Dear Mr Vonnegut,
I understand you are partial to a letter. So I thought I would write you one. I didn’t have a chance to say good bye. Or to thank you. And I do thank you. Often. You see, when I read your books, I look like this…
I just wanted you to know. It’s not a Nobel Prize for literature, or even a Pulitzer, but multiplied by the enormous magnitude of your readership I hope it amounts to something like exoneration. For goodness sake rest now, in peace. Kate
First, as far as biographies go, this the cat’s cream. It is exceptionally researched. Exceptionally well-written. Fascinating. Despite his assignment in fact, Charles J. Shields presents a turbid life as a smooth, velvety-rich narrative. He renders a portrait of Kurt’s life from interviews with the man himself, as well as with his friends, family, students and colleagues. He adds detail using his own interpretation of Vonnegut stories, novels, essays, lectures and letters. He attends to the scenery carefully – including only the necessary personal, political, cultural and economic background to illustrate the shifts in Vonnegut attitude, to explain his infamous, impulsive changes of tack. The risk of creating a false image in biography is great. There are inevitably agendas to satisfy, egos to skirt, secrets to protect. But the picture I was left with from this book? I have a strong feeling that it is as complex, as familiar and as distant as the man himself. He was an anomaly that those who were close to him couldn’t quite figure out.
What did I learn about the man and the mind I have put on a pedestal for years and years? I learned he woke up to write at 5am every morning. That he holed himself up in his studio and refused to participate in his household for a great deal of the time. In his household lived his wife, three of his own children and three adopted nephews that he could barely afford to feed. His wife put up with all manner of idiosyncrasies because she worshipped his abilities. His children lived for the moments when he would emerge from his smokey den and make them squeal with laughter with his antics. I learned that the same man who could rally the entire neighbourhood of children for an annual marsh tromp – a race through the mud where no tactic is too dirty – could betray his wife, children, mentors and friends and hold grudges for a lifetime. He could also be defeated: Defeated by disappointment, defeated by overwhelming expectations and more often than not, defeated by his own thoughts. This man, who has made so many of us laugh, so many of us marvel at the simplicity of his wisdom, really had no idea what he was doing. He knew he had to write. He knew he could write well. And he wanted to be recognised for it in very specific ways. He was remarkable, but oh so achingly human.
Over time, the press, dust jackets and blurbs have done Mr Vonnegut, done all of us, a disservice. We have been told all kinds of literary urban myths. The current editions (Dial Press) say he “first captured America’s attention in The Sirens of Titan in 1959″ that he “was established as ‘a true artist’ with Cat’s Cradle in 1963.” In the past he has marketed himself variously as a Sci-Fi legend, the voice of american youth, a moralist and more. None of it was particularly indicative of how he saw himself. Much of it was a supreme, necessary, ongoing effort in public relations. What I did not know, what I have barely had an opportunity to appreciate before, is that Kurt Vonnegut published his first story in 1950 and became a fulltime writer not long after that. Sirens of Titan in 1959 had a print run of 2,500 copies (just barely covering costs), was nominated for a Hugo award, but sold miserably. In 1963, the first edition of Cats Cradle, just 6000 copies, received almost no recognition, and did not sell out. By 1965, many of his books were out of print, and in 1966 none of his publishers would consider Slaughterhouse-Five because his books didn’t sell.
This is a man who made a career out of his writing, almost twenty years before he received a shred of public recognition. Even after he had brought the publishing and literary world to its knees, and had become one of the most sought after speakers in the US, he did not feel he had achieved the critical acclaim he deserved. I’d say the real tragedy is that he died needing it.