Kurt Vonnegut

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Introduction

(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...

(The entire section is 20,584 words.)