Our Grand Old Man
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Our Grand Old Man
Look at the Birdie: Unpublished Short Fiction Kurt Vonnegut Delacorte Press http://www.randomhouse.com 272 pages; hardcover, $27.00

Look at the Birdie continues the publication plan undertaken following Kurt Vonnegut's death in 2007 by Donald C. Farber (his attorney and long-time agent) and Mark Vonnegut (his son, a Boston pediatrician and executor of the estate). What a lawyer and a doctor do with a literary archive can be quite different from how an academic scholar would handle such material, and in Kurt's case, the matter is a sensitive one.

He was reluctant to have old magazine pieces collected. Getting him to permit publication of Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons in 1974 was extremely difficult, with the case won only at the cost of dropping the short stories in favor of just his essays. Twenty-five years later, Peter Reed convinced him to release these previously published but never collected stories as Bagombo Snuff Box. Kurt had worried that they'd been considered unfit three times before, for Canary in a Cat House (1961) and Welcome to the Monkey House (1968) as well as for the Wampeters volume. To justify their reappearance, he wrote an introduction explaining why the pieces were first written and a coda indicating the method of their composition—as if they were etudes rather than major parts of his canon. Factor in that he was old and tired and despairing of fulfilling his two-book contract with Putnam's, and you have a pretty good idea of why he let the book appear.

Because the second book on this contract had been paid for but not delivered by the time of his death, Farber and Kurt's son the doctor (as the old man had been fond of calling him) assembled Armageddon in Retrospect (2008), a volume of stories and an essay from the early 1950s that had never been published at all, accompanied by a letter the twenty-two-year-old Vonnegut had written his family after being repatriated from a prisoner-of-war camp in World War II Germany. Here the rejection factor was exponential: they had been deemed unworthy of publication by magazine editors in some cases, by Kurt's agents in others, and in a few instances by himself. It was easy to see why. The stories were much weaker than what had made it to Collier's and The Saturday Evening Post (and to Welcome to the Monkey House after that), with their narrative innovations quite limited while sentimentality was asked to carry the day. Kurt's better work had pushed the format of family weeklies in cleverly surprising ways. The pieces in Armageddon actually retreated a bit into these journals' more tired conventions, a timidity prompted by the risk Kurt was taking with their theme, which was anti-war. With World War II, a fresh memory, and the Korean conflict at hand, this was not a popular sentiment.

Against this sense of failure stood Kurt's letter to his family, which unlike the rejected magazine pieces was bright and lively, using the vernacular rhythms that would not fully characterize his work until Slaughterhouse-Five, published in the decidedly anti-war climate of 1969. By then the country was ready for his pacifistic theme, just as Kurt himself felt confident enough to speak personally and directly, as he'd done so many years before but only to his family. Thus, while the doctor and the lawyer could settle the business of a big advance, Vonnegut scholars could find interest in the making of a great author-to-be before their eyes.

Look at the Birdie presents a tougher problem, partly because its stories are better. They had better be, given the sizeable publication plan worked out with Delacorte Press, who'd published Kurt from 1968 through 1987. Kurt had left this firm because it had dropped its business agreement with Seymour Lawrence, his loyal supporter, and sold out to a German corporation, for which the author didn't want to work. Now, from his grave, he'll be making money for them again, not just with this collection but another to come...