If I’m not a writer then I’m nothing

In October of 1949, while working in public relations at General Electric, 27-year-old aspiring writer Kurt Vonnegut sold his first story to Collier’s; just over a year later, he quit said job and began life as a freelance writer. The following two letters, both from Vonnegut, offer an intriguing glimpse into his mind during that period — the earliest sent to his father immediately after that first story was bought; the next to his friend, Miller Harris, not long after escaping General Electric in 1951, at which point he was avoiding writing for publications such as The Atlantic and The New Yorker and instead collecting “fat checks” from the “slicks” (glossy, well-paying magazines, e.g. Collier’s, Saturday Evening PostCosmopolitan).

(Sources: Fates Worse Than Death & Look at the Birdie; Image: Kurt Vonnegut, via.)

October 28, 1949

Dear Pop:

I sold my first story to Collier’s. Received my check ($750 minus a 10% agent’s commission) yesterday noon. It now appears that two more of my works have a good chance of being sold in the near future. I think I’m on my way.

I’ve deposited my first check in a savings account and, as and if I sell more, will continue to do so until I have the equivalent of one year’s pay at GE. Four more stories will do it nicely, with cash to spare (something we never had before). I will then quit this goddamn nightmare job, and never take another one so long as I live, so help me God. I’m happier than I’ve been in a good many years.



February 11, 1951

Dear Miller:

Thought, rather fuzzily, about something I want to add to my recent letter to you. It’s this business about the school: school of painting, school of poetry, school of music, school of writing. For a couple of years after the War I was a graduate student in the Anthropology Department at the University of Chicago. At the instigation of a bright and neurotic instructor named Slotkin, I got interested in the notion of the school (I’m going to explain what I mean in a minute), and decided to do a thesis on the subject. I did about 40 pages of the thing, based on the Cubist School in Paris, and then got told by the faculty that I’d better pick something more strictly anthropological. They suggested rather firmly (with Slotkin abstaining) that I interest myself in the Indian Ghost Dance of 1894. Shortly thereafter I ran out of money and signed on with G-E, and I never did get past the note-taking stage on the Ghost Dance business (albeit damn interesting).

But Slotkin’s notion of the importance of the school stuck with me, and it now seems pertinent to you, me, Knox, McQuade, and anybody else whose literary fortunes we take a personal interest in. What Slotkin said was this: no man who achieved greatness in the arts operated by himself; he was top man in a group of like-minded individuals. This works out fine for the cubists, and Slotkin had plenty of good evidence for its applying to Goethe, Thoreau, Hemingway, and just about anybody you care to name.

If this isn’t 100% true, it’s true enough to be interesting—and maybe helpful.

The school gives a man, Slotkin said, the fantastic amount of guts it takes to add to culture. It gives him morale, esprit de corps, the resources of many brains, and—maybe most important—one-sidedness with assurance. (My reporting what Slotkin said four years ago is pretty subjective—so let’s say Vonnegut, a Slotkin derivative, is saying this.) About this one-sidedness: I’m convinced that no one can amount to a damn in the arts if he becomes sweetly reasonable, seeing all sides of a picture, forgiving all sins.

Slotkin also said a person in the arts can’t help but belong to some school—good or bad. I don’t know what school you belong to. My school is presently comprised of Littauer & Wilkenson (my agents), and Burger, and nobody else. For want of support from any other quarter, I write for them—high grade, slick bombast.

I’ve been on my own for five weeks now. I’ve rewritten a novelette, and turned out a short-short and a couple of 5,000-worders. Some of them will sell, probably. This is Sunday, and the question arises, what’ll I start tomorrow? I already know what the answer is. I also know it’s the wrong answer. I’ll start something to please L&W, Inc., and Burger, and, please, God, MGM.

The obvious alternative is, of course, something to please the Atlantic, Harpers, or the New Yorker. To do this would be to turn out something after the fashion of somebody-or-other, and I might be able to do it. I say might. It amounts to signing on with any of a dozen schools born ten, twenty, thirty years ago. The kicks are based largely on having passed off a creditable counterfeit. And, of course, if you appear in the Atlantic or Harpers or the New Yorker, by God you must be a writer, because everybody says so. This is poor competition for the fat checks from the slicks. For want of anything more tempting, I’ll stick with money.

So, having said that much, where am I? In Alplaus, New York, I guess, wishing I could pick up some fire and confidence and originality and fresh prejudices from somewhere. As Slotkin said, these things are group products. It isn’t a question of finding a Messiah, but of a group’s creating one—and it’s hard work, and takes a while.

If this sort of thing is going on somewhere (not in Paris, says Tennessee Williams), I’d love to get in on it. I’d give my right arm to be enthusiastic. God knows there’s plenty to write about—more now than ever before, certainly. You’re defaulting, I’m defaulting, everyone’s defaulting, seems to me.

If Slotkin’s right, maybe the death of the institution of friendship is the death of innovation in the arts.

This letter is sententious crap, shot full of self-pity. But it’s the kind of letter writers seem to write; and since I quit G-E, if I’m not a writer then I’m nothing.

Yours truly,