Kurt Vonnegut was one of my first literary heroes. During my teenage years, I read and reread his novels and stories, which I loved for the irreverence, dark humor and mixture of science fiction and social criticism that characterized his work.
I still revisit Vonnegut's novels and essays and find them as moving and funny as I did when I first read them. A recent rereading of some of his work coincided with the publication of a new collection of his correspondence, "Kurt Vonnegut: Letters," which spans six decades and offers a powerful and personal look at Vonnegut's development as a person and as an American literary icon.
"Letters," edited by Dan Wakefield, opens with the first letter Vonnegut wrote home to his family after having been a prisoner of war during World War II. In the letter, he details some of his experiences, notably surviving the catastrophic bombing of Dresden in 1945. This story is familiar to Vonnegut fans as the basis for his most famous and influential novel, "Slaughterhouse-Five."
Post-war letters describe his life as a struggling writer and the varied day jobs that he held along the way, including elevator operator, public relations writer for General Electric, Chicago crime reporter and Saab salesman. He even tried a few stabs at inventions, the most amusing of which was an idea for a novelty "atomic" necktie.
The ups and downs of both Vonnegut's literary career and personal life are detailed in letters to publishers, friends, fellow authors and family. 'He published stories and novels throughout the 1950s and eventually achieved popularity and financial success as a writer with the publication of "Slaughterhouse-Five: or the Children's Crusade," an inventive literary blend of his experiences in World War II and the science fiction tale of Billy Pilgrim who has "come unstuck in time."
The powerful antiwar theme of the book held great appeal during the Vietnam War era, and Vonnegut became a counterculture literary icon. He continued writing until his death in 2007, publishing 14 novels as well as many collections of short stories, essays and plays.
The letters also illuminate his personal life with details about his family and relationships. One early letter to his wife contains a contract listing, in hilarious detail, which chores are his responsibility during her pregnancy. Vonnegut had seven children, including three with his first wife, three adopted nephews and an adopted daughter with his second wife.
Some of the most poignant letters in this collection are those written to his children, whom he obviously cared for deeply, as they were growing into adults. Many of his letters reflect the deep depression and personal doubts that plagued him throughout his life.
In these letters, the irreverence and humor that is so apparent in his published work shines through, as does his strong moral perspective. Themes of advocating for the poor and vulnerable and an emphasis on kindness over greed run throughout his writing.
Many of Vonnegut's novels and stories speak out against war and violence, and "Slaughterhouse-Five" is seen by many as one of the greatest antiwar novels. So it is fitting that during the Vietnam War, when his son Mark applied for conscientious objector status, Vonnegut wrote a powerful letter to the draft board in support of his son.
Vonnegut also was an outspoken advocate for intellectual freedom and wrote several great letters in response to school boards that wanted to restrict the use of his books in schools. Late in life, he was critical of the Bush administration and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his anger and sadness at these events is reflected in many of his letters from this period.
Letters are a unique way to get a glimpse of the person behind a great author's work (in Vonnegut's case the often cranky man behind his trusty typewriter enveloped in a cloud of Pall Mall smoke). Vonnegut's letters reveal him to be much the man his readers would imagine from his literary persona: A complicated, funny and deeply compassionate man who struggled throughout his life to make sense of the darker aspects of human nature.
Although email and text messages now seem to comprise the bulk of our correspondence, I hope well-crafted letters continue to exist so that we have the opportunity to get to know current and future literary figures through them.
Kasia Hopkins is an adult services librarian at the Urbana Free Library. She can be reached at email@example.com.