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semiautobiographical

Kurt Vonnegut

[von-i-guht]
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (November 11, 1922 – April 11, 2007) was a prolific and genre-bending American novelist known for works blending satire, black comedy and science fiction, such as Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), Cat's Cradle (1963), and Breakfast of Champions (1973).

Life

Early years

Kurt Vonnegut was born on Veterans Day to fourth-generation German-American parents (Kurt Vonnegut, Sr., and Edith née Lieber), son and grandson of architects in the Indianapolis firm Vonnegut & Bohn. As a student at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis, Vonnegut worked on the nation's first daily high school newspaper, The Daily Echo. He attended Cornell University from 1940 to 1943, where 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 into the U.S. Army. The army sent him to the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) and the University of Tennessee to study mechanical engineering. On May 14, 1944, Mothers' Day, his mother, Edith S. (Lieber) Vonnegut, committed suicide.

World War II

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 was cut off from his battalion along with 5 other battalion scouts and wandered behind enemy lines for several days until captured by Wehrmacht troops on December 14, 1944. Imprisoned in Dresden, Vonnegut witnessed the fire bombing of Dresden in February 1945, which destroyed most of the city. Vonnegut was one of a few American prisoners of war in Dresden to survive, in their cell in an underground meat locker of a slaughterhouse that had been converted to a prison camp. The administration building had the postal address Schlachthof Fünf (Slaughterhouse Five) which the prisoners took to using as the name for the whole camp. Vonnegut recalled the facility as "Utter destruction", "carnage unfathomable." The Germans put him to work gathering bodies for mass burial. "But there were too many corpses to bury. So instead the Nazis sent in troops with flamethrowers. All these civilians' remains were burned to ashes." This experience formed the core of one of his most famous works, Slaughterhouse-Five, and is a theme in at least six other books.

Vonnegut was freed by Red Army troops in May 1945. 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".

Post-war career

After the war, Vonnegut attended the University of Chicago as a graduate student in anthropology and also worked as a police reporter at the City News Bureau of Chicago. 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. 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.

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.

Early in his adult life, he moved to Barnstable, Massachusetts, a town on Cape Cod.

Personal life

The author was known as Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., until his father's death in October 1957; after that he was known simply as Kurt Vonnegut. He was also the younger brother of Bernard Vonnegut, an atmospheric scientist who discovered that silver iodide could be used for cloud seeding, the process of artificially stimulating rain.

He married his childhood sweetheart, Jane Marie Cox, after returning from World War II, but 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 with his first wife, three more born to his sister Alice and adopted by Vonnegut after she died of cancer, and a seventh, Lily, adopted with Krementz. Two of these children have published books, including his only biological son, Mark Vonnegut, who wrote The Eden Express: A Memoir of Insanity, about his experiences in the late 1960s and his major psychotic breakdown and recovery; the tendency to insanity he acknowledged may be partly hereditary, influencing him to take up the study of medicine and orthomolecular psychiatry. 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. 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 November 11, 1999, the asteroid 25399 Vonnegut was named in Vonnegut's honor.

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 smoked unfiltered Pall Mall cigarettes, which he claimed is a "classy way to commit suicide.

Death

Vonnegut died on April 11, 2007 in Manhattan, following a fall at his Manhattan home several weeks earlier which resulted in irreversible brain injuries. He was 84 years old at the time of his death. Coincidentally, Kurt Vonnegut wrote, in the prologue of Timequake that his alter-ego, Kilgore Trout, would die at the age of 84.

Posthumous tributes

  • At the annual Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library McFadden Memorial Lecture at Butler University in Indianapolis, on April 27, 2007, where Vonnegut was being honored posthumously, his son Mark delivered a speech that the author wrote for the event, and which was reported as the last thing he wrote. It ends with this: "I thank you for your attention, and I'm outta here.
  • Following his death, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central gave Vonnegut a small tribute frame before the closing credits with his own famous phrase on death--"so it goes". There was also a short clip of him being interviewed by Jon Stewart, in which he claims that gonorrhea, giraffes and hippopotami are evidence of evolution being controlled by a divine power.
  • Filmmaker Michael Moore included Vonnegut in the dedications for his 2007 film Sicko; at the end of the film, the words "Thank You Kurt Vonnegut for Everything" come up on the screen.
  • The satirical newspaper The Onion also contained a tribute to Vonnegut soon after he died, with a reference to his work Slaughterhouse Five stating that he shouldn't be referred to as dead "without checking Dresden for his younger self first.
  • Historian, friend, and fellow socialist Howard Zinn published an obituary retelling Vonnegut's literary contributions to the modern socialist movement.
  • For a brief period after Vonnegut's death, the front page of the website for the famous alt-rock band Wilco carried a phrase from one of the author's works out of respect: "If I should die, let this be my epitaph: his only proof for the existence of God was music"..
  • The 6th studio album by British band Travis: Ode To J. Smith is dedicated to Vonnegut.

Works

Writing career

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, semiautobiographical 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.

"This is a very bad book you're writing," I said to myself.
:
"I know," I said.
:
"You're afraid you'll kill yourself the way your mother did," I said.
:
"I know," I said.

