"Vonnegut" redirects here. For other uses, see Vonnegut (disambiguation).
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (; November 11, 1922 – April 11, 2007) was an American writer. In a career spanning over 50 years, Vonnegut published 14 novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five works of non-fiction. He is most famous for his darkly satirical, best-selling novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).
Born and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana, Vonnegut attended Cornell University but dropped out in January 1943 and enlisted in the United States Army. As part of his training, he studied mechanical engineering at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) and the University of Tennessee. He was then deployed to Europe to fight in World War II and was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. He was interned in Dresden and survived the Allied bombing of the city by taking refuge in a meat locker of the slaughterhouse where he was imprisoned. After the war, Vonnegut married Jane Marie Cox, with whom he had three children. He later adopted his sister's three sons, after she died of cancer and her husband was killed in a train accident.
Vonnegut published his first novel, Player Piano, in 1952. The novel was reviewed positively but was not commercially successful. In the nearly 20 years that followed, Vonnegut published several novels that were only marginally successful, such as Cat's Cradle (1963) and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1964). Vonnegut's breakthrough was his commercially and critically successful sixth novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. The book's anti-war sentiment resonated with its readers amidst the ongoing Vietnam War and its reviews were generally positive. After its release, Slaughterhouse-Five went to the top of The New York Times Best Seller list, thrusting Vonnegut into fame. He was invited to give speeches, lectures and commencement addresses around the country and received many awards and honors.
Later in his career, Vonnegut published several autobiographical essays and short-story collections, including Fates Worse Than Death (1991), and A Man Without a Country (2005). After his death, he was hailed as a morbidly comical commentator on the society in which he lived and as one of the most important contemporary writers. Vonnegut's son Mark published a compilation of his father's unpublished compositions, titled Armageddon in Retrospect. Numerous scholarly works have examined Vonnegut's writing and humor.
Family and early life
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was born on November 11, 1922 in Indianapolis, Indiana. He was the youngest of three children of Kurt Vonnegut Sr. and his wife Edith (née Lieber). His older siblings were Bernard (born 1914) and Alice (born 1917). Vonnegut was descended from German immigrants who settled in the United States in the mid-19th century; his patrilineal great-grandfather, Clemens Vonnegut of Westphalia, Germany, settled in Indianapolis and founded the Vonnegut Hardware Company. Kurt's father, and his father before him, Bernard, were architects; the architecture firm under Kurt Sr. designed such buildings as Das Deutsche Haus (now called "The Athenæum"), the Indiana headquarters of the Bell Telephone Company, and the Fletcher Trust Building. Vonnegut's mother was born into Indianapolis high society, as her family, the Liebers, were among the wealthiest in the city, their fortune derived from ownership of a successful brewery.
Although both of Vonnegut's parents were fluent German speakers, the ill feeling toward that country during and after World War I caused the Vonneguts to abandon that culture to show their American patriotism. Thus, they did not teach their youngest son German or introduce him to German literature and tradition, leaving him feeling "ignorant and rootless." Vonnegut later credited Ida Young, his family's African-American cook and housekeeper for the first 10 years of his life, for raising him and giving him values. "[She] gave me decent moral instruction and was exceedingly nice to me. So she was as great an influence on me as anybody." Vonnegut described Young as "humane and wise", adding that "the compassionate, forgiving aspects of [his] beliefs" came from her.
The financial security and social prosperity that the Vonneguts once enjoyed were destroyed in a matter of years. The Liebers's brewery was closed in 1921 after the advent of Prohibition in the United States. When the Great Depression hit, few people could afford to build, causing clients at Kurt Sr.'s architectural firm to become scarce. Vonnegut's brother and sister had finished their primary and secondary educations in private schools, but Vonnegut was placed in a public school, called Public School No. 43, now known as the James Whitcomb Riley School. He was not bothered by this,[a] but both his parents were affected deeply by their economic misfortune. His father withdrew from normal life and became what Vonnegut called a "dreamy artist". His mother became depressed, withdrawn, bitter, and abusive. She labored to regain the family's wealth and status, and Vonnegut said she expressed hatred "as corrosive as hydrochloric acid" for her husband. Edith Vonnegut forayed into writing and tried to sell short stories to magazines like Collier's and The Saturday Evening Post with no success.
High school and Cornell
Vonnegut enrolled at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis in 1936. While there, he played clarinet in the school band and became a co-editor (along with Madelyn Pugh) for the Tuesday edition of the school newspaper, The Shortridge Echo. Vonnegut said his tenure with the Echo allowed him to write for a large audience—his fellow students—rather than for a teacher, an experience he said was "fun and easy". "It just turned out that I could write better than a lot of other people", Vonnegut observed. "Each person has something he can do easily and can't imagine why everybody else has so much trouble doing it."
After graduating from Shortridge in 1940, Vonnegut enrolled at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He wanted to study the humanities or become an architect like his father, but his father[b] and brother, a scientist, urged him to study a "useful" discipline. As a result, Vonnegut majored in biochemistry, but he had little proficiency in the area and was indifferent towards his studies. As his father had been a member at MIT, Vonnegut was entitled to join the Delta Upsilon fraternity, and did. He overcame stiff competition for a place at the university's independent newspaper, The Cornell Daily Sun, first serving as a staff writer, then as an editor. By the end of his freshman year, he was writing a column titled "Innocents Abroad" which reused jokes from other publications. He later penned a piece, "Well All Right", focusing on pacifism, a cause he strongly supported, arguing against U.S. intervention in World War II.
