Uncle Kurt

Of all the people in the world who I don’t know personally, there is no person who has had a more profound and long-lasting impact on me than the author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. His novel Slaughterhouse Five is one of the first novels I read and whenever I am asked to name my favorite book it is the first one that comes to mind. I found it, or it found me, at the time in my life when I was changing from a dependent boy to an independent man. I was becoming many things – atheist, pacifist, vegetarian, musician, writer, lover, pothead, drunk, and left-winger – that I still am today, more or less.

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The latest addition to the Vonnegut library, and one them I am up to my eyeballs in, is called Letters. It is a fascinating glimpse into a life deeply marked by tragedy and humor. His mother committed suicide while he was home on leave before being shipped off to fight in the second world war, where he would become a POW. The thoughts he shares about these incidents with those closest to him, as well as reflections on his marriage, fatherhood, divorce, depression, infidelity, professional accomplishments, and the deaths of those he loves, including himself, make for reading as satisfying as his novels.

My understanding is that I am so odd emotionally and socially that I had better live alone for the rest of my days. During my last years with Jan, there was a formless anger in me which I could deal with only in solitude. Jane did not like it. There is no reason why she should. Nobody likes it. What is it? Well – if I had to guess, I would say that it was caused by a combination of bad chemicals in my bloodstream and the fact that my mother committed suicide. I have finally dealt with that suicide, by the way, in the book I just finished. My mother appears briefly at the end, but keeps her distance – because she is embarrassed by the suicide. And so she should be.

The great appeal of Vonnegut’s writing goes beyond his direct style that reads like a letter from an intimate friend. The simplicity of his humanist message, like Christ’s, makes the truth impossible to deny: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Christ’s came with the promise of heaven; Kurt’s did not.

I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of reward or punishment after I’m dead.

Kurt Vonnegut, like me, was a white man. People who aren’t white, and a lot of us who are, want to hear new stories from other perspectives. Fair enough. We have hogged the cultural conversation for centuries. But the greatest artists in any field illuminate eternal truths that transcend gender, nationality, “race”/culture, sexuality, income level, and age. Finding and sharing those universal truths is the artist’s only job.

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One of those truths is the great equalizer, Death. Kurt died in 2007, and left this thought behind for the end of his days:

If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: ‘The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.

If, instead of carving messages in stone at the end of our lives, we were given little gold plaques at the beginning, with a message for the lives ahead of us, this one from Uncle Kurt might be a good place to start:

Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’

The Lost Art of Letter Writing: The Philosophical Diatribe

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Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

It is said that Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. didn’t edit his novels. Instead, he thought about each sentence in his head and did his revisions there before committing it to paper. It seems like he took the same approach to his letter writing.

This excerpt of a letter from Vonnegut to his friend and mentor Knox Burger is another example of the author’s tendency toward thinking that remains depressingly relevant. It is dated May 29, 1952:

…bureaucracy is nothing more than modern business practice applied to government. I think big business is a terrible thing for the spirit of the country, as our spirit is the best thing about us. Making us a nation of ass kissers. Only way, or virtually the only way, to get ahead these days. Deadly. Change the title of manager of sales to the Duke of Schenectady, and you start wondering if maybe the Revolutionary War was subversive.

Yours truly,

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

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Knox Burger

The Lost Art of Letter Writing: The Poison Pen Letter

Alexander Woollcott
  
Alexander Woollcott was a raconteur and member of good standing at the Algonquin Round Table. He was known for his dry humor and way with words. His aphorisms include observations on Los Angeles (“seven suburbs in search of a city”) and pianist Oscar Levant (“there is absolutely nothing wrong with Oscar Levant that a miracle can’t fix”). He liked to greet friends, “Hello, Repulsive.” 
Genius lyricist Ira Gershwin must have been a dear friend to receive this poison pen letter…


ALEXANDER WOOLLCOTT
Nov. 10, 1934
Ira Gershwin:
        Listen, you contumscious rat, don’t throw your dreary tomes at me. I’ll give you an elegant dinner at a restaurant of your own choosing and sing to you between the courses if you can produce one writer or speaker, with an ear for the English language which you genuinely respect, who uses “disinterested” in the sense you are now trying to bolster up. I did look it up in my own vast Oxford dictionary a few years ago only to be told that it had been obsolete since the 17th Century. I haven’t looked up the indices in your letter because, after all, my own word in such matters is final. Indeed, current use of the word in the 17thCentury sense is a ghetto barbarism I had previously thought confined to the vocabularies of Ben Hecht and Jed Harris. Surely, my child, you must see that if “disinterested” is, in our time, intended to convey a special shade of the word “unselfish” it is a clumsy business to try to make it also serve another meaning. That would be like the nit-wit practice of the woman who uses her husband’s razor to sharpen her pencil. The point of the pencil may emerge, but the razor is never good again for its peculiar purpose.
        Hoping you fry in hell, I remain
                                             Yours affectionately,
                                             ANSWERED BY A.W.
FOUR HUNDRED AND FIFTY EAST FIFTY SECOND STREET

The Lost Art of Letter Writing – The Letter Home

 

 

According to the postmark, this letter was sent on December 2, 1945. Three months earlier, and five days before my dad’s 20th birthday, the Japanese formally surrendered. The war was over but soldiers, sailors, and airmen were  spending another Christmas away from home. Still, it must have been a joy to experience the first season in six years that wasn’t lived under the cloud of a world war.

Ruth and Johnny were the aunt and uncle who raised my dad after his mother died.

 

 
Dear Ruth + Johnny,

Enclosed is $40. Twenty for each of you. I was going to buy you presents, but I don’t know what you need so I thought you’d rather have the money to buy them yourselves.

This may be a few days early, but I’d rather you get it earlier than later. Hoping you both have a very Merry Christmas.

Yours,
Tom

P.S. Next year I’ll bring the presents to you personally (HAHA)

How do you like this card it sure smells pretty? (HA).

The Lost Art of Letter Writing: The Rejection Letter

Dear Author,

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to review your novel Drowning In My Tears. While the story of a man’s struggle to overcome debilitating halitosis is uplifting, I’m not sure the market universe for your work is broad enough to inspire the confidence of our agency.

As long as there are readers who prefer literary ability to whatever it is you’re peddling, I can’t imagine who would read, let alone publish, such ackamarackus. On a personal note, I also suffer from halitosis and found some of your characterizations offensive, bordering on civilly liable. Even the First Amendment only goes so far in protecting speech such as yours.

Of course, this is only one person’s opinion (assuming you haven’t already received hundreds of similar rejections) and I don’t want to discourage you from seeking other avenues of representation. On second thought, I would like to discourage you. Please be deeply, deeply discouraged.

Have you ever considered a career in accounting or one of the mortuary sciences? 

All the best,
Byron Postlewaite

The Lost Art of Letter Writing #2 – New Jersey, 1998

 
April 7, 1998

Mr. Jim Flaherty
Century Operating Corporation
7 Penn Plaza, Suite 1400
New York, NY 10001

RE:  Michael & Nancy Power

Dear Mr. Flaherty,

I have been asked to provide a letter of reference for Michael and Nancy Power and am glad to do so. I met Nancy in 1979 and Michael in 1980 and I have been friends with both of them since that time. I know them both to be responsible and honest people and I’m sure they will make ideal neighbors and trustworthy shareholders in your co-op.

If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to call me.

Sincerely,

Eric S. Myers