by Robert WeibezahlNovember 2012
A late bloomer, in letters: Vonnegut's wit & wisdom
Reading Kurt Vonnegut’s newly published Letters, it is nearly impossible to progress more than a page or two without pausing again to admire another wry observation or nod in agreement with some pithy aphorism. It is abundantly apparent even in his casual writing that Vonnegut, who would be celebrating his 90th birthday on November 11, was a writer of sharp intelligence and inventive wit. Although early on he was pigeonholed as a science fiction writer, time has more accurately assessed him as equal parts fabulist and satirist—and 100 percent original.
Like most originals, Vonnegut for many years struggled to find his audience. Although he began publishing widely while still in his 20s, he was not embraced by a large readership until he was past 40. That’s when the perfect storm of 1960s counterculture figured out what this often zany writer was all about, crowning him something of an underground superstar. His masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five, published in 1969, sealed the deal. After years of struggle, Vonnegut at last had recognition and the money that came with it.
Yet, as these selected letters—edited and introduced by Vonnegut’s good friend and fellow Hoosier, the novelist Dan Wakefield—make clear, achieving long-desired success did not necessarily guarantee happiness. Indeed, it is the earlier parts of this collected correspondence, which spans more than 60 years, that finds Vonnegut at his blithe best. The years of his first marriage have a warm and hectic feel, characterized by a house full of children. Later, remarried but with his children grown and gone, the writer seems less content, even as he becomes the public face for important causes such as censorship or amnesty for persecuted writers around the world.
After 20 years of writing, Vonnegut finally became an underground superstar, thanks to the 1960s counterculture.
The first—and most striking—letter in the book was written to his family from Le Havre, where Pfc. Kurt Vonnegut awaited transport home after being a German prisoner of war and surviving the firebombing of Dresden. That inferno, of course, would become the basis for Slaughterhouse-Five 20 years later, and this chilling, if typically unadorned account preserves a younger Vonnegut’s memories. Back stateside, Vonnegut pursued a typical GI’s path: marriage, graduate school, a public relations job with General Electric. But he was different from the start. The stories he wrote on nights and weekends began appearing in major magazines, and he started to forge the literary friendships that would sustain his career even in the dark times.
There are many congenial letters to his legendary editors (Knox Burger, Seymour Lawrence), fellow writers (Norman Mailer, Gail Godwin—his student at Iowa), family back in Indiana and his beloved children. One comes away from these missives with an impression of Vonnegut as a benevolent man—father, teacher, colleague, friend—who lived by a simple creed of kindness, even as he lampooned and battled the barbarians at the gate.