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||Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)|
American author noted for his pessimistic and satirical novels. Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s best known work is Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade (1969), which was based on his experiences in Dresden, Germany, where he was a prisoner-of-war at the destruction of the town in 1945. Vonnegut used fantasy and science fiction to examine the horrors and absurdities of 20th century civilization. His constant concern about the effects of technology on humanity led some critics to consider him a science fiction writer, but the author himself rejected this label.
'"You know - we've had to imagine the war here, and we have imagined that it was being fought by aging men like ourselves. We had forgotten that the wars were fought by babies. When I saw those freshly shaved faces, it was a shock. "My God, my God – " I said to myself, "it's the Children's Crusade."' (in Slaughterhouse Five)
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was born in Indianapolis. His father, Kurt
Sr., was an architect and painter. He was also a gun enthusiast, a
trait Vonnegut never adopted from his father, although he belonged to
the National Rifle Association when he was a kid. When the Depression
began, Vonnegut moved from a private school to a public school. In Galápagos
(1985) he wrote: "When I got to be sixteen, though, I myself had
arrived at the conclusion my mother and the neighbors had reached so
long ago: that my father was a repellent failure, his work appearing
only in the most disreputable publications, which paid him almost
nothing. He was an insult to life itself, I thought, when he went on
doing nothing with it but writing and smoking all the time – and I
mean all the time." Vonnegut's mother, Edith Lieber, heiress to a
brewery fortune based on Lieber Lager Beer and the Gold Medal Beer,
committed suicide in 1944.
For the ten years before World War II Vonnegut's father was almost constantly unemployed, and anti-German feelings and cultural prejudices were later seen in Vonnegut's novel Slapstick, or Lonesome No More! (1976). During the war Kurt Sr. worked at the Atkins Saw Company. Later he became a partner in a new architectural firm. After retiring he spent the rest of his life as a potter. He died in 1957. Vonnegut himself was proud of his German heritage. When Charles Lindbergh caused a controversy with his claim, that three groups are pressing the U.S. toward war, the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt Administration, Vonnegut defended him in 1941 in a column: "The mud-slingers are good. They'd have to be good to get people hating a loyal and sincere patriot. On second thought, Lindbergh is no patriot – to hell with the word, it lost it's [sic] meaning after the Revolutionary War." (The Cornell Daily Sun, October 13, 1941)
In 1940 Vonnegut started to study biochemistry at Cornell; his
father, who funded his education, had recommend that he should study
chemistry rather that the humanities. Arts were discouraged in the
family. However, Vonnegut also wrote satirical anti-war articles for
the student newspaper Cornell Sun. Following Japan's attack on
Harbor, Vonnegut volunteered in 1943 for military service. "Good! They
will teach you to be neat!" his father said. (Fates Worse Than Death: An
Autobiographical Collage, 1991, p. 22)
Vonnegut was sent to Europe, serving there as a battalion scout with the 106th Infantry Division. He was taken as a prisoner in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. After being transported to Dresden, an old cultural town, he worked there making a diet supplement for pregnant women. Between February 13 and 14 the Royal Air Force and United States Air Force made heavy raids on Dresden. At that time Vonnegut was a prisoner in a meat-locker under a slaughterhouse, and was among the few people to survive the total destruction of the city. Later he was employed by the Germans to dig out corpses. Dresden was occupied in 1945 by Soviet troops and Vonnegut was repatriated to the United States.
After the war Vonnegut studied anthropology at Chicago University from 1944 to 1947, but his M.A. thesis 'Fluctuations Between Good and Evil in Simple Tales' was rejected. However, in 1971 the anthropological department accepted his novel Cat's Cradle (1963) in lieu of a thesis and Vonnegut war awarded the degree. In the book Vonnegut explores destructive rationality of Western science and the turn towards mysticism, which was just then beginning to take hold among students in the USA and Europe. In 1945 Vonnegut married Jane Marie Cox, his childhood sweetheart. They had two daughters and a son, and also adopted the three children of Vonnegut's sister, Alice, and her husband; they died within a day of each other in 1958.
worked for over three years as a public relations man
General Electric's research laboratory. To add his income, Vonnegut
taught emotionally disturbed children, and sold Saab automobiles. His
first science fiction
story, 'Report on the Barnhouse Effect' was published in Collier's
in September 1950. After selling also other stories, Vonnegut quit his
"goddam nightmare job," as he described it in a letter to his father,
and moved with his family to Cape Cod (the Cape), Massachusetts.
