Kurt Vonnegut 1922–2007
(Full name Kurt Vonnegut Jr.) American novelist, short story writer, dramatist, screenwriter, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Vonnegut's career through 1997. See also Kurt Vonnegut Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 12, 22.
Vonnegut gained a worldwide following in the late 1960s with the publication of his best-known work, Slaughter-house-Five (1969). Considered a major voice in contemporary American literature, Vonnegut populates his novels with characters searching for meaning and order in an inherently meaningless and disorderly universe. Known for his iconoclastic humor, Vonnegut consistently satirizes contemporary society, focusing in particular on the futility of warfare and the human capacity for both irrationality and evil.
Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on November 11, 1922. He was the third child of Kurt, an architect, and his wife Edith (maiden name Lieber). Both the Vonneguts and the Liebers were formerly prosperous families who had lost their fortunes after World War I. Vonnegut entered the University of Chicago in 1940 to study biochemistry. He began writing for the student newspaper in his sophomore year, penning anti-war articles. After Pearl Harbor, Vonnegut reversed his opinions; in March of 1943 he entered the Army. He was captured in the Battle of the Bulge, held as part of a captive labor force in Dresden, and experienced the Allied fire-bombing of the city on February 13, 1945. Like the protagonist in Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut survived the bombing in an underground meat locker, only to be put to work by the Germans extracting corpses from the city's ruins. Upon his return home in 1945, he married Jane Marie Cox and enrolled at the University of Chicago, from which he graduated in 1947. In the same year, Vonnegut began working for General Electric Research Laboratory as a public relations writer. He wrote fiction in his spare time, publishing his first story in 1950, and was soon able to quit his job and write full-time. In the 1960s Vonnegut accepted an appointment to the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. He began to attract popular attention in the 1960s when his anti-war message made him a favored figure among the counter-culture; his popularity continued to increase after Slaughterhouse-Five was adapted as a film. He has seven children: three from his first marriage to Jane Marie Cox, three nephews adopted after the deaths of his sister and her husband, and one adopted with his second wife, Jill Krementz. Vonnegut lives in New York City.
Vonnegut's first novel, Player Piano (1952), did not attract popular or critical attention, but it established many of the traits which continue to typify the author's style. The novel is futuristic and explores the relationship between changing technology and the lives of ordinary humans. His second work garnered greater critical reception. The Sirens of Titan (1959) is a science fiction parody in which all of human history is revealed to have been manipulated by aliens to provide a space traveler with a replacement part for his ship. This novel, as well as the critically acclaimed Cat's Cradle (1963) and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965), exhibits Vonnegut's unique combination of black humor, wit, and pessimism. Cat's Cradle is an apocalyptic satire on philosophy, religion, and technological progress while God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater concerns the idealistic attempts of an alcoholic philanthropist, Eliot Rosewater, to befriend the poor and helpless. Rosewater finds, however, that his monetary wealth cannot begin to alleviate the world's misery. Like Rosewater, Vonnegut's protagonists are idealistic, ordinary people who strive in vain to understand and bring about change in a world beyond their control or comprehension. Vonnegut tempers his pessimistic, sometimes caustic commentary with compassion for his characters, suggesting that humanity's ability to love may partially compensate for destructive tendencies. Two of Vonnegut's novels have dealt directly with World War II. In Mother Night, a spy novel, an American agent who posed as a Nazi propagandist during World War II undergoes a personality crisis when tried for crimes he committed to insure his covert identity. In Slaughterhouse-Five, perhaps Vonnegut's best-known work, the author confronts his personal experience as a prisoner of war who survived the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden, a city of little military or strategic value. The absurdity of this event is filtered through the numbed consciousness of Billy Pilgrim, a young soldier who escapes the insanity of war through schizophrenic travels into time and space; these journeys assume realistic stature when compared to his irrational wartime experiences. Considered a classic of postmodern literature, Slaughterhouse-Five is written in a fragmented, non-chronological style to emphasize the confusion and absurdity of wartime life. Vonnegut's subsequent novels have achieved popular success but have not always elicited critical praise. In 1971 he wrote his best-known play, Happy Birthday, Wanda Jane, and throughout the 1970s and 1980s wrote several screenplays for television. Vonnegut's most recent works include Hocus Pocus (1990) and Timequake (1997). In both of these novels Vonnegut presents his ideas in new and unusual literary forms. Hocus Pocus purports to be the autobiographical manuscript of Eugene Debs Hartke, a teacher and the last American out of Vietnam, who was fired for being too pessimistic and later charged with engineering the escape of African-American inmates from a prison. Hartke writes observations about his life on pieces of paper and Vonnegut masquerades as the editor. In Timequake Vonnegut merges parts of a problematic and incomplete novel with commentary about his life and views. The result is part memoir and part political novel. "In a nutshell," observes Thomas Disch, "everyone on Earth has to relive the 1990s on automatic pilot, observing but not participating in their lives." The book is a "stew" in which Vonnegut combined "the best pickings from a novel that wasn't working and interspersed them with a running commentary on his own life and the state of the universe. The mix is thick and rich: a political novel that's not a novel, a memoir that is not inclined to reveal the most private details of the writer's life," Valerie Sayers comments. Vonnegut has stated that he is retiring, and that Timequake will mark the end of his fiction-writing career.
Vonnegut's first decade of work did not attract much critical attention: most early discussion of his writing centered on how to classify it. Citing his futuristic settings and the paramount role of technology in his work, some critics insist that Vonnegut is a science fiction writer. Others argue that despite these elements, Vonnegut is ultimately writing about the universal human condition and that he only employs science fiction devices to create distance and irony, just as he employs satire to the same effect. In recent years Vonnegut has come under fire from commentators who claim that he has failed to develop stylistically and that his characters are little more than mouthpieces for his opinions. Such critics claim that Vonnegut's work after Slaughterhouse-Five has offered more or less the same style, theme, and message. Tom Shone, for instance, writes that "all the same subjects are there, novel after novel" and that "Vonnegut's highly distinctive style has eclipsed Vonnegut the author." Others remain enamored of Vonnegut's distinct style, praising him for continually presenting his message in a deceptively skillful manner. John Irving remarks, "Vonnegut's subject has always been doomsday, and nobody writes about it better. That he is also so terribly funny in how he describes our own worst nightmare is, of course, another element that confuses his dumber critics."