What does Kurt Vonnegut have to say about Iowa City? “Run with the painters, I did. The best guy in Iowa City is painter Byron Burford. There isn’t anybody to watch out for. Nobody pays any attention to anybody else, so there isn’t any jealousy or competition or any of that crap … Go to all the football games. They are great. Iowa should be a .500 club this year.” (Page 132 – August 10, 1967 letter from Kurt Vonnegut to Dick Gehman about teaching at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop.)
I thoroughly enjoyed the recent publication of Kurt Vonnegut’s letters edited by Dan Wakefield, Vonnegut’s longtime friend. The letters begin in 1945 and run through 2007. The letters are divided by decade and Wakefield provides an introduction to each chapter that gives background information about Vonnegut’s life at that time.
My favorite letters are about Vonnegut’s time teaching at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He describes the small-town, innocent Iowa City I remember from my childhood and is eager for his family to join him here. “As I’ve already said at a minimum the town is a Utopia. I can walk to everything, and everything’s cheerful and clean.” (Page 105 – September 24, 1965 letter to his wife, Jane Vonnegut, about life in Iowa City.)
I also enjoyed the letters Vonnegut wrote to his family. They demonstrate a profound love and affection for family as well as his hopes for happiness and meaning in the lives of his children. “Jane and I read your letters to each other over the telephone. We celebrate you. We find nothing to complain of. You are doing what my father and grandfather did when they were your age, what used to be a conventional thing for middle class people aspiring to lives of cultivation do: You are making le grand tour.” (Page 260 – October 21, 1978 letter to his daughter, Nanny Vonnegut.) And twenty years later, “Darling Daughter Nanny– In my sunset years I missed the precise moment of your forty-fifth birthday. These things happen. An you have been most forgiving and modest about this lapse. But scarcely a waking hour passes, any day, any month, in which I am not serene about how beautiful my daughter Nanny is in every way.” (Page 386 – October 8, 1999 letter to his daughter, Nanny Vonnegut.)
I wasn’t sure what I was expecting from this book, but I came away from it with a rekindled respect for one of my favorite authors and an admiration for the life he lived. The letters show a very human side of a person who mentored others, was proud of his heritage, was frustrated when he was misunderstood, pushed back against censors, and profoundly loved his family. Vonnegut’s last word of advice he was writing for an audience, “And how should we behave during this Apocalypse? We should be unusually kind to one another, certainly. But we should also stop being so serious. Jokes help a lot. And get a dog, if you don’t already have one …” (Page 413)