Dan Wakefield recently edited a book of the letters of Kurt Vonnegut, with whom he maintained a literary friendship over four decades. Though Vonnegut is often associated with the skepticism and iconoclasm of the sixties and seventies, faith held a mystique for him. At times he called himself a “Christ-loving atheist” and “a Christ-worshipping agnostic.” In a full-length essay, Dan Wakefield explores his friend’s life-long attraction to the teachings of Jesus. We asked Dan about literary New York in the fifties, about his friendship with Vonnegut, and about his own writing. Read his essay “Kurt Vonnegut, Christ-Loving Atheist” in issue 82.
Image: You’ve written about the American literary scene of the fifties, which you were part of. It’s been said that cultural sea-changes tend to arise not from lone, brilliant individuals, but from groups of friends and competitors—for example, Renaissance Florence or the impressionists in Paris. We’re curious (because we’re interested in cultural change): do you see New York in the fifties this way?
Dan Wakefield: When most people think of literary New York in the fifties, they think of the Beats—Kerouac, Ginsberg, et al. The irony is that none of the writers my friends and I admired then were part of that group, nor did we think very highly of them. The writers my friends and I in [Greenwich] Village admired were James Baldwin, J.D. Salinger, William Styron, John O’Hara, John Updike, Phillip Roth, Joan Didion, Bernard Malamud, and the slightly older group of postwar writers—James Jones, Mailer (I was not in agreement on that), and Irwin Shaw, who seems mostly forgotten now, though The Young Lions was considered one of the great novels to come out of World War II. Shaw’s short stories, especially “The Eighty-Yard Run” and “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” made him a true lion to my friends and me.
Baldwin used to refer caustically to Kerouac and Ginsberg as “the Suzuki Rhythm Boys” and said of a glorified descriptive passage of Kerouac’s about negroes (that was the term then used): “He had better not read that from the stage of the Apollo Theater.” John Updike wrote a parody of Kerouac in The New Yorker called “On the Sidewalk.”
The somewhat older writers—Baldwin, Styron, the Columbia professors Mark Van Doren and Lionel Trilling—were specially generous to our younger generation. We did feel that we were part of something special simply by living in New York. The mix of “friends and competitors” was most clearly evident among the New Journalists (I still think the form originated with the essays of George Orwell in the 1930s). The great Esquire editor Harold Hayes gave freedom to and inspired competition among Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, and those less famous whose work was just as good, like Brock Brower, whose classic profiles of Mary McCarthy and Alger Hiss (“Hiss without the Case”) were read and talked about by all of us. When I first met Gay Talese and we both were writing for Esquire, he invited me for beers at P.J. Clarke’s and asked how old I was. When I told him he said, “Good—you’re a year older than me. I was afraid you might be younger.” Talese also proved to be a friend, generous with praise for my first novel.
The most brilliant and influential but least heralded of all the New Journalists was Seymour Krim, whose essays “The Insanity Bit” and “The American Novel Made Me” are unmatched for fifties zeitgeist. Even Mailer, not given to crediting colleagues, praised Krim’s prose as influential to his own nonfiction style (to which Mailer added much blather). Krim was also our cheerleader, dashing off postcards for work he liked (“Great piece in The Nation—keep it up!”). Krim’s collections Views of a Near-Sighted Cannoneer and What’s This Cat’s Story? should be the bedrock texts of the real New York in the fifties, the one that I knew.
Oddly enough, Kurt Vonnegut expressed in a 1951 letter to his lifelong Cornell friend Miller Harris a kind of longing for a school—like the Cubist painters of Paris (he had wanted to write a thesis on them for an anthropology degree at the University of Chicago but was told it wasn’t anthropological enough). Isolated up in Cape Cod, he told Harris he felt his only school consisted of his two agents and his editor “and nobody else…. For want of support from other quarters, I write for them….”
I can speculate that one reason for the quirky originality that eventually made Vonnegut famous was his lack of a school of literary peers. He often said the audience he wrote for was his older sister Alice.
Image: If we’re not mistaken, you and Kurt Vonnegut went to the same high school in Indianapolis. Is that shared background something we could detect in your writing?
DW: I went to the same high school in Indianapolis from which Vonnegut graduated a decade earlier. I had not heard of him until I went back to visit on a vacation from college and was told by one of the teachers that “a boy named Vonnegut” who had gone there was publishing stories in some of the popular and respected weekly magazines of the era, like the Saturday Evening Post.
I was inspired to learn that Vonnegut, like me, had written for our school paper, the Shortridge Daily Echo, which gave me hope that I might someday be a published writer. When I met Vonnegut he told me proudly there was another writer who had gone to Shortridge a year or so before him named Madeline Pugh, who became the head writer on the TV show I Love Lucy.
He wrote in his nonfiction book Fates Worse Than Death that he received from our city “a free primary and secondary education richer and more humane than anything I would get from any of the five universities I attended….” (He was sent to three of them by the army for training in subjects that proved to be of no use to him as a private in the infantry during World War II.)
Image: You’ve recently edited Vonnegut’s letters. Were there things that came out of reading his letters that surprised you? Any ways the man you met in the letters was different from the man you knew personally?
DW: Editing the book of Vonnegut’s letters (Kurt Vonnegut: Letters) confirmed that he was much the same throughout his life as he was in the more than forty years I knew him: loyal, considerate, funny, perceptive, and opposed to pretension, censorship, war, and sham.
Image: Vonnegut tends to be associated with the skepticism and iconoclasm of the sixties and seventies, and his identity as a descendent of German freethinkers seems be have been significant to him—but he also seems to have had great respect for certain aspects of religious tradition. And he seemed to hold the contradiction lightly. Was there a contradiction, to your mind? And if so, what allowed him to embrace that?
DW: Kurt is sometimes mistakenly cast as a counterculture hero, but in truth he could more accurately be called a counter-counterculture hero. He did not partake of any drugs, with the exception of once smoking a joint with Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, just to be sociable, but got nothing out of it. He panned the faddishness of eastern religions, saying we had in the West a system that slowed the heart rate and calmed the mind as effectively as Zen meditation: reading short stories, which he described as “Buddhist catnaps.” He went to hear a talk by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, guru to the stars, and skewered him in an article called “Yes, We Have No Nirvanas.” He did love the music of the Beatles, and once when asked to give an example of art or music that made people feel better, he named them.
Vonnegut was proud of his ancestors, the German freethinkers who brought great cultural gifts to the landlocked city of Indianapolis, and he believed as the humanists of his own era that “Being a humanist means trying to behave decently without expectation of reward or punishment after you are dead.”
He told a graduating class at Agnes Scott College that “By being a humanist, I am honoring my mother and father which the Bible tells us is a good thing to do.”
“But I say with all my American ancestors, ‘If what Jesus said was good, and so much of it was absolutely beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not?’ If Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being. I would just as soon be a rattlesnake.”
In a 1990 letter to his high school friend Ben Hitz he explained that at age sixty-four, he found a quote of Nietzsche that explained to him why “committed Christians and Jews sometimes find me respectable: ‘Only a person of deep faith can afford the luxury of skepticism.’” That explained a lot of his seeming contradictions on religion to me as well.
Image: You’ve written across seven decades—and you’re still writing. Why do you still write and what are you working on now?
DW: I am always shocked when people ask me “Are you still writing?” Why would I stop? I am working on a memoir of my beloved goddaughter, who I’ve known for sixteen years (she is nineteen now), and also a novel that I once began and put aside and am now committed to finish. It has to do with a minister who is torn by the contradictions of faith and behavior (a problem many people who are not ministers face). I pray that my good fortunes of mind and body will allow me to persevere.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.