Iconoclast writer Kurt Vonnegut is well known for a series of popular books and short stories. His darkly satirical, idiosyncratic style incorporated elements of fantasy and science fiction. What is rarely mentioned is that the author achieved widespread fame quite late in life. Before the publication of the classic, semi-autobiographical Slaughterhouse-Five in 1969, Vonnegut was a respected writer, but relatively unknown to the general public. The seminal work made him a household name at the age of 47.
This overwhelming success almost didn’t happen. In the beginning, writing was not Vonnegut’s dream, nor was it his ambition. Instead, it was a way to continue, if not better his mother’s legacy. Edith Lieber Vonnegut had several pieces published during her son’s younger years. Each was modest in scope, and submitted to small publications. His mother’s suicide, which occurred when her son was overseas serving in World War II, made a strong impression, motivating the young Vonnegut to embrace his fate and eventual good fortune.
Accordingly, Kurt Vonnegut’s first efforts were sent to women’s publications, and, as appropriate, to science fiction periodicals. During his first ten years as a published writer, the eventual blockbuster author racked up small successes here and there, but remained an unknown. By the late 1950’s, Vonnegut was feeling thoroughly burned out and disenchanted with writing. He’d tried working as a columnist and a newspaper reporter and found both to be underwhelming. Vonnegut had pursued his own writing part-time at first, while working as a technical writer for General Electric. The day job was partially a result of feeling pressured to support an increasingly large family.
He’d had three biological children with first wife and childhood sweetheart Jane Cox. Following a horrendously swift course of events, Vonnegut agreed to support and raise his sister’s three children as his own. In a terrible tragedy, the children lost both their mother and father within days. Alice Vonnegut Adams lost a battle with cancer in September 1958. Two days prior, her husband died in the Newark Bay rail accident. A commuter rail train which he was riding to work for the morning commute derailed and plunged into Newark Bay, New Jersey. 48 people died, including Vonnegut’s brother–in-law, James Carmalt Adams.
The author’s publication successes and setbacks are in evidence by examining personal papers. While many items once belonging to Vonnegut exist and are on display, a January 2000 fire at his residence destroyed many private papers. Fortunately, not all of them were lost. It is possible to glean much from his failures in addition to his successes. Rejection letters from various publications show a writer with much to learn, but one also learning how to best adapt his style to an audience.
These letters, meticulously typed and to the point, date back to the late 1940’s and continue into the mid-1950’s. Most pre-date the publication of Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano, in 1952. During that time, Vonnegut was a respected, but still struggling author. Following a stint in Chicago for grad school, he moved to Schenectady, New York. Most of his works in this period show a strong indebtedness to science fiction, a conceit he never fully abandoned. The playfulness often present in his works of fiction shines through.
Much later in life, and in typically wry fashion, Vonnegut later wrote about the craft of writing.
“Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college.”
-A Man without a Country
Vonnegut experienced the same daily frustrations as beset many writers, especially today. Years from major success, he pitched a series of written pieces to various publications. Most of these responses are deferential, some are warm and affectionate, and others cut right to the quick. A long-established NYC literary agency, one still in business today, informs Vonnegut he’ll have to pay a reading fee for his submissions to even be considered. It seems that he’s not enough of a name yet for McIntosh & Otis, Inc. to take a chance otherwise.
Though also a playwright, Vonnegut wrote relatively few plays in the course of his career. During this phase of his artistic development, writing for the stage was a strong priority. A proposed play, Penelope, was heavily criticized by an editor of Collier’s as a “one joke” work. A short story, “Robot Cop”, is dismissed as not very deep or especially comprehensible. “…I think readers would come away wondering what it was you are trying to prove,” the letter concludes. “Eden by the River”, though appreciated by its reviewer, is said to be too cerebral for the average reader.
By the 1960’s, Kurt Vonnegut would shift sharply away from short stories, as the public’s taste for them had receded. Instead, he wrote novels exclusively. Vonnegut’s early successes were with college students. Prior to the massive success of Slaughterhouse-Five, he was a cult author, beloved by a solid core of readers.
In this embryonic stage, one can observe a talented writer in the active process of trying to find his voice. Even before honing his craft at the University of Iowa’s Writing Workshop, the young Vonnegut had the basics down. As he built confidence and augmented science fiction with other narrative techniques, he developed an original voice that won him millions of readers. Yet, it is still fascinating to see the potential in Vonnegut's first attempts. His persistence is as admirable as his finished product.