On Sunday, I attended the presentation of the Kurt Vonnegut Letters collection. The panel consisted of Mark Vonnegut, Dan Wakefield, and Don Farber. Mark is Kurt's son; I read his book Eden Express when I was in high school. He has written another, related book, also a memoir, called Just Like Someone with Mental Illness, Only More So. Mark is a gentle, intelligent man. He was mostly grown up before his father was famous or successful. Mark expressed his gratitude to his father and said Kurt was "fully present" during his childhood. He is named after Mark Twain, and he also said he was glad his name wasn't "Mark Twain Vonnegut" because he isn't sure he could have survived that. In the question and answer period, someone asked about Kurt's relationships with women. Mark thought a long time. He said, "That is hard to answer." Then he said, "He loved well, when and where he could."
Dan Wakefield is the editor of the collection. He read thousands of letters and decided which ones should be in the book, then wrote explanatory notes for each one. He expressed his opinion that the letters are as entertaining as any of Kurt's books, and said that Kurt "shines right through" the book. He also said that Kurt was a man who "had to tell the truth to save his life." The Oscar Wilde quote applies, too: “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you.”
Even with the humor, Vonnegut's message wasn't always well-received. At his death, Fox News characterized him as "a minor scribbler of left-wing screeds." And just last month, Kurt Andersen published a rather dismissive review of the Letters, one that rankled Dan Wakefield enought that he read his own response at the book fair event. Fans of Vonnegut can be forgiven for feeling a little defensive--at one time his books were not only banned from certain public libraries, but actually burned. Oh, the irony.
Wakefield talked about religion, because he is a Christian, and it was a point of discussion with Vonnegut. Kurt said he was a Unitarian so that people wouldn't think he was "a spiritual quadriplegic." But he called himself a humanist. When Wakefield wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine entitled "Returning to Church," Kurt left a message on his answering machine: "This is Kurt. I forgive you."
Wakefield also said that when someone in prison would ask Kurt for advice about how to reconnect to the world after their release, Kurt would advise them to join a church. But, he said, he realized there was a risk that they would join the wrong church and end up back in jail for blowing up an abortion clinic.
I bought and read the Letters. I don't share Wakefield's view that the book is as entertaining as a Vonnegut novel, but it definitely has value. Some of the letters have historical value (e.g. the one to the Drake School Board); some have literary value (e.g. the one describing his experiences at Dresden); mostly, they are just of personal value. Vonnegut's readers tend to take his work personally, anyway, even if it is fiction. So it seems only natural that we should be allowed to read his letters. I'm sure he wouldn't mind.