Vonnegut speaking in 2004
|Born||Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
November 11, 1922
|Died||April 11, 2007 (aged 84)
New York City, New York,
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (pronounced /ˈvɒnɨɡət/; November 11, 1922 – April 11, 2007) was an American novelist who wrote works blending satire, black comedy, and science fiction, such as Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), Cat's Cradle (1963), and Breakfast of Champions (1973). He was known for his humanist beliefs as well as being honorary president of the American Humanist Association. He is widely considered one of the most influential American writers of the 20th century.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, to fifth-generation German-American parents Kurt Vonnegut, Sr., and Edith Lieber. Both his father and grandfather attended MIT and were architects in the Indianapolis firm Vonnegut & Bohn; his great-grandfather was the founder of the Vonnegut Hardware Company, an Indianapolis institution. Vonnegut graduated from Shortridge High School in Indianapolis in May 1940, and was accepted to attend Cornell University beginning that fall. At Cornell, he served as assistant managing editor and associate editor for the student newspaper, the Cornell Daily Sun, and majored in chemistry. While attending Cornell, he was a member of the Delta Upsilon Fraternity, following in the footsteps of his father. While at Cornell, Vonnegut enlisted in the U.S. Army. The army transferred him to the Carnegie Institute of Technology and the University of Tennessee to study mechanical engineering. On May 14, 1944, Mothers' Day, his mother committed suicide by sleeping pill overdose.
Kurt Vonnegut's experience as a soldier and prisoner of war had a profound influence on his later work. As a private with the 106th Infantry Division, Vonnegut, along with five other battalion scouts, wandered behind enemy lines for several days during the Rhineland Campaign. They were cut off from their battalion and captured by Wehrmacht troops on December 14, 1944. Imprisoned in Dresden, Vonnegut was chosen as a leader of the POWs because he spoke some German. After telling the German guards "...just what I was going to do to them when the Russians came..." he was beaten and had his position as leader taken away. While a prisoner, he witnessed the fire bombing of Dresden in February 1945 which destroyed most of the city.
Vonnegut was one of a group of American prisoners of war to survive the attack in an underground slaughterhouse meat locker used by the Germans as an ad hoc detention facility. The Germans called the building Schlachthof Fünf (Slaughterhouse Five) which the Allied POWs adopted as the name for their prison. Vonnegut said the aftermath of the attack was "utter destruction" and "carnage unfathomable." This experience was the inspiration for his famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, and is a central theme in at least six of his other books. In Slaughterhouse-Five he recalls that the remains of the city resembled the surface of the moon, and that the Germans put the surviving POWs to work, breaking into basements and bomb shelters to gather bodies for mass burial, while German civilians cursed and threw rocks at them. Vonnegut eventually remarked, "There were too many corpses to bury. So instead the Germans sent in troops with flamethrowers. All these civilians' remains were burned to ashes."
Vonnegut was repatriated by Red Army troops in May 1945 at the Saxony-Czechoslovakian border. Upon returning to America, he was awarded a Purple Heart for what he called a "ludicrously negligible wound," later writing in Timequake that he was given the decoration after suffering a case of "frostbite".
After the war, Vonnegut attended the University of Chicago as a graduate student in anthropology and also worked at the City News Bureau of Chicago. Vonnegut admitted that he was a poor anthropology student, with one professor remarking that some of the students were going to be professional anthropologists and he was not one of them. According to Vonnegut in Bagombo Snuff Box, the university rejected his first thesis on the necessity of accounting for the similarities between Cubist painters and the leaders of late 19th Century Native American uprisings, saying it was "unprofessional." He left Chicago to work in Schenectady, New York, in public relations for General Electric, where his brother Bernard worked in the research department. While in Schenectady, Vonnegut lived in the tiny Hamlet of Alplaus, located within the Town of Glenville, just across the Mohawk River from the city of Schenectady. Vonnegut rented an upstairs apartment located across the street from the Alplaus Volunteer Fire Department, where he was an active Volunteer Fire-Fighter for a few years. The apartment where Vonnegut lived for a brief time still to this day has a desk which he used to write many of his short stories, and to which he carved his name into the under-part of the desk. It is in the tiny Hamlet of Alplaus, along the Alplaus Creek, where Vonnegut is rumored to have began writing his master piece, Slaughterhouse Five. The University of Chicago later accepted his novel Cat's Cradle as his thesis, citing its anthropological content, and awarded him the M.A. degree in 1971.
