Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
|Born:||November 11, 1922
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA
|Died:||April 11, 2007
New York, New York, USA
|Literary genre:||Literary fiction|
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (November 11, 1922 – April 11, 2007) was an American novelist known for works blending satire, black comedy, and science fiction, such as Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), Cat's Cradle (1963), and Breakfast of Champions (1973). Like his friend, Joseph Heller, whom he met at a literary convention on the night of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Vonnegut is known for his ironical and satirical look at modern life. Vonnegut was a former President of the American Humanist Association. Secular humanism is characterized by confidence in human reason and the scientific method as a means of discovering truth and organizing society; an emphasis on earthly life; and optimism that a more rational organization of society can make life better for all humans.
Vonnegut was born to third-generation German-American parents in Indianapolis, Indiana. As a student at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis, Vonnegut worked on the nation's first daily high school newspaper, The Daily Echo. He briefly attended Butler University but dropped out when a professor said his stories were not good enough. He attended Cornell University from 1941 to 1942, where he served as assistant managing editor and associate editor for the student newspaper, the Cornell Daily Sun, majoring in biochemistry. While attending Cornell, he was a member of the Delta Upsilon fraternity, following in the footsteps of his father. Nevertheless, Vonnegut often spoke and wrote about The Sun being the only enjoyable part of his time at Cornell. He enrolled at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in 1943. He studied there only briefly before enlisting in the U.S. Army during World War II. On May 14, 1944, Mothers' Day, his mother, Edith Lieber Vonnegut, committed suicide.
Vonnegut's experience as a soldier and prisoner of war had a profound influence on his later work. As an advance scout with the U.S. 106th Infantry Division during the Battle of the Bulge, Vonnegut was cut off from his battalion and wandered alone behind enemy lines for several days until he was captured by German troops on December 14, 1944. While a prisoner of war, Vonnegut witnessed the aftermath of the February 13–February 15, 1945 bombing of Dresden, Germany, which destroyed much of the city. Vonnegut was one of just seven American prisoners of war in Dresden to survive, in an underground meatpacking cellar known as “Slaughterhouse Five.” "Utter destruction," he recalled. "Carnage unfathomable."
The Nazis put him to work gathering bodies for mass burial, Vonnegut explains. "But there were too many corpses to bury. So instead the Nazis sent in guys with flamethrowers. All these civilians' remains were burned to ashes." This experience formed the core of his most famous work, Slaughterhouse-Five and is a theme in at least six other books.
After the war, Vonnegut attended the University of Chicago as a graduate student in anthropology and also worked as a police reporter at the City News Bureau of Chicago. According to Vonnegut in Bagombo Snuff Box, the university rejected his first thesis on the necessity of accounting for the similarities between Cubist painting and Native American uprisings of the late nineteenth century, saying it was "unprofessional." They later accepted his novel Cat's Cradle and awarded him the degree. He left Chicago to work in Schenectady, New York, in public relations for General Electric. He attributes his unadorned writing style to his earlier reporting work.
On the verge of abandoning writing, Vonnegut was offered a teaching job at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. While he was there Cat's Cradle became a best-seller, and he began Slaughterhouse-Five, now considered one of the best American novels of the twentieth century, appearing on the 100 best lists of Time magazine and the Modern Library.
He married his childhood sweetheart, Jane Marie Cox, after returning from World War II, but the couple separated in 1970. He did not divorce Cox until 1979, but from 1970 to 2000, Vonnegut lived with the woman who would later become his second wife, photographer Jill Krementz. Krementz and Vonnegut were married after the divorce from Cox was finalized.
He had seven children: he shared three with his first wife, adopted his sister Alice's three children when she died of cancer, and adopted another child, Lily. Two of these children have published books, including his only biological son, Mark Vonnegut, who wrote The Eden Express: A Memoir of Insanity, about his experiences in the late 1960s and his major psychotic breakdown and recovery; the tendency to insanity he acknowledged may be partly hereditary, influencing him to take up the study of medicine and orthomolecular psychiatry. Mark was named after Mark Twain, whom Vonnegut considered an American saint, and to whom he bears some resemblance, in both style and appearance.
His daughter Edith Vonnegut, an artist, has also had her work published in a book entitled Domestic Goddesses. Edith was once married to Geraldo Rivera. She was named after Vonnegut's mother, Edith Lieber. His youngest daughter is Nanette, named after Nanette Schnull, Vonnegut's paternal grandmother.
