by Maria Popova
““You wonder what creates beatniks? Landlords!”
Kurt Vonnegut may have known a thing or two about writing and the meaning of life, but he wasn’t immune to the gritty afflictions of everyday living that befall the rest of us common people. In Kurt Vonnegut: Letters(public library) — which gave us Vonnegut’s priceless daily routine and was among the year’s best history books — he shares a tragicomic series of housing woes during his time teaching at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa in the 1960s. Like much of the seemingly mundane topics of his correspondence, these snippets bespeak the depth and richness of his character in subtle, nuanced, yet unequivocal ways.
In a letter to his wife Jane, who had remained in Cape Cod with their kids and whom he addresses lovingly as “Dear Woofy,” Vonnegut writes on September 17, 1965:
But you should see the apartment I have. I don’t recommend that you see it. I opened the door for the first time, and I though, ‘My God, Otis Burger has been here before me!;’ It has a vileness, a George Price uninhabitability that no amateur could achieve. I must sleep in the very first hide-a-bed ever created, which was created from the rusty wreckage of the first Stutz Bearcat. Jesus, it is ever a cruel and ugly old bed! I have a bath with a stall shower, a full kitchen, less ice-cube trays, no curtains or windowshades, and this livingroom-bedroom with the hide-a-bed. You wonder what creates beatniks? Landlords! ‘Live like a pig for $80.00 a month,’ say my surroundings. Very well. Very well.
In another letter four days later, he includes a sketch of his abominable abode:
But, in a testament to our human adaptability and penchant for making a home, Vonnegut seems to warm up to the place, writing Jane:
I like the apartment better each day. It’s friendlier than I thought — a nice, soft old shoe. I work well in it.
Indeed, this workability grows with time, as he writes in yet another letter on September 24:
I am used to my vile pad now. I work pretty well here now, which is the main thing — and any minute now my telephone will be installed.
The following month, Vonnegut finally leaves the crummy pad and moves into a new apartment that occupies “the entire first floor of a Victorian mansion,” “with funny, elaborate furniture.” And still, his housing woes continue. On October 20, he sends Jane another letter, in which his private, gentle, warm inner glow peeks through that faux-curmudgeonly façade:
This place is full of the dumbest, sweetest mice. I haven’t the heart to harm them. … They keep me company and make me laugh.”