Dan Wakefield was a longtime friend of the legendary American author Kurt Vonnegut: a writer whose brilliant fiction straddled the lines between science fiction, mainstream literature and social satire for half a dozen decades. Vonnegut’s best-known contribution to literature remains the time-travel novel/memoir Slaughterhouse Five, but this is only one small part of his writing legacy; one that continues to influence writers to this very day.
Wakefield’s new book, Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, is a treasure trove of correspondence written by the author over the course of a lifetime, granting the reader an intimate perspective on Vonnegut’s thoughts on art, science and more, as well as his private letters to friends, colleagues and other authors. It is available now.
What were Vonnegut’s thoughts on science fiction as a genre? Did he see himself as a part of it?
After Vonnegut published his first novel, he wrote in an essay on Science Fiction (collected in Wampeters, Foma and Granfallons) “I learned from the reviewers I was a science fiction writer. I didn’t know that. I supposed that I was writing about life.. . .I have been a sore-headed occupant off of a file-drawer labeled ‘science fiction’ ever since. . .”
From Kurt Vonnegut: Letters:
“This very ‘simplicity and ordinariness’ made things difficult for most reviewers and critics, who resorted to pigeonholing him in ways that misconstrued and maligned his work. When Vonnegut worked in public relations for General Electric, he was ‘completely surrounded by machines and ideas for machines, so I wrote a novel [Player Piano] about people and machines . . . And I learned from the reviewers that I was a science-fiction writer. I didn’t know that. I supposed that I was writing a novel about life,’ he explained in the essay “Science Fiction” in The New York Times Book Review (later collected in Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons). ‘I have been a sore-headed occupant of a file-drawer labeled ‘science fiction’ ever since, and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.’”
Many of his characters seem like they wanted to help society but never seemed able to really connect with, or were misunderstood by, the people around them. Was Vonnegut anything like this?
Vonnegut was not like a person who was “misunderstood” or “never seemed to really connect” with people around him. He was greatly loved as a teacher, at Iowa and also at Harvard. He was a good friend of his fellow writers who taught at Iowa – Richard Yates, Vance Bourjaily, Nelson Algren, Jose Donoso, as well his students who included John Irving and Gail Godwin. His letters throughout his life reflect his friendship with friends from high school, college, and his teaching days – he was a loyal friend and went out of his way to support others, especially writera and students.
As far as his “ability to connect” I think the best testament to how well he connected with readers is that all of his books are still in print and he is taught in college and high school courses through the country. His last book A Man Without a Country brought him a whole new audience of young people when he appeared with Jon Steward on The Daily Show – Stewart himself was a fan since his own youth.
His books were awfully pessimistic about humanity’s future. Was Vonnegut?
Vonnegut was pessimistic about the way we were destroying the planet through our lack of care for it. He wrote about this passionately in his letters especially towards the end.
I recently bumped into a young man with “So it goes” tattooed on his forearm. It seems like every generation rediscovers Vonnegut, and I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on what keeps his work so fresh.
I think KV’s work remains fresh because it gives readers a new way of looking at things, new possibilities of imagination. And he spoke the truth – he wasn’t afraid to identify the elephant in the room or point out that the emporer had no clothes. He said once the truth was so shocking because we so seldom hear it.