Saturday, December 05, 2015

How Jane Vonnegut Made Kurt Vonnegut a Writer

Kurt Vonnegut, at age twenty-two, didn’t know what to do with himself. It was autumn, 1945. He was back from Europe, having survived the firebombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war, and he had convinced the love of his life, Jane Cox, to marry him. Beyond that, he had no positive ideas, only negatives. He wasn’t going to be a scientist—his bad grades at Cornell made that clear. He didn’t much like working in an office. At one point he had considered law school, but not for long. And he knew for sure he wasn’t going to be a writer. He wasn’t good enough.
He was still in the Army; after his wedding on September 1, 1945, he had been assigned to Fort Riley, Kansas, where he was working as a clerk-typist while awaiting his endlessly delayed discharge. It gave him plenty of time to ponder his future. “Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief; Doctor, Lawyer, Merchant, Chief,” he wrote to his new wife that October. He wrote to her often, and the twin themes of these letters are his uncertainty about his future career and his love for her. Copies of the first eleven letters are at Indiana University’s Lilly Library, but there are scores more, still in the Vonnegut family’s private possession. Jane Vonnegut was the family archivist, and while Kurt’s letters have been preserved, hers have not. But even hearing just Kurt’s side of the conversation gives a sense of how it went. Jane knew what her husband should do with his life: he should write. And she seems to have made it her first mission as his spouse to convince him of that. 

It would be easy to view these letters as sorry proof of yet another woman shunted to history’s backstage. But their passionate and thoughtful character instructs us rather to re-see what we may have missed—to write Jane back into the story and acknowledge the clear-eyed ways in which she helped shape the Vonnegut narrative, both in life and on the page. Many of the ideas and themes that characterize Vonnegut were born in the conversation between Kurt and Jane, and throughout his career she remained a voice in the text. She was there: that was her.
Jane and Kurt had known each other since kindergarten, long enough that Kurt could tell Jane she was his “best friend,” a less clichéd declaration, perhaps, in 1943. He had confided in her for years—since they each left Indianapolis for college, he at Cornell, she at Swarthmore. His college letters laid out plans for house parties and weekend dates, bragged about his columns for the Cornell Sun, and occasionally made rosy predictions about his future as a biochemist. But his main subject was their mutual future. They would be married in 1945, he declared as a sophomore—he placed a bet on it with a fraternity brother. They would have a home with books and art and a well-stocked bar. They would have friends over for intellectual conversations. They would have seven kids. He traced sevens behind his paragraphs and signed most of his letters with seven X’s.

They both dreamed of writing. Together they fantasized about going to Europe or Mexico to work as news correspondents, going to Hollywood to work as screenwriters, building side-by-side studios in their back yard and pounding out masterpieces. “I wish I could write as well as you,” he told her in an undated, postwar letter. “Right now you’re the composer and I’m the musical instrument. We periodically swap roles.”

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