World War II
The attack on Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into the war. Vonnegut was a member of Reserve Officers' Training Corps, but poor grades and a satirical article in Cornell's newspaper cost him his place there. He was placed on academic probation in May 1942 and dropped out the following January. No longer eligible for a student deferment, he faced likely conscription into the United States Army. Instead of waiting to be drafted, he enlisted in the army and in March 1943 reported to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for basic training. Vonnegut was trained to fire and maintain howitzers and later received instruction in mechanical engineering at the Carnegie Institute of Technology and the University of Tennessee as part of the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP). In early 1944, the ASTP was canceled due to the Army's need for soldiers to support the D-Day invasion, and Vonnegut was ordered to an infantry battalion at Camp Atterbury, south of Indianapolis in Edinburgh, Indiana, where he trained as a scout. He lived so close to his home that he was "able to sleep in [his] own bedroom and use the family car on weekends". On May 14, 1944, Vonnegut returned home on leave for Mother's Day weekend to discover that his mother had committed suicide the previous night by overdosing on sleeping pills.[c]
Three months after his mother's suicide, Vonnegut was sent to Europe as an intelligence scout with the 106th Infantry Division. In December 1944, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge, the final German offensive of the war. During the battle, the 106th Infantry Division, which had only recently reached the front and was assigned to a "quiet" sector due to its inexperience, was overrun by advancing German armored forces. Over 500 members of the division were killed and over 6,000 were captured.
On December 22, Vonnegut was captured with about 50 other American soldiers. Vonnegut was taken by boxcar to a prison camp south of Dresden, in Saxony. During the journey, the Royal Air Force bombed the prisoner trains and killed about 150 men. Vonnegut was sent to Dresden, the "first fancy city [he had] ever seen". He lived in a slaughterhouse when he got to the city, and worked in a factory that made malt syrup for pregnant women. Vonnegut recalled the sirens going off whenever another city was bombed. The Germans did not expect Dresden to get bombed, Vonnegut said. "There were very few air-raid shelters in town and no war industries, just cigarette factories, hospitals, clarinet factories."
On February 13, 1945, Dresden became the target of Allied forces. In the hours and days that followed, the Allies engaged in a fierce firebombing of the city. The offensive subsided on February 15, with around 25,000 civilians killed in the bombing. Vonnegut marveled at the level of both the destruction in Dresden and the secrecy that attended it. He had survived by taking refuge in a meat locker three stories underground. "It was cool there, with cadavers hanging all around", Vonnegut said. "When we came up the city was gone ... They burnt the whole damn town down." Vonnegut and other American prisoners were put to work immediately after the bombing, excavating bodies from the rubble. He described the activity as a "terribly elaborate Easter-egg hunt".
The American prisoners of war were evacuated on foot to the border of Saxony and Czechoslovakia after General George S. Patton captured Leipzig. With the captives abandoned by their guards, Vonnegut reached a prisoner-of-war repatriation camp in Le Havre, France, before the end of May 1945, with the aid of the Soviets. He returned to the United States and continued to serve in the Army, stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, typing discharge papers for other soldiers. Soon after he was awarded a Purple Heart about which he remarked "I myself was awarded my country's second-lowest decoration, a Purple Heart for frost-bite." He was discharged from the U.S. Army and returned to Indianapolis.
Marriage, University of Chicago and early employment
After he returned to the United States, 22-year-old Vonnegut married Jane Marie Cox, his high school girlfriend and classmate since kindergarten, on September 1, 1945. The pair relocated to Chicago; there, Vonnegut enrolled in the University of Chicago on the G.I. Bill, as an anthropology student in an unusual five-year joint undergraduate/graduate program that conferred a master's degree. He augmented his income by working as a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago at night. Jane accepted a scholarship from the university to study Russian literature as a graduate student. Jane dropped out of the program after becoming pregnant with the couple's first child, Mark (born May 1947), while Kurt also left the University without any degree (despite having completed his undergraduate education) when his master's thesis on the Ghost Dance religious movement was unanimously rejected by the department.[d]
Shortly thereafter, General Electric (GE) hired Vonnegut as a publicist for the company's Schenectady, New York research laboratory. Although the job required a college degree, Vonnegut was hired after claiming to hold a master's degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago. His brother Bernard had worked at GE since 1945, contributing significantly to an iodine-based cloud seeding project. In 1949, Kurt and Jane had a daughter named Edith. Still working for GE, Vonnegut had his first piece, titled "Report on the Barnhouse Effect", published in the February 11, 1950 issue of Collier's, for which he received $750. Vonnegut wrote another story, after being coached by the fiction editor at Collier's, Knox Burger, and again sold it to the magazine, this time for $950. Burger suggested he quit GE, a course he had contemplated before. Vonnegut moved with his family to Cape Cod, Massachusetts to write full-time, and left GE in 1951.
On Cape Cod, Vonnegut made most of his money writing pieces for magazines such as Collier's, The Saturday Evening Post, and Cosmopolitan. He also did a stint as an English teacher, wrote copy for an advertising agency, and opened the first American Saab dealership, which eventually failed. In 1952, Vonnegut's first novel, Player Piano, was published by Scribner's. The novel has a post-Third World War setting, in which factory workers have been replaced by machines.
Player Piano draws upon Vonnegut's experience as an employee at GE. He satirizes the drive to climb the corporate ladder, one that in Player Piano is rapidly disappearing as automation increases, putting even executives out of work. His central character, Paul Proteus, has an ambitious wife, a backstabbing assistant, and a feeling of empathy for the poor. Sent by his boss, Kroner, as a double agent among the poor (who have all the material goods they want, but little sense of purpose), he leads them in a machine-smashing, museum-burning revolution.Player Piano expresses Vonnegut's opposition to McCarthyism, something made clear when the Ghost Shirts, the revolutionary organization Paul penetrates and eventually leads, is referred to by one character as "fellow travelers".
