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The Many-Sided Sci-Fi Master

by John J. Miller

Complete Stories, by Kurt Vonnegut (Seven Stories Press, 911 pp., $45)

The cover of the August 1953 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal showed a woman wearing a polka-dot swim cap and smiling in foamy blue water. The text below her image advertised several articles but not “D.P.,” a touching short story inside about a boy in post-war Germany who is the orphaned son of a German mother and an African-American father — and what happens when he sees a black GI for the first time. In 1958, “D.P.” became source material for General Electric Theater, the CBS show hosted by Ronald Reagan. Sammy Davis Jr., making his debut as a television actor, starred as the soldier. As Davis recounted in his autobiography, Reagan loved the tale: “It’s going to be a wonderful episode,” said the future president.

The man behind “D.P.” — an abbreviation for “displaced person,” or what today we might call a “refugee” — was Kurt Vonnegut, an Indiana native and former infantryman who in the 1950s had become a struggling writer of fiction. He earned paychecks for his short stories from top-flight venues such as Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post as well as Ladies’ Home Journal and Cosmopolitan (which, as he quipped years later, “wasn’t always a sex manual”). Yet his ambition lay elsewhere. In the preface to a 1968 collection of stories, he confessed a mercenary motive: “The contents of this book are samples of work I sold in order to finance the writing of the novels.”

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