In the mid 1950s, Vonnegut worked very briefly for Sports Illustrated magazine, where he was assigned to write a piece on a racehorse that had jumped a fence and attempted to run away. After staring at the blank piece of paper on his typewriter all morning, he typed, "The horse jumped over the fucking fence," and left. On the verge of abandoning writing, Vonnegut was offered a teaching job at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. While he was there, Cat's Cradle became a best-seller, and he began Slaughterhouse-Five, now considered one of the best American novels of the 20th century, appearing on the 100 best lists of Time magazine and the Modern Library.
The author's name appears in print as "Kurt Vonnegut, Jr." throughout the first half of his published writing career; beginning with the 1976 publication of Slapstick, he dropped the "Jr." and was simply billed as Kurt Vonnegut. His older brother—Bernard Vonnegut—was an atmospheric scientist at the University at Albany, SUNY, who discovered that silver iodide could be used for cloud seeding, the process of artificially stimulating precipitation.
After returning from World War II, Kurt Vonnegut married his childhood sweetheart, Jane Marie Cox, writing about their courtship in several of his short stories. The couple separated in 1970. He did not divorce Cox until 1979, but from 1970 Vonnegut lived with the woman who would later become his second wife, photographer Jill Krementz. Krementz and Vonnegut were married after the divorce from Cox was finalized.
He raised seven children: three from his first marriage; his sister Alice's three children, adopted by Vonnegut after her death from cancer; and a seventh, Lily, adopted with Krementz. His only biological son, Mark Vonnegut, a pediatrician, wrote the book The Eden Express: A Memoir of Insanity, about his experiences in the late 1960s and his major psychotic breakdown and recovery. Mark was named after Mark Twain, whom Vonnegut considered an American saint.
His daughter Edith ("Edie"), an artist, was named after Kurt Vonnegut's mother, Edith Lieber. During her youth, she was an acquaintance of Cape Cod murderer Tony Costa. She has had her work published in a book titled Domestic Goddesses and was once married to Geraldo Rivera. His youngest daughter, Nanette ("Nanny"), was named after Nanette Schnull, Vonnegut's paternal grandmother. She is married to realist painter Scott Prior and is the subject of several of his paintings, notably "Nanny and Rose".
Of Vonnegut's four adopted children, three are his nephews: James, Steven, and Kurt Adams; the fourth is Lily, a girl he adopted as an infant in 1982. James, Steven, and Kurt were adopted after a traumatic week in 1958, in which their father James Carmalt Adams was killed on September 15 in the Newark Bay rail crash when his commuter train went off the open Newark Bay bridge in New Jersey, and their mother—Kurt's sister Alice—died of cancer. In Slapstick, Vonnegut recounts that Alice's husband died two days before Alice herself, and her family tried to hide the knowledge from her, but she found out when an ambulatory patient gave her a copy of the New York Daily News a day before she herself died. The fourth and youngest of the boys, Peter Nice, went to live with a first cousin of their father in Birmingham, Alabama as an infant. Lily is a singer and actress.
On January 31, 2001, a fire destroyed the top story of his home. Vonnegut suffered smoke inhalation and was hospitalized in critical condition for four days. He survived, but his personal archives were destroyed. After leaving the hospital, he recuperated in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Vonnegut's first short story, "Report on the Barnhouse Effect" appeared in the February 11, 1950 edition of Collier's (it has since been reprinted in his short story collection, Welcome to the Monkey House). His first novel was the dystopian novel Player Piano (1952), in which human workers have been largely replaced by machines. He continued to write short stories before his second novel, The Sirens of Titan, was published in 1959. Through the 1960s, the form of his work changed, from the relatively orthodox structure of Cat's Cradle (which in 1971 earned him a Master's Degree) to the acclaimed, semi-autobiographical Slaughterhouse-Five, given a more experimental structure by using time travel as a plot device.
