Kurt Vonnegut: Letters [NOOK Book]

Overview

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY
Newsweek/The Daily Beast • The Huffington Post • Kansas City Star • Time Out New York • Kirkus Reviews

This extraordinary collection of personal correspondence has all the hallmarks of Kurt Vonnegut’s fiction. Written over a sixty-year period, these letters, the vast majority of them never before ...
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Kurt Vonnegut: Letters

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Overview

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY
Newsweek/The Daily Beast • The Huffington Post • Kansas City Star • Time Out New York • Kirkus Reviews

This extraordinary collection of personal correspondence has all the hallmarks of Kurt Vonnegut’s fiction. Written over a sixty-year period, these letters, the vast majority of them never before published, are funny, moving, and full of the same uncanny wisdom that has endeared his work to readers worldwide.
 
Included in this comprehensive volume: the letter a twenty-two-year-old Vonnegut wrote home immediately upon being freed from a German POW camp, recounting the ghastly firebombing of Dresden that would be the subject of his masterpiece Slaughterhouse-Five; wry dispatches from Vonnegut’s years as a struggling writer slowly finding an audience and then dealing with sudden international fame in middle age; righteously angry letters of protest to local school boards that tried to ban his work; intimate remembrances penned to high school classmates, fellow veterans, friends, and family; and letters of commiseration and encouragement to such contemporaries as Gail Godwin, Günter Grass, and Bernard Malamud.
 
Vonnegut’s unmediated observations on science, art, and commerce prove to be just as inventive as any found in his novels—from a crackpot scheme for manufacturing “atomic” bow ties to a tongue-in-cheek proposal that publishers be allowed to trade authors like baseball players. (“Knopf, for example, might give John Updike’s contract to Simon and Schuster, and receive Joan Didion’s contract in return.”) Taken together, these letters add considerable depth to our understanding of this one-of-a-kind literary icon, in both his public and private lives. Each letter brims with the mordant humor and openhearted humanism upon which he built his legend. And virtually every page contains a quotable nugget that will make its way into the permanent Vonnegut lexicon.
 
• On a job he had as a young man: “Hell is running an elevator throughout eternity in a building with only six floors.”
• To a relative who calls him a “great literary figure”: “I am an American fad—of a slightly higher order than the hula hoop.”
• To his daughter Nanny: “Most letters from a parent contain a parent’s own lost dreams disguised as good advice.”
• To Norman Mailer: “I am cuter than you are.”
 
Sometimes biting and ironical, sometimes achingly sweet, and always alive with the unique point of view that made him the true cultural heir to Mark Twain, these letters comprise the autobiography Kurt Vonnegut never wrote.

Praise for Kurt Vonnegut: Letters
 
“Splendidly assembled . . . familiar, funny, cranky . . . chronicling [Vonnegut’s] life in real time.”—Kurt Andersen, The New York Times Book Review
 
“[This collection is] by turns hilarious, heartbreaking and mundane. . . . Vonnegut himself is a near-perfect example of the same flawed, wonderful humanity that he loved and despaired over his entire life.”NPR
 
“Congenial, whimsical and often insightful missives . . . one of [Vonnegut’s] very best.”Newsday
 
“These letters display all the hallmarks of Vonnegut’s fiction—smart, hilarious and heartbreaking.”The New York Times Book Review


From the Hardcover edition.
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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
Beyond giving pleasure in itself, Vonnegut's correspondence, supplemented by Wakefield's annotation, provides a kind of potted biography…And, of course, [it's] funny…Kurt Vonnegut never regarded himself as a great writer. But he did possess that undervalued gift of charm, of sociability. There are authors we admire or envy, but there are just a few we really, really love, and Vonnegut is one of them.
—Michael Dirda
Publishers Weekly
This miraculous volume of selected letters provides a moving and revelatory portrait of the famed author of Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle. Organized by decade from the 1940s to the 2000s (Vonnegut died in 2007), the letters chart Vonnegut’s life from his service in WWII to his first steps in the world of publishing, his emergence into literary fame, and beyond. The grain of Vonnegut’s charming and unmistakable voice is palpable, along with his sense of humor that produces unexpected poetry on almost every page. The private and public Vonneguts both shine, as in his magical letters to his many children, or his painful reflections on divorce, war, and growing older. Elsewhere Vonnegut reveals aspects of his writing process and his philosophy of fiction, and marks his ongoing opposition to violence and censorship. Of particular literary interest are his letters to such authors as Norman Mailer, Anne Sexton, Bernard Malamud, and Jose Donoso. Edited by writer and longtime friend Wakefield, the volume begins with a warm retrospective essay, and each section is prefaced with overviews of each decade of Vonnegut’s life, as well as helpful notes to explain his references. Fans will find the collection as spellbinding as Vonnegut’s best novels, and casual readers will discover letters as splendid in their own way as those of Keats. Agent: The Farber Agency. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
“Splendidly assembled . . . familiar, funny, cranky . . . chronicling [Vonnegut’s] life in real time.”—Kurt Andersen, The New York Times Book Review
 
