Kurt Vonnegut

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Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1922 – 2007), was a popular American novelist and short story writer. His most prominent work, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), is based on his personal experiences as a prisoner of war trapped in Dresden as the Allies bombed the city (during World War II). Breakfast of Champions (1973) was his most commercially successful book, though it was not as acclaimed by critics. His lesser-known Mother House is considered a masterpiece.

Early life

Vonnegut was born to a prominent family in Indianapolis, Indiana. His father's family (surname "Funnegut" changed to "Vonnegut") immigrated from Germany to America in the early 19th century. They regarded themselves as atheists, styling themselves "freethinkers", one of his ancestor's relatives arranging to have his disbelief in life after death expressed at his funeral oration.

His parents' wedding was held as a grand event in Indianapolis, attended by those in the highest social circles there. His father trained as an architect and Vonnegut recounts he would often tell true stories with what he felt were unusual outcomes that he felt stood on their own merit as worth telling.

Vonnegut was one of three children, his brother Bernard growing up to become an esteemed atmospheric physicist. Like so many in America when the Great Depression hit, his family suffered from financial insecurity, and when his father brought over a businessman offering a suspicious investment that gave his father hope of regaining that security, the precocious younger Vonnegut questioned the issuer, much to the consternation of his father, but the businessman later ended up cheating many in Indianapolis out of their wealth when his scheme turned out to be fraudulent.

Vonnegut admitted later in life that, possibly in part due to stress from motherhood and the ordeals involved in Great Depression that his mother would lapse into intense fits of rage and that she eventually committed suicide, her cause of death being publicly covered up. Vonnegut would struggle with depression himself throughout his life.

Vonnegut recounted growing up in Indianapolis with a fondness for reading Mark Twain and the kind of pranks often found in his works. This grew into a talent for writing, and when Vonnegut attended Cornell University he became editor of the Cornell Daily Sun. He failed to receive a Master's degree, however, when his master's thesis was rejected shortly before he was conscripted into the Army during World War II. Vonnegut pulled a prank during his battalion recruitment muster, however, ensuring he would remain a private for most of the war.

Service during World War II

While serving as a US Army infantry scout, Vonnegut was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and sent to a POW camp in Dresden. By day he was forced to work in a factory and by night he was confined in the basement meat locker of a slaughterhouse. It was in the safety of this locker, some 60 feet underground, that he and some of his fellow prisoners were able to survive the firebombing of Dresden on February 13-15, 1945.[1]

In the aftermath, Vonnegut describes:

Every day we walked into the city and dug into basements and shelters to get the corpses out, as a sanitary measure. When we went into them, a typical shelter, an ordinary basement usually, looked like a streetcar full of people who’d simultaneously had heart failure. Just people sitting there in their chairs, all dead. A fire storm is an amazing thing. It doesn’t occur in nature. It’s fed by the tornadoes that occur in the midst of it and there isn’t a damned thing to breathe. We brought the dead out. They were loaded on wagons and taken to parks, large open areas in the city which weren’t filled with rubble. The Germans got funeral pyres going, burning the bodies to keep them from stinking and from spreading disease.[2]

As the Allies advanced into Germany, his group of POW survivors were marched out of Dresden, only to be abandoned by their guards “somewhere in rural Southeastern Germany, near the border with Czechoslovakia.” Vonnegut eventually made his way to a repatriation camp in Le Havre, France, before the end of May 1945, with the aid of the Soviets. When he returned to America, Vonnegut was awarded a Purple Heart for his service.[3]

Short story writer and aspiring novelist

Later, using a coarse expression, he described his lack of marriage prospects upon returning to Indianapolis, but that year, he married and soon had a son.

Vonnegut sold his first humorous short story in 1950, "The Barnhouse Effect", with the assistance of an editor named Knox Burger, to whom he dedicated his second collection of short stories in 1968. He was to sell many more during the rest of the decade, some to The Saturday Evening Post, a journal which would only publish some of them after he became famous, and others which he considered inferior publications, possibly in which to conceal some hack work.

In 1952 he published his first novel, Player Piano, in the dystopian science fiction genre for which he said he had taken the plot from Brave New World. The novel featured a lengthy scene employing business promotional-style literature, a job at which he hinted he was offered in one of his other short stories.

In 1959 he published a second dystopian science fiction novel, The Sirens of Titan, which combined intense social commentary in outlandish scientific fantasy milieus.

About 1960, an event occurred that has been overlooked by his biographers: The pessimistic agnostic/atheist Vonnegut wrote a Christmas play for a large ladies journal. This event, and the sincere appreciation it must have received in the form of letters from women assuming he had written it out of a devoted faith, seemed to have a deep effect on him for the rest of his life.

Afterwards and religious beliefs

Vonnegut described himself as an agnostic/atheist/secular humanist and in 1992 won the "Humanist of the Year" award (He referred to himself as a "Christ loving agnostic" and then later as a "Christ loving atheist" at an event).[4] He attributed his agnosticism/atheism to having studied anthropology. In Hocus Pocus one of his characters is disrespectful of those with faith, rebutting the observation of "there were no atheists in foxholes" with the comment, "There's a Chaplain who never visited the front."[5] Also, in later writings Vonnegut referred to conservative Christians as "not-so-closeted white supremacists, aka “Christians".[6] Concerning the saying "There are no atheists in foxholes", Vonnegut said, “People say there are no atheists in foxholes. A lot of people think this is a good argument against atheism. Personally, I think it's a much better argument against foxholes.”[7]

A detailed analysis of Vonnegut's religious views found him to be a great admirer of Christianity, but not Christian himself.[8] Dan Wakefield observed, “Except for John Updike, a confessed Christian, and James Baldwin, who had been a junior minister at a Pentecostal church as a boy in Harlem, it is hard to think of any other leading writer of the era who mentioned Jesus at all, except as a curse word.”[9]

Robert Scholes gave this review of the Slaughterhouse-Five in the New York Times Book Review:[10]

Be kind. Don't hurt. Death is coming for all of us anyway, and it is better to be Lot's wife looking back through salty eyes than the Deity that destroyed those cities of the plain in order to save them. ... Slaughterhouse Five is an extraordinary success. It is a book we need to read, and to reread.

Vonnegut's timing was perfect, as America in 1969 was struggling with the Vietnam War and other issues relevant to the book, such as ecology, consumerism and claims of overpopulation.

Vonnegut's last book, Man Without a Country, is a scathing criticism of the Bush Administration and current U.S. foreign policy.

Vonnegut died on April 11, 2007 from brain injuries he received in a fall almost five weeks earlier.


List of Novels

(1952) Player Piano
(1959) The Sirens of Titan
(1961) Mother Night
(1963) Cat's Cradle
(1965) God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; or, Pearls before Swine
(1969) Slaughterhouse-Five; or, The Children's Crusade
(1973) Breakfast of Champions; or, Goodbye Blue Monday
(1976) Slapstick; or, Lonesome No More
(1979) Jailbird
(1982) Deadeye Dick
(1985) Galápagos
(1987) Bluebeard
(1990) Hocus Pocus
(1997) Timequake

List of Short Stories or Essays

(1961) Canary in a Cathouse
(1968) Welcome to the Monkey House: A Collection of Short Works
(1974) Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons
(1981) Palm Sunday
(1991) Fates Worse than Death
(1999) Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction
(1999) God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian
(2005) A Man Without a Country

Posthumously Published

(2008) Armageddon in Retrospect
(2009) Look at the Birdie