A Vonnegut First

February 11: Kurt Vonnegut's first publication, a short story entitled "Report on the Barnhouse Effect," was published in Collier's magazine on this day in 1950. Vonnegut was twenty-seven, disgusted with his job in the public relations department at General Electric, and still in shock from his experiences five years earlier in the Dresden slaughterhouse. His story is based on the Professor Barnhouse's ability to use his extraordinary mental powers of "dynamopsychism" to bring about world peace:           

Gentlemen,

As the first superweapon with a conscience, I am removing myself from your national defense stockpile. Setting a new precedent in the behavior of ordnance, I have humane reasons for going off.

A. Barnhouse

After numerous story rejections from other magazines, the Collier's acceptance prompted another letter from Vonnegut, this a proud one to his father. Vonnegut later described the letter as "no milestone in literature, but it looms like Stonehenge beside my own little footpath from birth to death":

Dear Pop-

I sold my first story to Collier's. Received my check ($750 minus a 10% agent's commission) yesterday noon. It now appears that two more of my works have a good chance of being sold in the near future.

I think I'm on my way. I've deposited my first check in a savings account and, if I sell more, will continue to do so until I have the equivalent of one year's pay at G.E. Four more stories will do nicely, with cash to spare (something we never had before). I will then quit this goddamn nightmare job, and never take another so long as I live, so help me God.

I'm happier than I've been for a good many years.

 

Vonnegut's father made the letter into a commemorative plaque, which Vonnegut eventually hung on his workroom wall, a reminder of his pledge and of his father's annotation of it:

Father glued a message from himself on the back of that piece of masonite. It is a quotation from The Merchant of Venice in his own lovely hand: "An oath, an oath, I have an oath in heaven: Shall I lay perjury on my soul?"


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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