Vonnegut Freaks: The Fan Mail of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

By Isabel Planton, Public Services Librarian

What would you say if you had the chance to write to Kurt Vonnegut? The Vonnegut Manuscript Collection at the Lilly Library includes many letters from fans who took the leap and reached out to Vonnegut during his lifetime. The collection contains four boxes of general correspondence (Boxes 1-3 and 26, described in the Finding Aid) with the bulk of the fan letters spanning from 1970s until the time of Kurt Vonnegut’s death in 2007. Interspersed among routine business and publication agreements are hundreds of fan letters. Many come from Vonnegut readers who surprised themselves with an almost overwhelming impulse to write to the author. Many of these fans admit that they never thought they would write a fan letter.

A fan from Virginia wrote on September 30, 1976, “In my copy of Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons (Opinions) I found a letter from you. It looked very much like a personal letter, not because it was written to me alone; but because you shared personal facts and viewpoints with your readers. I usually like to answer my personal letters and so felt inclined to answer the one from you.”

On September 13, 1977, a fan in Ohio wrote, “I realize this is a very candid letter and from a total stranger, and such things can be embarrassing, but I wanted to write anyway.”

A reader from California wrote on March 28, 1981, “This is a fan letter. I am forty-six years old and this is the first fan letter I have ever written, so I might not be very good at it. Please bear with me.”

In the eyes of his fans, Kurt Vonnegut was a friend, a confidant, someone to ask for writing advice, someone to pitch ideas to, an insider in a club of like-minded individuals, a lifesaver, and a light in dark times. Fans often quoted Vonnegut’s own phrases back to him as though they were inside jokes between friends. They also opened up to him about personal matters such as near-death experiences, illness, loneliness, and writer’s block. It is clear that fans felt an intimate connection with Kurt Vonnegut through his novels and other writings.

On December 3, 1975, one fan wrote, “I find myself addicted to your writing; I find your stuff written just for me. How is it, then, that we could be on such intimate terms – you know the stuff I’ve hidden away between my ears and you write for that audience exclusively […]?”

Some children and teenagers also wrote to Vonnegut in an attempt to solicit help with English class assignments. In one particularly amusing example, on September 22, 1975 an enterprising student wrote, “I respectfully request an utterly profound statement in any one of your many areas of erudition, which will be both personally enlightening and also satisfy a requirement for my English class.”

People from diverse backgrounds wrote to Kurt Vonnegut. Fans include atheists and believers, teachers, students, people in the military, aspiring novelists and playwrights, and avid readers from outside the United States. The largest proportion of fan letters come from the 1970s, when Vonnegut’s popularity seems to have peaked. While we do not get to see photographs of most of the fans, one undated letter (almost certainly from the late 1970s or early 1980s) came with a photo of a high school book group who called themselves “Vonnegut Freaks.”

 

The collection does not include many examples of letters from Vonnegut back to his fans until the later years of his life, but some of these later letters demonstrate an engaging correspondence between Vonnegut and his fans. There are some touching moments. For example, Vonnegut’s own handwritten note in the upper margin of a letter dated June 10, 1997 indicates that he received this letter back from an ailing teacher to whom he had written a note of encouragement. In another example, we see evidence that Vonnegut corresponded with a prisoner at a correctional facility in Michigan. Kurt Vonnegut’s kindness to his fans is palpable in letters such as these.

 

New Exhibition: Everything is Bicycle

“Everything is Bicycle”: The Revolution of the Wheel in America

cycling_00012In the mid-1890s, the bicycle was at the height of its popularity. The incredible success of the bicycle inspired author Stephen Crane’s wonderful vignette, published nationwide through Samuel S. McClure’s newspaper syndication, on July 5, 1896. Titled “A Glittering Spectacle,” Crane’s piece describes the scene on the once-quiet Western Boulevard in New York City:

“The bicycle crowd has completely subjugated the street. The glittering wheels dominate it from end to end. The cafes and dining-rooms of the apartment hotels are occupied mainly by people in bicycle clothes. Even the bill-boards have surrendered. They advertise wheels and lamps and tires and patent saddles with all the flaming vehemence of circus art….There are innumerable repair shops. Everything is bicycle.”

This exhibition traces the ascent of the bicycle to its apex in the 1890s, with a focus on early development, boom-time advertisements, the adoption of the bicycle by women, pastimes associated with the bicycle, and finally the bicycle’s prominent role in Bloomington and at Indiana University, where bicycle culture has made the campus famous through film and remains strong today.

“Everything is Bicycle” will be on display in the Lilly Library Slocum Room through April.

Exhibition curated by Isabel Planton, Reference/Technical Associate

Cats Invade the Foyer at the Lilly Library

Starting in August, cats of many stripes will make an appearance at the Lilly Library, contained within the pages of children’s books. The foyer exhibition cases will feature feline characters in books spanning from the 18th through 21st centuries.

With few exceptions, until the seventeenth century the relationship between cats and humans was a purely practical one. In exchange for shelter, cats kept the mouse population at bay. However, by the eighteenth century, cats had charmed their way into humans’ hearts and became household companions. Likewise, the roles played by cats in children’s literature have expanded over time. Cats began as characters in fables and moral tales and later moved on to portray everything from tricksters to mystical creatures to heroes. Visit the Lilly Library this summer to view every breed of literary cat from pop-up to miniature, comedic to poetic.

 

Stalking a mouse
Dame Tabby teaches her kitten the art of mousing in Pussy’s Road to Ruin, or, Do as You Are Bid by Clara de Chatelain, ca. 1840.

 

Colleen Barrett, Reference Assistant

Isabel Planton, Reference Associate

Scrapbook of Bicycle Accidents from 1896

A new addition to the Lilly Library collections is the Cycling mss. The collection consists of images, clippings, and ephemera documenting the sport of cycling in in the U.S. in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

A scrapbook of newspaper clippings detailing cycling accidents and cycling news from 1896 was created for the Statisticians Department of the Prudential Insurance Company of America. This snapshot of late 19th century cycling culture gives us some perspective on current tensions between motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists.

Bicycle accidents covered in the scrapbook involve scorching (i.e., speeding), railroad stunts, and an array of collisions. Cycling collisions in the 1890s appear to have included everything from roosters and canal boat mules to trains and trolley cars. Perhaps the most amusing article in the scrapbook is one describing a cycling path made slippery by caterpillars.

cycling_00004

 

Another unsettling problem was the absence of dependable brakes on most bicycles.

cycling_00010

 

A major controversy of the era was whether or not cycling was appropriate for women. Some community leaders such as Mrs. Charlotte Smith, President of the Woman’s Rescue League, argued that straddling bicycle seats posed a threat to women’s purity. Perhaps even more dangerous was the idea that bicycles would give women a newfound sense of independence.

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The collection is in the process of being digitized. The digitized content can be accessed through the finding aid: http://purl.dlib.indiana.edu/iudl/findingaids/lilly/InU-Li-VAD0285. Interested visitors also may view the Cycling mss. in the Reading Room at the Lilly Library.

Isabel Planton, Reference Associate, Lilly Library