945—the bombing and annihilation of their beloved Dresden. And when the talk turns to Dresden, it turns to Slaughterhouse-Five.
Before the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five in 1969, little was known of the annihilative bombing in Dresden—a juggernaut that claimed the lives of over 150,000 civilian victims. This staggering loss left few to recount the horrific incident. Remarkably, Kurt Vonnegut survived the calamity and later based his best-seller about the experience. Even today critics consider his fictional novel a leading authoritative source on the non-fictional war act. A simple search will reveal that any anthology, history, or encyclopedic entry regarding Dresden contains reference to Slaughterhouse-Five as a leading authority on the atrocities that occurred there. Now, Dresden and Slaughterhouse-Five, though seemingly oxymoronic, are inseparably linked.
A dilemma occurs, therefore, when historians and literary critics alike assume an avant-garde, science-fictional novel holds historical relevance. Thus, I was curious to find out what merit the book contained regarding the bombing of Dresden. Did Vonnegut conjure up his account from creative recollection, or did he rely on imagination alone to establish the standard on Dresden? This discrepancy led to a two-part investigation. First, I addressed the relationship between fact and fiction in the novel and to what degree do the existing facts in the novel deserve place in the encyclopedic anthologies. Once I established that Slaughterhouse-Five mostly fails as accurate non-fiction, I then focused on why it still deserves a place among historical references and how it justifiably maintains such a position.
My investigation led me to the Kurt Vonnegut archives housed at Indiana University’s Lilly Library in Bloomington, Indiana. With the grant money I was able to fly out to Bloomington and unearth Vonnegut’s manuscripts to procure primary source material for my research. Approaching a research paper of this magnitude and eventual caliber required intensive preparation. First and foremost, my procedure involved extensively reading relevant books, articles, or other sources to gain a greater grasp on Slaughterhouse-Five and its author. My hope was to approach this project with a solid background not only in the historical facts related to Germany and the Dresden bombing at the end of World War II, but also a more comprehensive understanding of the literary movement that Kurt Vonnegut participated in and helped amplify with his vanguard novels. With this foundation, then, I flew out to the archives where the curator was very accommodating and excited with the idea of a visit from a BYU undergraduate student in their archives.
After a few days with Vonnegut’s literary manuscripts and with most research complete I then turned my attention toward the National Undergraduate Literary Conference. This is one of the premier, reputable undergraduate conferences. (I actually submitted a paper the previous year but was rejected, so I knew the quality of my research would need to be top notch.) Preparing to submit and present included meeting with my mentor and writing my analytical essay to meet the deadline for submission. Dr. Trent Hickman, a prominent faculty member and recognized authority on twentieth-century literature, generously agreed to mentor me and help get my feet planted in the right direction. I am confident that because of his tutelage I was able to conduct meritorious research and compose a publishable paper to be presented at the NULC.
Much is owed to Dr. Hickman, my mentor, who has shepherded me through the rigors of research and writing. His sound advice and concern for my project proved invaluable. To give one example: I approached him before my flight out to Indiana and expressed concerns about doing the research. After all, this was my first time handling manuscripts and I wasn’t exactly sure what I was getting into. He reassured me and walked me through the process, describing what to expect and how to prepare. He also helped me narrow my focus in case there was more material available than I could use. I had planned a full day to spend in the archives with the manuscripts—more than enough time, I thought—but he counseled me to plan an extra day and leave a little breathing room “in case you strike gold,” as he described it. “You might find one or two gems in there or you may discover there is more to cover than one day will allow.” He was right. I started sifting through the boxes only to find that there were folders after folders of invaluable drafts on the specific chapter I was focusing on. I ended up using that extra day Dr. Hickman suggested and I can’t imagine what would have happened if I hadn’t.
Working in the archives was an extraordinary experience and I am indebted to Dr. Hickman for his insight and experience. Such is the beauty of the mentored research program! He knew. I had no idea. His knowledge combined with my ambition created a formula for success that would not be possible without the grant we received. But the process did not stop there. With the research complete, our attention turned to preparing an analytical essay to be submitted to the NULC. We worked on a number of drafts and Dr. Hickman helped me format and cut the paper down to a polished, presentable draft suitable for submission. I am pleased to announce that recently my paper was accepted for presentation and possible publication at the conference—a conference Kurt Vonnegut himself will attend and participate in at a writing workshop and as a keynote speaker!
Thanks to the encouragement of the Office of Research and Creative Activities and the financial ability they provide, I have enjoyed a truly remarkable experience that many students don’t enjoy. Unfortunately, most graduate without ever benefiting from the wisdom, experience, and opportunity mentors provide. What other university can happily boast of fostering these relationships? I am forever grateful to my mentor, the ORCA, and BYU for this extraordinary experience.