Vonnegut: A biography in letters
By Michael Dirda,
So it goes. Ice-nine. Unstuck in time. Hi-ho. . . . It’s always good to trot out the famous Vonnegut catchphrases early in any piece about the author of “Slaughterhouse-Five.” Otherwise, readers just wait impatiently for their appearance, eager to reexperience these little Proustian flashbacks to their lost youth, when they first read Vonnegut in college and were crazy about the soft-voiced, slouching iconoclast.
When Vonnegut died in 2007, his reputation as an important writer had preceded him. The later books were generally dismissed by critics as sophomoric or self-indulgent, nothing as good as “Cat’s Cradle” or “The Sirens of Titan” or that now -classic parable about an ultra-conformist society, “Harrison Bergeron.” (It’s the one where people wear masks and carry around weights so that nobody is any more beautiful or more graceful than anyone else.)
But who needs critics when you’ve got family? Early on, Vonnegut made the jump from famous author to favorite uncle. We loved him, shaggy mustache and all. He could do no wrong.
Dan Wakefield, the editor of “Kurt Vonnegut: Letters,” wasn’t just a friend of Vonnegut’s; the two were alumni of Shortridge High School in Indianapolis. This imbues Wakefield’s introductory matter and commentary on the letters with a folksy and personal rather than scholarly tone. All those Indiana relatives, though, are hard to keep straight.
Beyond giving pleasure in itself, Vonnegut’s correspondence, supplemented by Wakefield’s annotation, provides a kind of potted biography. Letters describe the Dresden firebombing, which inspired “Slaughterhouse-Five”; Vonnegut’s work for General Electric; his marriage to Jane Cox and their large family; business dealings with the legendary agent Max Wilkinson and the equally famous magazine and book editor Knox Burger (a major force behind the Gold Medal paperback originals). We learn about Vonnegut’s stint at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (students included John Irving, Gail Godwin and John Casey); the importance of publishing whiz Seymour Lawrence in shepherding the later books into print and resurrecting the Vonnegut back list; and the difficulties in his marriage and with his children. Did you know that Vonnegut’s daughter Edie was once married to Geraldo Rivera?
Some early letters are almost short stories. Vonnegut writes to Miller Harris — a friend who has taken over Eagle Shirtmakers — to suggest manufacturing a fad bowtie “made out of the ribbon the Atomic Energy Commission uses as its official marker for dangerously-radioactive areas.” To Harvey Kurtzman of Mad magazine, he suggests a handy kit designed to break through the steel doors of other people’s fallout shelters.
As early as 1953, Vonnegut is already complaining about being written out, dried up and depressed. Yet he makes shrewd comments then and throughout the book about art and the literary life: “Unsettling business for an artist, where everything that happens in New York has universality, and everything that happens outside is ethnography.” The term paper, he tells his writing students, should be “both cynical and religious.” He insists that “the secret of good writing is caring,” and that “no picture can attract serious attention without a human being attached to it in the viewer’s mind. . . . Pictures are famous for their human-ness and not their picture-ness.” He might be speaking of his own books and persona.
And, of course, he’s funny. He fails to be awarded a Guggenheim because “it seems that Professor Orman Sweetbreads needs still another year to complete his monumental work which hopes to prove that King Tut and Herman Melville influenced each other hardly at all.” Vonnegut tells Norman Mailer that he’s much the cuter of the two.
Still, there’s always that tinge of shambling, winsome melancholy. Alone in Iowa, Vonnegut goes to the movies. “I saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which I took very hard. To an unmoored, middle-aged man like myself, it was heartbreaking. That’s all right. I like to have my heart broken.”
However, he can then turn around and be very much a caring family man, as in this fatherly letter — so redolent of the era — to his son, Mark: “I ask a favor for your mother’s sake: please look awfully nice at your graduation. She is a dear, romantic girl, and I want her to be as happy as she can possibly be at the graduation of her only son.
“I am talking about hair, of course.”
Surprised by the immense success of “Slaughterhouse-Five” in 1969, Vonnegut calls himself an American fad “of a slightly higher order than the hula hoop.” But then his life dramatically changes. He moves from the big family home on Cape Cod to a bachelor apartment in New York, starts to live with photographer Jill Krementz and then marries her. Nearly every letter to his daughter Nancy addresses this seeming betrayal, this “faithless act.” Vonnegut explains again and again that he and Jane had lost some kind of telepathic unity, that there was a “formless anger” in him, that he wasn’t lured away by a younger woman. He dismisses the usual cliched tale of “a rich guy who abandons his wife to go to the big city and live in a town house and ride around in a Mercedes and live with the Wicked Witch of the East.”
That’s almost ironic, given that Krementz is a virtual non-person in these letters, not even mentioned in the acknowledgments. In later years, Vonnegut makes several bitter cracks about her, writes that she views him as just a “meal ticket,” talks of divorcing her for adultery, and yet somehow never quite gets around to it.
In those same later years, Vonnegut addresses sharp letters to school boards about censorship, works hard to bring his Russian translator to the United States and grows crankier and crankier. He complains that modern kids don’t know anything about the past, insults the book critic Anatole Broyard, takes pills for depression and (accidentally) overdoses enough to land in a hospital, and eventually defines the mood of his generation as “wry disappointment with what the world has actually become, so inhospitable and snide.” Bill and Hillary Clinton he dismisses as “shallow, opportunist Yuppies.”
Science fiction fans, in particular, will value one very late letter to Noel Sturgeon. In it Vonnegut recalls his meeting with the great science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, the partial inspiration for his own Kilgore Trout. In still another late letter, Vonnegut stresses, yet again, that “story-telling is a game for two, and a mature storyteller . . . is sociable, a good date on a blind date with a total stranger, so to speak.”
Kurt Vonnegut never regarded himself as a great writer. But he did possess that undervalued gift of charm, of sociability. There are authors we admire or envy, but there are just a few we really, really love, and Vonnegut is one of them.
Dirda reviews books every Thursday for The Washington Post.
KURT VONNEGUT Letters Edited by Dan Wakefield Delacorte. 436 pp. $35