The Vonnegut-Industrial Complex Has A Winning New Product
For a few months in 1950, Kurt Vonnegut juggled three different careers. While he was working as a publicist at GE, he was also dreaming about being a writer. That dream—and its lack of compensation—eventually led to his third and most unlikely profession: fashion designer. Vonnegut imagined a trendy bow tie made out of the ribbon the Atomic Energy Commission used to rope off radioactive hotspots. He pieced together a prototype and sent it to a friend in the clothing industry. They would cash in on Cold War anxieties, Vonnegut predicted. “You can make them as lousy as you damn please,” he wrote, “teenagers being what they are.”
The bow tie never materialized, and two years later, Vonnegut published his first novel, Player Piano. But it wasn’t until 1969’s Slaughterhouse-Five that he became a literary star—the kind of author who no longer needed sartorial side hustles. By the time he died in 2007, Vonnegut was an icon, equal parts uncle and oracle. Millions of readers loved his essays and fiction, loved the way he could veer from charming to bleak and back again. He was America’s commencement speaker, its creative-writing teacher, its leading sci-fi humanist.
Then something strange happened. In the years after Vonnegut’s death, books by and about him kept appearing, each one authorized by his family and his literary estate. A few posthumous tomes usually follow a great writer’s demise, but the glut started to feel a bit greedy—something you would never associate with a proud anti-capitalist like Vonnegut.
This month, the latest volume rolls off the assembly line: Love, Kurt, a collection of newly discovered letters Vonnegut wrote to his first wife, Jane Marie Cox. In some ways, it’s an unsatisfying portrait of their early romance. (Only one of her letters to him was found.) But Love, Kurt reveals something important about an author Hoosiers have gotten to know pretty well: His playful writing style was there from the very beginning.
In the last decade, there have been two essential developments in the Vonnegut literary field. First, Dan Wakefield, an Indianapolis author and Vonnegut’s lifelong friend, edited a career-spanning collection of Vonnegut’s letters. (Kurt Vonnegut: Letters is where you’ll find the bow-tie scheme.) Second, the Library of America released four volumes of Vonnegut’s writing, reprinting all of his novels and many of his short stories on the organization’s famous, tissue-y paper, the closest thing this country has to literary canonization.
There have been far more projects that seem inessential. The Vonnegut estate, which is officially known as The Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Trust, has approved the publication of at least three collections of “newly discovered” writing, with most of it being early work Vonnegut couldn’t sell even to the pulpy magazines where he got his start. The Trust has signed off on one book collecting his sketches, and another collecting his graduation speeches and “advice to the young.” Two of the more recent Vonnegut volumes are Sucker’s Portfolio and Pity the Reader. With titles like that, one wonders if the Trust is in on the joke.
There’s no equivalent to this onslaught among Vonnegut’s peers. Think of John Updike (four Library of America volumes since his death) or Elmore Leonard (also four volumes). Even the 20th century’s most shameless authorial self-advertiser, Norman Mailer, can’t compete. There have been two Library of America volumes since his death, but no gift-book-and-juvenilia explosion like Vonnegut’s.
Wakefield, the Letters editor, believes this explosion underlines Vonnegut’s relevance. His humor, his satire, his dedication to defending the environment and criticizing war—each of these qualities makes him uniquely appealing to young readers. “Unlike most writers of his generation,” Wakefield says, “his audience keeps growing.”
There’s some truth to that, but my own interactions with the Vonnegut Trust have led me to a more cynical conclusion. Kurt and Jane divorced in 1971, and Jane died in 1986. That means for many years, the Trust was run by their three children, Mark, Edith, and Nanette, and by Donald Farber, an entertainment lawyer and Vonnegut’s friend.
Farber passed away in 2016, but I interviewed him once for a story about And So It Goes, a years-in-the-making Vonnegut biography by Charles Shields. It was the sort of mini-scandal in which the literary world specializes: While Vonnegut had encouraged Shields before his death and Shields had discovered hundreds of Vonnegut’s early letters, the Trust refused to let him quote even a single line from those documents. That left Vonnegut feeling like a supporting character in his own biography, but the Trust seemed more interested in protecting the sales of its own projects.
While I was working on that story, Mark Vonnegut declined my interview requests. But Farber was happy to talk. “My motivation,” Farber told me, “is to do with Kurt’s property what I always did with Kurt’s property—to expose it to the world.” But for some reason, a careful biography didn’t count as exposure. When I interviewed Shields, I could hear the frustration in his voice, but he tried to stay positive about the Trust. “They’re never going to allow Vonnegut lunchboxes,” he said.
Shields may have spoken too soon. A few years later, the Trust hired Kick Design, a “brand strategy firm” whose clients included Wrangler and Coca-Cola. Before long, there was talk of Vonnegut T-shirts and totes, Vonnegut earbuds and adult beverages. The Trust eventually ended it, but not before Kick’s creative director said things like this: “Our goal is to introduce his genius to new generations with a vibrant licensing program that speaks to a core literary fan as well as capturing and translating his famous Vonnegutisms for today’s trends.”
It felt like a stunt from a novel by, well, Kurt Vonnegut. But would he want Kilgore Trout to have his own line of earbuds?
The latest entry in the Vonnegut apocrypha came from an attic. Edith Vonnegut was in her family’s old house, sorting through their things—the report cards and Christmas cards, the sleeping bags and vinyl records—when she found a battered box from L.S. Ayres. The box was sealed, as she writes in her introduction to Love, Kurt, “with brittle yellowed tape.” When Edith opened it, she discovered more than 200 letters that Kurt had sent to Jane between 1941 and 1945, starting when he was just 19 years old.
