Chapter 1: “Out of Print and Scared to Death”

‘So here I am at male menopause, to all practical purposes complete.’

— Kurt Vonnegut to Knox Burger, June 4, 1965

 

He had to make this new teaching gig at the University of Iowa work for him, but clattering across the Midwest in early September 1965 in his son’s Volkswagen Beetle— his six-foot-three frame pressing his head against the roof liner— he felt like he was dragging a load of failure behind him. The ashtray was crammed with the crushed butts of Pall Mall cigarettes and the windshield was tawny with nicotine from his chain-smoking. He had a lot to think about, and the twelve hundred mile cross-country drive between his home on Cape Cod to Iowa City, Iowa gave him gave him all the time he needed.

He was bored by his twenty-year marriage to his wife, the former Jane Cox, his first love whom he’d married barely five months after his release from a prisoner-of-war camp at the end of World War II. This past summer, he had been trying to start an affair with woman in New York twenty years his junior who, in turn, was waiting for the writer William Price Fox to divorce his wife so they could marry. If this Writer in Residence job in the university’s creative writing program didn’t pan out, he was going to try coming on strong with her. “I’ll raise hell with you on the way through New York, and then go back to the wife and kids…. slender child.”[1]

On the other hand, he might just tell her the truth too and forget about it. “I am an old drunk with a young face for somebody my age (they tell me), and with a soul as crooked as a crankshaft, and you are a lovely young girl nearly young enough to be my daughter… You need me like you need cholera.”[2]

He did have a daughter almost her age, and five other kids besides—three of his own and three from his sister and brother-in-law (a “bum”) who were dead.[3] In fact, if he didn’t have three children in college, he probably wouldn’t have responded in such a deferential way to the English Department chair, John C. Gerber’s invitation to teach at the workshop. “I’m very pleased to be invited out there. What writer wouldn’t be?”[4]

Actually, he didn’t want to go, but “everybody says it will be good for me.”[5] His old buddy from the Cornell Sun campus newspaper, Miller Harris, had written him when he heard about the invitation, “for Christ’s sake go, knowing that your classes will be peopled exclusively by meatheads. Some of them will be pretty girls, young and fresh looking and pretty, and will fall in love with you. But meatheads still…. Wothehell— you might get some funny material out of their bad papers.”[6]

It was true, he “needed the stimulation… needed the change in scene.”[7] His temper was getting the better of him lately, rubbed raw by too much drinking and fears of being a permanent loser.

About a month before leaving for Iowa, something had happened he wasn’t proud of, but there it was. His eldest daughter had played a gypsy in a children’s production of “Treasure Island” at the Cape Cod Playhouse, and while she was signing autographs— including one for a star-struck seven-year-old Caroline Kennedy— some smart aleck standing beside him made a vulgar crack. He invited the guy out into the parking lot to say it again, and knocked him down between the bumpers of two cars. Dazed but still game, the guy “hoisted himself up, saying the sorts of things he’d been saying on the way down, so I knocked him down again.”[8] Things like that got around fast on Cape Cod.

Maybe it was the remark, but maybe it was also anger over being treated like a nobody all the time. His neighbors hadn’t read his books, “didn’t read anything,” so he “felt like a pointless citizen there.”[9]

Not that the people waiting in Iowa knew much about him, either. Actually, he knew more about their creative writing program than they knew about him. An article about it had appeared in Look magazine just a few weeks before Dr. Gerber’s invitation had arrived.[10] But he knew for a fact that the program’s director, Paul Engle, “didn’t know me, and I don’t think he had ever heard of me. He didn’t read that kind of crap. But somebody out here did, and assured him that I was indeed a writer, but dead broke with a lot of kids, and completely out of print and scared to death.” When Robert Lowell backed out at the last minute, Engle had thrown him “a life preserver [.]”[11]

The truth was, despite publishing four novels and scads of short stories in magazines found in doctor’s waiting rooms, his writing career had been a non-starter for years. In college, he thought he’d made a start writing for the Cornell newspaper, but dropped out because of bad grades and enlisted in the Army. After the war, he enrolled on the GI Bill at the University of Chicago to finish a degree but never completed the thesis. Now, in his forties, all he had was a high school diploma. Packed away in the Volkswagen, he had the notes for another thesis, which he dreamily thought he might be able to finish in Iowa City— maybe in a month or so. He also had a partially finished screenplay for his most recent novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, which he also hoped he could work on, and drafts of a wartime novel about his surviving the bombing of Dresden, a project he had been taking unsuccessful runs at ever since he got out of the service. Whether he could find time to work on all three would depend on his teaching schedule not being “murderously heavy.”[12] If it was a grind, he would quit.

Ten miles outside of Iowa City, the Volkwagen began to thump and sway. He pulled off over to the gravelly shoulder and got out, “surrounded by millions and millions of acres of topsoil” like his home state of Indiana, “as flat as pool tables and as rich as chocolate cake.”[13] A tire had blown. It was quiet and he looked around, trying to figure out where the hell he was.

 

 

 

[1] Kurt Vonnegut to Sarah Crawford, September 18, 1965, private collection.

[2] Kurt Vonnegut to Sarah Crawford, September 28, 1965, private collection.

[3] Kurt Vonnegut, interview, March 13, 2007.

[4] Kurt Vonnegut to John C. Gerber, July 11, 1965, Faculty/Staff Files, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa.

[5] Kurt Vonnegut to Knox Burger, August 7, 1965, private collection.

[6] Miller Harris to Kurt Vonnegut, August 16, 1965, private collection.

[7] Kurt Vonnegut to Steve Wilbers, September 16, 1976, private collection.

[8] Kurt Vonnegut to Knox Burger, August 7, 1965, private collection.

[9] Kurt Vonnegut to Wilbers, ibid.

[10] T. George Harris, “University of Iowa’s Paul Engle, Poet-Grower to the World,” Look, June 1, 1965.

[11] Kurt Vonnegut, “New World Symphony,” in A Community of Writers: Paul Engle and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Robert Dana, ed. (University of Iowa, 1999).

[12] Saul Maloff, “The Time, The Space, The Quiet,” the New York Times, November 29, 1981.

[13] Kurt Vonnegut, “To Be a Native Middle-Westerner.” Nuvo Newsweekly, May 20, 1999; and Kurt Vonnegut to Jane Vonnegut, September 17, 1965, private collection.