Modern correspondence is fleeting; between e-mails, texts, and message-board posts, it seems like everyone these days is writing, but hardly any of it lasts. Which makes the existence of Kurt Vonnegut’s Letters comforting even before readers flip to the first page. In the future, the legacy of literary lions may be reduced to novels and a handful of widely circulated tweets. But Letters contains seven decades’ worth of communiques, full of warmth, wit, and occasional pettiness. Vonnegut fans looking for a more intimate glimpse at the life and mind of one of the 20th century’s best-loved writers may be initially disappointed. For obvious reasons, the letters deal with the biggest upheavals in their author’s life in retrospect, if at all, and Vonnegut’s pleasant, patient tone is largely consistent throughout. The few times he is angry, as in a letter to a school board responsible for burning copies of Slaughterhouse-Five in 1973, are striking exceptions.
This makes sense. While Vonnegut’s novels are filled with horrors, pathos, and misery, he made a career out of leavening despair with humor. Tension and drama in his fiction existed intermittently, if at all, and the stories avoided traditional heroes and villains, instead focusing on hapless protagonists and a world where only kindness ultimately matters. This perspective informs Vonnegut’s approach to friendship, family matters, and business dealings, resulting in year after year of friendly ramblings punctuated by the occasional offbeat anecdote. His letters follow much the same style as his fiction, and in that sense, Letters can be read as a sort of extension of Vonnegut’s final novel, Timequake: personal information, bits of philosophy, and a fair amount of grumpiness.
Dan Wakefield, a lifelong friend of Vonnegut’s and novelist in his own right (Vonnegut provided an introduction for Wakefield’s Going All The Way, which was adapted to film in 1997), edited Letters and provides an introduction, a basic biological summary for each decade, and a number of invaluable notes offering background information for individual letters. The end result is a mild, melancholy glimpse into the life of a man whose public image was already a large part of how his work is viewed. To that end, Letters’ greatest gift is the gift of all such anthologies: It humanizes an icon. This seems impossible, given how resolutely human Vonnegut strove to appear in all his writings, but while his letters have plenty of the basic decency that was his hallmark, they also reveal someone unsure about the demands of celebrity while enjoying its rewards, an author often unhappy with how his books were marketed, and a father and husband who wasn’t always perfect in either role.
Arranged chronologically, Letters follows Vonnegut from his early life following his combat experiences in World War II, straight through to his death in 2007. The section of letters from the ’70s takes up the largest part of the collection, and shows Vonnegut dealing with the fallout from his divorce from his first wife, while struggling with a sudden explosion of fame brought about by the success of Slaughterhouse-Five. Again and again, the same concerns emerge: worries about money, insecurity about his artistic output, and the love of family and friends which sustained him. The depression Vonnegut struggled with his whole life is only tangentially mentioned, and yet it informs every page, a lurking threat contextualizing every flight of fancy.
What Wakefield has collected will likely have value for future thesis writers, but most importantly, it brings Vonnegut’s image as a grumbling, crackpot sage back down to earth. He’s often mistaken for Kilgore Trout, his most famous creation: a misanthropic science-fiction writer doomed to the margins of the world, a grizzled Cassandra spouting prophecy in the form of cheap pulp. While this still rings true to an extent, 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. There are no big moral lectures in Letters, no shocking twists or secret drug addictions. There’s merely a reminder of how important it is to be kind, and how easy it is to fail.