Kurt Vonnegut Vonnegut, Kurt - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Player Piano (novel) 1952; also published as Utopia 14, 1954
The Sirens of Titan (novel) 1959
Mother Night (novel) 1962
Canary in a Cat House (short stories) 1963
Cat's Cradle (novel) 1963
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; or, Pearls before Swine (novel) 1965
Welcome to the Monkey House (short stories) 1968
Slaughterhouse-Five; or, The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (novel) 1969
Happy Birthday, Wanda June (play) 1970
Between Time and Timbuktu; or, Prometheus-Five: A Space Fantasy (play) 1972
Breakfast of Champions; or, Goodbye, Blue Monday! (novel) 1973
Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons: Opinions (essays) 1974
Slapstick; or, Lonesome No More! (novel) 1976
Jailbird (novel) 1979
Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage (autobiography) 1981
Deadeye Dick (novel) 1982
Galápagos (novel) 1985
Bluebeard (novel) 1987
Hocus Pocus (novel) 1990
Fates Worse than Death (essays and speeches) 1991
Timequake (novel) 1997

George Garrett (review date 19 August 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Long-Awaited Return," in Chicago Tribune Books, August 19, 1990, p. 6.

[In the review below, Garrett claims that in Hocus Pocus, Vonnegut returns to the high quality of his earlier works.]

Once upon a time, I, too, was a Vonnegut groupie. In that world, which every day seems a little better than this one, we waited, eager and conspiratorial, for the man who had written the short stories later collected in Canary in a Cat House (1961) and the novel Player Piano (1952) to bring out his next book. We few. We happy few.

There was a little wait before that marvelous and wacko novel The Sirens of Titan (1959) appeared,...

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Jay Cantor (review date 19 August 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Kurt Vonnegut: So It Still Goes," in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 20, No. 33, August 19, 1990, pp. 1-2.

[In the following review, Cantor concludes that Hocus Pocus is a vehicle for Vonnegut to communicate his despair over humanity.]

Woody Allen once observed that 80 percent of life is showing up. The other 20 percent—the part that stands between me and stardom—is making yourself likable, like George Burns, Jack Benny, Bill Cosby, or my pal (hah! don't I wish it!) Kurt Vonnegut. The amiable Vonnegut persona—a wry man who is a tad curmudgeonly, but as moral as he can honestly be—is, from book to book, Vonnegut's most substantial, continuing...

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John Irving (review date 2 September 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Vonnegut in Prison and Awaiting Trial," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 2, 1990, pp. 4, 10.

[Irving is an acclaimed American novelist and short story writer. In the review below, he praises Hocus Pocus as one of Vonnegut's best novels and discusses the merits of Vonnegut's writing.]

The novel is the highest example of subtle interrelatedness that man has discovered.

—D. H. Lawrence

Kurt Vonnegut is a friend of mine. He was my teacher at the University of Iowa; he is my neighbor in Sagaponack, Long Island—it is a three-minute...

(The entire section is 2096 words.)

John Skow (review date 3 September 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "And So It Went," in Time, Vol. 136, No. 10, September 3, 1990, p. 73.

[In the following review, Skow praises Vonnegut's message in Hocus Pocus, but criticizes his writing.]

The knock against Kurt Vonnegut, back a couple of decades ago when he was a cult author, was that he pandered too glibly to the natural cynicism of the disaffected young. He was too quick, it was said, to detect the smell of society's insulation burning—and to sigh "So it goes"—when there was nothing more in the air than, say, a harmless whiff from a distant war or the neighborhood toxic-waste dump. No more; his news in Hocus Pocus is that our charred insulation no longer...

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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (review date 8 September 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Familiar Characters and Tricks of Vonnegut," in The New York Times, September 8, 1990, p. 16.

[In the review below, Lehmann-Haupt characterizes Hocus Pocus as a "contest between comedy and despair" in which the latter gains the upper hand.]

It should come as no surprise to Kurt Vonnegut's readers that one of the characters in his 13th and latest novel, Hocus Pocus, is Hiroshi Matsumoto, a survivor of Hiroshima.

But what may be modestly alarming is the almost affectionate mordancy with which Matsumoto's experience is described: "When the bomb was dropped, he was playing soccer during school recess. He chased a ball into a ditch...

