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Kurt Vonnegut’s Life in Letters

A new book of letters by Kurt Vonnegut shows his verbal wit, warmth toward his children, and anger at having his books pulled from a school curriculum.

Cover of Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, showing Vonnegut in trench coat and cap

Photo: Courtesy of Random House

Cover of "Kurt Vonnegut: Letters"

Dan Wakefield thinks he knows why his lifelong friend and fellow Hoosier novelist Kurt Vonnegut never wrote an autobiography.

“I think he would’ve considered that kind of pretentious,” says Wakefield.

Wakefield grew up with Vonnegut in Indianapolis and is author of such novels as Going All the Way. He was friends with the Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle author from the time they met in 1963 to Vonnegut’s death in 2007.

Wakefield’s new book, for which he acted as editor, is Kurt Vonnegut: Letters. The book presents letters Vonnegut wrote over sixty years to his children and colleagues, friends and adversaries.

Dan Wakefield

Photo:

Dan Wakefield

“I Sold Eleven Copies”

In one of Wakefield’s favorite letters, Vonnegut described an event that took place in an Indianapolis book signing.

“When Slaughterhouse Five came out and was a bestseller throughout the country,” Wakefield says, “people were lined up around the block to get his autograph. But when he was in Indianapolis, he wrote me a letter and he said, ‘I spent the afternoon at L.S. Ayers bookstore signing copies of my book. I sold eleven copies, all of them to relatives, I swear to God.’”

The letters are arranged by decade from the 1940s to the 2000s. Wakefield’s explanatory notes precede those letters that contain what might be arcane references for some readers. Vonnegut fans will be pleased to find that the author’s distinctive off-the-wall sense of humor that animates his fiction comes across in his letters as well.

“He never put on any airs in his writing or in his conversation or in his talks,” Wakefield says. “His persona is always there whether he’s writing stories or novels or letters.”

Finding Relief In Writing

In 1992, Vonnegut wrote from his home in Sagaponack, New York, to Marc Leeds, an academic who championed his writing.

Dear Marc—

It has always been the case with me that when my life is a mess I can find some relief by writing. So I am, after a year of hacking out trash on my IBM Selectric, at last in control of material which can be another novel. It is called Timequake. Like this country, it should be completely finished in another year.

Cheers,

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut's typewriter

Photo:

The typewriter Kurt Vonnegut used in the 1970s on display at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis

From Father To Daughter

Vonnegut’s first marriage was to his high school sweetheart, Jane Cox, a Swarthmore graduate who had him read The Brothers Karamazov on their honeymoon. His second was to photographer Jill Krementz. In 1971, he wrote to his daughter Nanette about these relationships.

Dear old Nanny—

You certainly deserve a letter from me. A hundred letters would be more like it, I love you so.

I still love your mother, but we can’t be together much without fighting. We have tried to do things about this, but nothing helps, and each fight hurts more than the last one.

I wasn’t stolen away by another woman. I don’t think people can steal other people. I simply went away because the fighting was making everybody so unhappy. . . .  And, as you know perfectly well, people need people. And Jill is who I have now.

Love—

K

Angry Letter To North Dakota

Many of the letters display Vonnegut’s distinctive verbal slapstick, but in a 1973 letter to Charles McCarthy, chairman of the Drake School Board in Drake, North Dakota, Vonnegut got serious. He wrote to the chairman after the board had removed Slaughterhouse Five from its curriculum.

Dear Mr. McCarthy:

[. . .] I am among those American writers whose books have been destroyed in the now famous furnace of your school. . . .

I read in the newspaper that your community is mystified by the outcry from all over the country about what you have done. Well, you have discovered that Drake is a part of American civilization, and your fellow Americans can’t stand it that you have behaved in such an uncivilized way. . . .

[. . .]Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own. . . .

Yours truly,

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

A postcard from Kurt Vonnegut

Photo: Courtesy of Random House

A postcard from Kurt Vonnegut

Does Wakefield think the book could stand in for the autobiography that Vonnegut never wrote?

“Yes, the most wonderful kind of autobiography. It tells the story of his career, his life, in a way that I think nobody else could. It’s expressed in his letters very eloquently.”

Kurt Vonnegut: Letters is published by the Delacorte Press. The official Vonnegut Web site can be found here.

Adam Schwartz

WFIU Arts and Culture Producer, Editor "Directions in Sound"

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  • http://www.dregstudios.com Brandt Hardin

    Vonnegut’s zany and surreal world reflects the absurdity of our own & really bent my mind to different modes of thinking. His work has inspired my own visual arts for quite some time and I created a tribute illustration of the author with the help of an old typewriter. You can see it at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2011/11/happy-birthday-mr-vonnegut.html and tell me how his work and words also affected you.

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