Kurt Vonnegut Biography

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.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1211

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.

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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 February, 1950. Encouraged by his success as a short-story writer, he resigned from General Electric and moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, to devote himself full time to writing. He continued to publish in popular magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, Ladies’ Home Journal, Collier’s, and Cosmopolitan, but he also placed stories in science-fiction journals such as Galaxy and Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine. His first novel, Player Piano (1952), was reissued by Bantam in 1954 with the title Utopia 14. Largely because of his success with short stories, which often paid well, Vonnegut did not produce his second novel, The Sirens of Titan (1959), until seven years after Player Piano. Those first two novels, together with a number of the short stories, earned for Vonnegut identification as a science-fiction writer, a label with which he was not always happy, because that genre was disdained in many quarters. During this time, Vonnegut faced personal hardships. In October, 1957, his father died, and in 1958, his sister Alice was stricken with cancer. Days before her death, her husband, John Adams, was killed when his commuter train crashed from a bridge. After this double tragedy, Vonnegut adopted three of their four orphaned children, doubling the size of his family.

The 1960’s began as difficult times for Vonnegut but then saw his gradual emergence to fame. Television dried up the magazine market for short stories, and he turned to the paperback book market, first publishing a collection of short stories called Canary in a Cat House (1961), then the novel Mother Night (1961). Neither achieved great sales. The next two novels, Cat’s Cradle and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965), appeared in hardcover. In 1965, he went to teach at the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he met other writers and critics who influenced him, particularly in encouraging him to enter his fiction more personally. This led to his adding a new and highly personal preface to the 1966 hardcover edition of Mother Night; in many of his subsequent works, such autobiographical introductions have become a popular feature.

In 1966 and 1967, Avon and Dell reissued all of his novels in paperback, and Player Piano and Mother Night were reprinted in hardcover. The coincidence of these events brought greater public attention to his work, and his fame began to build. A new collection of his short stories, Welcome to the Monkey House, appeared in 1968. Meanwhile, Vonnegut had won a Guggenheim Fellowship to revisit Dresden and research the event he had struggled to write about for years, the great air raid he had experienced. This led to Slaughterhouse-Five. The novel, and the film that followed it, brought Vonnegut broad popularity and financial security.

Success, however, brought its own difficulties. Having faced in fiction the event that had motivated so much of his writing, Vonnegut now struggled. He even considered abandoning the novel for other forms, writing the play Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1970). A compilation from his works appeared as a teleplay called Between Time and Timbuktu (1972). His marriage to Jane foundered, and he moved alone to New York City. At last, in 1973, he published another novel, Breakfast of Champions, different in form from his previous work and illustrated with his own drawings. It drew mixed reviews but achieved excellent sales, with a first printing of a hundred thousand copies.

In 1974 came the publication of a collection of Vonnegut’s essays, speeches, stories, and biography called Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons (Opinions). Two more novels, Slapstick (1976) and Jailbird(1979), followed, in what Vonnegut has asserted was a difficult decade for him as a writer. He achieved a feeling of completion with Slaughterhouse-Five, he said, and found little that provided stimulation in the society of that period. By 1979, however, Vonnegut had remarried, to the photographer Jill Krementz, and adopted a baby daughter, Lily. Also in 1979, he had a return to the stage when his daughter Edith produced a musical adaptation of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater in New York. He wrote the text of a children’s Christmas story, Sun Moon Star (1980), illustrated by Ivan Chermayeff. Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage (1981) was another collection, and it was followed by the novels Deadeye Dick (1982), Galápagos (1985), Bluebeard (1987), Hocus Pocus (1990), and Timequake(1997). Also, Bagombo Snuff Box, a collection of Vonnegut’s early stories, was published in 1999, as was God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, a collection of fictional interviews, and Like Shaking Hands with God: A Conversation About Writing. Finally, a collection of essays, A Man Without a Country, was published in 2005.

Having become a major figure in the American literary establishment, Vonnegut was much in demand as a speaker, frequently using the title “How to Get a Job Like Mine” to embark upon a rambling and highly entertaining evening something in the manner of Mark Twain. He was also much in demand for articles in magazines and even for advertisements—an ironic echo of his beginnings as a public relations writer for General Electric. Vonnegut died in New York on April 11, 2007 after a fall two weeks earlier that resulted in irreversible brain damage.

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