The Private Life of Kurt Vonnegut, As Captured in His Letters

In last week’s New York Times Book Review, Kurt Andersen highlights the first piece of correspondence that appears in the newly published Kurt Vonnegut: Letters,” edited by Dan Wakefield. Below, illustrator Nathan Gelgud uses that letter as inspiration to capture the Vonnegut that we meet in the book. The 1945 note to his parents, written just after his release as a P.O.W. in Europe, is a merciless account of the terrible things he’d seen in the war. Composed with a dry wit, it shows how early Vonnegut was developing his method of underlining an event by pretending to shrug it off. Later, this would be exemplified by his refrain in “Slaughterhouse Five”: and so it goes.

Away form the horrors of war, a touching aspect of Vonnegut’s life that emerges here is his relationship with his kids. He advises his son about publishing, advances in particular: mainly, don’t take any money until you’ve finished the book, so you’ve got something to work for. He tells his daughter:

… Pay somebody to teach you to speak some foreign language, to meet with you two or three times a week and talk. Also: get somebody to teach you to play a musical instrument. What makes this advice especially hollow and pious is that I am not dead yet. If it were any good, I could easily take it myself.

In the same letter, he also promises to take her advice and try painting again, saying that he “quit when the slightly talented ghost who had borrowed my hands decided to take his business elsewhere. Everything was coming together before my eyes for a little while. After that came Kindergarten smears.”

"Kurt Vonnegut: Letters" illustrated by Nathan Gelgud, 2012.