“[This collection is] by turns hilarious, heartbreaking and mundane. . . . Vonnegut himself is a near-perfect example of the same flawed, wonderful humanity that he loved and despaired over his entire life.”NPR
 
“Congenial, whimsical and often insightful missives . . . one of [Vonnegut’s] very best.”Newsday
 
Letters’ greatest gift is the gift of all such anthologies: It humanizes an icon. . . . The fallibility and kindness of the real person shine through clearer in his more personal writing, separating the author from the oeuvre in a way that makes both richer.”—The A.V. Club

“There are authors we admire or envy, but there are just a few we really, really love, and Vonnegut is one of them.”The Washington Post

“These letters display all the hallmarks of Vonnegut’s fiction—smart, hilarious and heartbreaking.”The New York Times Book Review

“Smart, funny, and very compassionate. Reading this is a must for fans of the author.”The Christian Science Monitor

“Old correspondence from even famous writers can be a bore, but not Vonnegut’s. He was always at his best when adopting an intimate, down-to-earth tone, and the same animating force that made him a brilliant storyteller is evident again and again in these letters. . . . This is a frank and funny book, offering rich insights into Vonnegut’s character and career.”The Dallas Morning News

“This miraculous volume of selected letters provides a moving and revelatory portrait of the famed author of Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle. . . . Fans will find the collection as spellbinding as Vonnegut’s best novels, and casual readers will discover letters as splendid in their own way as those of Keats.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)

 “A literary treasure . . . this collection of letters—many of which have never been published—rightly can be viewed as the autobiography Vonnegut never wrote.”The Oklahoman

“[An] intimate, far-ranging monologue by one of the 20th century’s funniest, sharpest, darkest minds . . .  it’s difficult not to marvel at Vonnegut’s depth, warmth and wit. . . . Together, [the letters] give a comprehensive sketch of his personality. They show who he was and who he became.”The Kansas City Star

“[Reveals] Vonnegut’s passions, annoyances, loves, losses, mind and heart . . . The letters stand alone—and stand tall, indeed. . . . Vonnegut’s most human of hearts beats on every page.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Bearing all the canny observations and sardonic witticisms that distinguished his most famous works [the letters reveal] fascinating insights into Vonnegut’s private thoughts and inspirations. . . . This is a volume fans will treasure.”Booklist

“As these remarkable letters reveal, [Vonnegut] mixes hard-edged ideas with the buoyancy of imagination and humor. His best work makes us both gasp and laugh—wishing the fire from the Roman candle would never end.”The Plain Dealer

Letters mirrors some of Vonnegut’s best fiction . . .  wry, witty, and eminently quotable. Perhaps more importantly, his letters reflect a genuineness and humanity that always lived just beneath the surface of Vonnegut’s fiction.”The Financialist

“Wit, aphorism, charm, wisdom and joshery abound here. . . . Vonnegut’s voice was as unique as his art. It is ominpresent here.”Buffalo News

“Everything that’s familiar in [Vonnegut's] fiction is in the letters—he’s funny, caustic, sentimental, profound, melancholy, angry, and always himself.”The Oregonian

“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. . . . Vonnegut is stripped of any possible self-promotion and his true affection and unselfishness shows. . . . a deep and true portrayal.”The Daily Californian

“At last: the Vonnegut book readers of the late modern master have been waiting for. . . . It’s his voice again, live as ever, clear and unvarnished, with the pop and crackle of a hardwood fire on an Autumn night. . . . For those of us that miss Kurt Vonnegut, it makes this collection a gift. Pick up this book, it’s like having him by your side.”NUVO