In Player Piano, Vonnegut originates many of the techniques he would use in his later works. The comic, heavy-drinking Shah of Bratpuhr, an outsider to this dystopian corporate United States, is able to ask many questions that an insider would not think to ask, or would cause offense by doing so. For example, when taken to see the artificially intelligent supercomputer EPICAC, the Shah asks it "what are people for?" and receives no answer. Speaking for Vonnegut, he dismisses it as a "false god". This type of alien visitor would recur throughout Vonnegut's literature.
The New York Times writer and critic Granville Hicks gave Player Piano a positive review, favorably comparing it to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Hicks called Vonnegut a "sharp-eyed satirist". None of the reviewers considered the novel particularly important. Several editions were printed—one by Bantam with the title Utopia 14, and another by the Doubleday Science Fiction Book Club—whereby Vonnegut gained the repute of a science fiction writer, a genre held in disdain by writers at that time. He defended the genre, and deplored a perceived sentiment that "no one can simultaneously be a respectable writer and understand how a refrigerator works."
After Player Piano, Vonnegut continued to sell short stories to various magazines. In 1954 the couple had a third child, Nanette. With a growing family and no financially successful novels yet, Vonnegut's short stories sustained the family. In 1958, his sister, Alice, died of cancer two days after her husband, James Carmalt Adams, was killed in a train accident. Vonnegut adopted Alice's three young sons—James, Steven, and Kurt, aged 14, 11, and 9 respectively.
Grappling with family challenges, Vonnegut continued to write, publishing novels vastly dissimilar in terms of plot. The Sirens of Titan (1959) features a Martian invasion of Earth, as experienced by a bored billionaire, Malachi Constant. He meets Winston Rumfoord, an aristocratic space traveler, who is virtually omniscient but stuck in a time warp that allows him to appear on Earth every 59 days. The billionaire learns that his actions and the events of all of history are determined by a race of robotic aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, who need a replacement part that can only be produced by an advanced civilization in order to repair their spaceship and return home—human history has been manipulated to produce it. Some human structures, such as the Kremlin, are coded signals from the aliens to their ship as to how long it may expect to wait for the repair to take place. Reviewers were uncertain what to think of the book, with one comparing it to Offenbach's opera The Tales of Hoffmann.
Rumfoord, who is based on Franklin D. Roosevelt, also physically resembles the former president. Rumfoord is described, "he put a cigarette in a long, bone cigarette holder, lighted it. He thrust out his jaw. The cigarette holder pointed straight up." William Rodney Allen, in his guide to Vonnegut's works, stated that Rumfoord foreshadowed the fictional political figures who would play major roles in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and Jailbird.
Mother Night, published in 1961, received little attention at the time of its publication. Howard W. Campbell Jr., Vonnegut's protagonist, is an American who goes to Nazi Germany during the war as a double agent for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, and rises to the regime's highest ranks as a radio propagandist. After the war, the spy agency refuses to clear his name and he is eventually imprisoned by the Israelis in the same cell block as Adolf Eichmann, and later commits suicide. Vonnegut wrote in a foreword to a later edition, "we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be". Literary critic Lawrence Berkove considered the novel, like Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to illustrate the tendency for "impersonators to get carried away by their impersonations, to become what they impersonate and therefore to live in a world of illusion".
Also published in 1961 was Vonnegut's short story, "Harrison Bergeron", set in a dystopic future where all are equal, even if that means disfiguring beautiful people and forcing the strong or intelligent to wear devices that negate their advantages. Fourteen-year-old Harrison is a genius and athlete forced to wear record-level "handicaps" and imprisoned for attempting to overthrow the government. He escapes to a television studio, tears away his handicaps, and frees a ballerina from her lead weights. As they dance, they are killed by the Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers. Vonnegut, in a later letter, suggested that "Harrison Bergeron" might have sprung from his envy and self-pity as a high school misfit. In his 1976 biography of Vonnegut, Stanley Schatt suggested that the short story shows "in any leveling process, what really is lost, according to Vonnegut, is beauty, grace, and wisdom". Darryl Hattenhauer, in his 1998 journal article on "Harrison Bergeron", theorized that the story was a satire on American Cold War misunderstandings of communism and socialism.
With Cat's Cradle (1963), Allen wrote, "Vonnegut hit full stride for the first time". The narrator, John, intends to write of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the fictional fathers of the atomic bomb, seeking to cover the scientist's human side. Hoenikker, in addition to the bomb, has developed another threat to mankind, ice-9, solid water stable at room temperature, and if a particle of it is dropped in water, all of it becomes ice-9. Much of the second half of the book is spent on the fictional Caribbean island of San Lorenzo, where John explores a religion called Bokononism, whose holy books (excerpts from which are quoted), give the novel the moral core science does not supply. After the oceans are converted to ice-9, wiping out most of humankind, John wanders the frozen surface, seeking to have himself and his story survive.
Vonnegut based the title character of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1964), on an accountant he knew on Cape Cod, who specialized in clients in trouble and often had to comfort them. Eliot Rosewater, the wealthy son of a Republican senator, seeks to atone for his wartime killing of noncombatant firefighters by serving in a volunteer fire department, and by giving away money to those in trouble or need. Stress from a battle for control of his charitable foundation pushes him over the edge, and he is placed in a mental hospital. He recovers, and ends the financial battle by declaring the children of his county to be his heirs. Allen deemed God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater more "a cry from the heart than a novel under its author's full intellectual control", that reflected family and emotional stresses Vonnegut was going through at the time.
