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Dan Wakefield on Vonnegut and coming home



When viewed whole, the trajectory of Dan Wakefield's writing career forms a kind of graph spanning events throughout the latter half of the 20th Century.

Not that Wakefield is done yet.

At 81, he is working on a new novel, set in Miami. He is a sought-after speaker and master writing teacher, well known for his approach to helping people craft their spiritual autobiographies.

Last year, Wakefield was the key contributor to a major literary event, having edited the first published volume of Kurt Vonnegut's letters. In addition to writing a warm and informative introduction, Wakefield assembled the correspondence in a way that manages to capture Vonnegut's distinctive voice, creating a work that not only takes its place as part of Vonnegut's substantial canon, but is essential for readers and scholars seeking a better understanding of the artist and the man.

(The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library will celebrate its inaugural Vonnegutfest beginning Nov. 9, with a variety of programs.)

Wakefield, who was born in Indianapolis in 1932, and grew up in Broad Ripple, moved back to Indianapolis at the end of 2011, taking up residence in an apartment in the Lockerbie neighborhood. In early October he spoke with NUVO about his long friendship with Kurt Vonnegut and the pleasures of coming home.

Wakefield reads at a Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library event in 2012.
  • Wakefield reads at a Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library event in 2012.

The Shortridge mafia

As an aspiring writer, Dan Wakefield read Kurt Vonnegut long before he met the man himself. Wakefield and Vonnegut shared an important bond: in addition to being native sons of Indianapolis, they were both alums of Shortridge High School.

Shortridge remains a legendary place in Indianapolis lore, having graduated a host of notable artists and community leaders, including Richard Lugar, Marguerite Young, Majie Failey, Madelyn Pugh, Noble Sissle, Andy Jacobs, Jr. and Dan Burton. It was known for academic excellence — and for publishing the first daily high school newspaper in the nation.

"I started reading [Vonnegut] the year after I got out of Shortridge, recalls Wakefield. "I had gone back to visit some teachers and somebody asked me, 'What do you want to do?' I said I wanted to be a writer. One of the teachers said, 'Well, one boy did that, a boy named Vonnegut. He has stories in the Saturday Evening Post.'"

Those were the days when weekly magazines, "slicks" as they were known, made short stories a regular part of every issue. Thousands of Americans subscribed to slicks, but if you didn't get them delivered through the mail, you were bound to find a selection at another all-but-vanished American institution, the corner barbershop. That's where Dan Wakefield got his first fix of Vonnegut, around 1952.

"The first one I read was about a high school band teacher. It was based very closely on our high school bandleader, Mr. Robert Schultz. That was a lot of fun," says Wakefield today. "There was nothing controversial about the story. It was just a nice high school story about a kid in a band."

For Wakefield — and, it turned out, for Vonnegut, too — the shared connection with Shortridge was crucial. "I started reading everything, from Player Piano on. I wrote him about those first novels, and I sent him a book of mine, called Between the Lines, and that became our real bond because I wrote about my failure as a high school athlete and he wrote back and told me about his [failings]."

Correspondence eventually turned into shared time together. "The first time I met him was 1963. I was on a Neiman Fellowship at Harvard and a mutual friend had us to dinner. I think there were eight people at the dinner and the only thing Kurt and I talked about was Shortridge," says Wakefield.

"You'll find in the Letters book that after he reviewed [my novel] Going All the Way for Life magazine I told him about a letter I'd gotten from another Shortridge grad, a guy named Jim Good, who wrote for Life and said, 'It looks like the Shortridge mafia is working again.'

"Kurt wrote back and said, 'As long as it's working, who cares.'"

The Importance of loyalty

The connection between Wakefield and Vonnegut came full circle when Don Farber, executor of the Vonnegut estate, reached out to Wakefield about the possibility of editing a volume of letters. The idea, says Wakefield, originated with Vonnegut's son, Mark, an author in his own right and Kurt Vonnegut's literary executor.

"Mark and I have been friends for a long time. When Mark was writing his first memoir, [The Eden Express], we were both living in Boston. He looked me up and asked if I would have any suggestions, which I did. We talked over that manuscript two or three times and then I sent it to my agent, Knox Burger, who was Kurt's first editor."

Loyalty is the single most striking characteristic Wakefield found among Vonnegut's letters. "He kept up with friends from high school...And his great loyalty to fellow writers. I got to know Richard Yates [novelist, author of Revolutionary Road] well when he was in Boston. Yates was always down on his luck, always running out of money. He knew that he could always call Kurt and get two thousand bucks to tide him over. The letters are full of his recommending people for fellowships, jobs."

Asked to assess Vonnegut's contribution to literature, Wakefield leaps ahead: "I think it's not only his contribution to literature, but his contribution to society and this culture. I am constantly meeting young people who are excited about him. I meet older people who tell me how they were influenced by him. He had a way of looking at things that was fresh; of saying there are other ways of thinking about this, there are other possibilities."

Yet for all his influence on readers, Wakefield acknowledges that Vonnegut's work has sometimes been given short shrift by critics and members of the academy. "There was an essay about the letters book in the New York Times in which a guy tried to make it that Kurt was a hero of the hippies of the '60s and then wasn't really important anymore. He compared Kurt as a hero of the '60s generation to David Foster Wallace and the current generation. I thought, 'Give me a break!' David Foster Wallace is hero to a small literary clique in New York. He's meant to be read by that clique, not by general readers, in my opinion. Later, I wished I said in my [rebuttal] letter that comparing Kurt as a culture hero to David Foster Wallace is like comparing Janis Joplin to a back-up singer for Stevie Nicks."


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