20 Oct An Overwhelming Treasure Trove of Writings by Kurt Vonnegut – An Interview with Isabel Planton
If there’s a Disney World for hard-core Vonnegut fans, it just might be at the Lilly Library at Indiana University, home of the Kurt Vonnegut Manuscript archives, a collection of papers, letters, drafts, and other treasures donated by Vonnegut to the Library.
Isabel H. Planton, Public Services Librarian at the Lilly Library, shared her thoughts about the collection with The Daily Vonnegut.
Q: How would you describe the Vonnegut archives at the Lilly Library to someone unfamiliar with such collections?
A: The first thing to know about the Vonnegut collections at the Lilly Library is that they are quite massive. Kurt Vonnegut wanted his papers to reside at the Lilly Library at Indiana University and here they reside in great numbers. There is the large, main archive known as the Vonnegut mss. (each collection I mention contains a link to the finding aid). This collection contains about 40 archival boxes of materials, mainly correspondence, drafts, speeches, artwork, and publisher’s files.
There are many other related collections as well. There’s Vonnegut mss. II, which consists of letters from Kurt to his youngest daughter Nanette (Nanny). There are miscellaneous later acquisitions in Vonnegut mss. III. We have a collection of periodical contributions by Kurt Vonnegut and first editions of all of his major works. Then there’s the Donald C. Farber mss. which are the papers of Vonnegut’s friend, attorney, and literary agent Donald Farber. There’s the Wakefield mss. which contains the papers of Hoosier author Dan Wakefield, longtime friend and correspondent with Kurt Vonnegut. These are some the big ones. There are several other related collections as well. The Lilly Library is an overwhelming treasure trove of writings by and about Kurt Vonnegut.
Q: Christina Jarvis, who we’ve interviewed previously, mentioned doing research at the Lilly Library for an upcoming book on Kurt Vonnegut and environmentalism. Do a lot of people use the collection for research purposes?
A: Oh, definitely! The Vonnegut collection is in our top ten as far as manuscript collection use goes. I can’t talk about specific researchers for confidentiality reasons, but I know of many book, article, and film projects which have a research basis in our Vonnegut collections. We also bring the collections out often for class visits to the Library and for student research projects.
Q: What do you consider some of the more interesting or surprising things found in the archives?
A: Some the things I find most interesting I’ve put on exhibition before, so Lilly Library visitors get to see them. One item comes from near the end of Vonnegut’s life. In the fall of 2005, Sean Sigler’s fifth grade class at Gardner Street Elementary School in Los Angeles wrote a letter to Vonnegut. Much to their surprise, Vonnegut struck up a correspondence with them that lasted until shortly before his death. On May 2, 2006, Mr. Sigler’s class sent Vonnegut a book made by his students titled “How to Survive the Future: The Quotes of Kurt Vonnegut.” It consists of the students’ written and illustrated interpretations of Vonnegut quotations. I love the way these kids engaged with his works, even at a young age, and the obvious delight he took in his interactions with them.
I also enjoy the fan letters that are interspersed throughout the correspondence section of the Vonnegut mss. In one of the Vonnegut exhibitions I co-curated I had an entire case devoted to the fan letters. These letters are often very personal and sometimes quite lengthy. Readers clearly felt a connection to Vonnegut through his writings and often acted on the impulse to pour out their hearts, sharing their life stories, jokes, writing projects, and opinions with him.
I often show Vonnegut’s rejection slips in classes. We have dozens of these notices he received when trying to get his stories published in popular magazines. I think it’s helpful for students to see that even a successful author like Vonnegut had a rough start. It’s also interesting to me that he kept them, almost as a mark of perverse pride or a personal reminder to himself of all that initial rejection.
A more recent addition to Vonnegut mss. III is a collection of letters between Kurt Vonnegut and Samuel Stewart, editor at Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Inc. These letters span from 1962-1968, a period during which Vonnegut published Cat’s Cradle (1963) and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965) and completed the long process of writing Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). Some of the letters cover Vonnegut’s time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, with many of his letters to Sam Stewart from this period discussing his progress on Slaughterhouse-Five. He tests out different titles for the novel and elaborates on his ever-evolving concept for the novel.
With the addition of this material, the Lilly Library adds correspondence from a fertile period in Vonnegut’s writing career, a period not well documented in the original collection, in which the bulk of correspondence ranges from 1971-1994.
Q: Is the Vonnegut Papers collection open to the public? Is an appointment necessary?
A: Yes, all of the Vonnegut collections are open to the public. In fact, we have an open access policy for all of our collections. Usually, all that we require to see collections is registration through our online system and a valid photo ID. Right now, we are gearing up for a large building renovation so we’ll be operating our Reading Room in a temporary space at the Wells Library from 2020 through part of 2021. From now through the end of the renovation, we do require that all Reading Room visitors make an appointment. We ask that anyone who wants to use our collections email us to schedule an appointment at [email protected] at least one week prior to visiting.
Q: Are there any future plans to digitize the collection?
A: We do not currently have any plans to digitize the collection. It’s a complex issue due to the copyright considerations involved with 20th century authors’ papers. However, we do offer digitization on demand for patrons who need reproductions of select materials for research purposes. We have fulfilled a great many photoduplication orders over the years for items from the Vonnegut mss. to help researchers who are unable to visit in person.
Q: Were you familiar with Vonnegut’s work before you joined the Library staff? Do you have a favorite among his books?
A: My dad recommended that I try reading Vonnegut when I was in high school. Since my dad doesn’t do a lot of leisure reading, I was intrigued by a book recommendation from him. At that time, I read Breakfast of Champions and Slaughterhouse-Five and enjoyed both of them. I liked his works enough to read a few more in college. It made me feel more connected to the person my dad must have been when he was a college student. So, yes, I’d say I was a casual Vonnegut fan before I joined the Library staff. I’ve had ups and downs in my Vonnegut fandom since joining the staff here. Prolonged exposure to something can have that kind of effect. I’m on an upswing now and I’m working on reading all of his books. So far, my favorites are Cat’s Cradle and Galápagos. I also still really enjoy Slaughterhouse-Five, even after multiple readings.