After spending almost two years at the writer's workshop at the University of Iowa, teaching one course each term, Vonnegut was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for research in Germany. By the time he won it, in March 1967, he was becoming a well-known writer. He used the funds to travel in Eastern Europe, including to Dresden, where he found many prominent buildings still in ruins. At the time of the bombing, Vonnegut had not appreciated the sheer scale of destruction in Dresden; his enlightenment came only slowly as information dribbled out, and based on early figures he came to believe that 135,000 had died there.[e]
Vonnegut had been writing about his war experiences at Dresden ever since he returned from the war, but had never been able to write anything acceptable to himself or his publishers—Chapter 1 of Slaughterhouse-Five tells of his difficulties. Released in 1969, the novel rocketed Vonnegut to fame. It tells of the life of Billy Pilgrim, who like Vonnegut was born in 1922 and survives the bombing of Dresden. The story is told in a non-linear fashion, with many of the story's climaxes—Billy's death in 1976, his kidnapping by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore nine years earlier, and the execution of Billy's friend Edgar Derby in the ashes of Dresden for stealing a teapot—disclosed in the story's first pages. In 1970, he was also a correspondent in Biafra during the Nigerian Civil War.Slaughterhouse-Five received generally positive reviews, with Michael Crichton writing in The New Republic, "he writes about the most excruciatingly painful things. His novels have attacked our deepest fears of automation and the bomb, our deepest political guilts, our fiercest hatreds and loves. No one else writes books on these subjects; they are inaccessible to normal novelists." The book went immediately to the top of The New York Times Best Seller list. Vonnegut's earlier works had appealed strongly to many college students, and the antiwar message of Slaughterhouse-Five resonated with a generation marked by the Vietnam War. He later stated that the loss of confidence in government that Vietnam caused finally allowed for an honest conversation regarding events like Dresden.
Later career and events
After Slaughterhouse-Five was published, Vonnegut embraced the fame and financial security that attended its release. He was hailed as a hero of the burgeoning anti-war movement in the United States, was invited to speak at numerous rallies, and gave college commencement addresses around the country. In addition to briefly teaching at Harvard University as a lecturer in creative writing in 1970, Vonnegut taught at the City College of New York as a distinguished professor during the 1973-1974 academic year. He was later elected vice president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and given honorary degrees by, among others, Indiana University and Bennington College. Vonnegut also wrote a play called Happy Birthday, Wanda June, which opened on October 7, 1970 at New York's Theatre de Lys. Receiving mixed reviews, it closed on March 14, 1971. In 1972, Universal Pictures adapted Slaughterhouse-Five into a film which the author said was "flawless".
Meanwhile, Vonnegut's personal life was disintegrating. His wife Jane had embraced Christianity, which was contrary to Vonnegut's atheistic beliefs, and with five of their six children having left home, Vonnegut said the two were forced to find "other sorts of seemingly important work to do." The couple battled over their differing beliefs until Vonnegut moved from their Cape Cod home to New York in 1971. Vonnegut called the disagreements "painful", and said the resulting split was a "terrible, unavoidable accident that we were ill-equipped to understand." The couple divorced and they remained friends until Jane's death in late 1986. Beyond his marriage, he was deeply affected when his son Mark suffered a mental breakdown in 1972, which exacerbated Vonnegut's chronic depression, and led him to take Ritalin. When he stopped taking the drug in the mid-1970s, he began to see a psychologist weekly.
Requiem (ending)–Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country, 2005
When the last living thing
has died on account of us,
how poetical it would be
if Earth could say,
in a voice floating up
from the floor
of the Grand Canyon,
"It is done."
People did not like it here.
Vonnegut's difficulties materialized in numerous ways; most distinctly though, was the painfully slow progress he was making on his next novel, the darkly comical Breakfast of Champions. In 1971, Vonnegut stopped writing the novel altogether. When it was finally released in 1973, it was panned critically. In Thomas S. Hischak's book American Literature on Stage and Screen, Breakfast of Champions was called "funny and outlandish", but reviewers noted that it "lacks substance and seems to be an exercise in literary playfulness." Vonnegut's 1976 novel Slapstick, which meditates on the relationship between him and his sister (Alice), met a similar fate. In The New York Times's review of Slapstick, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt said Vonnegut "seems to be putting less effort into [storytelling] than ever before", and that "it still seems as if he has given up storytelling after all." At times, Vonnegut was disgruntled by the personal nature of his detractors' complaints.
In 1979, Vonnegut married Jill Krementz, a photographer whom he met while she was working on a series about writers in the early 1970s. With Jill, he adopted a daughter, Lily, when the baby was three days old. In subsequent years, his popularity resurged as he published several satirical books, including Jailbird (1979), Deadeye Dick (1982), Galápagos (1985), Bluebeard (1987), and Hocus Pocus (1990). In 1986, Vonnegut was seen by a younger generation when he played himself in Rodney Dangerfield's film Back to School. The last of Vonnegut's fourteen novels, Timequake (1997), was, as University of Detroit history professor and Vonnegut biographer Gregory Sumner said, "a reflection of an aging man facing mortality and testimony to an embattled faith in the resilience of human awareness and agency." Vonnegut's final book, a collection of essays entitled A Man Without a Country (2005), became a bestseller.
