Fiction: How Kurt Vonnegut Found His Voice and His Themes

“Oh, uh, I’m 20.”

“And you’re writing for Esquire?”

“Well,” I admitted, “they haven’t actually accepted the piece yet.”

Despite my dubious credentials, Vonnegut spent the next 15 minutes generously offering advice on how to be a writer – or, at least how he’d done it. After surviving the Dresden firebombing as a prisoner in World War II and working briefly in public relations, he supported his family writing short stories for the rich 1950s magazine market, where he developed the wry, aphoristic voice that would lead to his career as a beloved novelist and moral sage.

I found myself thinking back to that 30-year-old advice (which was 30 years old when he gave it) while lugging around the huge volume of Vonnegut’s newly released “Complete Stories.” Even in 1986, Vonnegut mused that his path was about as relevant “as how to repair a Model T.”


This is the 911-page question – what to make of a trunkful of stories written (and often, rejected) 60 years ago for a market with such narrow specs: short, kicky stories for white, middle-class readers with a snap at the end worthy of O. Henry (or better yet, “The Twilight Zone”).

For completists, this will be like a boxed set of a musician’s early work – Vonnegut’s Sun Studio sessions – 98 stories, including five recovered from the author’s papers at Indiana University and published for the first time here.

Most of these stories were written for mainstream magazines like Collier’s, Ladies’ Home Journal, Cosmopolitan and The Saturday Evening Post. Those slicks paid a handsome 50 cents a word, but Vonnegut sometimes settled for the down-market penny-a-word sci-fi magazines like the brilliantly named Worlds of If.

It’s fascinating to watch him work themes that would later animate his 14 novels and five books of nonfiction: the cruel stupidity of war, the dehumanizing dangers of technology, the distillation of American values into mere greed and selfishness. Longtime readers will recognize familiar Vonnegut characters and settings alongside pleas for peace and personal decency. Throughout, too, there runs Vonnegut’s 30-year attempt to find a narrative form to contain the horrors of Dresden, bits of his masterpiece “Slaughterhouse-Five” sprinkled like ash in stories such as “Great Day,” in which the author first uses time travel to write about war.

It’s also fun watching a young Vonnegut try on other styles, as in his nod to noir, “Mr. Z,” in which a theology student interviews a woman in prison, “a trinket brunette … hard as nails,” who, talking about an old boyfriend’s death, “didn’t sound sorry. She didn’t even sound interested.”

“Complete Stories” was compiled and edited by Vonnegut’s longtime friend Dan Wakefield and the scholar Jerome Klinkowitz, and they do a great job contextualizing the work – an enterprise Klinkowitz refers to as “Short Stories of the 1950s, Inc., Kurt Vonnegut, proprietor.” The editors divide them into eight categories: war, women, science, romance, work ethic versus fame and fortune, behavior, “the band director” and futuristic. These divisions don’t entirely cohere (show me a story that wouldn’t fit into a file labeled “behavior”) but they do get at the author’s persistent themes.

Before each section, Klinkowitz and Wakefield point out recurring bits, tell us about acceptances and rejections and offer Vonnegut’s own thoughts on things, quoting for instance the poignant 1949 letter to his father upon his first acceptance: “I think I’m on my way.”

There’s also a lovely foreword by Dave Eggers, who has his own meeting-Vonnegut story (“He was everything you would have wanted him to be. Gentle, funny and quick to laugh”) and who observes that the lost art here might be the so-called moral story: “What’s right and what’s wrong … how to live. In 2017, this is a radical act.”

It all adds up to a fascinating portrait-of-the-artist-on-the-make in the booming 1950s.

And it makes you wish the stories were better.

Oh, there are some classics here – “Harrison Bergeron,” “Long Walk to Forever,” “The Hyannis Port Story” – but those have been available in book form since at least 1968, when Vonnegut first culled the pile to make up his collection “Welcome to the Monkey House.”

The mining of Vonnegut’s older, fragmentary and dated work has been a going concern for 20 years, accelerated by his death in 2007 at age 84.

Since then, there have been at least four collections of lost, unpublished and “newly discovered” work (most of which reappears in “Complete Stories”), a book of interviews and conversations, a book of letters, a book of drawings, a book of advice for the young, a book of graduation speeches and “The Vonnegut Encyclopedia.” That’s to say nothing of mugs, votive candles, T-shirts and a Twitter feed beaming out daily Vonnegutisms (“I really wonder what gives us the right to wreck this poor planet of ours”) to 214,000 followers.

The author was still kicking when this excavation began, and he provided the most honest assessment of his own marginalia in his introduction to 1999’s “Bagombo Snuff Box”: “This old man’s hope has to be that some of his earliest tales, for all their mildness and innocence and clumsiness, may … still entertain. … But there is no greatness in this or my other collection, nor was there meant to be.”

That about covers it. Vonnegut wasn’t going for interiority, character depth or musicality. Especially clumsy was his treatment of women and romance, as in the story “Unpaid Consultant,” in which an investment adviser, a stocks-and-bonds man, visits an old girlfriend: “Most married women won’t meet an old beau for cocktails, send him a Christmas card or even look him straight in the eye. But if they happen to need something an old beau sells – anything from an appendectomy to Venetian blinds – they’ll come bouncing back into his life, all pink and smiling, to get it for wholesale or less.”

I wish I could report the narrator of that story is played as a fool. Instead, the female characters here are furniture or bouncing, pink operators. Of course you can’t blame Vonnegut for society’s sexism (in the 1950s, or now) but if these are indeed moral stories, it’s a male, white, affluent morality. Vonnegut himself, as Wakefield writes, puzzled over his inability to “do women well.”

Similarly, the dialects of some black waiters and soldiers and the poor will induce groans. As for the five stories from the archives, “City” has a lovely back-and-forth alternating point of view between a boy and a girl meeting on a bus, but the rest might have stayed lost.

We ask great writers to transcend, and Vonnegut’s best work surely does, but the law of diminishing returns applies to most posthumous publication. An extraordinary heart exists behind these stories, but it’s a lot to ask transcendence from the stuff rejected both by the author and the sage editors of Today’s Woman.

That’s not to say, answering the original question, that there’s nothing relevant for the reader in 2017. Over and over, you imagine what the plain-spoken socialist war veteran from Indiana would make of our planet-destroying, science-denying, reality-TV American disaster.

“I used to wonder what was going to become of all the Americans like him,” he writes at the end of a story called “The Epizootic,” “a bright and shiny new race that believed that life was a matter of making one’s family richer and richer and richer, or it wasn’t life. I often wondered what would become of them.”

Well, now we know: They get elected president.

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