Jane and Kurt Vonnegut, 1946
(courtesy Kit Vonnegut)
In 1945, while Kurt was still in the Army, Jane Vonnegut enthusiastically joined her new husband’s quest to become a published fiction writer. Married only two months, she found a New York agent with the unpromising name of ‘Scammon Lockwood’ who could turn ‘Duds into Dollars’ according to his advertisement. Jane sat down at the typewriter to make the case that her husband was an exceptional writer and only needed a little advice, hoping to suprise Kurt with good news. Here are excerpts from Jane’s three-page letter.
My husband is twenty-three years old, and is at present leading a stagnant life as a corporal at Fort Riley, Kansas. He was born and raised in Indianapolis. He attended Cornell University, where he was a moderately successful misfit in bio-chemistry but spent most of his time writing for the Cornell Daily Sun, of which he became managing editor his junior year. He enlisted in the Army before he entered his senior year and spent the next two years and a half pursing the usual undistinguished career of a private in the infantry, the climax of which was his capture last December in the Battle of the Bulge. He was a prisoner of war for six months in Dresden— concerning which dreadful experience he has a long and potentially remarkable article in mind, and which he intends to write after he is discharged.
… As for our literary aims— both is and mine—they are so high as to be a little absurd. I personally am convinced that he is a potential Chekov, and as soon as he’s lived long enough to have something worth saying, he’ll prove it. My opinion, I cannot resist adding, is not to be disregarded as the half-baked prejudice of a fatuous newlywed, please. I may be very ignorant, my husband repeatedly tells me, about a lot of things, but about writing I’m not.
… The motivation behind these stories [I’m sending] is our current philosophy that the end justifies the means. Just now we need money; we have got anything except the GI Bill of Rights, and you can’t live the good life on that. If you can sell these to any magazine, no matter how pulpish, we’ll not be snotty. I do not honestly believe that they are pulp material, but then I don’t know anything about the pulps. They haven’t enough plot, and aren’t sexy, adventurous, glamorous, or even long enough for such magazines as the Saturday Evening Post, Redbook, the Cosmopolitan, and so on. My untutored opinion is that why are suitable for the New Yorker, Esquire, the Atlantic, and magazines of that general class.
About those fees. Does the reading, criticizing and selling of a manuscript cost $3, plus 10% commission, and postage, which we are able to pay? Or is some one of the three plans [you offer] compulsory to your getting the stories sold? Because if it is, we can’t afford you. We are both going to the University of Chicago when he is discharged, which will be shortly; there we are somehow going to have to live on $75 a month, plus the meager fellowship which I have a prayer of getting. You can see that we won’t have either $10 or $15 or $20 left over. Sorry.
I am anxious to hear your reaction to all this.
Charles J. Shields is the author of And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life (Holt 2011).