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Swimming, Scotch, and Jazz: Kurt Vonnegut’s Daily Routine During His Teaching Stint at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop

Ellen Gutoskey
Kurt Vonnegut in 1986.
Kurt Vonnegut in 1986. / (Kurt Vonnegut) Mickey Adair/Getty Images; (Background) Eskay Lim/EyeEm/Getty Images
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The early 1960s were an especially turbulent leg of Kurt Vonnegut’s literary trajectory. He wasn’t exactly not writing: His novel Mother Night was published in 1962, followed by Cat’s Cradle the very next year. But he’d been labeled a science-fiction writer early in his career, relegating him to the periphery of critical discourse and making it difficult for him to be seen as anything other than a producer of pulpy paperbacks

Vonnegut’s resulting financial instability was troubling, as he and his wife, Jane, were heading up a family of eight. In addition to having three biological children, the couple had adopted three of Vonnegut’s sister’s kids after she and her husband both passed away in the late 1950s.

So when Paul Engle, the long-time director of the esteemed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, offered the floundering author a teaching post in the program for the fall of 1965, he didn’t hesitate to take it.

“I had gone broke, was out of print and had a lot of kids, so I needed the job most desperately,” he wrote in an essay for The New York Times’ “Writers on Writing” column in 1999. “The Coast Guard should give [Paul Engle] a medal for all the drowning professional writers whose lives he’s saved.”

kurt and jane vonnegut with their three kids in 1955
Kurt and Jane with their three biological kids—Mark, Edith, and Nanette—in 1955. / The Paris Review, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Vonnegut left his family in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and relocated to Iowa City, where he set up shop in a Victorian mansion outside the University of Iowa. For the next two years, he lived the life you’d expect a 1960s creative writing professor to live: writing, lecturing, smoking cigarettes, throwing and attending parties at which faculty (including the likes of José Donoso, Richard Yates, and Vance Bourjaily) and students (John Irving, Gail Godwin, Andre Dubus II, to name a few) commingled, and so forth. Vonnegut himself even found time to cheat on his wife with one of his own students: Loree Rackstraw, a single mother of two who’d go on to become one of Vonnegut’s lifelong friends.

“Suddenly writing seemed very important again,” Vonnegut recalled in a 1976 interview. “In Iowa City I was central and spectacular. This was better than a transplant of monkey glands for a man my age.”

And indeed, it was during this stint that Vonnegut began penning what would become his most famous novel: Slaughterhouse-Five. After being selected for a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1967, he parted ways with the Writers’ Workshop, spent some time researching in Dresden, and completed the novel back home in Cape Cod.

Overall, Vonnegut’s Iowa era radiates a hazy glamour characteristic of the mid-20th-century intelligentsia scene. But his days were, by his own account, typically pretty quotidian. As The Marginalian reports, he detailed his daily regimen in a letter to Jane on September 28, 1965, published in full in the 2012 collection Kurt Vonnegut: Letters.

“In an unmoored life like mine, sleep and hunger and work arrange themselves to suit themselves, without consulting me. I’m just as glad they haven’t consulted me about the tiresome details. What they have worked out is this: I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach or prepare. When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten.”

Kurt Vonnegut

He also made time for plenty of “pushups and sit-ups” and occasionally went to the movies. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg struck him as “heart-breaking.” “That’s all right,” he wrote. “I like to have my heart broken.”

All in all, a much healthier routine than Hunter S. Thompson’s cocaine-fueled one, but maybe not quite as rigorously productive as Theodore Roosevelt’s.

[h/t The Marginalian]

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