These structural experiments were continued in Breakfast of Champions (1973), which included many rough illustrations, lengthy non-sequiturs and an appearance by the author himself, as a deus ex machina.
Deadeye Dick, although mostly set in the mid-twentieth century, foreshadows the turbulent times of contemporary America; it ends prophetically with the lines "You want to know something? We are still in the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages — they haven't ended yet." The novel explores themes of social isolation and alienation that are particularly relevant in the postmodern world. Society is seen as openly hostile or indifferent at best, and popular culture as superficial and excessively materialistic.
Vonnegut attempted suicide in 1984 and later wrote about this in several essays.
Breakfast of Champions became one of his best-selling novels. It includes, in addition to the author himself, several of Vonnegut's recurring characters. One of them, science fiction author Kilgore Trout, plays a major role and interacts with the author's character.
In 1974, Venus on the Half-Shell, a book by Philip José Farmer in a style similar to that of Vonnegut and attributed to Kilgore Trout, was published. This caused some confusion among readers, as for some time many assumed that Vonnegut wrote it; when the truth of its authorship came out, Vonnegut was reported as being "not amused". In an issue of the semi-prozine The Alien Critic/Science Fiction Review, published by Richard E. Geis, Farmer claimed to have received an angry, obscenity-laden telephone call from Vonnegut about it.
Although many of his novels involved science fiction themes, they were widely read and reviewed outside the field, not least due to their anti-authoritarianism. For example, his seminal short story Harrison Bergeron graphically demonstrates how an ethos like egalitarianism, when combined with too much authority, engenders horrific repression.
In much of his work, Vonnegut's own voice is apparent, often filtered through the character of science fiction author Kilgore Trout (whose name is based on that of real-life science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon), characterized by wild leaps of imagination and a deep cynicism, tempered by humanism. In the foreword to Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut wrote that as a child, he saw men with locomotor ataxia, and it struck him that these men walked like broken machines; it followed that healthy people were working machines, suggesting that humans are helpless prisoners of determinism. Vonnegut also explored this theme in Slaughterhouse-Five, in which protagonist Billy Pilgrim "has come unstuck in time" and has so little control over his own life that he cannot even predict which part of it he will be living through from minute to minute. Vonnegut's well-known phrase "So it goes", used ironically in reference to death, also originated in Slaughterhouse-Five and became a slogan for anti-Vietnam War protestors in the 1960s. "Its combination of simplicity, irony, and rue is very much in the Vonnegut vein."
With the publication of his novel Timequake in 1997, Vonnegut announced his retirement from writing fiction. He continued to write for the magazine In These Times, where he was a senior editor, until his death in 2007, focusing on subjects ranging from contemporary U. S. politics to simple observational pieces on topics such as a trip to the post office. In 2005, many of his essays were collected in a new bestselling book titled A Man Without a Country, which he insisted would be his last contribution to letters.
An August 2006 article reported:
The April 2008 issue of Playboy featured the first published excerpt from Armageddon in Retrospect, the first posthumous collection of Vonnegut's work. The book itself was published in the same month. It included never before published short stories by the writer and a letter that was written to his family during WWII when Vonnegut was captured as a prisoner of war. The book also contains drawings that Vonnegut himself drew and a speech he wrote shortly before his death. The introduction of the book was written by his son, Mark Vonnegut.
Vonnegut's work as a graphic artist began with his illustrations for Slaughterhouse-Five and developed with Breakfast of Champions, which included numerous felt-tip pen illustrations. Later in his career, he became more interested in artwork, particularly silk-screen prints, which he pursued in collaboration with Joe Petro III.
In 2004, Vonnegut participated in the project The Greatest Album Covers That Never Were, for which he created an album cover for Phish called Hook, Line and Sinker, which has been included in a traveling exhibition for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Vonnegut was deeply influenced by early Socialist labor leaders, especially Indiana natives Powers Hapgood and Eugene V. Debs, and he frequently quotes them in his work. He named characters after both Debs (Eugene Debs Hartke in Hocus Pocus and Eugene Debs Metzger in Deadeye Dick) and Russian Communist leader Leon Trotsky (Leon Trotsky Trout in Galápagos). He was a lifetime member of the American Civil Liberties Union and was featured in a print advertisement for them.
