“A writer is first and foremost a teacher.”
— Kurt Vonnegut
KURT VONNEGUT (1922-2007) stands in the long line of Emersonian American writers — those who, in Emerson’s words, “utter our painful secret,” or as Vonnegut put it in Timequake: “many people need desperately to receive this message: ‘I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people don’t care about them. You are not alone’.” The latter reassurance echoes and reechoes throughout his novels because of Vonnegut’s core belief, articulated in an interview, that “the great American disease is loneliness.” Hence his emphasis on the need for community (Timequake) and his on-going experiments with constructing artificial extended families (Slapstick). In addition, Vonnegut shares with Thoreau a sense of being but a “sojourner” — to which he adds the ethical imperative that we must “help one another get through whatever this is.” And like Mark Twain, he responds to his country’s shortcomings, failures, and pretensions with satire, while engaging and absorbing the common and the vulgar.
At the time of his death, Vonnegut was acclaimed as one of the United States’s most important twentieth-century writers — one who may also be seen as the representative post-World War II American writer both because of his subject matter and his innovative techniques. The five years since his death have seen a series of both good and unfortunate posthumous publications bearing his name, along with editions of his letters and interviews and a major full-scale biography. The compilation of interviews Tom McCartan selected from the last 35 years of Vonnegut’s life, Kurt Vonnegut: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (Melville House, 2011), nicely supplements William Rodney Allen’s earlier and much larger compendium, Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut (1988), while Love as Always, Kurt: Vonnegut as I Knew Him (Da Capo Press, 2009) records Loree Rackstraw and Vonnegut’s enduring friendship begun during his stay at the Iowa Writers Workshop in the 1960s. Rackstraw, an astute literary critic, also proves one of Vonnegut’s most competent readers.
Dan Wakefield’s meticulously edited Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (Delacourt, 2012) reflects sides of Vonnegut hinted at in interviews but here explored more fully: a loving, caring father, a frustrated businessman, a truly professional writer engaged with all aspects of his craft, and a self-educated American intellectual. Wakefield’s edition of the letters needs to be juxtaposed to Charles J. Shields exha...read more