Death and legacy
Vonnegut's sincerity, his willingness to scoff at received wisdom, is such that reading his work for the first time gives one the sense that everything else is rank hypocrisy. His opinion of human nature was low, and that low opinion applied to his heroes and his villains alike — he was endlessly disappointed in humanity and in himself, and he expressed that disappointment in a mixture of tar-black humor and deep despair. He could easily have become a crank, but he was too smart; he could have become a cynic, but there was something tender in his nature that he could never quite suppress; he could have become a bore, but even at his most despairing he had an endless willingness to entertain his readers: with drawings, jokes, sex, bizarre plot twists, science fiction, whatever it took.
In a 2006 Rolling Stone interview, Vonnegut sardonically stated that he would sue the Brown & Williamson tobacco company, the maker of the Pall Mall-branded cigarettes he had been smoking since he was twelve or fourteen years old, for false advertising. "And do you know why?" he said. "Because I'm 83 years old. The lying bastards! On the package Brown & Williamson promised to kill me." He died on the night of April 11, 2007 in Manhattan, as a result of brain injuries incurred several weeks prior from a fall at his New York brownstone home. His death was reported by his wife Jill. Vonnegut was 84 years old. At the time of his death, Vonnegut had written fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays and five non-fiction books. A book composed of Vonnegut's unpublished pieces, Armageddon in Retrospect, was compiled and posthumously published by Vonnegut's son Mark in 2008.
When asked about the impact Vonnegut had on his work, author Josip Novakovich stated that he has "much to learn from Vonnegut—how to compress things and yet not compromise them, how to digress into history, quote from various historical accounts, and not stifle the narrative. The ease with which he writes is sheerly masterly, Mozartian."Los Angeles Times columnist Gregory Rodriguez said that the author will "rightly be remembered as a darkly humorous social critic and the premier novelist of the counterculture", and Dinitia Smith of The New York Times dubbed Vonnegut the "counterculture's novelist."
Kurt Vonnegut has inspired numerous posthumous tributes and works. In 2008, the Kurt Vonnegut Society was established, and in November 2010, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library was opened in Vonnegut's hometown of Indianapolis. The Library of America published a compendium of Vonnegut's compositions between 1963 and 1973 the following April, and another compendium of his earlier works in 2012. Late 2011 saw the release of two Vonnegut biographies, Gregory Sumner's Unstuck in Time and Charles J. Shields's And So It Goes. Shields's biography of Vonnegut created some controversy. According to The Guardian, the book portrays Vonnegut as distant, cruel and nasty. "Cruel, nasty and scary are the adjectives commonly used to describe him by the friends, colleagues, and relatives Shields quotes", said The Daily Beast's Wendy Smith. "Towards the end he was very feeble, very depressed and almost morose", said Jerome Klinkowitz of the University of Northern Iowa, who has examined Vonnegut in depth.
Like Mark Twain, Mr. Vonnegut used humor to tackle the basic questions of human existence: Why are we in this world? Is there a presiding figure to make sense of all this, a god who in the end, despite making people suffer, wishes them well?
Vonnegut's works have evoked ire on several occasions. His most prominent novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, has been objected to or removed at various institutions in at least 18 instances. In the case of Island Trees School District v. Pico, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a school district's ban on Slaughterhouse-Five—which the board had called "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy"—and eight other novels was unconstitutional. When a school board in Republic, Missouri decided to withdraw Vonnegut's novel from its libraries, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library offered a free copy to all the students of the district.
Tally, writing in 2013, suggests that Vonnegut has only recently become the subject of serious study rather than fan adulation, and much is yet to be written about him. "The time for scholars to say 'Here's why Vonnegut is worth reading' has definitively ended, thank goodness. We know he's worth reading. Now tell us things we don't know." Todd F. Davis notes that Vonnegut's work is kept alive by his loyal readers, who have "significant influence as they continue to purchase Vonnegut's work, passing it on to subsequent generations and keeping his entire canon in print—an impressive list of more than twenty books that [Dell Publishing] has continued to refurbish and hawk with new cover designs." Donald E. Morse notes that Vonnegut, "is now firmly, if somewhat controversially, ensconced in the American and world literary canon as well as in high school, college and graduate curricula". Tally writes of Vonnegut's work:
Vonnegut's 14 novels, while each does its own thing, together are nevertheless experiments in the same overall project. Experimenting with the form of the American novel itself, Vonnegut engages in a broadly modernist attempt to apprehend and depict the fragmented, unstable, and distressing bizarreries of postmodern American experience ... That he does not actually succeed in representing the shifting multiplicities of that social experience is beside the point. What matters is the attempt, and the recognition that ... we must try to map this unstable and perilous terrain, even if we know in advance that our efforts are doomed.
The Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame inducted Vonnegut posthumously in 2015.
The asteroid 25399 Vonnegut is named in his honor.
In the introduction to Slaughterhouse-Five Vonnegut recounts meeting filmmaker Harrison Starr at a party who asked him whether his forthcoming book was an anti-war novel — "I guess" replied Vonnegut. Starr responded "Why don't you write an anti-glacier novel?". This underlined Vonnegut's belief that wars were, unfortunately, inevitable, but that it was important to ensure the wars one fought were just wars.
In 2011, NPR wrote, "Kurt Vonnegut's blend of anti-war sentiment and satire made him one of the most popular writers of the 1960s." Vonnegut stated in a 1987 interview that, "my own feeling is that civilization ended in World War I, and we're still trying to recover from that", and that he wanted to write war-focused works without glamorizing war itself. Vonnegut had not intended to publish again, but his anger against the George W. Bush administration led him to write A Man Without a Country.