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Jay McInerney (review date 9 September 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Still Asking the Embarrassing Questions," in New York Times Book Review, September 9, 1990, p. 12

[McInerney is an American novelist. In the following review, he discusses the balance between pessimism and humor in Vonnegut's novels, focusing on Hocus Pocus.]

For purposes of comparison with our own stodgy, inherited universe, contemporary philosophers sometimes conjure up the concept of possible worlds. They've got nothing on Kurt Vonnegut, who in 12 previous novels has frequently resorted to other planets for slyly comparative purposes. But unlike most contemporary philosophers—who fastidiously restrict themselves to questions of linguistic and logical...

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John Leonard (review date 15 October 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Black Magic," in Nation, Vol. 251, No. 12, October 15, 1990, pp. 421-25.

[In the review below, Leonard praises Hocus Pocus and discusses Vonnegut's fatalistic message.]

Hocus Pocus seems to me to be Vonnegut's best novel in years—funny and prophetic, yes, and fabulous too, as cunning as Aesop and as gloomy as Grimm; but also rich and referential; a meditation on American history and American literature; an elegy; a keening. "How is this for a definition of high art," we are asked by the antihero, Eugene Debs Hartke: "'Making the most of the raw materials of futility?'"

But Hocus Pocus has been not so much reviewed as...

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James Buchan (review date 20 October 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Any Old Irony," in Spectator, Vol. 266, No. 8467, October 20, 1990, pp. 31, 33.

[In the following review, Buchan states that Hocus Pocus has many elements in common with Vonnegut's earlier novels.]

This is Kurt Vonnegut's 17th novel to appear in England, so the British reader should know what to expect. It's all here in Hocus Pocus, vintage Vonnegut: the short narrative units, the repetitions as in a roundelay, the intergalactic knowingness and the small-town good sense, the good humour, the tricks of typography, the exclamation marks as in a debutante's letter, the diversions, the threadbare coincidences.

Let me say right off...

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David Streitfeld (review date 21 October 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Wages of Rage," in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 20, No. 42, October 21, 1990, p. 15.

[In the review below, Streitfeld argues that society is the main character in Hocus Pocus and that Vonnegut's sense of dismay with America is the novel's overriding tone.]

Sixty-seven years old and recipient of as large a measure of fame as any writer in our time, Kurt Vonnegut still does what he can to enlighten the masses. He meets the public, gives lectures, talks to the press, opens himself up. An incident arising out of one such encounter last year, when Vonnegut spoke at a California university and gave an interview to a reporter for the local paper, bears...

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Ian Bell (review date 21 October 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "One-Liners," in Observer Review, October 21, 1990, p. 58.

[In the following review, Bell argues that the narrative of Hocus Pocus becomes secondary to themes that Vonnegut wishes to discuss.]

Here comes another of Vonnegut's exemplary tales about one man unravelling the tangle of his life and trying to find out What Really Happened. It is full of wit, humanity, cruelty and trite narrative devices.

This time, as editor 'KV' explains, the imprisoned hero has committed his story to scraps of paper, thus allowing scope for the elliptical, the gnomic and the discursive. Often, these entries are one-sentence paragraphs.


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David Montrose (review date 26 October 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Life as a Cruel Joke," in Times Literary Supplement, October 26, 1990, p. 1146.

[In the following review, Montrose characterizes Hocus Pocus as a novelized essay and praises Vonnegut's masterful style.]

Hocus Pocus presents a dystopian America where the future (2001) is like the present, only more so. Everything has worsened: the economy, the ravaging of natural resources, crime, the drugs problem, urban decay, poverty. Petrol and food are rationed. The rich have sold Big Business to foreigners and live off the proceeds. The only surviving "American enterprises" are Mafia-controlled. Nor is public property exempt. National Forests have been sold...

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Gordon Lubold (review date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Hocus Pocus, in West Coast Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 6, 1990, p. 24.

[In the following review, Lubold argues that the key to Hocus Pocus is the way in which Vonnegut takes the concerns of today and portrays them in the extreme in his futuristic setting.]