Library Journal
Vonnegut's early antiestablishment novels, notably Slaughterhouse Five, were embraced by counterculture youth of the 1960s and '70s as they raged against the debacle of Vietnam and the deceit that was Watergate. Ever popular, Vonnegut's novels, short stories, and essays are still in print and on college reading lists. This selection of his letters to family, friends, editors and publishers, critics, and fellow authors (primarily Gail Godwin, Vance Bourjaily, Nelson Algren) spans the 1940s, when Vonnegut was in his twenties, to his death in 2007. The letters describe his survival, while a POW, of the Allied bombing of Dresden, as well as the fog and fiasco of war. They also reveal a dogged pursuit of his chosen profession and a desperate need for financial security and recognition that rendered him spiteful, self-aggrandizing, sarcastic, sensitive to criticism, and intermittently estranged from family and friends. Vonnegut's longtime friend, novelist Wakefield (Going All the Way) prefaces the letters with interesting contextual biographical and literary information. VERDICT For Vonnegut readers and libraries, this is an essential complement to Charles Shields's recent biography, And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut; A Life.—Lonnie Weatherby, McGill Univ. Lib., Montreal
Library Journal
Vonnegut's life as told by his letters; a smart idea for a writer with such a distinctive voice. Edited by novelist/screenwriter Dan Wakefield, Vonnegut's friend for over 40 years, the pieces here range from Vonnegut's letter home after being freed from a German POW camp to protests directed at school boards that had banned his books to exchanges with other writers like Norman Mailer and Günter Grass. Five years after his death, Vonnegut remains in the public eye; Slaughter-House Five still sells more than 100,000 copies a year.
Kirkus Reviews
Selected and edited letters by the author of Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five and other enduringly popular novels, letters that reveal Vonnegut's passions, annoyances, loves, losses, mind and heart. Edited and annotated by his friend and fellow Hoosier novelist Wakefield (The Hijacking of Jesus: How the Religious Right Distorts Christianity and Promotes Prejudice and Hate, 2006, etc.), Vonnegut's letters, arranged by decade, reveal his wit and literary style, as well as his demons. Wakefield annotates lightly and introduces each decade with a swift biography and commentary. Mostly, however, the letters stand alone--and stand tall, indeed. A letter from 1945 tells his worried parents about his experiences as a POW in Dresden during the firebombing; the final letter declines an invitation to appear at Cornell. "At 84," wrote Vonnegut, who died in 2007, "I resemble nothing so much as an iguana, hate travel, and have nothing to say. I might as well send a spent Roman candle in my stead." Vonnegut remained close to his many relatives, and readers can chart his personal life here--his first marriage (ended in divorce), his relationships with his children (some were adopted), his second marriage (to photographer Jill Krementz). That marriage was often difficult, and he writes bitterly about finding evidence of her infidelity. His professional growth chart is here, too--his early struggle, his time teaching at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, his rising celebrity and fame and his struggles to write later in his life. The political Vonnegut is much in evidence, as well. There are fiery letters about censorship and book burning and some anti-conservative rhetoric. Wakefield also includes Vonnegut's touching letters to encourage other writers and to deal with an angry daughter. Vonnegut's most human of hearts beats on every page.
The Barnes & Noble Review
Letters can serve all kinds of purposes for writers. For F. Scott Fitzgerald, the epistolary realm provided a forum for a virtual vomiting up of the soul (and a handy venue for cadging loans). For Keats, dispatches to friends and family served as a barometer of his own progress as a poet, a reminder to himself of the latest checkpoint he had come to and the next awaiting on the horizon. For Kurt Vonnegut, a more irascible, rough-hewn writer than many, there's a needed sense of justification, of the gatecrasher, the autodidact having stormed the canon — at last — and now committed to expressing indignation at a system that would have preferred to keep him out.

That Vonnegut's letters have a purgative quality is no surprise to any reader of works like Cat's Cradle or Slaughterhouse-Five, books that seemed most emblematically Vonnegut-esque, the indicators of what the man hoped to be at his best. A cynic might knock Vonnegut for a kind of cultural sententiousness painfully representative of the 1960s, a cultural moment without which Vonnegut, as a literary phenomenon, would probably not, as Dan Wakefield notes in an explanatory aside here, have existed. But exist he did, especially as a writer primed to rail against injustices. The latter tend to take the form of noxious crusaders who seemingly loved nothing more than rounding up a bunch of so-called counterculture books — Vonnegut's foremost among them — and having an old-fashioned book burning. His conscionable rage ranges far — all the way to Drake, North Dakota, in a 1973 letter to an anti-Vonnegut school chairman: "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 favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are."

There's a temptation, at the close of such exchanges, to add a silent "Hear, hear!" But Vonnegut, as this volume reveals, was no moral paragon: sighs are inevitable when examples of cronyism and favor trading begin to dot the pages or, worse, things seem to happen in Vonnegut's career that have more to do with dumb luck and personal relationships than anything else. Not that this is Vonnegut's fault, of course, but more like an inevitable reminder of the vicissitudes of the writer's life, then and now. Vonnegut, for his part, even when depression creeps in and he fights to keep his scattered family together, is wryly aware of all of this. "When things go well for days on end, it is a hilarious accident," he notes in a letter to his daughter. That notion of accidental humor ? which accompanies a sense that the universe is busy trying to put one over on us — is in evidence throughout this compendium. You might say Vonnegut laughs without emitting much in the way of truly happy sounds — a laugh with a well-meaning snort, like the way, one imagines, Twain laughed.

