Edited by Dan Wakefield
Delacorte Press, 436 pages, $40
All Kurt Vonnegut's novels were letters, valentines really, to a type of educated secular humanist who seems to be going the way of the dodo bird.
At least this seems to be case in the United States of America, that vast land Vonnegut was born in and made his home and subject over eight decades.
But in addition to the novels, the stories, the journalism and the ubiquitous doodles Vonnegut also wrote old-fashioned stamp and paper epistles. This meaty collection of the most interesting letters has been collated and lovingly explained by Vonnegut's lifelong friend, the writer Dan Wakefield.
The first letter is a bombshell. Dated 1945 and mailed from Germany to his family, it is his first missive home after being released from a PoW camp. It concerns the firebombing of Dresden.
This horrifying event in which a quarter million human beings were incinerated was crucial in shaping Vonnegut as a writer. He returned to the event throughout his writing life, but it is most central to his best novel, Slaughterhouse Five (1969), where for the first time the elements of his singular voice -- a combination of gallows humour, simple but beautiful prose and cockeyed sci-fi -- finally merged.
The letter are arranged chronologically. In the '40s section, we get a sense of Vonnegut the prescient political commentator. He writes to a newspaper in 1947:
"If there is to be no ceiling on the amount of money a man can take out of the economy, then concomitantly there can be no firm foundation below which a human being cannot sink."
This is one of the last times the spare and elegant stylist used a 10-dollar word like "concomitantly."
Banging his head
Like most writers, Vonnegut never came close to banging his head on the money ceiling. Many of the letters from the following decade are the special pleadings of struggling short-story writer, working a full-time button-down job, while raising a family in Eisenhower's America.
While these mostly brief letters have some appeal, John Cheever's letters from the same period cover the era in a deeper and more endearing way.
But finally, and almost stealthily, like America herself, Vonnegut's self-conscious and stilted style becomes more free form and groovy.
In one of the dozens of letters to Knox Burger, who published Vonnegut's first short story, and remained a great friend, Vonnegut writes:
"I'm doing a play on the side. That goes easy, God Bless it. It isn't arch. It is both common and tragic in the modern manner. I'm really fond of the modern manner. When it's done, I hope you'll help me in getting it into the hands of some modern people."
Self-effacement is a common posture for him. The best line: "I am an American fad -- of a slightly higher order than the hula hoop."
But no mere fad endures six decades. Vonnegut stayed fresh by remaining, despite his misanthropy, young at heart. A true heir to Twain, he always spoke most eloquently to the young. Even in his 80s, he was a sought-after college speaker.
One bonus of being turned down by Vonnegut was that a declined invitation was still word from Vonnegut. The final missive in this handsome book is humble and funny, ending the collection with an apt tone.
To Cornell University professor Alice Fulton, he writes on Feb. 6, 2007:
"I cannot be of any use to you and your students nowadays, alas, since, at 84 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."
Nine weeks later he was gone.
Al Rae is a Winnipeg comedy writer. He is currently writing a book on curling for Random House to be published in November.