Slaughterhouse-Five is the Vonnegut novel best known for its antiwar themes, but the author expressed his beliefs in ways beyond the depiction of the destruction of Dresden. He has one character, Mary O'Hare, opine that "wars were partly encouraged by books and movies", made by "Frank Sinatra or John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men". Vonnegut made a number of comparisons between Dresden and the bombing of Hiroshima in Slaughterhouse-Five and wrote in Palm Sunday (1991) that "I learned how vile that religion of mine could be when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima".
Nuclear war, or at least deployed nuclear arms, is mentioned in almost all of Vonnegut's novels. In Player Piano, the computer EPICAC is given control of the nuclear arsenal, and is charged with deciding whether to use high-explosive or nuclear arms. In Cat's Cradle, John's original purpose in setting pen to paper is to write an account of what prominent Americans had been doing as Hiroshima was bombed.
Some of you may know that I am neither Christian nor Jewish nor Buddhist, nor a conventionally religious person of any sort. I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I'm dead. [...] I myself have written, "If it weren't for the message of mercy and pity in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, I wouldn't want to be a human being. I would just as soon be a rattlesnake."
Vonnegut was an atheist and a humanist, serving as the honorary president of the American Humanist Association. In an interview for Playboy, he stated that his forebears who came to the United States did not believe in God, and he learned his atheism from his parents. He did not however disdain those who seek the comfort of religion, hailing church associations as a type of extended family. Like his great-grandfather Clemens, Vonnegut was a freethinker. He occasionally attended a Unitarian church, but with little consistency. In his autobiographical work Palm Sunday, Vonnegut says he is a "Christ-worshiping agnostic"; in a speech to the Unitarian Universalist Association, he called himself a "Christ-loving atheist". However, he was keen to stress that he was not a Christian.
Vonnegut was an admirer of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, particularly the Beatitudes, and incorporated it into his own doctrines. He also referred to it in many of his works. In his 1991 book Fates Worse than Death, Vonnegut suggests that during the Reagan administration, "anything that sounded like the Sermon on the Mount was socialistic or communistic, and therefore anti-American". In Palm Sunday, he wrote that "the Sermon on the Mount suggests a mercifulness that can never waver or fade." However, Vonnegut had a deep dislike for certain aspects of Christianity, often reminding his readers of the bloody history of the Crusades and other religion-inspired violence. He despised the televangelists of the late 20th century, feeling that their thinking was narrow-minded.
Religion features frequently in Vonnegut's work, both in his novels and elsewhere. He laced a number of his speeches with religion-focused rhetoric, and was prone to using such expressions as "God forbid" and "thank God". He once wrote his own version of the Requiem Mass, which he then had translated into Latin and set to music. In God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, Vonnegut goes to heaven after he is euthanized by Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Once in heaven, he interviews 21 deceased celebrities, including Isaac Asimov, William Shakespeare, and Kilgore Trout—the last a fictional character from several of his novels. Vonnegut's works are filled with characters founding new faiths, and religion often serves as a major plot device, for example in Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan and Cat's Cradle. In The Sirens of Titan, Rumfoord proclaims The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. Slaughterhouse-Five sees Billy Pilgrim, lacking religion himself, nevertheless become a chaplain's assistant in the military and display a large crucifix on his bedroom wall. In Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut invented the religion of Bokononism.
Vonnegut did not particularly sympathize with liberalism or conservatism, and mused on the specious simplicity of American politics. "If you want to take my guns away from me, and you're all for murdering fetuses, and love it when homosexuals marry each other [...] you're a liberal. If you are against those perversions and for the rich, you're a conservative. What could be simpler?" Regarding political parties, Vonnegut said, "The two real political parties in America are the Winners and the Losers. The people don’t acknowledge this. They claim membership in two imaginary parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, instead."
Vonnegut disregarded more mainstream political ideologies in favor of socialism, which he thought could provide a valuable substitute for what he saw as social Darwinism and a spirit of "survival of the fittest" in American society, believing that "socialism would be a good for the common man". Vonnegut would often return to a quote by socialist and five-time presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs: "As long as there is a lower class, I am in it. As long as there is a criminal element, I'm of it. As long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free." Vonnegut expressed disappointment that communism and socialism seemed to be unsavory topics to the average American, and believed that they may offer beneficial substitutes to contemporary social and economic systems.
Vonnegut's writing was inspired by an eclectic mix of sources. When he was younger, Vonnegut stated that he read works of pulp fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and action-adventure. He also read the Classics, like those of Aristophanes. Aristophanes, like Vonnegut, wrote humorous critiques of contemporary society. Vonnegut's life and work also share similarities with that of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn writer Mark Twain. Both shared pessimistic outlooks on humanity, and a skeptical take on religion, and, as Vonnegut put it, were both "associated with the enemy in a major war", as Twain briefly enlisted in the South's cause during the American Civil War, and Vonnegut's German name and ancestry connected him with the United States' enemy in both world wars.
Vonnegut called George Orwell his favorite writer, and admitted that he tried to emulate Orwell. "I like his concern for the poor, I like his socialism, I like his simplicity", Vonnegut said. Vonnegut also said that Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, heavily influenced his debut novel, Player Piano, in 1952. Vonnegut commented that Robert Louis Stevenson's stories were emblems of thoughtfully put together works that he tried to mimic in his own compositions. Vonnegut also hailed playwright and socialist George Bernard Shaw as "a hero of [his]", and an "enormous influence." Within his own family, Vonnegut stated that his mother, Edith, had the greatest influence on him. "[My] mother thought she might make a new fortune by writing for the slick magazines. She took short-story courses at night. She studied magazines the way gamblers study racing forms."