Kurt and Jane had met earlier, while they were attending Indianapolis’s Orchard School, but they didn’t reconnect until college, with him at Cornell University and her at Swarthmore College. They struck up a friendship, visiting each other for campus parties and writing lots of letters. They reveal him to be sweet, funny, and deeply horny. “Dearest Jane,” one began, “This is a prelude to Physics, eight minutes away. Laws affecting bodies in motion are the current concern of the course, fitting handily into my mental state.”
From the start, Kurt hoped their friendship would turn romantic. Jane was less sure. So Kurt tried to convince her, one letter at a time. He gave her nicknames: Angel, Spaniel Eyes, and most frequently, Woofy. (Kurt dubbed himself Tarzan, presumably to her Jane.) They both adored books, and they both dreamed of one day writing novels of their own. They wrote about Shakespeare and Milton, Tolstoy and Thoreau. They wrote about Indiana. “Mother and Dad sent some Sassafrass tea from a weekend in Brown County,” Kurt noted in one letter. “I had it served at the Junior table—It was terrible; I had to drink everybody’s.”
The main issue in their correspondence, though, was always their relationship status. Their affection was mutual, but lopsidedly so, and in some letters Kurt turned angry or petty. He wanted her to write more, to write faster. When he gave her a copy of The Works of Henry D. Thoreau, he added an inscription: “To Jane—whom I love and shall love all my life.”
While Love, Kurt is being marketed as a book of love letters, it’s hard to give a portrait of a relationship with only his correspondences—when you can hear only one side of the telephone call. Instead, the book gives a portrait of a young writer. The most striking thing here is that the teenaged Vonnegut had already achieved his mature style. He could be playful and melancholy: “I need a shot in the arm, which is figurative, as I would hate to stuff you into a hypodermic syringe.” He could go on long, silly riffs, even as those riffs vibrated with a deep sincerity: “Sorry, can’t afford lingerie. You’ll just have to go naked for the first few years. That’s the way it’ll have to be, darling. I don’t like the idea any more than you do.” Love, Kurt frequently covers mundane situations, like Kurt trying to impress Jane’s family. They are the letters of a regular teenager. But the talent and voice are already Vonnegut’s.
Before long, Kurt and Jane were consumed with bigger concerns. By the fall of 1942, Kurt admitted that he felt compelled to fight in World War II. After he enlisted, he wrote to Jane to announce himself “a private in the army—number 12835987, apparently not the first to join.” He couldn’t quite believe this was happening, and he certainly didn’t like the idea of war. He fretted about their future as a potential couple. So he joked about all of it: “Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., in uniform, as you might guess, is not a sight to stimulate War Bond sales.”
Vonnegut, of course, had a terrible and traumatizing experience at war, though he would say that this is war’s only possible outcome. After being captured by German troops, he became a POW—until, early in 1945, Allied planes firebombed the city of Dresden, killing tens of thousands and destroying one of the world’s great cultural landmarks. Vonnegut and the other POWs collected corpses and cleared rocks. For six months, Jane didn’t know whether he was living or dead.
Finally, he was able to write home. He sent Jane a letter on Red Cross stationery, addressed to “Angelface”: “I should be on native soil within a week. I’ve a 60-day furlough and several hundred bucks awaiting me—a somewhat cheerful situation by which you may indirectly benefit, providing you haven’t got married or some damned thing.” He ended with a postscript: “p.s. I look sort of starved.”
Despite his appearance, Kurt finally convinced Jane to marry him. They were wed in the fall of 1945 and spent their honeymoon at the French Lick Resort. But Kurt needed to finish his service, which meant another separation while he was at Fort Riley. This time, their letters changed. Now Jane was the one trying to convince him—that he could actually be a writer, and that now was the time to start. “You scare me when you say that I am going to create the literature of 1945 onwards,” Kurt admitted. But he began to try, one short story at a time. “I’ve tried writing stories about Germany several times,” he wrote in another letter, “but I simply can’t do it. It makes me sick … I’m not going to try writing about Germany again—not until I’m older.”
One of the best things about reading Love, Kurt is seeing glimpses of Jane’s contributions to Kurt’s career—to their career. She had always been the better student, and the better reader, but she tabled her ambitions to edit his stories, to strategize on the best magazines to pitch, to correspond with potential agents, all while eventually taking care of their children. “Jane was absolutely critical to Kurt’s early career,” says Ginger Strand, the author of The Brothers Vonnegut. “I don’t think he would have become a writer without her.”
Edith Vonnegut found only one of Jane’s letters to Kurt from this post-college period, but it’s wonderful. It captures the contrast in their styles, with Jane’s prose clear and concise and free of Kurt’s looping self-doubt. “Sweety,” she wrote, “I married a GENIUS.” She compared him to one of her favorite authors. “You’re not as good as Chekhov yet, simply because you haven’t said anything of as much importance—but you know HOW to say it, and as time goes on, you’ll have more and more of it to say.”
Jane was making a crucial point. Love, Kurt can be a frustrating read—because it’s repetitive, especially in Kurt’s romantic angst, and because the lower stakes of teenage life can make his fusion of playfulness and pessimism feel less like a revelation than a chore. But this is just another way to say that Vonnegut already knew how to write—“how to say it,” in Jane’s phrase. He had his style. What he needed was his subject.
He found that subject at Dresden. Vonnegut scholars often claim that World War II gave him both his voice and his moral purpose. But the letters in Love, Kurt show for the first time that this is only half right. Vonnegut always had the voice. “What must I do to become a writer?” he asked Jane in another letter, before listing some favorites: H.L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, H.G. Wells. “Of those I’ve named, none gives much credit to universities for their successes. By and large, they were born to write.”