I was lucky enough to get a hot-off-the-presses copy of Kurt Vonnegut Letters, edited by my Converse low-res MFA colleague Dan Wakefield. Dan and Kurt were friends, both born and raised in Indianapolis.
From Dan’s warm and personal introduction:
I first heard the name Kurt Vonnegut in the spring of 1950, my senior year at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis, when I admitted to a teacher that I wanted to be a writer. His brows furrowed in concern, he rubbed his chin for a moment, nodded, and said, “Well, there’s one boy did that—boy named Vonnegut.”
The letters are arranged chronologically, and even just my first perusal shows a wide range of recipients: family, friends, writer friends, former students, editors, the musical group Ambrosia…! Humor and compassion mingle with sharp insight on varied topics.
Here’s a cute one from 1976, to Cindy Adams, the gossip columnist for the New York Post:
I am charmed and amused that you should want me to be a judge in the 1976 Miss USA Beauty Pageant. I blush and laugh.I decline your flattering invitation with best wishes and thanks. If your girls are as fond of my words as you indicate, then they will surely understand my feeling that judging them is somehow not something I should do.Give them my love.
I wonder what questions he might have asked the contestants!
I dipped into some of the letters from the 1960s, when Vonnegut was teaching at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.
From a letter to Carolyn Blakemore:
The Iowa experience is wearing thin. Two years will be plenty, I think, unless a really whopping offer is made to make me stay. It is spiritually pooping to care desperately about student work that probably isn’t worth caring about….Vance Bourjaily is the only writer really at home out here…Others stay one or two years, then flee, tearing their hair. They tear their hair because they haven’t done any of their own writing while here.
On the other hand, here’s a section from one to Paul Engle, the director of the program:
…I’ve had a couple of classes die on me recently. That makes me feel lousy—a show that fails. I’m crazy about the workshops and the consultations. The academic classes are something else again, since I don’t really know anything. Up to now, my ignorance has made me strong. Now I don’t feel so hot about it. A lucky crapshooter is what I’ve been….Your workshop is an amazingly beautiful gift to the world.
And here’s a bit from a letter to Dick Gehman, who will be joining the faculty:
…You’ll be an excellent teacher. Your ego will demand it, and so will your students. You’ll have an appalling number of real writers entrusted to your care. The classes don’t matter much. The real business, head-to-head, is done during office hours in the afternoons….Forget your lack of credentials. The University is perfectly used to barbarians in the Workshop, thinks nothing of it. I have no degree. [Writer Richard] Yates has no degree….The former head [of the Workshop], Paul Engle, is still around, is a hayseed clown, a foxy grandpa, a terrific promoter who, if you listen closely, talks like a man with a paper asshole….Graduate assistants write his books for him. Burn this letter.
Lucky we are that the letters were not burned. Unlucky we may feel years from now, when we look back and wonder what riches may have been lost in our texting, tweeting, emailing world. I agree with the book jacket: “These letters comprise the autobiography Kurt Vonnegut never wrote.”