Early on in his career, Vonnegut decided to model his style after Henry David Thoreau, who wrote as if from the perspective of a child, allowing Thoreau's works to be more widely comprehensible. Using a youthful narrative voice allowed Vonnegut to deliver concepts in a modest and straightforward way. Other influences on Vonnegut include The War of the Worlds author H. G. Wells, and satirist Jonathan Swift. Vonnegut credited newspaper magnate H. L. Mencken for inspiring him to become a journalist.
Style and technique
Not all Mr. Vonnegut’s themes were metaphysical. With a blend of vernacular writing, science fiction, jokes and philosophy, he also wrote about the banalities of consumer culture, for example, or the destruction of the environment.
His novels — 14 in all — were alternate universes, filled with topsy-turvy images and populated by races of his own creation, like the Tralfamadorians and the Mercurian Harmoniums. He invented phenomena like chrono-synclastic infundibula (places in the universe where all truths fit neatly together) as well as religions, like the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent and Bokononism (based on the books of a black British Episcopalian from Tobago “filled with bittersweet lies,” a narrator says).
The defining moment of Mr. Vonnegut’s life was the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, by Allied forces in 1945, an event he witnessed firsthand as a young prisoner of war. Thousands of civilians were killed in the raids, many of them burned to death or asphyxiated. “The firebombing of Dresden,” Mr. Vonnegut wrote, “was a work of art.” It was, he added, “a tower of smoke and flame to commemorate the rage and heartbreak of so many who had had their lives warped or ruined by the indescribable greed and vanity and cruelty of Germany.”
His experience in Dresden was the basis of “Slaughterhouse-Five,” which was published in 1969 against the backdrop of war in Vietnam, racial unrest and cultural and social upheaval. The novel, wrote the critic Jerome Klinkowitz, “so perfectly caught America’s transformative mood that its story and structure became best-selling metaphors for the new age.”
To Mr. Vonnegut, the only possible redemption for the madness and apparent meaninglessness of existence was human kindness. The title character in his 1965 novel, “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,” summed up his philosophy:
“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’ ”
Mr. Vonnegut eschewed traditional structure and punctuation. His books were a mixture of fiction and autobiography, prone to one-sentence paragraphs, exclamation points and italics. Graham Greene called him “one of the most able of living American writers.” Some critics said he had invented a new literary type, infusing the science-fiction form with humor and moral relevance and elevating it to serious literature.
He was also accused of repeating himself, of recycling themes and characters. Some readers found his work incoherent. His harshest critics called him no more than a comic book philosopher, a purveyor of empty aphorisms.
With his curly hair askew, deep pouches under his eyes and rumpled clothes, he often looked like an out-of-work philosophy professor, typically chain smoking, his conversation punctuated with coughs and wheezes. But he also maintained a certain celebrity, as a regular on panels and at literary parties in Manhattan and on the East End of Long Island, where he lived near his friend and fellow war veteran Joseph Heller, another darkly comic literary hero of the age.
Mr. Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis in 1922, a fourth-generation German-American and the youngest of three children. His father, Kurt Sr., was an architect. His mother, Edith, came from a wealthy brewery family. Mr. Vonnegut’s brother, Bernard, who died in 1997, was a physicist and an expert on thunderstorms.
During the Depression, the elder Vonnegut went for long stretches without work, and Mrs. Vonnegut suffered from episodes of mental illness. “When my mother went off her rocker late at night, the hatred and contempt she sprayed on my father, as gentle and innocent a man as ever lived, was without limit and pure, untainted by ideas or information,” Mr. Vonnegut wrote. She committed suicide, an act that haunted her son for the rest of his life.
He had, he said, a lifelong difficulty with women. He remembered an aunt once telling him, “ ‘All Vonnegut men are scared to death of women.’ ”
“My theory is that all women have hydrofluoric acid bottled up inside,” he wrote.
Mr. Vonnegut went east to attend Cornell University, but he enlisted in the Army before he could get a degree. The Army initially sent him to the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie-Mellon) in Pittsburgh and the University of Tennessee to study mechanical engineering.
In 1944 he was shipped to Europe with the 106th Infantry Division and shortly saw combat in the Battle of the Bulge. With his unit nearly destroyed, he wandered behind enemy lines for several days until he was captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp near Dresden, the architectural jewel of Germany.
Assigned by his captors to make vitamin supplements, he was working with other prisoners in an underground meat locker when British and American war planes started carpet bombing the city, creating a firestorm above him. The work detail saved his life.
Afterward, he and his fellow prisoners were assigned to remove the dead.
“The corpses, most of them in ordinary cellars, were so numerous and represented such a health hazard that they were cremated on huge funeral pyres, or by flamethrowers whose nozzles were thrust into the cellars, without being counted or identified,” he wrote in “Fates Worse Than Death.” When the war ended, Mr. Vonnegut returned to the United States and married his high school sweetheart, Jane Marie Cox. They settled in Chicago in 1945. The couple had three children: Mark, Edith and Nanette. In 1958, Mr. Vonnegut’s sister, Alice, and her husband died within a day of each other, she of cancer and he in a train crash. The Vonneguts adopted their children, Tiger, Jim and Steven.
In Chicago, Mr. Vonnegut worked as a police reporter for the Chicago City News Bureau. He also studied for a master’s degree in anthropology at the University of Chicago, writing a thesis on “The Fluctuations Between Good and Evil in Simple Tales.” It was rejected unanimously by the faculty. (The university finally awarded him a degree almost a quarter of a century later, allowing him to use his novel “Cat’s Cradle” as his thesis.)
