“The two of them, one standing, one sitting, were silent. The ticking of the clock was the only
sound in the room. It was growing chill.”
– Kurt Vonnegut, "One for 'A'"
UNPUBLISHED SHORT STORY, TYPESCRIPT DRAFT; WITH FRAGMENT OF SECOND STORY.
These two short stories survive from Kurt Vonnegut’s early attempts to become an author, after the end of the Second World War in 1945 and years before the publication of his first piece of fiction, yet alone novel, in 1950.
The period between Kurt Vonnegut’s return from war-torn Europe and the publication of his first piece of fiction “Report on the Barnhouse Effect” in 1950 is replete with rejected short stories by the fledging fiction writer. And the two unpublished stories present here could easily sit themselves among the numerous works from this unhappy time in Vonnegut’s early adulthood which have only posthumously received public attention.
However, the Indianapolis address given at the bottom of “One for ‘A’” helps to locate the story to a narrow timeframe after the war but before Kurt and his newly-wed wife Jane commenced their graduate studies at the University of Chicago. “In October  Kurt reported to Fort Riley and was assigned to the secretarial pool,” writes biographer Charles Shields (p. 84). “In his spare time, he continued to write stories and mail them to Jane, who was living with her parents in Indianapolis until Kurt’s discharge” and by “December 1945, the Vonneguts were in a brick apartment building at 3972½ Ellis Avenue in Chicago.” (Shields, pp. 84–85). Vonnegut would not return to Indianapolis for a long time, moving to from Chicago to Schenectady, NY for a job with General Electric, having had one MA thesis rejected and leaving a second incomplete—“another of my failures” that casts a shadow over this era for the incipient author (Vonnegut quoted in Shields, p. 92).
Further evidence for the early dating of “One for ‘A’” comes from the subject matter itself. The story depicts a despondent widower, reminiscing over his late wife, and his butler, who ensnares the mind of his employer with tell of mystic seers who can communicate to those beyond the grave. The methodology for this contact with the supernatural, per the butler’s instructions, involves listening for raps on the table, with one rap indicating the letter A, two indicating B, and so on. This may sound familiar, as a similar incident occurs in Vonnegut’s first novel Player Piano, published in 1952 (p. 306):
Meanwhile, Paul and Harold passed the time of day.
“Ain’ a bit sorry,” said Harold. “Wha’s ‘at tap-tap-tappin’?”
The irregular tapping came from the other side of the sheet-metal wall that separated Paul’s and Harold’s barred cell from the totally enclosed tank for desperados next door.
Experimentally, Paul tapped on his side.
“Twenty-three—eight-fifteen,” came the reply. Paul recognized the schoolboy’s code: one for A, two for B…
“Twenty-three—eight-fifteen” was “Who?”
A butler’s occultist hearsay is transformed into a “schoolboy’s code”, juxtaposing the grandeur of “One for ‘A’”’s setting with the “sheet-metal wall” of Paul’s industrialist backdrop. But the common thread is the un-sophisticated, working-man solution that the code represents in both contexts—easily understandable by all regardless of differences in social standing and effective in attaining their characters’ goals. It seems unlikely that Vonnegut would repeat the ‘one for A’ motif after the publication of Player Piano in a short story, thus placing a cold terminus ad quo on “One for ‘A’” of 1952. In addition to the Indianapolis address and its bearing on the time frame, these factors firmly demarcate the unpublished work by Vonnegut as one from his earliest years as a writer.
The second story included remains untitled, on account of only the final five of what would have been eleven pages surviving. But, like “One for ‘A’”, it captures a distinct sense of Vonnegut’s, even its fragmentary state. A boy in midwestern suburbiana yearns to flee to the east coast, to attend Harvard, and his dedicated girlfriend will help him in even the most ridiculous of circumstances—no stretch of the imagination is needed to see how the narrative could have grown from Vonnegut’s mind, years before he himself would relocate to New York and then Massachusetts.
At this historical moment, in world history and his own life, Vonnegut’s success as one of the most read authors of the twentieth century was far from certain. These stories chart early attempts from the late 1940s at accomplishing his goals of being a writer, attempt which are in large part products of his wife Jane’s dedication. Writing on their relationship at this time, Ginger Strands comments on how “Jane had just one idea, and she pressed it with patient determination. Kurt would be a writer—a great one. Her conviction terrified him. ‘You scare me when you say that I am going to create the literature of 1945 onwards and upwards,’ he wrote to her in August of that year. ‘Angel, will you stick by me if it goes backwards and downwards?’ […] She urged him to use his free time at Fort Riley to pound out stories. He worked from five-thirty to seven-thirty each night and mailed his efforts back to Indianapolis for Jane to edit and re-type.” (Strand).
Edith Vonnegut, visual artist and daughter of Kurt and Jane’s, has confirmed that her father did write in cursive early on, and—after comparing with handwriting samples from her mother and father—speculates that the present inscription of Kurt’s name is by Jane pretending to be her father. Though speculative, this interpretation agrees with the known history of Vonnegut’s first attempts to get published and would contribute unique material evidence to Vonnegut’s particular early writing process.
It is not often that one can read new Vonnegut material. The present copies of “One for ‘A’” and the untitled fragment offer this unique opportunity, and to see further how he began to find his legs as a storyteller before dedicating his life to being an author as profession. As Vonnegut would write in Mother Night, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” While Vonnegut was balancing many major life-decisions between 1945 and 1952 (where to study, who to work for, how much to work for) he never stopped writing—and the dreams of a writing career which may have once felt pretend became real.
Provenance: Bernard Vonnegut; by descent to his heirs; purchased by private collector.
VONNEGUT, KURT. Early Unpublished Short Story, “One for ‘A’”. Indianapolis: n.p., c. 1945. Octavo (275 x 215 mm), 5 typescript pages on 5 leaves. Signed and inscribed on the final leaf by either Kurt or Jane Vonnegut: “P[rivate] f[irst] c[lass] Kurt Vonnegut Jr. | R.R. 14—Box 223 | Indianapolis 44 | Indiana”. Slight rusting and indentation from paperclip.
VONNEGUT, KURT. Early Unpublished Short Story, untitled. [?Indianapolis]: n.p., c. 1945. Octavo (275 x 210 mm), 5 typescript pages on 5 leaves. Pages numbered in ink in top right corner, with some corrections in ink.
Shields, Charles J., And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011)
Strand, Ginger, “How Jane Vonnegut Made Kurt Vonnegut a Writer”, The New Yorker, 3 December 2015
Vonnegut, Kurt, Player Piano (New York: Dial Press, 2006)
—— Letters, ed. by Dan Wakefield (New York: Dial Press, 2014)
—— Kurt Vonnegut: Complete Short Stories, ed. by Jerome Klinkowitz and Dan Wakefield (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2017).
Price: $24,000 .