Kurt Vonnegut Biography

Kurt Vonnegut Biography

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., is what you get if you cross satire, dark humor, science fiction, and pessimism. Vonnegut wrote about tragically horrible moments but made them so funny that he became one of the twentieth century’s foremost American authors. Certainly Vonnegut was allowed to write about tragedy: his mother committed suicide on Mother’s Day while he was home on leave during WWII; he was one of only seven American POW survivors during the firebombing of Dresden; his sister, Alice, died of cancer just days after her husband died in a train accident; and Vonnegut himself attempted suicide on at least one occasion. He managed, however, to blend his bleak view of the world with a dry, sharp sense of humor that continues to entertain and engage reading audiences today.

Facts and Trivia

  • In addition to being one of the top-selling American authors of the twentieth century, Vonnegut was an accomplished graphic artist. He has produced illustrated editions of Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions, and he even created an album cover for the progressive rock band Phish.
  • In his book Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, Vonnegut listed eight rules for writing a short story. The first and presumably most important is this: “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.”
  • He majored in biochemistry, mechanical engineering, and anthropology at various colleges, but never completed a degree in any of them.
  • A contemporary classic, Slaughterhouse Five was named after his holding cell as a POW during WWII.
  • He has an asteroid named in his honor—asteroid 25399 vonnegut.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)
Kurt Vonnegut Kurt Vonnegut Image via writersmug.com

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....

(The entire section is 1211 words.)

Kurt Vonnegut Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.

Kurt Vonnegut Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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 the few who could recall the destruction of an Atlantis.

Although the destruction of Dresden became a recurring motif in Vonnegut’s work, not until twenty-three years later could he bring himself to write the novel of his war experiences, Slaughterhouse-Five. After the war, Vonnegut worked in public relations for General Electric in Schenectady, New York (called “Ilium” in his fiction), before leaving in 1950 to devote himself full-time to his writing. In 1945, he married Jane Marie Cox, settling in Cape Cod, where they reared their own three children and the three children of Vonnegut’s deceased sister, Alice. In 1972, he moved to New York City and was divorced from Cox early in 1974. He was married to the photographer Jill Krementz in November, 1979, and they adopted a daughter, Lily. Vonnegut died in New York City in 2007 at the age of 84.

Kurt Vonnegut Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1922. Both the location and the era of his birth helped shape his distinctive worldview. Growing up in the American heartland in the calm interval between the world wars, Vonnegut had a brief vision of a middle-class world that embraced the values of honesty, decency, and human dignity. For Vonnegut, this was the world as it should be, a world unravaged by violence and war, a world untouched by technology. This period of childhood happiness was, however, merely the calm before the storm in a life that would be rocked by a series of personal and national disasters: the suicide of his mother on Mother’s Day; his prisoner-of-war experience in World War II; the deaths of his sister and brother-in-law; the dissolution of his first marriage; the bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima; the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.; the Vietnam War; the death of his first wife, with whom he had maintained a close friendship; and the death of his brother Bernard. All the heartaches of his family and his nation reverberate through Vonnegut’s work, while the artist, through his fiction, stands as advocate for a saner, calmer world.

During the years of the Great Depression, Vonnegut’s family suffered emotional and financial setbacks. When Vonnegut entered Cornell University in 1940, his father forbade him to study the arts and chose instead for his son a career in...

(The entire section is 473 words.)

Kurt Vonnegut Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Kurt Vonnegut’s great-grandparents came to the United States from Germany in the 1850’s. He was the youngest of three children. His father was an architect whose unemployment as a result of the Great Depression led to a decline in the family’s fortunes, contributing to his mother’s suicide in 1944.

Kurt attended Shortridge High School in Indianapolis and wrote for its newspaper, the Daily Echo. He continued newspaper writing when he went to Cornell University in 1940. Although he had written against American entry into World War II, after Pearl Harbor he enlisted in the Army, was sent to Europe, and was captured in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. He was imprisoned in Dresden, where he witnessed the...

(The entire section is 373 words.)

Kurt Vonnegut Biography

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Author Profile

Noted for his accessible writing style—which is comprehensible even to young readers—Vonnegut combines uncompromising social criticism with a willingness to address such controversial issues as sex, religion, and politics. The mixture has made him one of the most frequently censored novelists in the United States. His most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), depicts the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, by British and American forces during World War II—an event that he witnessed firsthand as a prisoner of war. It combines fantastic elements, such as aliens and time travel, with the grim realities of war and the absurdities of human behavior. For various reasons, including the...

(The entire section is 1278 words.)

Kurt Vonnegut Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Few comic fiction writers since Mark Twain have achieved the combination of popularity and critical acclaim attained by social satirist Kurt Vonnegut (VON-uh-guht) or had similarly long and productive careers. Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on November 11, 1922, to Kurt Vonnegut, Sr., and the former Edith Lieber, Vonnegut was the youngest of three gifted children. His brother, Bernard, has made noteworthy contributions to the science of meteorology, and his sister, Alice, who died of cancer at age forty-one, showed talent as a sculptor. Vonnegut’s father and paternal grandfather were architects, while the Liebers owned a prosperous local brewery. Unfortunately, anti-German prejudice inspired by World War I plus financial setbacks...

(The entire section is 1150 words.)

Kurt Vonnegut Biography

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was born on November 11, 1922, in Indianapolis, Indiana, the third child and second son of Kurt Vonnegut and Edith Lieber...

(The entire section is 1428 words.)

Kurt Vonnegut Biography

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on November 11, 1922, the son of accomplished German immigrants. His grandfather held...

(The entire section is 343 words.)

Kurt Vonnegut Biography

(Novels for Students)

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was born November 11, 1922, in Indianapolis, Indiana, to Kurt and Edith (Lieber) Vonnegut. Vonnegut's father was a...

(The entire section is 524 words.)

Kurt Vonnegut Biography

(Short Stories for Students)

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was born in 1922, the youngest of three children of Edith and Kurt Vonnegut, in Indianapolis, Indiana. His siblings had...

(The entire section is 457 words.)