In his introduction to Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, Dan Wakefield, the book’s editor and a longtime Vonnegut karass member, writes of the late author’s aspiration to be a “cultivated eccentric.” Over the course of six decades of letters to family, friends, admirers, detractors and fellow writers, Vonnegut shows himself to be so much more, both in terms of ambition and accomplishment. In fact, viewed in its totality, the collection — by turns hilarious, heartbreaking and mundane — is striking in just how uneccentric it shows the author to be. Vonnegut himself is a near-perfect example of the same flawed, wonderful humanity that he loved and despaired over his entire life.
Letters should be read as a necessary companion piece to Charles J. Shields’ evenhanded 2011 Vonnegut biography, And So It Goes. The Shields book reveals a successful but mostly unhappy man, one with a penchant for professional betrayals (he nixed an agreement with longtime friend and editor Knox Burger); an anti-war, liberal champion who had no problem investing in napalm manufacturer Dow Chemical.
The singular, iconic author was certainly complicated — and at times vain and quick to anger. Those critics who pigeonholed him as a sci-fi hack promptly felt the wrath of his epistolary ripostes. For example, six years after achieving lasting fame for his classic, Slaughterhouse-Five, a miffed Vonnegut felt compelled to write to Osborn Elliott, the editor of Newsweek, concerning a piece on science fiction written by Peter Prescott. Prescott’s offending lines went like this: “Few sf [science fiction] writers aim higher than what a teen-age intelligence can grasp, and the smart ones, like Kurt Vonnegut, carefully satirize targets — racism, pollution, teachers — that teen-agers are conditioned to dislike.” To which Vonnegut tersely replied, “I have never written with teen-agers in mind, nor are teen-agers the chief readers of my books. I am the first sf writer to win a Guggenheim, the first to become a member of the National Institute for Arts and Letters, the first to have a book become a finalist for a National Book Award.” He goes on to list his undeniably impressive accomplishments and titles for several more lines.
This fierce pride in his work and resistance to the shallow critical dismissals that would label him a one-trick genre pony were tempered by a constant and playful deprecatory air. In 1959, Vonnegut wrote a short missive to a writer acquaintance named Norman Mailer: “I have just finished reading your ad for yourself — a lot of it twice, at your suggestion. Since my reputation is worthless, my comments on the book would be worthless, so f – – – them.”
His note to Mailer continues with an anecdote about a time, about 10 years prior, when the two of them socialized with Vonnegut’s drunk mother-in-law: “[She] was about two feet away from you, indoors, separated from you by a window shade drawn over an open window. She said to me in a loud, indignant squawk, ‘Well — I think you’re cuter than he is …’ It’s a fact, incidentally — I am cuter than you are. Respectfully, Somebody named Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.”
Vonnegut saved some of his harshest criticisms for censors who would ban and sometimes burn his novels without having read a single page, and there are no shortage of these scathing attacks in the collection. But it’s the letters to his children that reveal the private figure. In the early ’70s, soon after he took a teaching position at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (where he mentored the likes of John Irving and Gail Godwin), Vonnegut split from his wife, Jane. Though the breakup was mostly amicable, its quiet fallout underlies much of the subsequent correspondence with his daughters Nanette and Edith. In an unintentionally amusing letter dating from 1973, Vonnegut refers to Geraldo Rivera, Edie’s then-husband — and current Fox News reporter — as “a fierce Democrat and closet Marxist.” So it goes.
Toward the end of his life, the correspondence gets a bit sadder and more self-reflective, as is to be expected. In a few late letters, Vonnegut refers to himself as one of “Melville’s whalers, who didn’t talk anymore because they’d said all they had to say.” By the time he died, in 2007, the writer had outlived his first wife and many friends. In many of the letters, you get the sense that he is just killing time — making silkscreen paintings, writing tributes and blurbs — while waiting for the end.
If that seems unpleasant, consider it in light of his unsuccessful 1984 suicide attempt. After that booze-and-pill cocktail, he found reason to keep going — and even to impart some wisdom. Kurt Vonnegut: Letters ends, appropriately, with the last words of advice he wrote for an audience: “And how should we behave during this Apocalypse? We should be unusually kind to one another, certainly. But we should also stop being so serious. Jokes help a lot. And get a dog, if you don’t already have one … I’m out of here.”