The following correspondence comes from Letters of Note: Fathers, a new collection of thirty letters that explore the relationship between father and child, as complex and varied as such a bond can be. For more info, and to order a copy in time for Father’s Day on 20th June, click here.
In 1947, Kurt Vonnegut became a father for the first time when his wife, Jane, gave birth to their son, Mark. Two years later, a daughter, Edith, arrived, followed by another girl, Nanette, in 1954. Four years later, tragedy struck when Vonnegut’s sister, Alice, and her husband, James, both died in the space of forty-eight hours, resulting in their three orphaned sons being swiftly adopted by the Vonneguts. In 1969, as his opus Slaughterhouse-Five was published to wide acclaim, Vonnegut’s family life began to crumble, and in 1971 he separated from Jane and moved to Manhattan. It was from there, in November of that year, that he wrote these letters to his youngest daughter.
November 13, 1971
Dear old Nan—
Well—it could go two ways with us: you could figure you had been ditched by your father, and you could mourn about that. Or we could keep in touch and come to love each other even more than we have before.
The second possibility is the attractive one for me. It’s the absolutely necessary one for me. And the trouble with it is that you will have to write me a lot, or some, anyway, and call up sometimes, and so on. We’ve got to wish each other happy birthdays, and ask how work is going, and tell each other jokes, and all that. And you’ve got to visit me often, and I’ve got to pay more attention to what sorts of things are really good times instead of chores for you.
Jane and I get along very well these days. Our letters to each other are friendly—and the telephone calls, too. We feel friendlier and more open with each other than we have for years: no more fighting while wearing masks. Things would have gotten much worse if we had kept going the way we were going— and life would have looked much uglier to you.
Your mother and father like each other a lot, something you must have doubted sometimes in the past. And we both want you to go to Austria next semester. The drawback to that trip is that you will be expected to write us a lot of letters. But do it anyway. If I were younger, I think I might try to become a European. It’s friendlier and cheaper and tastier over there, but you will make at least one really unpleasant discovery: they are wrecking their air and water, too. The Mediterranean is turning into an open sewer, too, just like Lake Erie. I hope that during your lifetime it will be cleaned up again.
I love you as much as I love anybody in the world.
November 20, 1971
Dear Old Nanno—
That was a keen letter—and you don’t have to write too many of those. It’s just nice to know that there will be more than just black velvet silence out there, that a pleasant and interesting letter will drift in from time to time.
You’re learning now that you do not inhabit a solid, reliable social structure—that the older you get people around you are worried, moody, goofy human beings who themselves were little kids only a few days ago. So home can fall apart and schools can fall apart, usually for childish reasons—and what have you got? A space wanderer named Nan.
And that’s O.K. I’m a space wanderer named Kurt, and Jane’s a space wanderer named Jane, and so on. When things go well for days on end, it is an hilarious accident.
You are dismayed at having lost a year, maybe, because the school fell apart. Well—I feel as though I’ve lost the years since Slaughterhouse-Five was published, but that’s malarky. Those years weren’t lost. They simply weren’t the way I’d planned them. Neither was the year in which Jim had to stay motionless in bed while he got over TB. Neither was the year in which Mark went crazy, then put himself together again. Those years were adventures. Planned years are not.
I look back on my own life, and I wouldn’t change anything, not even the times when I was raging drunk. I don’t drink much any more, by the way. And a screwy thing is happening, without any encouragement from anywhere—I am eating less and less meat.
Other ideas which seem good to me appear uninvited—when I’m alone, and I’m alone a lot. I love being alone sometimes. And one of those ideas is that you are a European, were probably born one. Europe, maybe Austria, is in your DNA. I see you going to the art school where young Ted Rowley is now this coming summer. You will become fluent in German and then French. And maybe you’ll get me over there. Maybe that’s where I belong, too. We’d live in separate houses, of course. Probably separate countries, even. I wouldn’t barge in on you and stay.
I think it’s important to live in a nice country rather than a powerful one. Power makes everybody crazy.
Learn German during your last semester at Sea Pines, and you’ll learn more than I ever learned in high school. I doubt that they can get you in shape to cool the college boards, so the hell with the college boards. Educate yourself instead. In the final analysis, that’s what I had to do, what Uncle Beaver had to do, what we all have to do.
I am going to order you to do something new, if you haven’t done it already. Get a collection of the short stories of Chekhov and read every one. Then read “Youth” by Joseph Conrad. I’m not suggesting that you do these things. I am ordering you to do them.
Any time you want to come here, do it. I have no schedule to upset, no secrets to hide, no privacy to guard from you.