Vonnegut frequently addressed moral and political issues but rarely dealt with specific political figures until after his retirement from fiction. (Although the downfall of Walter Starbuck, a minor Nixon administration bureaucrat who is the narrator and main character in Jailbird (1979), would not have occurred but for the Watergate scandal, the focus is not on the administration.) His collection God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian referenced controversial assisted suicide proponent Jack Kevorkian.
With his columns for In These Times, he began a blistering attack on the Bush administration and the Iraq war. "By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East?" he wrote. "Their morale, like so many bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas." In These Times quoted him as saying "The only difference between Hitler and Bush is that Hitler was elected." In a 2003 interview Vonnegut said, "I myself feel that our country, for whose Constitution I fought in a just war, might as well have been invaded by Martians and body snatchers. Sometimes I wish it had been. What has happened, though, is that it has been taken over by means of the sleaziest, low-comedy, Keystone Cops-style coup d’etat imaginable. And those now in charge of the federal government are upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography, plus not-so-closeted white supremacists, aka 'Christians,' and plus, most frighteningly, psychopathic personalities,or 'PPs.'" When asked how he was doing at the start of a 2003 interview, he replied: "I'm mad about being old and I'm mad about being American. Apart from that, OK."
In A Man Without a Country, he wrote that "George W. Bush has gathered around him upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography." He did not regard the 2004 election with much optimism; speaking of Bush and John Kerry, he said that "no matter which one wins, we will have a Skull and Bones President at a time when entire vertebrate species, because of how we have poisoned the topsoil, the waters and the atmosphere, are becoming, hey presto, nothing but skulls and bones."
In 2005, Vonnegut was interviewed by David Nason for The Australian. During the course of the interview Vonnegut was asked his opinion of modern terrorists, to which he replied, "I regard them as very brave people." When pressed further Vonnegut also said that "They [suicide bombers] are dying for their own self-respect. It's a terrible thing to deprive someone of their self-respect. It's [like] your culture is nothing, your Race is nothing, you're nothing ... It is sweet and noble—sweet and honourable I guess it is—to die for what you believe in." (This last statement is a reference to the line "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" ["it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country"] from Horace's Odes, or possibly to Wilfred Owen's ironic use of the line in his Dulce Et Decorum Est.) Nason took offense at Vonnegut's comments and characterized him as an old man who "doesn't want to live any more ... and because he can't find anything worthwhile to keep him alive, he finds defending terrorists somehow amusing." Vonnegut's son, Mark, responded to the article by writing an editorial to the Boston Globe in which he explained the reasons behind his father's "provocative posturing" and stated that "If these commentators can so badly misunderstand and underestimate an utterly unguarded English-speaking 83-year-old man with an extensive public record of saying exactly what he thinks, maybe we should worry about how well they understand an enemy they can't figure out what to call."
A 2006 interview with Rolling Stone stated, " ... it's not surprising that he disdains everything about the Iraq War. The very notion that more than 2,500 U.S. soldiers have been killed in what he sees as an unnecessary conflict makes him groan. 'Honestly, I wish Nixon were president,' Vonnegut laments. 'Bush is so ignorant.' "
Though he was a dissident to the end, Vonnegut held a bleak view on the power of artists to effect change. "During the Vietnam War," he told an interviewer in 2003, "every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high."
Vonnegut was descended from a family of German freethinkers, who were skeptical of "conventional religious beliefs." His great-grandfather Clemens Vonnegut had authored a freethought book titled Instruction in Morals, as well as an address for his own funeral in which he denied the existence of God, an afterlife, and Christian doctrines about sin and salvation. Kurt Vonnegut reproduced his great-grandfather's funeral address in his book Palm Sunday, and identified these freethought views as his "ancestral religion," declaring it a mystery as to how it was passed on to him.
