Author of the Month: Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (November 11, 1922 – April 11, 2007) was an American writer. His works such as Cat’s Cradle (1963), Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), and Breakfast of Champions (1973) blend satire, gallows humor, and science fiction. As a citizen he was a lifelong supporter of the American Civil Liberties Union and a critical pacifist intellectual. He was known for his humanist beliefs and was honorary president of the American Humanist Association.Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, to third-generation German-American parents Kurt Vonnegut, Sr., and Edith (née Lieber).Vonnegut graduated from Shortridge High School in Indianapolis in May 1940 and went to Cornell University that fall. Though majoring in chemistry, he was Assistant Managing Editor and Associate Editor of The Cornell Daily Sun. He was a member of the Delta Upsilon Fraternity, as was his father. While at Cornell, Vonnegut enlisted in the United States Army. The Army transferred him to the Carnegie Institute of Technology and the University of Tennessee to study mechanical engineering.Kurt Vonnegut’s experience as a soldier and prisoner of war had a profound influence on his later work. As a private with the 423rd Infantry Regiment, 106th Infantry Division, Vonnegut was captured during the Battle of the Bulge on December 19, 1944, after the 106th was cut off from the rest of Courtney Hodges’s First Army. Imprisoned in Dresden, Vonnegut was chosen as a leader of the POWs because he spoke some German. While a prisoner, he witnessed the fire bombing of Dresden in February 1945, which destroyed most of the city. Vonnegut was one of a group of American prisoners of war to survive the attack in an underground slaughterhouse meat locker used by the Germans as an ad hoc detention facility. The Germans called the building Schlachthof Fünf (Slaughterhouse Five) which the Allied POWs adopted as the name for their prison. This experience was the inspiration for his famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, and is a central theme in at least six of his other books.Vonnegut was liberated by Red Army troops in May 1945 at the Saxony-Czechoslovakian border. Upon returning to America, he was awarded a Purple Heart for what he called a “ludicrously negligible wound,” later writing in Timequake that he was given the decoration after suffering a case of “frostbite.”
After the war, Vonnegut attended the University of Chicago as a graduate student in anthropology and also worked at the City News Bureau of Chicago. Vonnegut admitted that he was a poor anthropology student, with one professor remarking that some of the students were going to be professional anthropologists and he was not one of them. He left Chicago to work in Schenectady, New York, in public relations for General Electric, where his brother Bernard worked in the research department. The University of Chicago later accepted his novel Cat’s Cradle as his thesis, citing its anthropological content, and awarded him the M.A. degree in 1971.
In the mid-1950s, Vonnegut worked very briefly for Sports Illustrated magazine. One the verge of abandoning writing, he left Sports Illustrated and 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 20th century, appearing on the 100 best lists of Time magazine and the Modern Library.
Vonnegut’s first short story, “Report on the Barnhouse Effect,” appeared in the February 11, 1950, edition of Collier’s (it has since been reprinted in his short story collection, Welcome to the Monkey House). His first novel was the dystopian novel Player Piano (1952), in which human workers have been largely replaced by machines. He continued to write 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 relatively orthodox structure of Cat’s Cradle (which in 1971 earned him a Master’s Degree) to the acclaimed, semi-autobiographical 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 includes many rough illustrations, lengthy non-sequiturs, and an appearance by the author himself as a deus ex machina.
Although many of his novels involved science fiction themes, they were widely read and reviewed outside the field, due in no small part to their anti-authoritarianism. For example, in his seminal short story “Harrison Bergeron” egalitarianism is rigidly enforced by overbearing state authority, engendering horrific repression.
In much of his work, Vonnegut’s own voice is apparent, often filtered through the character of science fiction author Kilgore Trout (whose name is based on that of real-life science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon). It is 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.