Of Vonnegut's four adopted children, three are his nephews: James, Steven and Kurt Adams; the fourth is Lily, a girl he adopted as an infant in 1982. James, Steven and Kurt were adopted after a traumatic week in 1958, in which their father was killed when his commuter train went off an open drawbridge in New Jersey, and their mother—Kurt's sister Alice—died of cancer. In Slapstick or Lonesome No More, Kurt recounts that Alice's husband died two days before Alice herself. Her family tried to hide the knowledge from her, but she found out when an ambulatory patient gave her a copy of the New York Daily News, a day before she herself died. The fourth and youngest of the boys, Peter Nice, went to live with a first cousin of their father in Birmingham, Alabama as an infant. Lily is a singer and actress.
On January 31, 2000, a fire destroyed the top story of his home. Vonnegut suffered smoke inhalation and was hospitalized in critical condition for four days. He survived, but his personal archives were destroyed. After leaving the hospital, he recuperated in Northampton, Massachusetts.
His first short story, "Report on the Barnhouse Effect," appeared in 1950 in Collier's. His first novel was the dystopian science fiction novel Player Piano (1952), in which human workers have been largely replaced by machines. He continued to write science fiction short stories before his second novel, The Sirens of Titan, was published in 1959. Through the 1960s the form of his work changed, from the orthodox science fiction of Cat's Cradle (which in 1971 got him his master's degree) to the acclaimed, semiautobiographical Slaughterhouse-Five, given a more experimental structure by using time travel as a plot device.
These structural experiments were continued in Breakfast of Champions (1973), which included many rough illustrations, lengthy non-sequiturs and an appearance by the author himself, as a deus ex machina.
Vonnegut attempted suicide in 1984 and later wrote about this in several essays.
Breakfast of Champions became one of his best sellers. It includes, beyond the author himself, several of Vonnegut's recurring characters. One of them, Kilgore Trout, plays a major role and interacts with the author's character.
In addition to recurring characters, there are also recurring themes and ideas. One of them is ice-nine (a central wampeter in his novel Cat's Cradle), said to be a new form of ice with a different crystal structure from normal ice. When a crystal of ice-nine is brought into contact with liquid water, it becomes a seed that “teaches” the molecules of liquid water to arrange themselves into ice-nine. However, this process is not easily reversible, as the melting point of ice-nine is 114.4 degrees Fahrenheit (45.8 degrees Celsius). Ice-nine could be considered a fictionalization of the real scientific controversy surrounding polywater, a hypothetical form of water which has since been disproved.
Metaphorically, ice-nine represents any potentially lethal invention created without regard for the consequences. Ice-nine—the eighth in a series of differently crystalizing ices with successively higher melting points—is patently dangerous, as even a small piece of it dropped in the ocean would cause all the earth's water to solidify (Vonnegut ignores the fact that this is thermodynamically impossible). Yet it was created, simply because human beings like to create and invent.
Although many of his later novels involved science fiction themes, they were widely read and reviewed outside the field, not least due to their anti-authoritarianism. For example, his seminal short story “Harrison Bergeron” graphically demonstrates how even the debatably noble sentiment of egalitarianism, when combined with too much authority, becomes horrific repression.
In much of his work Vonnegut's own voice is apparent, often filtered through the character of science fiction author Kilgore Trout (based on real-life science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon), characterized by wild leaps of imagination and a deep cynicism, tempered by humanism. In the foreword to Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut wrote that as a child, he saw men with locomotor ataxia, and it struck him that these men walked like broken machines; it followed that healthy people were working machines, suggesting that humans are helpless prisoners of determinism. Vonnegut also explored this theme in Slaughterhouse-Five, in which protagonist Billy Pilgrim "has come unstuck in time" and has so little control over his own life that he cannot even predict which part of it he will be living through from minute to minute. Vonnegut's well-known phrase "So it goes," used ironically in reference to death, also originated in Slaughterhouse-Five and became a slogan for anti-Vietnam War protestors in the 1960s. "Its combination of simplicity, irony, and rue is very much in the Vonnegut vein."
