At a Glance
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 readers 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.
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...
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