Book review: ‘Letters: Kurt Vonnegut’

“Letters: Kurt Vonnegut” Edited by Dan Wakefield; Delacorte Press; 436 pages.

Fiction only hides so much.

It is the curse, or blessing, of an author that bits and pieces of a life are revealed in every book or short story. Remnants can be stitched together like a patchwork quilt over time to present something of a disjointed portrait of the person behind the words.

But it’s far from complete.

Collected personal writing, though, fills in those gaping holes. Correspondence between an author and family friends, editors, contemporaries and institutions open windows into the emotional turmoil, relationships, frustrations and agitations that can either deprive or drive an author’s spirit. It’s autobiography, yet not. It’s a diary, but not really. It is many parts piled into a loosely configured whole.

“Letters: Kurt Vonnegut” is illustrative. This new collection of personal letters from the late novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is a sometimes startling, often hilarious and sometimes sad examination of an artist over more than five decades of his life. The term artist applies, because almost certainly Vonnegut, an Indiana native who lived most of his adult years in Massachusetts and New York, viewed himself that way — though he would be loathe to make such a bold admission himself.

It leaks through, though, in hundreds of letters he wrote over the years to a variety of people, including more than a few schools or communities bent on banning his sometimes controversial books over the years. He scolds such transgressors with pithy and piercing observations and a tutorial about the First Amendment and American experience from the perspective of a World War II veteran and POW survivor who believes he fought in one of the only justified wars in history.

Far from the stereotypical tortured artist, Vonnegut’s letters largely reveal a writer frustrated by his lack of early success largely because he fully expected it to happen.

Indeed, the duality of an artist at work is the alternating sense of pending failure followed by moments of ego-driven assurance. In one letter to an editor, Vonnegut might castigate himself for his writing struggles on a particular day and in the next proclaim the book of a contemporary far less memorable or remarkable than one of his own.

Such moments are why an author’s correspondences are so critical in an overall assessment by scholars and fans. Dan Wakefield, an Indiana native who attended Vonnegut’s old high school, is perhaps the perfect person for the job. An author of both fiction and non-fiction, Wakefield first met Vonnegut in 1963 before Vonnegut gained wide fame for an impressive list of novels, including “Slaughterhouse-Five,” “Breakfast of Champions,” “Cat’s Cradle” and “Mother Night.” Many are considered classic American literature. Most and other works are taught on college campuses. Wakefield was a friend of Vonnegut and his family until the author’s death in 2007 at age 82.

Vonnegut’s fiction is of singular importance because it encompasses the gamut of American culture from World War II to the millennium. Vonnegut boldly, satirically and often whimsically, challenged readers and popular convention by tackling the most significant, subjects of his time: War, politics, communism, unions, political labeling, Watergate, corruption, religion, fanaticism and corporate America. He considered himself a freethinker and bid others to do the same.

Vonnegut eschewed email and computer technology — surprising for someone who so often wrote of the future and was at times classified incorrectly as a science fiction writer. In fact, he writes of what he called “genreism” and considered it the racism of the literary world. His letters were mainly written on a manual typewriter and as a member of the Greatest Generation, he was a loyal correspondent to friends and colleagues. The result is an open window into Vonnegut’s world. What’s revealed, then, isn’t always neat and tidy.

Some of his personal turmoils are heartbreaking. Readers can detect the growing distance between Vonnegut and his first wife, a relationship that ends in a divorce that impacted their three children in a variety of ways. His family correspondences are always heartfelt. He deals with the divorce from his first wife in frank but loving language as he tries to mend fences or explain his actions to his children and the three additinal kids the couple also raised. It had to be a difficult personal period, but readers only get a one-way glimpse. He often responds to letters that aren’t available for publication. His second marriage ends in a loveless deadlock between two people who won’t divorce or leave each other. Still, Vonnegut continued to be a productive writer and painter over the last 20 yaers of his life

Such insights are valuable for those wishing to assess the life an author, much more than the view of a third-party biographer who is often drawing conclusions. Indeed, if anything will be lost to future generations it will be such physical correspondence. Generations have kept letters, but is email collected in the same way?

What Vonnegut’s letters do lack is much personal observation about the writing process itself. Readers looking for insight into why Vonnegut illustrated “Breakfast of Champions” or how he developed the religion, Bokonism in “Cat’s Cradle” will be disappointed. “Slaughterhouse-Five” gets the most treatment in this way, and still there isn’t much of it.

And there is little of consequence in terms of correspondence between Vonnegut and those he influenced or rivaled. He speaks in passing of Norman Mailer, the post-World War II novelist who, like Vonnegut, wrote his most significant work (“The Naked and the Dead”) about his experiences in World War II but there is nothing in writing that passes between them. John Irving, who was a student of Vonnegut’s in the famed Iowa University writers program and later a neighbor, is mentioned favorably, but nothing remarkable is exposed.

Still, “Letters” provides an honest look at Vonnegut’s life with strengths and weaknesses there for all to see. And perhaps most importantly, readers are given a chance to enjoy his words in ways they were never able to before.


One thought on “Book review: ‘Letters: Kurt Vonnegut’

  1. Vonnegut is my favorite author. I show journalism students this video featuring his talk about the shapes of stories: I show it not because it holds any big journalism truths (it doesn’t). I show it because there’s a universality to its storytelling message and because … well … just because. Just because it’s Kurt Vonnegut. And students should be familiar with him and his work. (I also love his comment that computers should be able to write stories according to the arcs he draws. He didn’t know it then, but computers are writing stories in some places now. Just another Vonnegut Vision seeing the light of day.)


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