Between 1950 and 1963 Vonnegut published 45 stories, which appeared in
such publications as The Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan,
Esquire, and the Ladies' Home Journal.
"During most of my freelancing," Vonnegut recalled in 1969 "I made what
I would have made in charge of the cafeteria at
a pretty good junior-high school." (Contemporary American Novelists of the
Absurd by Charles B. Harris, 1971, p. 53) Actually the
magazines paid well
for short fiction in the 1950s. Vonnegut's stories has
been collected in Canary in a Cathouse (1961), Welcome to the Monkey House (1968), Bagombo Snuff Box (1999), and While
Mortals Sleep (2011).
While teaching at the Iowa Writers' Workshop between 1965 and 1967, Vonnegut struggled to write about his wartime experiences. His students included John Casey, James Crumley, John Irving, Suzanne McConnell, and Jonathan Penner. "Your first job is to hook the reader," he emphasized according to Suzanne McConnell, who was his student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. "Your second is to keep your reader to reading." (Kurt Vonnegut Remembered, edited by Jim O'Loughlin, 2019, p. 50) Vonnegut helped Irving to finish his first novel, Setting Free the Bears (1968). In 1967, Vonnegut was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship to travel to Dresden, but the Germans were not eager to recall the war years.
Vonnegut's first novel, Player Piano (1952), was a tale of black humour. The story is set in the future, where scientists and engineers of vast corporations attempt to automate everything. As a result, the functions of human beings are gradually taken over by machines. Noteworthy, Vonnegut also prophesied the collapse of the Soviet Union under the impact of American know-how. This work labelled Vonnegut as a sciece-fiction writer, although the author himself though that he had written a novel about people and machines. Noteworthy, Mother Night, originally published in paperback in 1961, and republished in 1965 in hardcover, was a non-sf novel about the "true" identity of a double agent.
Before his breakthrough novel Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut wrote The Sirens of Titan (1959). It featured a character for whom the events of history take place simultaneously. Cat's Craddle, his fourth novel, which also gained attention among the broad readership, was about a scientist, a Nobel laureate named Felix Hoenikker, who has created a chemical, Ice-Nine, that turns all water into ice. Absentmindedly he is responsible for the end of the world. In Slapstick (A new kind of global disaster occurs as the variable gravity pulls down down structures all over the globe. The English writer Douglas Adams, a fan of Vonnegut, took the comedy of apocalypse a few steps further in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979), in which Earth is demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass.
Slaughterhouse Five combined historical facts and science fiction. At the time of its publication, and even to this day, it is a rare American novel, that presented Germans as victims of war. Vonnegut also placed the atrocity in the larger context of human history. "Thank God I was in Dresden when it was burned down," Vonnegut once said, meaning he had something to write about that he had experienced himself. (Like Shaking Hands with God: A Conversation about Writing by Kurt Vonnegut & Lee Stringer, 2010, p. 14) Vonnegut depicts the Allied firebombing of Dresden, seen through the eyes of Billy Pilgrim, a kind of descendant of Voltaire's Candide. Billy finds peace of mind after being kidnapped by Tralfamadorians. He learns that time is not necessarily moving in a liner fashion and that the secret of life is to live only in the happy moments. Billy lives on Earth and on the distant planet Tralfamadore, responding to events with the resignated slogan "So it goes". Paul Kantner and Grace Slick, members of the rock band Jefferson Airplane, were great fans of the book. They invited Vonnegut in 1971 to San Francisco, but cooperation plans were dropped – Vonnegut had "bad vibrations." Deemed profane and unsuitable for use in class, the Drake Public School Board in North Dakota burned 32 copies of Slaughterhouse Five in 1973. "Certain members of your community have suggested that my work is evil," Vonnegut wrote to the chairman of the Board. "This is extraordinarily insulting to me. The news from Drake indicates to me that books and writers are very unreal to you people. I am writing this letter to let you know how real I am." (Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage by Kurt Vonnegut, 1982, p. 5)
For roughly twenty years, from 1950 to 1970, Vonnegut led,
his fictional alter ego Kilgore Trout, the anonymous life of a
drugstore-rack writer, who is said to have been modelled on the science
fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon. A novel attributed to Kilgore Trout,
written by Philip José Farmer, was published in 1975 under the title Venus
on the Half-Shell. Around 1970 he and Jane separated. Vonnegut moved to New York. In 1979 Vonnegut
married the photographer Jill Krementz.