In 1947, he moved to Schenectady, N.Y., and took a job in public relations for the General Electric Company. Three years later he sold his first short story, “Report on the Barnhouse Effect,” to Collier’s magazine and decided to move his family to Cape Cod, Mass., where he wrote fiction for magazines like Argosy and The Saturday Evening Post. To bolster his income, he taught emotionally disturbed children, worked at an advertising agency and at one point started an auto dealership.
His first novel was “Player Piano,” published in 1952. A satire on corporate life — the meetings, the pep talks, the cultivation of bosses — it also carries echoes of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” It concerns an engineer, Paul Proteus, who is employed by the Ilium Works, a company similar to General Electric. Proteus becomes the leader of a band of revolutionaries who destroy machines that they think are taking over the world.
“Player Piano” was followed in 1959 by “The Sirens of Titan,” a science fiction novel featuring the Church of God of the Utterly Indifferent. In 1961 he published “Mother Night,” involving an American writer awaiting trial in Israel on charges of war crimes in Nazi Germany. Like Mr. Vonnegut’s other early novels, they were published as paperback originals. And like “Slaughterhouse-Five,” in 1972, and a number of other Vonnegut novels, “Mother Night” was adapted for film, in 1996, starring Nick Nolte.
In 1963, Mr. Vonnegut published “Cat’s Cradle.” Though it initially sold only about 500 copies, it is widely read today in high school English classes. The novel, which takes its title from an Eskimo game in which children try to snare the sun with string, is an autobiographical work about a family named Hoenikker. The narrator, an adherent of the religion Bokononism, is writing a book about the bombing of Hiroshima and comes to witness the destruction of the world by something called Ice-Nine, which, on contact, causes all water to freeze at room temperature.
Mr. Vonnegut shed the label of science fiction writer with “Slaughterhouse-Five.” It tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, an infantry scout (as Mr. Vonnegut was), who discovers the horror of war. “You know — we’ve had to imagine the war here, and we have imagined that it was being fought by aging men like ourselves,” an English colonel says in the book. “We had forgotten that wars were fought by babies. When I saw those freshly shaved faces, it was a shock. My God, my God — I said to myself, ‘It’s the Children’s Crusade.’ ”
As Mr. Vonnegut was, Billy is captured and assigned to manufacture vitamin supplements in an underground meat locker, where the prisoners take refuge from Allied bombing.
In “Slaughterhouse-Five,” Mr. Vonnegut introduced the recurring character of Kilgore Trout, his fictional alter ego. The novel also featured a signature Vonnegut phrase.
“Robert Kennedy, whose summer home is eight miles from the home I live in all year round,” Mr. Vonnegut wrote at the end of the book, “was shot two nights ago. He died last night. So it goes.
“Martin Luther King was shot a month ago. He died, too. So it goes. And every day my Government gives me a count of corpses created by military science in Vietnam. So it goes.”
One of many Zen-like words and phrases that run through Mr. Vonnegut’s books, “so it goes” became a catchphrase for opponents of the Vietnam war.
“Slaughterhouse-Five” reached No.1 on best-seller lists, making Mr. Vonnegut a cult hero. Some schools and libraries have banned it because of its sexual content, rough language and scenes of violence.
After the book was published, Mr. Vonnegut went into severe depression and vowed never to write another novel. Suicide was always a temptation, he wrote. In 1984, he tried to take his life with sleeping pills and alcohol.
“The child of a suicide will naturally think of death, the big one, as a logical solution to any problem,” he wrote. His son Mark also suffered a breakdown, in the 1970s, from which he recovered, writing about it in a book, “Eden Express: A Memoir of Insanity.”
Forsaking novels, Mr. Vonnegut decided to become a playwright. His first effort, “Happy Birthday, Wanda June,” opened Off Broadway in 1970 to mixed reviews. Around this time he separated from his wife, Jane, and moved to New York. (She remarried and died in 1986.)
In 1979 Mr. Vonnegut married the photographer Jill Krementz. They have a daughter, Lily. They survive him, as do all his other children.
Mr. Vonnegut returned to novels with “Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday” (1973), calling it a “tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.” This time his alter ego is Philboyd Sludge, who is writing a book about Dwayne Hoover, a wealthy auto dealer. Hoover has a breakdown after reading a novel written by Kilgore Trout, who reappears in this book, and begins to believe that everyone around him is a robot.
In 1997, Mr. Vonnegut published “Timequake,” a tale of the millennium in which a wrinkle in space-time compels the world to relive the 1990s. The book, based on an earlier failed novel of his, was, in his own words, “a stew” of plot summaries and autobiographical writings. Once again, Kilgore Trout is a character. “If I’d wasted my time creating characters,” Mr. Vonnegut said in defense of his “recycling,” “I would never have gotten around to calling attention to things that really matter.”
Though it was a bestseller, it also met with mixed reviews. “Having a novelist’s free hand to write what you will does not mean you are entitled to a free ride,” R. Z. Sheppard wrote in Time. But the novelist Valerie Sayers, in The New York Times Book Review, wrote: “The real pleasure lies in Vonnegut’s transforming his continuing interest in the highly suspicious relationship between fact and fiction into the neatest trick yet played on a publishing world consumed with the furor over novel versus memoir.”
Mr. Vonnegut said in the prologue to “Timequake” that it would be his last novel. And so it was.
His last book, in 2005, was a collection of biographical essays, “A Man Without a Country.” It, too, was a best seller.
In concludes with a poem written by Mr. Vonnegut called “Requiem,” which has these closing lines:
When the last living thing
has died on account of us,
how poetical it would be
if Earth could say,
in a voice floating up
from the floor
of the Grand Canyon,
“It is done.”
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