01/06/2014 12:50 pm ET Updated Mar 08, 2014

Discovering Kurt Vonnegut Through His Letters


Reading Letters, a collection of Kurt Vonnegut's letters, edited by Dan Wakefield, allowed me to connect with my grandfather by pretending that I was their recipient. Though he's a legend, his image became tattered through reading his words.When he lived near me in Northampton, Kurt was at the tail end of his life. Having finally left New York City and his wife Jill behind him, he was in Northampton to relax. When he did so, his laughter lit up a room, needing no company in its unabashed wheezing. But after the laughter, I was never fully satisfied with the humor, as our funny moments together felt like exclamation points in an unwritten story, without real context.

I was favored with the family version of Kurt, which was riddled with love and disappointment alike. They wanted him to be present, but in the mixture of love and fear they felt toward him, they let him be. But Kurt's reverberations were felt nonetheless, if only through conversations about him. My mother was his youngest child and so she was deeply impacted by Kurt's distance. Her love for him was jaded as she expressed the sadness that was a result of his absence. Listening to her report on the topic was like watching her eat a peach that was barely fresh -- she would pause to savor a sweet tale, but then rush through the rotten parts.

The letters start during the period of time when Kurt lived in Barnstable, where my mother was born to his first wife Jane, alongside my aunt Edith and Uncle Mark and later four adopted brothers. Kurt had to work hard to become a great writer. It was a competitive spirit that drove him to creative excellency, which came alongside a critical mind. An example of this is seen in a letter he wrote to Gail Goodwin, a student of his: "If you want to kind of try what I do, take life seriously but none of the people in it. The people are fools, and I say so the instant they're onstage. I don't let them prove it slowly. The author is very much around, and he is opinionated. Women are usually too subtle and polite to intrude like that," (Vonnegut, as cited by Wakefield, pg. 140).

This crude technique reflects both Kurt's wit and impatience. He had little room for a healthy social life as his intelligence was cutting and, despite viewing life as a random event, he found it predictable. The inherent absurdity of this dilemma was what fueled the humor of his novels. I believe the mentality behind it also slackened the moral responsibility for his family life, made him careless.

My mother remembers Kurt as a presence in her upbringing, but often only through his absence. He had his own writing room, which no one was to enter. When he did interact with the family, it was regarded by my mom as inherently special. I picture Kurt as being a friendlier version of Jack Nicholson in The Shining, except that, instead of writing ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY, he was writing THIS MAN NEEDS TO WRITE TO FEEL HUMAN BUT YOU HUMANS ARE SUCH A DISTRACTION TO MY WRITING PROCESS instead.

And indeed life in the household was not perfect. Love had begun to go awry between Kurt and his first wife, Jane, by the time he was offered a job at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. He accepted the job and the distance between his home in Barnstable and his work in Iowa brought him peace. He could focus on his writing, and embrace being alone after having fought in a war and raised a family.

Kurt details this split in a letter he wrote on January 20 of 1966 to his writing advisor Knox Burger:

Sometimes when I talk to her I feel like the Ambassador from New Zealand presenting his credentials to the Foreign Minister of Uruguay, It's formal and strange, and not at all sexy. I can't get it up for her anymore more. Anybody else, Simply anybody else, I can get it up for- but not for her, and she's a a darling, loyal girl. I'm punishing her for mothering all those kids, I suppose. I dunno. We'll fix it up some way." (Vonnegut as cited by Wakefield, pg. 121)

They say all is fair in love and war, but the casual way Kurt addresses Jane lacks empathy. In his search for something sweeter, he would be tricked by saccharine -- shortly after teaching at Iowa and with the success of Slaughterhouse Five he would move to Manhattan where he would meet Jill Krementz, a celebrity photographer. Jill was the opposite of what Kurt found stifling. Jill was young and intriguing, whereas Jane was innocent and cute. It was a step down in terms of what each woman brought to his life, but his staying with Jill was the most sensible mistake of Kurt's life. I think his fatalistic approach found a match in Jill that removed responsibility from his life as she would control him and be righteously scapegoated.

But Kurt's soul did not go bad alongside Jill, as he did feel guilt, and we see him struggle to explain his leaving Jane to my mother Nanny, "I hardly knew Jill at all, and I didn't like her much, and whatever happened between us happened long after I'd decided home was too uncomfortable for me," (Vonnegut, as cited by Wakefield, pg. 71). Knowing how Jill would shape Kurt's life, this letter gives me chills. I can see Kurt's soft spirit being guided by a weak will into what would be a lifelong bond of marriage.

Kurt's continued marriage to Jill Krementz ultimately seemed a method with which he could self-sabotage, embody a loneliness, as they would not be happy together. At times in his letters, he explains why he is depriving himself of a fulfilling life. He writes to Donald Feine: "You help me understand why novelists are such avoiders of adventure. Real life could swamp them so easily. So not living is a sacrifice we make." (Vonnegut, as cited by Wakefield, pg. 309.)

But Kurt did have his ways of enjoying life and The Marsh Tromp was a celebration that Kurt created when he was in his forties. It was an act of self-abandonment, a joyous walk that he led through the marshes of Barnstable during the summertime. My mother's side of the family gathered to partake in its glory, a summer after he passed away, to further remember him. In our recreation, it turned into a race. I placed in third, having sprinted through disgusting mud for competition's sake, to show I was a strong Vonnegut.

Once assembled, my wheezing family sat down in a a pool of muddy water to relax, as if it was a hot tub. In Kurt's memory, we ceremoniously placed a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes into the mud pit along with his old tennis shoes. The moment felt primordial as we sat in the mud, imperfect but united. We were there to appreciate him, all his beauty and all his errors.

One of his greatest creations was my mother and when I think of her, I think of her mother Jane. I never met Jane but my mother cherishes her memory with a pure regard. Wherever my grandmother Jane's heart suffered, so had my mother's, leaving the smudged imprint on my perspective. I'm less Kurt Vonnegut's grandson than I am the son of his daughter, trying to enter a granfalloon without the excuse of ignorance.

I will close this review of Kurt Vonnegut: Letters by including one last letter. Presumably, my mother wrote Kurt about her despair regarding his departure and immersion into life in the city with Jill. In response, Kurt evokes confusion to illustrate that his hurting my mother was unintentional:

One of my dear brother's favorite stories, which he got from a newspaper, I think, was about a woman whose car went out of control in a suburb. The car went through front yards, knocking down mailboxes and picket fences and post lanterns and so on. But then it made a U-turn at the end of the block, and went through the back yards of the same houses, wrecking barbecues and wading pools and teeter-totters and slides, and so on. It finally stopped up against a big tree. The woman, miraculously, was still OK. When asked why she hadn't turned off the ignition, she said, "I was too busy steering."

Being overwhelmed has never been regarded as a great excuse for behaving badly, but then again Kurt's not trying to excuse himself, but express the ugly truth behind mistakes, to humanize himself. As I sat in the marsh, squinting to keep the sun out of my eyes, I looked at my family. Kurt had done a pretty good job biologically, and we all were laughing. He had spawned a breed that memorialized him by running through a field that smelled like a porta-potty to then sit in a pool of brown water. I pictured him laughing as he watched us there and maybe sticking around for a drink.