Kurt Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on November 11, 1922, the son of Kurt and Edith Vonnegut. He was the youngest of three children. His ancestors had come from Germany in 1855. They were prosperous, originally as brewers and merchants, down to Kurt’s grandfather and father, who were both architects, and they were prominent in the heavily German Indianapolis society. Then World War I left a residue of anti-German feeling in the United States and prohibitions on the use of the German language, dimming the family’s pride and its cultural heritage. Prohibition brought an end to the brewing business, and the Great Depression of the 1930’s left Vonnegut’s father without work for essentially the rest of his life. Vonnegut wrote frequently of the Depression and repeatedly portrayed people who, like his father, are left feeling purposeless by loss of occupation.
At Shortridge High School, Vonnegut wrote for the Shortridge Daily Echo. The rigor of writing daily to deadlines helped shape his habits as a writer. In 1940, he went to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where he majored in biochemistry and wrote for the Cornell Sun. By January, 1943, Vonnegut was a private in the United States Army. In May of that year, his mother committed suicide, an event of which he would write as having left him a “legacy of suicide.” Soon thereafter, the Army sent him to Europe, where he was captured and held as a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany. There he experienced the event that forms the basis of his novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), the firebombing that virtually destroyed Dresden on the night of February 13, 1945.
After discharge from the Army, Vonnegut undertook graduate studies in anthropology at the University of Chicago. He also married his former high school sweetheart, Jane Cox. While a student, he worked as a police reporter for the Chicago City News Bureau. Vonnegut left Chicago without a degree, although in 1971 his novel Cat’s Cradle (1963) was accepted in lieu of a thesis, and he was awarded an M.A.
In 1947, Vonnegut moved to Schenectady, New York, where he worked as a public relations writer at the General Electric Research Laboratory. There he began writing fiction, and his first published short story, “Report on the Barnhouse Effect,” appeared in Collier’s in February, 1950. Encouraged by his success as a short-story writer, he resigned from General Electric and moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, to devote himself full time to writing. He continued to publish in popular magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, Ladies’ Home Journal, Collier’s, and Cosmopolitan, but he also placed stories in science-fiction journals such as Galaxy and Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine. His first novel, Player Piano (1952), was reissued by Bantam in 1954 with the title Utopia 14....
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Vonnegut has likened his role as writer in society to that of the canaries in the coal mines of old—to give alarm of danger. He has also spoken of himself as a shaman, responding to and speaking about what goes on in society. Yet he remains a comic novelist. His novels, as a result, are full of warning, social commentary, and, frequently, moral judgment, but in their humor and compassion escape heavy didacticism. Vonnegut has evolved a distinctive style. His often fragmented, tragicomic renderings have struck a chord in the readers of his time.
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Although not specifically an autobiographical writer, Kurt Vonnegut has frequently drawn on facts and incidents from his own life in his writing. The youngest in a family of three children, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was born and reared in Indianapolis, Indiana. While serving in the army as an infantry scout during World War II, he was taken prisoner by the Germans and interned at Dresden, Germany, at the time of the 1945 Allied firebombing of the city that cost 135,000 lives. He survived only through the ironic circumstance of being quartered in an underground meat locker. This episode contributed much toward his authorial distance: After returning to that meat locker forty-three years later in 1998, Vonnegut commented that he is one of...
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