Dan Wakefield, the editor of “Kurt Vonnegut: Letters,” wasn’t just a friend of Vonnegut’s; the two were alumni of Shortridge High School in Indianapolis. This imbues Wakefield’s introductory matter and commentary on the letters with a folksy and personal rather than scholarly tone. All those Indiana relatives, though, are hard to keep straight.
Beyond giving pleasure in itself, Vonnegut’s correspondence, supplemented by Wakefield’s annotation, provides a kind of potted biography. Letters describe the Dresden firebombing, which inspired “Slaughterhouse-Five”; Vonnegut’s work for General Electric; his marriage to Jane Cox and their large family; business dealings with the legendary agent Max Wilkinson and the equally famous magazine and book editor Knox Burger (a major force behind the Gold Medal paperback originals). We learn about Vonnegut’s stint at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (students included John Irving, Gail Godwin and John Casey); the importance of publishing whiz Seymour Lawrence in shepherding the later books into print and resurrecting the Vonnegut back list; and the difficulties in his marriage and with his children. Did you know that Vonnegut’s daughter Edie was once married to Geraldo Rivera?
Some early letters are almost short stories. Vonnegut writes to Miller Harris — a friend who has taken over Eagle Shirtmakers — to suggest manufacturing a fad bowtie “made out of the ribbon the Atomic Energy Commission uses as its official marker for dangerously-radioactive areas.” To Harvey Kurtzman of Mad magazine, he suggests a handy kit designed to break through the steel doors of other people’s fallout shelters.
As early as 1953, Vonnegut is already complaining about being written out, dried up and depressed. Yet he makes shrewd comments then and throughout the book about art and the literary life: “Unsettling business for an artist, where everything that happens in New York has universality, and everything that happens outside is ethnography.” The term paper, he tells his writing students, should be “both cynical and religious.” He insists that “the secret of good writing is caring,” and that “no picture can attract serious attention without a human being attached to it in the viewer’s mind. . . . Pictures are famous for their human-ness and not their picture-ness.” He might be speaking of his own books and persona.
And, of course, he’s funny. He fails to be awarded a Guggenheim because “it seems that Professor Orman Sweetbreads needs still another year to complete his monumental work which hopes to prove that King Tut and Herman Melville influenced each other hardly at all.” Vonnegut tells Norman Mailer that he’s much the cuter of the two.