'Unstuck in Time' History professor at UDM writes book on Vonnegut

By Kurt Anthony Krug

Legal News

Gregory D. Sumner, a history professor at the University of Detroit Mercy and an author, considers himself "a recovering lawyer."

"I practiced law for three years in a corporate law firm," said the 55-year-old Sumner. "I realized that this didn't excite me and was probably not a great fit for me. I left after three years, thinking I'd find another context in which to practice law. And I just kind of reinvented myself.... I've been teaching for 20 years. I get to write, I get to interact with young people, I get to convey my enthusiasm for history."

The Indianapolis native has lived and worked in the Detroit area since 1993. He currently lives in Ferndale.

"Detroit was not my top-desired destination," he confessed with a laugh. "But I have fallen in love with the place. It has wonderful people with their feet on the ground; it's very historically rich. For all its pain and trauma and troubles, it's very much home to me -- it's a very rich environment."

Sumner has his undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral degrees -- all in history -- from Indiana University. He earned his juris doctor from the University of Michigan Law School.

"I learned a lot from law school," he said. "I loved law school, but didn't like the practice and the corporate world so much. I think like a lawyer. I think in a pretty organized fashion. I value economy and directness in expression. I think these are things I value in (renowned author) Kurt Vonnegut, who came from a journalism background initially; he did not have a conventional writing pedigree. Not only was he a young journalist, where he learned to use great concision in his writing, he was also a scientist. He studied chemistry, biology, and mechanical engineering. He was the son of an architect, so I like his style. That connects to the side of me that is a lawyer."

Sumner is the author of the recently released "Unstuck in Time: A Journey Through Kurt Vonnegut's Life and Novels" (Seven Stories $24.95). This is his second book; his first was 1996's "Dwight Macdonald and the Politics Circle: The Challenge of Cosmopolitan Democracy."

In "Unstuck in Time," Sumner guides the reader through Vonnegut's most popular works, starting with 1952's "Piano Player," his first novel, to 1997's "Timequake," his final novel, as well as 1969's "Slaughterhouse-Five," his most famous body of work. Also included is an epilogue about "A Man Without a Country," which was a book of Vonnegut's poems that was published in 2005. Vonnegut died in 2007.

"Growing up in Indianapolis, Vonnegut was a celebrity. People had mixed feelings about him: they liked him as a celebrity but didn't necessarily read his books. But I knew of him; I don't consider myself the stereotypical Vonnegut fan or reader. I think those are people who are a little bit older than me -- they're Baby Boomers who were reading 'Cat's Cradle' and 'Slaughterhouse-Five' in the 1960s," recalled Sumner. "I picked up on him with 'Breakfast of Champions' in the mid-1970s, which seems to describe this world of suburban Indianapolis that I was living in: Burger Chef, interstate highways, poisoned rivers, and shopping malls. I found him funny, bracing, and profound as far as being an observer."

He continued: "I was actually drawn to Vonnegut the journalist, Vonnegut the social critic, Vonnegut as a member of the Greatest Generation -- a person who grew up during the Great Depression and lived through World War II... I was actually drawn to his life, his non-fiction, and his reporting skills -- his Mark Twain-like observations about life and his critique about the failings of our society and his humor. I was drawn to all those things more than his novels initially."

Sumner sees Vonnegut's novels more as diaries of the 20th century and examines them from a historical perspective rather than a literary one. He insists he's not a literary critic and there's not a single word of "lit-crit jargon" in "Unstuck in Time." If there is, the person who discovers this and brings it to his attention will get his or her money back, the author joked.

"I saw him speak twice in person. He gave road show performances a lot like Twain -- his hero -- in which he made people laugh," said Sumner. "He did stand-up comedy, but he also added a lot of serious ideas about war and peace, about the ways in which the Constitution was not being respected, about the ways we mistreat each other, and really a challenge for us to treat each other better and to preserve our democracy. When I saw him during his stage performances, he was a Mark Twain-like figure. I really think his books will be read in the future as diaries of our time -- let's say the last 50 or so years -- as Twain's are read for the late 19th century."

According to Sumner, Vonnegut resisted the notion of being labeled a science-fiction writer, regardless that there were science-fiction elements in his novels. Sumner himself is not a science-fiction fan and perceived Vonnegut's works as morality tales.

"He used science-fiction interludes the way Shakespeare used clowns in his plays. When the going got heavy, Shakespeare would throw in a little bit of comedy -- you'd laugh and get a detached perspective, then return to the story he was telling. Vonnegut did the same (with his science-fiction interludes)," explained Sumner.

For Sumner, writing this book -- which is a very personal book to him -- was a labor of love.

"The first rule as a writer is to find a subject you care deeply about and make others care about it too," he said. "There were times where I was like, 'What have I gotten myself into?' It was a laborious process. Bottom line: I've come out of this experience, respecting KV and loving him even more. He's a person I have a great affinity for, coming from Indianapolis, going from pain and joy, talking about love and hope but not in a cynical way. Our times have gotten more cynical, but I don't think of him as a gloom merchant. He lived through the Apocalypse and saw monstrous things, but didn't become a monster."

Sumner is currently on tour. He will be speaking and signing copies of "Unstuck in Time" at Nicola's Books, located at 2513 Jackson Ave. in the Westgate Shopping Center, in Ann Arbor on Tuesday, Nov. 29.

"What's interesting is every crowd is different. What I'm most happy about seeing is a lot of the twenty-somethings and younger folks coming out to see somebody talk about Vonnegut. They're interested in him, and they're talking about him today in 2011," explained Sumner. "That's very exciting to me -- he's not a relic of the 1960s, or of the counter-culture even though that was his first audience, that's the foundation audience for his mass appeal, that's the group that made him a household name. I'm finding he transcends generations. I'm trying to get his books and his life unstuck in time to show that he's relevant today, and there seems to be an audience for it -- that's what I'm finding on this tour."

For further information about his Nicola's Books signing, call (734) 662-0600.

Published: Tue, Nov 29, 2011

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