At that time, he had become an internationally known writer. An innate pessimism, central to Vonnegut's oeuvre, this did not make the author's later years any easier. Vonnegut never developed an explanation for the ills of the world. Basically he viewed misfortunes as a part of our common nature or coming by chance or a result of our own behavior. In 1984 he made a suicide attempt.
Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1971) was loosely based on the last book of Homer's Odyssey. The novel grew from a play, entitled Penelope, in which Harold Ryan, a big game hunter and male chauvinist, the "Odysseus", was modelled after Ernest Hemingway. Since Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday (1973) Vonnegut used self-consciously and mockingly his public personality as the author-narrator. Robert Altman planned to film the book in the mid-1950s, Alan Rudolph wrote the script for him, but they never got it made and lost the right. Eventually Rudolp's adaptation, in which Bruce Willis played the suicidal Pontiac dealer Dwayne Hoover and Albert Finney was Kilgore Trout, was released in 1999. The film failed both critically and commercially.
In Jailbird (1979) and Deadeye Dick (1983) Vonnegut explored idealized Mid-western middle-class values and the social and political course of American history in this century. Vonnegut's commandments for a better world were deceitfully simple: honor the Sermon of the Mount, stop exploiting and killing people, be kind to everyone. Sometimes Vonnegut turned against his radical reputation. One of the characters (Harold Ryan, modeled after Ernest Hemingway) in the play Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1971), makes chauvinist statements: "Educating a beautiful woman is like pouring honey into a fine Swiss watch: everything stops."
Vonnegut's later novels received mixed reviews and he was accused of recycling essentially the same ideas. "And what is literature, Rabo," he argued on the art of writing in Bluebeard (1987), "but an insider's newsletters about affairs relating to molecules, of no importance to anything in the Universe but a few molecules who have the disease called 'thought.'" Hocus Pocus (1990), the author's thirteenth novel, was set in the years following the defeat of the Vietnam war. With Timequake (1997) Vonnegut struggled for ten years. Instead of throwing it away, the author published it with fragments of autobiography. The novel was again about Kilgore Trout, thrown into a world set back ten years, from February 13, 2001 to February 17, 1991. Inside the story Vonnegut makes comments on all kinds of matters between heaven and earth.
wrote, as I remember, hunched over at a low table, tapping out his
space-spanning tales on a small portable. He proceeded deliberately,
revising as he went. He smoked cigarrettes as if they were good for
him." (Higher Gossip: Essays and Criticism by John Updike, 2013, p. 77) Vonnegut's other works include plays, essays, critics, and TV
plays. Although Vonnegut announced that Timequake would be his
last book, he started again another novel, If God Were Alive Today,
about a stand-up comedian. His essays, written after Timequake,
Vonnegut collected in A Man Without a Country
(2005). On January 2000 Vonnegut was hospitalized for smoke inhalation
after a fire at his home. Vonnegut had tried to extinguish the flames
with a blanket. The fire broke out on the top floor of his townhouse at
East 48th Street where he reportedly had been watching the Super Bowl
in his study. Kurt Vonnegut died on April 11, 2007, in Manhattan, New
York, after suffering irreversible brain injuries as a result of a fall
outside his home. He had been walking his dog, a Lhasa apso called
Flour, when he tripped on the leash and hit the ground. Vonnegut
considered animals superior to humans: "Ask anybody. Dogs and cats are
smarter that we are," he claimed. (Writers and Their Pets: True Stories of Famous Authors and Their Animal Friends by Kathleen Krull, 2019, p. 139)