Vonnegut's new novel is about a man who has returned from Vietnam, and is now, in 2001, recalling events when he worked at a school in Upstate New York and later staged a prison break in a nearby prison. Now he awaits trial for this crime. But Hocus Pocus delivers a lot more; in fact, any plot is secondary to the author's presentation of the confusing and bizarre reality of...

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Robert Phillips (review date Spring 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Hocus Pocus, in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLIV, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 135-36.

[In the excerpt below, Phillips criticizes Vonnegut's style in Hocus Pocus.]

In closing [Hocus Pocus], I was reminded of John Jay Chapman's remark: "When I put down a book by Stevenson, I swear I am hungry for something to read." Kurt Vonnegut's book left me hungry indeed; it is almost totally devoid of some standard ingredients of fiction—dialogue, form, confrontation, coherent plot. The author relies almost totally on the narrator and his one point of view. And the narration comes to us tricked-up with "unconventional lines separating passages within...

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James Wood (review date 15 November 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Wrecked Generation," in Times Literary Supplement, November 15, 1991, pp. 8-9.

[In the review below, Wood discusses the role of comedy in Fates Worse than Death.]

Dreamy, hectically anecdotal, slovenly and bearish with the truth, Kurt Vonnegut's writing has always handled fact with comic negligence. It has a kind of epistemological cockiness, amassing detail only to mock its sureties. Knowledge enters his books with a hiatus, a cloudiness. Consider, for example, his fondness for place-name couplets—Genoa, Italy, or Hellertown, Pennsylvania, or Indianapolis, Indiana. He loads his sentences with all kinds of names: "They were Lance Rumfoord, of Newport,...

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Ross Clark (review date 16 November 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Just a Few Quick Ones Before I Go," in The Spectator, Vol. 267, No. 8523, November 16, 1991, p. 45.

[In the following review, Clark argues that Fates Worse than Death lacks coherence.]

Kurt Vonnegut, German-American author of Slaughterhouse-Five, the consummate work on the bombing of Dresden, fears he will live little longer. Paying tribute to fellow Germanic writer Heinrich Böll in the preface to his latest book [Fates Worse than Death], he mentions that Böll died in 1974 at the age of 67. Then he adds, sorrowfully but proudly: 'One year short of my age now, and I smoke as much as he did'.

Therein lies the reason for...

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Valentine Cunningham (review date 22 December 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "So It Still Goes with the Sermonettist," in Observer Review, December 22, 1991, p. 43.

[In the following review of Fates Worse than Death, Cunningham praises Vonnegut's wit in addressing the problems of modern American society.]

Kurt Vonnegut is the conscience of Middle America. The fates picked out an ordinary GI kid prisoner-of-war, one of us, one man out of the whole US, to endure and miraculously survive the fire-bombing of Dresden. Thus Vonnegut became a unique witness against the human awfulness Dresden symbolised.

He chose to do his testifying by playing Huck Finn, a Holy Fool, a zany and practical joker with a canny touch for...

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Thomas M. Disch (review date 21 September 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Novelist on the Half Shell," in Washington Post Book World, September 21, 1997, p. X01.

[In the following review, Disch argues that Timequake discloses much information about Vonnegut himself.]

Timequake is a novel by, and starring, Kurt Vonnegut. His co-star, and virtually the only other "character" in the book, is his alter ego, Kilgore Trout, who figured in two earlier Vonnegut novels, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965) and Breakfast of Champions (1973). Trout has also published his own novel, Venus on the Half Shell (1975), but since it was written, without Vonnegut's consent, by Philip Jose Farmer, that book cannot...

(The entire section is 860 words.)

Valerie Sayers (review date 28 September 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Vonnegut Stew," in The New York Times, September 28, 1997.

[In the following review, Sayers describes Timequake as a mix of novel and memoir.]

Like so many of my peers, I began reading Kurt Vonnegut while the Vietnam War was raging. By the time I discovered his great World War II novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, the earth had shifted under my feet. Vonnegut, satirist and tragedian, seemed like a literary elder bearing witness. (Some elder; he was in his 40's then.) And I knew I was embarking on a lifelong relationship. Vonnegut thought the big thoughts—about war and death and how we ought to treat one another—and regarded them not only as...

(The entire section is 961 words.)