Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. never wrote an autobiography — his story is in his works, woven into the irony-filled science fiction that he’s known for. He never wrote a singular personal account perhaps because the category would be too constricting and the self-reflection too painful.
Right before his sudden death in 2007, Vonnegut had anything but receded from view. But the more unique and enigmatic a writer’s style, the more the public wonders how he got that way.
With “Kurt Vonnegut: Letters,” Dan Wakefield has quenched this curiosity. Tirelessly compiling letters and manuscripts from over seven decades of correspondence with his mentors, publishers, and even a school board director who banned his works, Wakefield finally gives the reader a sense of Vonnegut’s life without time travel or aliens to mystify and universalize his emotions. His experiences with World War II (which greatly influenced his magnum opus, “Slaughterhouse-Five”), his mother’s suicide, two wives, seven children, and battle against censorship are all reflected in his letters, bringing an understanding to his work.
Knowing his failures makes him more human, more loveable and more inspiring. Watching Vonnegut continue writing despite the double rejection of proposed theses at the University of Chicago creates a compassion for his isolation and effort, an effort that was undoubtedly successful in the end. In response to a question asking what advice he would give to his younger self, he said at 71: “Keep your hat on. We may wind up miles from here.”
He did end up miles from his physics-based schooling before the war at Cornell. This journey from the 1940s all the way to 2007 guided by Wakefield illustrates the development from a scientist to a literary icon. The pace of the read also reflects the pace of Vonnegut’s life and success. Wakefield begins with an over-eager voice, trying to prove the validity of his friendship with Vonnegut, but as chapters go by, his voice fades as the reader’s understanding of Vonnegut’s persona and history develops.
Vonnegut’s life cannot be told without his time in World War II, as the most formative to his literature, identity and humanist attitudes. When his son Mark conscientiously objected to the draft, Vonnegut wrote a letter to draft board, saying, “(I) thoroughly approve of what he is doing … 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.” His simple but not simplistic writing conveys unconscious or unrealized thoughts and their poignancy conveys his endearing honesty and tender regard for those around him.
Writing can become an ego-driven occupation, but in “Letters,” Vonnegut is stripped of any possible self-promotion and his true affection and unselfishness shows. That his friend, Dan Wakefield, would compile these materials so extensively to create a deep and true portrayal of Vonnegut reflects the strength of his friendships and mentorships. Never one to condescend, Vonnegut made the perfect teacher for those who needed him. In a paper prompt to his students at Iowa University in the 1960s, he stated, “I want you to adore the Universe, to be easily delighted…”
This delight in life that Vonnegut wished to disperse best shows in the way he could scatter humor and ridicule among the most serious of issues, creating an irony never matched in its sentiment or effectiveness. Nested even in letters to his children, Vonnegut’s desire to dismantle cruelty and seriousness is finally fully understood in its genesis and displayed without the censorship, or what he may call “poopery,” that Vonnegut contended with his whole life.
A.J. Kiyoizumi is the lead literature critic. Contact her at [email protected]