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.
Vonnegut attended Cornell University where he was the editor of the Cornell Daily Sun.
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). 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." Also, in later writings Vonnegut referred to conservative Christians as "not-so-closeted white supremacists, aka “Christians". 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.”
While serving as a US Army infantry battalion 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.
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.
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.
Robert Scholes gave this review of the Slaughterhouse-Five in the New York Times Book Review:
- 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 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
(1982) Deadeye Dick
(1990) Hocus Pocus
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
(2008) Armageddon in Retrospect
(2009) Look at the Birdie
- Kurt Vonnegut, “Christ-Loving Atheist” by Dan Wakefield, Salo University
- Kurt Vonnegut, Hocus Pocus, pg. 182
- Kurt Vonnegut quote
- WHAT KURT VONNEGUT SAW IN WORLD WAR II THAT MADE HIM CRAZY (ALONG WITH BILLY PILGRIM, RABO KARABEKIAN, ELIOT ROSEWATER, ET AL.), Philip Beidler, Michigan Quarterly Review, Volume XLIX, Issue 1, Winter 2010