With the publication of his novel Timequake, Vonnegut announced his retirement from writing fiction. He continued to write for the magazine In These Times, where he was a senior editor, until his death in 2007, focusing on subjects ranging from contemptuous criticism of President George W. Bush's administration to simple observational pieces on topics such as a trip to the post office. In 2005, many of his essays were collected in a new bestselling book titled A Man Without a Country, which he insisted would be his last contribution.
An August 2006 article reported:
He has stalled finishing his highly anticipated novel If God Were Alive Today - or so he claims. "I've given up on it ... It won't happen. ... The Army kept me on because I could type, so I was typing other people's discharges and stuff. And my feeling was, 'Please, I've done everything I was supposed to do. Can I go home now?' That's what I feel right now. I've written books. Lots of them. Please, I've done everything I'm supposed to do. Can I go home now?"
Vonnegut's work as a graphic artist began with his illustrations for Slaughterhouse-Five and developed with Breakfast of Champions, which included numerous felt-tip pen illustrations, such as anal sphincters, and other, less indelicate images. Later in his career, he became more interested in artwork, particularly silk-screen prints, pursued in collaboration with Joe Petro III.
More recently, Vonnegut participated in the project The Greatest Album Covers That Never Were, where he created an album cover for Phish called Hook, Line and Sinker, which has been included in a traveling exhibition for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Vonnegut was a humanist; he served as honorary president of the American Humanist Association, having replaced Isaac Asimov in what Vonnegut called "that totally functionless capacity." He was deeply influenced by early socialist labor leaders, especially Indiana natives Powers Hapgood and Eugene V. Debs, and he frequently quotes them in his work. He named characters after both Debs (Eugene Debs Hartke in Hocus Pocus) and Russian communist leader Leon Trotsky (Leon Trotsky Trout in Galapagos). He was a lifetime member of the American Civil Liberties Union, and was featured in a print advertisement for them.
Walter Starbuck, the main character of his novel Jailbird, was a minor bureaucrat in the Nixon administration who found himself swept up in the Watergate scandal. Otherwise, while he frequently addressed moral and political issues, Vonnegut rarely dealt with specific political figures until after his retirement from fiction. His collection God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian referenced controversial assisted suicide proponent Jack Kevorkian.
With his columns for In These Times, he began a blistering attack on the administration of President George W. Bush and the Iraq war. "By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East?" he wrote. "Their morale, like so many bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas in December."
In A Man Without a Country, he wrote that "George W. Bush has gathered around him upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography." He did not regard the 2004 election with much optimism; speaking of Bush and Massachusetts senator and Democratic presidential nominee, John Kerry, he said that "no matter which one wins, we will have a Skull and Bones President at a time when entire vertebrate species, because of how we have poisoned the topsoil, the waters and the atmosphere, are becoming, hey presto, nothing but skulls and bones."
In 2005 Vonnegut was interviewed by David Neson for The Australian. During the course of the interview Vonnegut was asked his opinion of modern terrorists, to which he replied "I regard them as very brave people." When pressed further Vonnegut also said that "They [suicide bombers] are dying for their own self-respect. It's a terrible thing to deprive someone of their self-respect. It's [like] your culture is nothing, your race is nothing, you're nothing ... It is sweet and noble - sweet and honourable I guess it is - to die for what you believe in" (This last statement is a reference to the line "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" ["it is sweet and appropriate to die for your country"] from Horace's Odes, or possibly from Wilfred Owen's ironic use of the line in his “Dulce Et Decorum Est”). David Neson took offense to Vonnegut's comments and characterized him as an old man who "doesn't want to live any more ... and because he can't find anything worthwhile to keep him alive, he finds defending terrorists somehow amusing." Vonnegut's son, Dr. Mark Vonnegut, responded to the article by writing an editorial to the Boston Globe in which he explained the reasons behind his father's "provocative posturing" and stated that "If these commentators can so badly misunderstand and underestimate an utterly unguarded English-speaking 83-year-old man with an extensive public record of exactly what he thinks, maybe we should worry about how well they understand an enemy they can't figure out what to call."
A 2006 interview with Rolling Stone magazine stated:
... it's not surprising that he disdains everything about the Iraq War. The very notion that more than 2,500 U.S. soldiers have been killed in what he sees as an unnecessary conflict makes him groan. “Honestly, I wish Nixon were president,” Vonnegut laments. “Bush is so ignorant.”
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