Not that there isn't legitimate, Keystone Cops–type humor throughout the expanse of this correspondence, like when Vonnegut falls ass-backward into a teaching gig at Iowa, despite not having a degree and being anything but an MFA practitioner. He treats the job as one giant piss-take, something the universe conferred upon him — the universe being prone to irony — and which he uses to his advantage. Perhaps less than surprisingly, pre-fame Vonnegut comes off as a man who could give his lionized (by readers; the critics and gatekeepers were always another camp altogether) successor a well-timed kick in the britches. Vonnegut never lost his work ethic, though, and if you don't see extended accounts of how some new mode of narrative was invented or passionate, late-night rundowns of how a recent chapter came together, you can mark Vonnegut's productivity. The man chopped a lot of wood, so to speak, and then chopped some more, and he reports his progress with the laconic voice of a worker marking how many cords had piled up that week. For Vonnegut, more than anything — and certainly more than self- eulogizing — cared about audience. These days that's a no-no in the university culture of creative writing, a term Vonnegut would have despised.

"I am trying to give my course strong undertones of sociological realism, making my students think hard about not only what stories and authors are, but what audiences are, too," he writes to magazine fiction editor Rust Hills. In Vonnegut's ethos, one we get to know better thanks to these letters, sociological realism isn't so much the story about the greengrocer or the person one encounters on the street but a degree of believability, of authenticity, something that can equally ballast a sci-fi story or an account of a bombing in Dresden. That reality quotient, regardless of setting, is what sets both Vonnegut's best work, and his best letters, apart from those we're used to encountering. The key to so much — everything you might value, one imagines Vonnegut thinking — is to make all of this less the stuff of happy accidents and instead the center of any artistically and morally informed life. And then we can all have ourselves a big, proper laugh over how far we fall short.

Colin Fleming writes for The Atlantic, Slate, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times Book Review and publishes fiction with The Iowa Review, The Massachusetts Review, Boulevard, and Black Clock. His first book, Between Cloud and Horizon: A Relationship Casebook in Stories, is forthcoming, and he is at work on a novel about a piano prodigy, called The Freeze Tag Sessions.

Reviewer: Colin Fleming

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345535399
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/30/2012
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 464
  • Sales rank: 288,618
  • File size: 5 MB

Meet the Author

Kurt Vonnegut
Dan Wakefield first befriended Kurt Vonnegut in 1963. Like Vonnegut, he was born and raised in Indianapolis. He is a novelist and screenwriter whose books include the bestselling Going All the Way and the memoir New York in the Fifties.

Biography

Born in 1922, Vonnegut grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana. His architect father suffered great financial setbacks during the Depression and was unemployed for long stretches of time. His mother suffered from mental illness and eventually committed suicide in 1944, a trauma that haunted Vonnegut all his life. He attended Cornell in the early 1940s, but quit in order to enlist in the Army during WWII.

Vonnegut was shipped to Europe, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and was captured behind enemy lines and incarcerated in a German prison camp. As a POW, he witnessed the firebombing of Dresden by Allied forces, an event of devastating magnitude that left an indelible impression on the young soldier.

After the war, Vonnegut returned home and married his high school sweetheart. In addition to two daughters and a son of their own, he and his first wife adopted three children orphaned in 1958 by the death of Vonnegut's sister Alice. (He and his second wife adopted another daughter.) The family lived in Chicago and Schenectady before settling in Cape Cod, where Vonnegut began to concentrate seriously on his writing. His first novel, the darkly dystopian Player Piano, was published in 1952 and met with moderate success. Three additional novels followed (including the critically acclaimed Cat's Cradle), but it was not until the publication of 1969's Slaughterhouse Five that Vonnegut achieved true literary stardom. Based on the author's wartime experiences in Dresden, the novel resonated powerfully in the social upheaval of the Vietnam era.

Although he is best known for his novels (a genre-blending mix of social satire, science fiction, surrealism, and black comedy), Vonnegut also wrote short fiction, essays, and plays (the best known of which was Happy Birthday, Wanda June). In addition, he was a talented graphic artist who illustrated many of his books and exhibited sporadically during his literary career. He died on April 11, 2007, after suffering irreversible brain injuries as a result of a fall.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Kurt Vonnegut
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 11, 1922
    2. Place of Birth:
      Indianapolis, Indiana
    1. Date of Death:
      April 11, 2007
    2. Place of Death:
      New York, New York

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