It's tempting to think you know the real Kurt Vonnegut. He revealed so much of himself during his lifetime, in his personal essays and in the autobiographical bits of his novels. But five years after his death, there's still much more to learn.
The past fifteen months have seen at least three new books that, directly or indirectly, reveal formerly unseen sides of the iconic American satirist: Basic Training, a previously unpublished novella that became available for Kindle in March; Charles J. Shields' biography And So It Goes; and more recently, Letters, a four-hundred-plus-page collection of Vonnegut's personal correspondence from 1945 to 2007, assembled and edited by Dan Wakefield.
While satisfying Vonnegut fans with new written material from the late author, most of it unavailable to the public until now, Letters also recalls a lost era, before e-mail and chat, in which regular letter writing was not only the norm but even an art form. Vonnegut wrote letters frequently with an aim to communicate, inform and entertain, and while the craftsmanship isn't usually as tight as that in Cat's Cradle or Slaughterhouse-Five, his distinctive voice always comes through. It's a collection that's inconsistent and all over the place, full of the usual inconsequential details that make up personal letters, but scattered with gems of wit and wisdom.
Wakefield, a longtime friend of Vonnegut's, plays a sort of literary emcee with biographical introductions to each decade (the letters are arranged chronologically) and smaller intros explaining context for references that aren't immediately clear. Vonnegut's tone alternates between jokey, cranky, apologetic and often very flattering and complimentary, to many different recipients: family members, fellow writers and writing teachers, agents and publishers, teachers and schools, and longtime friends.
Letters opens with an unmistakable foreshadow of Vonnegut's greatest literary success – his May 1945 letter to his family after being a war prisoner in Germany, where he witnessed the firebombing of Dresden, later recounted in Slaughterhouse-Five. “The Americans came over, followed by the R.A.F.,” it reads. “Their combined labours killed 250,000 people in twenty-four hours and destroyed all of Dresden – possibly the world's most beautiful city. But not me.”
As Vonnegut settles into marriage and family life, working various day jobs while trying to sell short stories to magazines, we see his attempt to sell a board game to an Ohio company, his half-facetious “contract” with his wife regarding his personal habits and household chores, and his regular correspondence with his first agent, Knox Burger, who became a lifelong friend. Later on, Vonnegut deals with sudden fame, a broken marriage, critics who misunderstand and underrate him, and a long campaign to bring his Russian translator, Rita Rait, to America for a visit.
While it's now well known that Vonnegut suffered from depression (and attempted suicide in 1984), little overt reference is made to it. The tone is usually friendly and high-spirited, even when he's making cynical wisecracks, but once in a while, there's a spark of temper. One of the highlights is a lengthy diatribe at a North Dakota school-board chairman who had books (including Vonnegut's) that were deemed objectionable literally burned in a furnace. Defending his use of swearing to the chairman, Vonnegut writes: “Those words really don't damage children much. They didn't damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.”
At another point, he chews out his daughter, Nanny, for her seeming indifference to him: “You have totally wrecked me with your absent-minded, dumb-Dora promises to come see me, and with your equally fog-bound, last-minute announcements that your life has become so complicated, hi ho, that you cannot come.” And he gets borderline vicious in his critique of a doctor friend's short story. “Listen: Storytelling is a game for two, and a mature storyteller, which you are not, is sociable, a good date on a blind date with a total stranger,” Vonnegut writes. “You are obviously unconcerned as to whether the reader is having a good time... Don't give up your day job, Doc!”
Some younger readers may be shocked at the less-PC phrases that pop up here and there. “Lawsy, how dem grands do pile up,” he jokes to his first wife, Jane, in one letter; Vonnegut also refers to a former boss with a Taiwanese mistress as “mad for gooks”, refers to the Swedish as “yellow-haired sex maniacs” and observes that “women are damn moody things.” It sounds odd coming from a writer who would later satirize racism and sexism so scathingly, but you have to remember that this was back in the Mad Men era, a less enlightened time.
Despite these touches of mild prejudice, Vonnegut's humanism and compassion as we know it from his public writing still shine through at times. When his son Mark attempts to become a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, Vonnegut supports him with a letter to the draft board: “What he is doing requires more guts than I ever had – and more decency... He will not hate. He will not kill. There's hope in that. There's no hope in war.”
On literary elitism: “Getting mad at [Erich Segal] for writing Love Story is like getting mad at somebody for making a banana split. Same thing goes for my stuff.” And on teaching creative writing to teens: “Watch for clues as to what the student is attempting to become, then help the student to become that. It is cruel and destructive to make the student try to become something he was not meant to become.” (I seriously wish somebody had told this to the writing teachers at Toronto's York University when I was a student there.)
And, of course, there's the quirky sense of humour. “Jesus was born in five BC, five years before himself. Chalk that up as another miracle. So the two-thousandth year of the Christian era was 1995, and the long-awaited apocalypse was the O.J. Simpson case.”
Letters may be a tough slog for readers not already intimate with Vonnegut's style and personality, and it likely works better when read in bits and pieces rather than all the way through. But it's fascinating as a look at the man behind the author, with all of his contradictions, failings and virtues.