Kurt Vonnegut: Letters
Had Slaughterhouse-Five been written and published in the 1950s, it would not have made the same impact. The timing of the novel’s publication was eerily right, for by 1969 many Americans had become critical of the war in Vietnam, not only because the Tet Offensive of 1968 illustrated how badly we were faring in the conflict but also because of the revelation of atrocities like the My Lai Massacre, the use of napalm against civilian populations and the saturation bombing of Cambodia and Laos that began in March of 1969 – the same month Slaughterhouse-Five was published. A novel based on the firebombing of Dresden during WWII would not have seemed relevant in the preceding decade as it did now; it would not have struck such a nerve.
The events in Vietnam and the protests against the draft, led by college students, increased the growing influence of the youth culture, who made Vonnegut their literary hero in questioning the accepted wisdom of the status quo. Kurt was as surprised as anyone and had never wanted to be a “spokesperson” of the young. p. 75
[Vonnegut] satirized the stylish popularity of Eastern mediation, saying we had the same thing in the West–reading short stories, which also lowered your heart rate and freed you mind from concerns. He said short stories were :Buddhist catnaps.” p. 76
As [Vonnegut] and his books became famous, there were more and more attempts to censor them, and he passionately defended the teachers and librarians who fought for their right to use them in schools and libraries. After the burning of copies of Slaughterhouse-Five in a furnace in Drake, North Dakota, on orders of its school board, and the banning of it by the school board in Levittown, New York, Vonnegut wrote in an op-ed piece for the New York Times on 24 March 1976 that
Whenever ideas are squashed in this country, literate lovers of the American experiment write careful and intricate explanations of why all ideas must be allowed to live. It is time for them to realize that they are attempting to explain America at its bravest and most optimistic to orangutans.
From now on, I intend to limit my discourse with dimwitted Savonarolas to this advice: Have somebody read the First Amendment to the United States Constitution out loud to you, you God damned fool! p. 154
Dear Mrs. Harris
I went to a high school which had a daily paper so everybody was crazy about writing. Many good writers have come from Shortridge — because of the paper. The Student writers get an immediate response from an audience rather than from one tired teacher. This makes writing seem exciting and relevant.
It takes about two years for a student to show important changes in his ability to write. Creative writing programs lasting only a semester or a year simply don’t allow enough time for growth. Ideally, the student should have the same teacher for two years.
The teacher should think of assisting the student to become a writer, rather than think of teaching a student how to write. The teacher should watch for clues as to what the student is attempting to become, then to help the student become that. It is cruel and destructive to make the student try to become something he was not meant to become. He can become only what he was meant to be.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
– to Mrs. Josephine Harris on 13 April 1970, p. 157-8
You are dismayed at having lost a year, maybe, because the school fell apart. Well — I feel as though I’ve lost years since Slaughterhouse-Five was published, but that’s malarkey. Those years weren’t lost. They simply weren’t the way I planned them. Neither was the year in which Jim had to stay motionless in bed while he got over TB. Neither was the year in which Mark went crazy, then put himself together again. Those years were adventures. Planned years are not.
– to Nanny Vonnegut on 20 November 1972, p. 176
I am going to order you to do something new, if you haven’t done it already. Get a collection of the short stories of Chekhov and read every one. Then read Youth by Joseph Conrad. I’m not suggesting you do these things. I am ordering you to do them.
– to Nanny Vonnegut on 20 November 1972, p. 177
I know it is the place of the man to do brilliant things with money, but this manhood thing has me completely worn out. I just want to be a writer.
– to Don Farber on 7 January 1972, p. 179
As a teacher, I was usually pretty good at helping people become what they wanted to become. I didn’t try to make them resemble me.
– to Mark Vonnegut on 20 March 1972, p. 180
The Utopian dreaming I do now had to do with encouraging cheerfulness and bravery by the formation of good gangs.
– to Mark Vonnegut on 29 August 1972, p. 183
Most letters from a parent contain a parent’s own lost dreams disguised as good advice. My good advice to you is to pay somebody to teach you to speak some foreign language, to meet with you two or three times a week and talk. Also: get somebody to teach you to play a musical instrument. What makes this advice especially hollow and pious is that I’m not dead yet. If it were any good, I could easily take it myself.
– to Nanny Vonnegut on 20 September 1972, p. 187
This is not to encourage you to have regular depressions, to be proud of the family disease. Get rid of it, if you can. I intend to try. i can at least know it for what it is, something I couldn’t do before. Again — I don’t want you to really dig the disease, so I shouldn’t tell you too much about my experiences with it. i have found, though, that I handle it best in solitude. People often find this insulting, the way we retreat. It’s a way of hanging onto dignity, though. there are better ways, maybe. I’ll ask a doctor what they are.
– to Nanny Vonnegut on 2 November 1972, p. 190
Let him talk to Darwinists, hat in hand. It’s educational, and pays off in the end. As Colonel Littauer said to me one time when I was bitter about being broke: “Who asked you to be a writer in the first place?”
