Many threads run through the letters that Dan Wakefield has collected in KURT VONNEGUT: LETTERS. Some are expected: Vonnegut’s sharp view of American culture, his smartass descriptions of the upper crust of society, his staunch defense of education, his critique of the publishing world. Other threads are not: his unmeasured mercy towards others, his personal humility and modesty at all levels, his generous writing advice.
Wakefield’s notes at the beginning of many of the letters give succinct background information for persons mentioned or introduced and, sometimes, explanations of specific passages in the letters or events in Vonnegut’s life. Wakefield’s excellent work is essential in piecing together this cross-stitch of Kurt Vonnegut, letter writer.
"There is...great satisfaction in filling in parts of his life and adding to the Vonnegut story. There is even greater pleasure in the sharp, off-hand comments and awareness of life the letters offer, and his revisiting the beginnings of his writing career gives an incentive for us to do so as well."
One letter from 1961 is addressed to Harvey Kurtzman, the cartoonist who founded MAD magazine, in which Vonnegut claims to want something published there. He outlines a plan for “shelter-hopping kits,” a totally appropriate item given the edgy world of the Cold War era. For $14.95, he writes, the kit would include a “WWII surplus cylinder of Cyklon B” and a charge for “blasting the lock on any shelter door.” Additional charges would add “grenades, bazookas, etc.” and “tape recordings of beloved family pets scratching to be let in.” It is clear that Vonnegut was “a queasy fan” of MAD; it also seems clear that his pitch would have met Kurtzman’s standards for satire.
Vonnegut’s tenure at a boys school in Massachusetts for behavioral problems lasted but one semester (September 1962 until January 1963); he says only, “I quit the teaching job, after doggedly finishing out a full semester. It was killing work…” However, his years at the University of Iowa teaching large, diverse sections of writing were much happier, and the letters from those years have solid teaching advice and commentary about living in the Midwest and working with young writers. Some of his students became well-known writers (Gail Godwin and John Irving, to name two), and his correspondence with them is part of the later chapters.
In a 1984 letter to Jed Feuer, an off-Broadway producer, Vonnegut offers an update of the Little Red Riding Hood story as a suggestion for a musical. The rationale for an update? “There are few opportunities in the tale for comedy or any universal truths beyond pure terror.” That seems harsh, but it’s probably true. Vonnegut begins the scenario with a backwoods, fundamentalist village run by a Jerry Falwell type. The community is particularly obsessed with protecting the virtue of a great beauty who was orphaned and raised by her grandmother. However, she grows old and a bit long in the tooth, and it’s apparent that she has become bait for foreigners who come to win her hand but are killed by the vigilantes. The latest wolf, a sort of young Rockefeller, appears in the village to win the prize, and she awaits him, hoping against hope that he’ll be the one. Vonnegut suggests a suitable aria: “I am not meat.” The ending was negotiable, he concludes, but he lists many workable opportunities, including the wolf’s celebration of his roots and the vigilantes extolling small-town life. His delight in revisiting a fairy tale, bringing it forward to our greedy present-day world, and leaving it with improbably probable resolutions is obvious. My regret is not knowing Feuer’s response.
One of the last letters from the ’90s (to Robert Maslansky) explains that he is getting ready to go to Chicago, where he will tell his audience at Harper College about a letter he had received from a pregnant woman who was wondering if it was terrible to bring a baby into this cruel world. He replied that what made being alive worthwhile was meeting saints --- all over, from everywhere --- who were behaving decently in an indecent society. He was going to tell the Chicago crowd that he hoped some of them would become the saints for this woman’s child to meet. This sweet hopefulness seems touching and genuine.
The most powerful letter in the collection is addressed to the Chairman of the Drake, North Dakota School Board in 1973 after SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE was burned in the school furnace. His defense of the First Amendment, of teachers and librarians everywhere, and of himself as an American, a writer and a father is passionate and brilliant.
Rethinking Vonnegut through letters is neither definitive nor is it always compelling. There is, however, great satisfaction in filling in parts of his life and adding to the Vonnegut story. There is even greater pleasure in the sharp, off-hand comments and awareness of life the letters offer, and his revisiting the beginnings of his writing career gives an incentive for us to do so as well.
Reviewed by Jane Krebs on January 18, 2013