Vonnegut described himself variously as a skeptic, freethinker, humanist, Unitarian Universalist, agnostic, and atheist. He disbelieved in the supernatural, considered religious doctrine to be "so much arbitrary, clearly invented balderdash," and believed people were motivated by loneliness to join religions.
Vonnegut considered humanism to be a modern-day form of freethought, and advocated it in various writings, speeches and interviews. His ties to organized humanism included membership as a Humanist Laureate in the Council for Secular Humanism's International Academy of Humanism. In 1992, the American Humanist Association named him the Humanist of the Year. Vonnegut went on to serve as honorary president of the American Humanist Association (AHA), having taken over the position from his late colleague Isaac Asimov, and serving until his own death in 2007. In a letter to AHA members, Vonnegut wrote: "I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without expectations of rewards or punishments after I am dead."
Vonnegut was at one time a member of a Unitarian congregation. Palm Sunday reproduces a sermon he delivered to the First Parish Unitarian Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts concerning William Ellery Channing, who was a principal founder of Unitarianism in the United States. In 1986, Vonnegut spoke to a gathering of Unitarian Universalists in Rochester, New York, and the text of his speech is reprinted in his book Fates Worse Than Death. Also reprinted in that book was a "mass" by Vonnegut, which was performed by a Unitarian Universalist choir in Buffalo, New York. Vonnegut identified Unitarianism as the religion that many in his freethinking family turned to when freethought and other German "enthusiasms" became unpopular in the United States during the World Wars. Vonnegut's parents were married by a Unitarian minister, and his son had at one time aspired to become a Unitarian minister.
Vonnegut's views on religion were unconventional and nuanced. While rejecting the divinity of Jesus, he was nevertheless an ardent admirer, and believed that Jesus' Beatitudes informed his own humanist outlook. While he often identified himself as an agnostic or atheist, he also frequently spoke of God. Despite describing freethought, humanism and agnosticism as his "ancestral religion," and despite being a Unitarian, he also spoke of himself as being irreligious. A press release by the American Humanist Association described him as "completely secular."
In his book Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, Vonnegut listed eight rules for writing a short story:
Vonnegut qualifies the list by adding that Flannery O'Connor broke all these rules except the first, and that great writers tend to do that.
In Chapter 18 of his book Palm Sunday, "The Sexual Revolution", Vonnegut grades his own works. He states that the grades "do not place me in literary history" and that he is comparing "myself with myself." The grades are as follows:
Vonnegut was a master of satire, but he was humble about satire as a tool we can use to preserve our sanity in an insane world: "I guess it works some. Just telling people, 'You are not alone. There are a lot of others who feel as you do.' We’re a terribly lonesome society."
In 2005, the Alplaus Vounteer Fire Department, requested Mr. Vonnegut to be the Grand Marshall of 75th Anniversary of its formation and annual July 4 Parade. Due to health reasons, Mr. Vonnegut declined but donated an original silk screen print, commonly referred to as Confetti #61, to the Alplaus Fire Department. The screen print simple stated; "I can't imagine a more stirring symbol of man's humanity to man than a fire engine." Underneath those words, you will find a Maltise Cross, with the word Rosewater at the top of the cross. The term Rosewater comes from his book, "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater." The screen print is still displayed in the fire departments trophy and old photograph case upstairs in the original meeting room, where undoubtly Mr. Vonnegut frequented during his short, but very meaningful status as a Alplaus Volunteer Fire-Fighter. On April 11, 2007, upon hearing that one of their life-members and former Fire-fighters had passed away, the members of the Alplaus Volunteer Fire Department lowered the American Flag to Half Mast, hung the funeral shroud, and rang the Fire Bell that had once been on the 1st fire-engine ever owned and operated by the fire department, in accordance with the traditional 5-5-5 alarm, used to signal and honor fallen brothers. Mr. Vonnegut's name still appears on an old active fire-fighters roster, located next to his screen-print in the department's trophy case.
WE COULD HAVE SAVED IT
BUT WE WERE TOO DOGGONE CHEAP
Only he didn't say 'doggone.'"