In 1969, L.S. Ayres invited native son Kurt Vonnegut to sign copies of his latest novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, in the downtown department store. At earlier stops on the book tour, the literary icon had drawn throngs of fans; here, he was met with indifference—and the irony didn’t escape him. “I sold thirteen books in two hours, every one of them to a relative,” Vonnegut wrote to fellow novelist and Shortridge High grad Dan Wakefield. “Word of honor.”
Wakefield, with the blessing of Vonnegut’s estate, combed through more than 1,000 such missives by the author to create Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (Random House), out October 30. Spanning seven decades, Letters begins with a haunting dispatch to Kurt Vonnegut Sr., relaying the news of his time as a prisoner of war in Dresden, and ends just before his death in 2007.
In the following preview, Vonnegut turns his trademark wit and wry eye on Indianapolis, the hometown that eventually warmed up to him. Wakefield’s introductions, also included here, add family history and cultural context. Letter-writing may be waning, but the “naked honesty” of Vonnegut’s prolific correspondence—including these selections, both acid-tinged and earnest—make a case for the vanishing art. —Amanda Heckert
To Dan Wakefield
» Jim Goode was another Shortridge graduate, who had worked for Life magazine and then for Playboy. When told that Kurt was going to review my [Going All the Way] for Life, he said it was an example of the power of “The Shortridge Mafia.”
Ray Mungo was a founder of one of the first communes and wrote a book about it called Total Loss Farm. He paid an unannounced visit to Kurt, and invited Kurt, Sam Lawrence, and me to come to their first “May Day Celebration” as “honorary uncles of the commune.”
April 11, 1970 — West Barnstable, MA
Tell Jim that it would be stupid for the Shortridge Mafia to surface like that. It is working like a dream, and nobody suspects anything so far. We could lose millions, and what could we gain? We’re all on Easy Street. Forget it.
One time in the lobby of the Century Club I heard a couple of guys exclaiming along these lines: “It’s a high school, but everybody who went there talks about it like it was a fraternity or something.” They were talking about Shortridge.
To be serious for a moment: I don’t want any more publicity for quite a while. I’d love to see you, though. I’m crazy about your buddy Mungo.
To Emily Glossbrenner
» Emily was Daniel and Edna Glossbrenner’s daughter, and Kurt’s cousin. Alex is Kurt’s uncle, his father’s brother. Aunt Irma is Kurt’s father’s sister. Raye is a cousin. Kurt “Tiger” Adams is the son of Kurt’s sister Alice and her husband, Jim.
August 1, 1973 — New York City
I thank you for your warm letter. You are nice to worry about me. I owe it to you to explain how I am and what I have been doing. The main thing, Emmie, is that I see my children all the time [following the separation from Jane]. I live in the same city with Edith, and see her a couple of times a week. Steve and Mark are now in town. We had supper together last night, and they spent the night here, and I will see them on the Cape this weekend. I visited Tiger a couple of weeks ago, and go to Jamaica to see Jim, and so on. So I in fact still head up a vivid and loving family, and will become a grandfather whenever someone decides to reproduce. Jane and I are no longer good companions. I am sorry about that, and so is she. This happens sometimes. There is no hatred between us. We talk often on the telephone, and she has worked out a quite satisfactory, by no means lonely, life of her own.
As for my unhappiness in the presence of Alex & Raye & Irma: you mustn’t tell them this, but they are no good at keeping secrets, although they imagine themselves reserved and poker-faced. And they have made it clear without knowing it that they are in awe of what I dislike most about myself, the tin-horn part, the fame, and that they consider what I actually write or think as popular garbage for hippies. I dedicated my own favorite book [The Sirens of Titan] to Alex, and he said he couldn’t read it, but he supposed that the young people liked it. So that is O.K., really. I love those people, so I go see them as often as I can, and I call them up a lot. But it is very hard to talk to them. Emotionally we are nearly one flesh.
Intellectually we are far, far away. And they are too old to be interested in my explanations of myself. So I don’t explain. So my unhappiness in Indianapolis boils down to a profound uneasiness about being loved for everything except for what I really do. And about having to keep my mouth shut about politics and about the arts since 1914.
I would love to see you, and beg you to call me whenever you are near New York. You and I are both in reasonably good shape, it seems to me, considering how long we’ve lived. I will explain to you the nature of my profession, which is necessarily a bizarre and risky enterprise.
Photo by Oliver Morris/Getty Images
These letters appeared in the October 2012 issue.
An exclusive excerpt from the book Kurt Vonnegut: Letters by Kurt Vonnegut, edited and with an introduction by Dan Wakefield, copyright © 2012 by The Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Trust, to be published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc.