Dan Wakefield. Photo by Michael Romanos.

When I learned back in the 1950s that Kurt Vonnegut had graduated from Shortridge High School in Indianapolis 10 years before I did, and that we both had written for the school paper, the Shortridge Daily Echo, I started reading his short stories in The Saturday Evening Post. We had corresponded about books and writing but I had never met him until a dinner at the home of a mutual friend in Cambridge when I was on my Nieman Fellowship (1963-64) and Kurt was living on Cape Cod. There were eight people at the dinner and what little conversation Kurt and I exchanged was mainly about high school, but I knew at once (as I had felt from his books and stories) he was someone I liked and could trust.

His early novels, especially "Cat’s Cradle," had begun to gain him an underground following, especially among college students, and his big breakthrough came in 1969 with publication of "Slaughterhouse-Five," the novel that was born out of his survival of the fire-bombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war during World War II. That book became a bestseller and, after years of struggling to support himself and his family, Vonnegut was an "overnight" success.

A year after that novel came out, I finished my own first novel, and my agent sent it out to 10 publishers, only one of whom really loved it. That was Seymour [who was known as Sam] Lawrence, the publisher who had brought out "Slaughterhouse-Five" the year before and, as Kurt later wrote, "saved me from smithereens." Sam Lawrence called me and asked if I minded if he sent my book to Kurt, since it was set in Indianapolis and a Vonnegut endorsement would help seal the deal with Delacorte Press, the co-publisher of Seymour Lawrence/Delacorte. I explained that, though I had corresponded with Kurt and we had gone to the same high school, I had only met him once in my life and my novel was in a whole different style from his. I crossed my fingers and told him to go ahead.

A few days later Sam Lawrence called to read me a telegram he’d just received from Kurt about my book: "You must publish this important novel. Get this boy in our stable." As if that weren’t enough, Vonnegut went on to review my novel, "Going All the Way." I have never read another book review in which the reviewer confessed, "Dan Wakefield is a friend of mine … I would praise his first novel even if it were putrid. But I wouldn’t give my Word of Honor it was good." He proceeded to give his Word of Honor that the book was good.

Needless to say, we were friends for life. He gave his support to all of my books and took me to dinner in New York when my last one was published, the year before his death in 2007. It is one of my great honors that the Vonnegut estate entrusted me with editing and writing an introduction to "Kurt Vonnegut: Letters."

Dan Wakefield, NF ’64, edited and annotated "Kurt Vonnegut: Letters," published in October by Delacorte. Wakefield, a faculty mentor in the MFA writing program at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, is also the author of the novels "Going All The Way" and "Starting Over," both of which were made into feature films, and the memoirs "Returning: A Spiritual Journey" and "New York in the Fifties," which was made into a documentary. He returned a year ago to live in Indianapolis, his and Kurt Vonnegut’s hometown.

 

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