Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. 1922–
American novelist, short story writer, playwright, and essayist. Vonnegut is often considered a cultural spokesman for the present age, an heir to Jonathan Swift and George Orwell. He is a moralist who uses satire and iconoclastic humor to vividly portray the depravity of contemporary society. His novels combine fact and fantasy to raise many basic existential and epistemological questions. Although Vonnegut's plots are often bleak and pessimistic, his novels always contain some affirmation of man's essential decency, and a contention that our ability to love one another can save us from destruction and helplessness. Vonnegut's works seem to speak especially to young adults, who have identified with his humanistic concerns since the beginning of his career. It was the support of his student audience that first helped to bring him to prominence during the mid-1960s. World war and nuclear holocaust are central to an understanding of Vonnegut, as their influence on him permeates his fiction. He uses the novel as fable to exorcise the demons of his personal experience, and often appears as both character and author in his works. Vonnegut was captured by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge and interned as a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany, as was his character Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five. During the fire-bombing of Dresden, Vonnegut was sheltered in a meat storage cellar below a slaughterhouse; when the raid ended he was among those soldiers used by the Germans to recover the bodies of their dead from the ruins of the city, an experience which repeatedly recurs in his early work. Upon his return home, Vonnegut went to work as a public relations writer for the General Electric Research Lab in Schenectady, New York, an experience which figures in his first novel, Player Piano, and from which came several permanent themes: the impact of technological innovations on the ordinary person, the individual versus the institution, and the makeup (and satirization) of the writer. Vonnegut's first works were published as cheap sci-fi novels, and during his early career he remained virtually unknown. In God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater he satirizes this period of his life and introduces his most famous character, Kilgore Trout. An unsuccessful science fiction writer, Trout is Vonnegut's symbol for what he thought he might become; in a later novel, Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut portrays Trout's rise to phenomenal literary success, again indulging in self-parody. Most critics feel that his finest synthesis of theme and technique occurs in Slaughterhouse-Five, a cathartic novel in which Pilgrim, a kind of Everyman, survives the horrors of Dresden and tries to make sense of the world which allowed it to happen. Vonnegut is sometimes criticized for his sentimentality, superficial characterizations, and formulaic prose style; his philosophy, also, has been criticized for not being deep enough to warrant the seriousness with which readers take his books. However, Vonnegut's reputation has always been solid among the young. He, in turn, seems to have great respect for this section of his audience and wants, he says, to catch them at school, "before they become generals and senators and Presidents, and poison their minds with humanity." (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
[Player Piano is a] rather witty story of the future, with machines doing the work of men. The trouble with this book, as with many similar stories, is that the author gets his human beings so close to the machines that they are dehumanized, which means that although the nightmare remains, there is no sense of tragedy, and none of pity, and we are left with a feeling of disgust and weariness. (pp. 88-9)
The New Yorker, (© 1952 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), August 16, 1952.