– to Knox Burger on 8 January 1973, p. 194
The thing to celebrate is your sweet and melodious voice. the piece about traveling with Nanny across country is a knockout. There isn’t a flaw in it anywhere. And it would be that well-written, even if you weren’t as well-educated as you are. The secret of good writing is caring.
– to Jane Vonnegut on 30 October 1974, p. 221
About fear: I heard a Hindu holy man sat at a lecture a couple of years ago that it was crucial to learn how to make decisions without allowing fear to become involved — and that fear liked to hitch rides on all sorts of words and images. When fear intrudes on your thinking, it may be an old fear, hitching a ride still, but which need not really concern you any more.
– to Nanny Vonnegut on 18 May 1978, p. 258
When I got home from war, having been a private for three years, my plan was to survive some more, but I couldn’t imagine how this might be done. I still don’t know, and I think it must be even tougher to do now. I took whatever jobs I could find. Some were interesting. I was a hack — a term of opprobrium borrowed from a taxicab, a vehicle eminently for hire.
– to Nanny Vonnegut on 18 May 1978, p. 258
Saul Stenberg said to me that the painter Ingres was hobbled by too much talent. You are hobbled by too much to write about. You help me understand why novelists are such avoiders of adventure. Real life could swamp them easily. So not living is a sacrifice we make.
– to Donald Fiene on 15 November 1985, p. 309
I have just read Bill Keough’s thesis about violence in American humor, which deals with Twain, Bierce, Lardner and me. It’s a beauty, although I am quite an anti-climax. but he says that all of us have found ourselves trapped in box canyons with our jokes, with no notions of how the human condition might be improved. And several critics of my work have said I give the illusion of knowing of how things might be revised without being able to describe the revisions. In short, I am, like many failed pieces of serious music, all gestures, unkept promises, with no stirring resolutions to come. Conventional resolutions in humorless books, incidentally, consist of the acceptance of some option which the society has offered for quite some time: a meaningful death, the kicking of addiction, the uncritical acceptance of some religion, becoming a hermit, returning to a person one has loved all along, and so on. On tending the sick, or helping the poor, or shooting the person who seems most responsible for all the misery.
When I thought I was going to become a biologist of some kind, and in fact studied bacteriology, I wanted to cure diseases, and my heroes were Pasteur and the like. I was going to find out what made people sick. I had no gift for real science, however, and after the Second World War went into pseudo-science, all talk and few measurements, which is to say anthropology. And one enchanting suggestive thing I learned (attitude I assumed), was that culture was as separate from the brain as a Model T Ford, and could be tinkered with. It was an easy jump from there to believing, as I do, that a culture can contain fatal poisons which can be identified: respect for firearms, for example, or the belief that no male is really a man until he has had a physical showdown of some kind, or that women can’t possibly understand the really important things which are going on, and so on. What could be simpler, or perhaps, more simple minded?
– to Jerome Klinkowitz on 26 April 1987, p. 318
Advice? Somebody should have told me not to join a fraternity, but to hang out with the independents, who were not then numerous. I would have grown up faster that way. Somebody should have told me that getting drunk, while fashionable, was dangerous and stupid. And somebody should have told me to forget about higher education, and to go to work for a newspaper instead. that is what a lot of the most promising and determined young writers used to do back then. Nowadays, of course, you can’t get a job on a newspaper if you don’t have a college education. Too bad.
– to Paul Kody on 25 January 1994, p. 354
Any work of art [including writing? JH] is one half of a conversation between two human beings, and it helps a lot to know who is talking at you. Does he or she have a reputation for seriousness, for sincerity? There aer virtually no beloved or respected paintings made by persons of whom we know nothing. We can even surmise a lot about the lives of whoever did the paintings in the caves underneath Lascaux, France.
So I dare suggest that no picture can attract serious attention without a human being attached to it in the viewer’s mind. If you are unwilling to attach your name to your pictures, and to say why you hope others might find them rewarding to look at, there goes the ballgame right there. Pictures are famous for their human-ness and not their picture-ness.
– to Bernard Vonnegut on 11 October 1995, p. 361
Politics? I will vote Democratic because that is the most humane of the two parties, but not by much. The Clintons are shallow, opportunist Yuppies, but they are the only game in town. Doesn’t Dole make you ashamed to be a World War Two vet? What a crabby old poop!
– to Ollie Lyon on 18 June 1996, p. 369
Writing well is more than a way to make money. My father, Kurt senior wrote like an angel, simply in order to be civilize, to make the lives of those around him more amusing and interesting.
– to Alexander and Jackson Adams on 18 January 1987, p. 371
Strictly entre nous: I understand better than ever why the Muses are women, not children or men. Women have the power to renew the ambition and wit of men adrift, and have done that twice for me so far, one in Iowa City in 1965 and in Sagaponack, to which place I was exiled in 1991. Both times, after sleeping with these angels, I started writing and making pictures again. Not a word of those to anyone! Bellow and Mailer have renewed themselves in this fashion again and again, as though buying new cars — but by God, just think of the paperwork!
– to Miller and Mary Louise Harris on 28 April 2000, p. 398