The American Scholar: The Satirist of the Galaxy


Mural by Kurt Vonnegut in Indianapolis, IN (Flickr / dlytle)

Love, Kurt: Vonnegut’s love letters, 1941-1945 edited by Edith Vonnegut; Random house, 240 pages, $ 35

Most men in uniform never see death. But Private First Class Kurt Vonnegut of Indianapolis was captured in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 and shipped to Dresden as a slave. Decades later, he would describe his arrival in “the most beautiful city most Americans have ever seen.” The skyline was intricate and voluptuous, enchanted and absurd… Someone behind him in the wagon said, “Oz”. His group of prisoners of war were housed in an underground meat locker and ordered to memorize their address: Schlacthof Fünf. Slaughterhouse Five.

A month later, Europe’s architectural jewelry box was gone. In February 1945, the war almost won, 1,249 Allied planes dropped 4,000 tons of high explosives on the city, destroying 100,000 buildings. The civilian casualties were immense and are still the subject of debate: maybe 25,000, maybe 60,000. Being a victim of an incendiary bomb is like being thrown into the sun. Some people suffocate instantly. Others fry, bones and everything, shrinking into little dark brown pieces. Children are sprayed most of the time.

At threat from an SS weapon, Vonnegut dug the dead of Dresden from the rubble, an extreme entropy and decay tutorial for Cornell’s major in Biochemistry. He was only 22 years old, raised in a prosperous German-speaking family and proud of his ties to the Old World. The Dresden funeral pyres became the heart of his moral vision and the engine of his subsequent literary fame, but the price of testimony was almost unbearable, and all who tried to love him paid so too.

Two women kept him sane. His older sister Alice was his muse, a spiritual twin. His future wife, Jane Cox, a friend since kindergarten, also an aspiring writer, has become his literary arbiter. “A special feature of our relationship is that you are the only person in the world to whom I like to write,” he told her in 1943. “If I ever write something long – good or bad – it will be written with you in mind. … And let’s have seven xxxxxxx children. Two weeks after VJ Day they got married and raised, yes, seven children, three of their own and four young nephews, orphans after their father’s commuter train fell in Newark Bay two days before Alice never died of cancer.

Vonnegut (1922-2007) is no longer taught much, in high school or college; the Norton Anthology of American Literature, 6,448 pages long, includes only the first chapter of his best-known novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. His career is abundantly documented: biographies, collections of correspondence, extensive archives at Indiana University. Yet a central mystery remains: how Kurt, the foolish Ivy frat boy, became Vonnegut, the satirist of the galaxy.

Two missing links have recently appeared. The first is an 84-page album of letters and ephemera compiled by Vonnegut and his family, long hidden, sold to a private buyer at Christie’s in 2018. The second is this collection of love letters, recovered by his eldest daughter , Edith Vonnegut, who, while exploring a gallery of moldy sleeping bags and old catalogs in her mother’s attic, found “a crushed white gift box sealed with yellow, brittle duct tape.”

Inside were 226 war letters, some typed, others handwritten and illustrated. “I found daddy’s Lucy,” she tells us. “The first ideas of who he was to become.” In this beautiful compilation, each letter is photographed in its entirety, a perfect choice for the pencil scribbles of a fading war.

It took him 24 years to express in fiction what he saw in hell, but Jane’s early advice makes it clear that apprentice novelist Vonnegut was a co-production. (Jane’s side in many exchanges has been sadly lost, and her wartime OSS work is little described.) He ruminates, hesitates, walks in circles. She, the most ambitious, plays the role of therapist and drill sergeant, aware that her colossal need best responds to a lively order: read Tolstoy, read Dostoyevsky, pursue your destiny.

“You scare me, he said to her one day, when you say that I am going to create literature from 1945 and beyond. Angel, are you gonna stay by my side if it’s going back and down? “

Love, Kurt is a great addition to the Vonnegut studies; it is also a literary youth. But as Vonnegut knew, WWII was a children’s war, waged by the very young, with non-combatants: “What children we really were: seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one. We had a baby face, and as a prisoner of war I don’t think I had to shave very often.

The Indiana Dreamers did not have a happy ending. Years of poverty topped with dizzying fame doomed their marriage. The two remarried, Jane luckily, Kurt not. As Korea entered Vietnam, its gloom and anti-war convictions deepened, culminating in the extravagant gender mash-up. Slaughterhouse-Five (1969): The Soldier’s Tale, Time Travel Adventures, Testimony Literature, Restorative Writing for the Dresden Dead, every horror and absurdity fueling a cosmic rage that Vonnegut rigidly suppresses, like only a true Midwestern can.

“Somehow,” he said in 1981, “I got two or three dollars for every person killed. Some cases I’m in.

The Kurt of 1941 would be shocked; the 1945 Kurt, desperate to remember what normalcy looked like, could only nod. The journey between these dates also traces the gap between, say, a soldier Norman Mailer, a clerk-typist, and the nostalgic slave worker who extracts body parts from the mass grave in Dresden. How lucky for literature that Vonnegut had a lifeline when he needed it most. Love, Kurt, yes, but also Love, Jeanne.

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