Book review: 'Kurt Vonnegut's Letters,' edited by Dan Wakefield

Novelist Kurt Vonnegut could have written about raising cabbages or hanging wallpaper and still lured a rapt reading audience. A literary treasure is revealed in this month's publication of the late novelist's writing in “Kurt Vonnegut's Letters.”
BY DENNIE HALL Published: October 28, 2012
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Novelist Kurt Vonnegut could have written about raising cabbages or hanging wallpaper and still lured a rapt reading audience.

A literary treasure is found in this month's publication of “Kurt Vonnegut's Letters” (Random House, $35, on sale Tuesday).

With editing and an introduction by Dan Wakefield, this collection of letters — many of which have never been published — rightly can be viewed as the autobiography Vonnegut never wrote.

His prolific letter-writing over more than a half-century ended with his death in 2007 after he fell on the steps of his Manhattan brownstone.

The letters had been saved and then contributed for this book by such recipients as book publishers, magazine editors, family members and friends. A certain spark pervades even the most routine of Vonnegut's correspondence.

Vonnegut's rise from a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany to fame equal that of Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote and others was not without controversy. Librarians and teachers often had to defend keeping copies of “Slaughterhouse Five” on shelves. A South Dakota school board went so far as having copies burned in the furnace.

Maybe it is no coincidence that mental depression often is an issue for noted novelists. This book delves into that as well as Vonnegut's drinking, his two marriages, his lean financial times, his later prosperity, his lecturing and his habits.

Some might think reading a collection of letters would be as dull as watching grass grow. Not so with this book.

— Dennie Hall