A Feature Review of
Kurt Vonnegut: Letters
Dan Wakefield, ed.
Reviewed by Larry Shallenberger.
[ Read an excerpt of this book ]
Mark Twain was consumed with concerns about his reputation and legacy to the point that when he sat down to write his autobiography he ordered the estate to keep the document sealed for one hundred years. The work was finally published in 2010. Twain’s reminiscences were so rambling and anecdotal that one was left with the impression that Twain’s fear of being truly known submarined the project, despite the century-long moratorium of being judged by history. The mantle of being America’s satirist passed from Twain to novelist Kurt Vonnegut, but gratefully, the posthumous collection of Vonnegut’s correspondence is more generous in its revelations about his relationships, struggles and wit.
Letters was compiled and edited by Vonnegut’s longtime friend, Dan Wakefield, who was also a son of Indianapolis and a novelist. Wakefield organized Vonnegut’s type-written correspondence by decades and opened section with brief historic and biographical notes which provide quite helpful to those less versed in the particulars of Vonnegut’s life.
Vonnegut is infinitely more candid that Twain in his self-disclosure, but through his correspondence it’s apparent that he is not always a reliable narrator, particularly on the topic of his failed marriage to Jane. One of the earliest letters in collection is a playful legal contract between himself and Jane in which he outlines of the terms and conditions of his helping around the house in exchange for services as his writing assistant, a common chore during the forties for the wife of a writer. The reader captures a glimpse of the couple’s playfulness and partnership. However, by the sixties, Vonnegut’s correspondence to friends acknowledge his long distance relationship with Jane, while he taught at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, but at the same time insisting the on relationship’s amicable and positive nature. In 1970, he legally separated from Jane and lived with photographer Jill Krementz for nine years, until he finalized his divorce from Jane and married his new wife. Through his letters, we see a father attempt to manage his children’s perceptions regarding his treatment of their mother. He even attempts to manage Jane’s perception of his betrayal by speaking of their marriage in the most noble of terms and by attributing prodigious amounts of dignity to each party.
Vonnegut is more forthright with his other struggles. He described himself as being a “mono-polar depressant from a long line of mono-polar depressants.” In his letters during the ‘60s he openly discussed his habit of sedating his overactive mind with scotch by 6 PM each night as a course of habit. However, by the seventies he seems to have a greater understanding of his depression and is enamored with the possibility of treating it with high doses of treatment. His letters to and about Mark, his adult child afflicted with schizophrenia are filled with the empathy of a man who understands what it is like to be afflicted.
We’re given glimpses into his unconventional and nuanced attitudes toward religion. Vonnegut was the product of a long line of German free thinkers and often found himself at odds with organized religion. He wrote that he “was not, had never been, or ever would be a Christian.” He found sort of a spiritual home in the Unitarian Church. In his letter to Harry James Cargas, he wrote:
Did I tell you I wrote a new Requiem, a secular humanist job which is a paraphrase of the Council of Trent monstrosity? I did it in English, and had it translated into church Latin by an NYU professor. It took a composer I met on jury duty two years to set the Latin to music, and we may get a world premiere into a Unitarian Church in Buffalo, which has a very ambitious choral program. Do you hate Unitarians? How can you, when you know perfectly well the scruffy origins of the trinitarian nonsense? (320)
“Trinitarian nonsense” not withstanding, Vonnegut had an admiration of the person of Jesus Christ. Wakefield makes an editorial note that in a 1980 Palm Sunday sermon, given at a Unitarian Church, Vonnegut preached, “I am enchanted by the Sermon on the Mount. Being merciful, it seems to me, is the only good idea we have received so far. Perhaps we will get another good idea, by and by—and then we will have two good ideas. (Introduction, xix). Later in life, Vonnegut recommended that those leaving prisons should find themselves a good church to establish themselves in society. Kurt Vonnegut, it seems, was simultaneously repelled by Christianity’s doctrine and propensity to abuse power, but at the same time respected it for its potential to fuel a humanitarian ethic.
A reoccurring theme throughout his correspondence is how difficult Vonnegut found writing to be. He frequently complained to friends and fellow writers that he was running out of inspiration and would most likely continue quit the vocation in the near future. He continued this complaint over the course of sixteen novels and several short stories. Toward that end of his writing career he tried his hand at being a playwright and screenplay writer, but with every endeavor he carried with him the sense that the creative well was about to run dry.
One of the more forceful letters Vonnegut wrote was addressed to Charles McCarthy who served as chairman of the Drake School Board of Drake, North Carolina. Vonnegut learned the board burned a large selection of books including Kurt’s. He defended his character by writing:
I gather from what I read in the papers and hear on television that you imagine me, and some others like me, as being sort of rat-like people who enjoy making money from poisoning the minds of young people. I am in fact a large, strong, person, fifty-one years old, who did a lot of farm work as a boy, who is good with tools. I have raised six children, three of my own and three adopted. They have all turned out well. Two of them are farmers, I am a combat infantry veteran from World War Two, and hold a Purple Heart. I have earned whatever I own by hard work… (205).
After defending his resume, he reveals his actual motive for writing his novels:
If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in any favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible that they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hard-working men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. If was evil deeds and lying that hurt us. (209)
This ethic, to be kinder and more responsible, was constant theme of his body of work, and even though he was unable to consistently embody this in his own family life it was the Polaris toward which he strove to plot the course of his life.
Larry Shallenberger is a pastor and the author of Divine Intention: How God’s Work in the Early Church Empowers Us Today.