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 addition to recurring characters, there are also recurring themes and ideas. One of them is ice-nine (a central wampeter in his novel Cat's Cradle), said to be a new form of ice with a different crystal structure from normal ice. When a crystal of ice-nine is brought into contact with liquid water, it becomes a seed that "teaches" the molecules of liquid water to arrange themselves into ice-nine. This process is not easily reversible, however, as the melting point of ice-nine is 114.4 degrees Fahrenheit (45.8 degrees Celsius).

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:

He has stalled finishing his highly anticipated novel If God Were Alive Today—or so he claims. "I've given up on it ... It won't happen. ... The Army kept me on because I could type, so I was typing other people's discharges and stuff. And my feeling was, 'Please, I've done everything I was supposed to do. Can I go home now?' That's what I feel right now. I've written books. Lots of them. Please, I've done everything I'm supposed to do. Can I go home now?"

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.

Design career

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, such as anal sphincters, and other less scatological images. Later in his career, he became more interested in artwork, particularly silk-screen prints, pursued in collaboration with Joe Petro III.

In 2004, Vonnegut participated in the project The Greatest Album Covers That Never Were, where 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.

Beliefs

Politics

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 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 appropriate to die for your 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.' "

Religion

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 entitled 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'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, and once said that his epitaph ought to read: "The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music." Despite describing freethought, humanism and agnosticism as his "ancestral religion," and despite being a Unitarian, he also spoke of himself as being irreligious. In a press release by the American Humanist Association, he was described as being "completely secular in his outlook."

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. Vonnegut also served 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.

Writing

In his book Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, Vonnegut listed eight rules for writing a short story:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

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:

The last lines that Vonnegut wrote, in his last book, go thus:

When the last living thing
Has died on account of us,
How poetical it would be
If Earth could say,
In a voice floating up
Perhaps
From the floor
Of the Grand Canyon,
"It is done."
People did not like it here.''

Cameos

  • Vonnegut played himself in a cameo in 1986's Back to School, in which he is hired by Rodney Dangerfield's Thornton Melon to write a paper on the topic of the novels of Kurt Vonnegut. Recognizing the work as not Melon's own, Professor Turner tells him, "Whoever did write this doesn't know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut."
  • Vonnegut also makes brief cameos in the film adaptations of his novels Mother Night and Breakfast of Champions. Mother Night was directed by Keith Gordon, who starred as Dangerfield's son in Back to School.
  • He made a guest appearance on the 2002 DVD released by 1 Giant Leap leading the producers of the film to say "probably the most unbelievable result in our whole production was getting Kurt Vonnegut to agree to an interview". In the film he states "music is, to me, proof of the existence of God. It is so extraordinarily full of magic and in tough times of my life I can listen to music and it makes such a difference"
  • Vonnegut narrates and wrote the narrative of two oratorios with composer Dave Soldier recorded by the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra, "A Soldier's Story" based on the execution of Private Eddie Slovik and "Ice-9 Ballads", adapted from Cat's Cradle.
  • Vonnegut appears briefly in the 2005 dramatic documentary The American Ruling Class playing himself.
  • Vonnegut appears briefly in the 2005 Dutch release of the three part BBC documentary 'D-Day to Berlin. The allies journey to victory', telling about his memories of the bombing of Dresden
  • In 2007 Vonnegut is featured in the film Never Down as Robert and appears in several scenes.

Bibliography

Novels

Collections of short stories and essays

In popular culture

  • There was a widely-circulated rumour that Vonnegut gave a commencement speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1997 in which he issued simple advice, most notably advising students to "wear sunscreen." In fact, the commencement speaker at MIT in 1997 was Kofi Annan; the text which circulated in Vonnegut's name, and which was later released as a spoken-word single by Baz Luhrmann, came from an article published in the Chicago Tribune on 1997 June 1 by columnist Mary Schmich. This confusion may have resulted from a statement Vonnegut made in 1999 in God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian:
    "I wish one and all long and happy lives, no matter what may become of them afterwards. Use sunscreen! Don’t smoke cigarettes. Cigars, however, are good for you.... Firearms are also good for you.... Gunpowder has zero fat and zero cholesterol. That goes for dumdums, too."
  • 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 action caused some confusion among readers. For some time many assumed that Vonnegut must have written 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.
  • In the 1998 movie Can't Hardly Wait, the protagonist (Preston Myers) is leaving the following day for a summer writing workshop in Boston with Kurt Vonnegut.
  • The novel Marienbad My Love by Mark Leach contains excerpts from a novel titled “Let Me Love You,” which Leach claims he attempted to write in the style of some of Vonnegut’s later works, most notably Timequake.
  • Kurt Vonnegut is the title of a song by Born Ruffians on the 2008 release Red, Yellow & Blue and features a verse from Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle:
    "Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
    Man got to sit and wonder why, why, why;
    Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
    Man got to tell himself he understand."
  • The 2008 album Ode to J. Smith by Travis is dedicated to Vonnegut.

Notes and references

'PLAYBOY, July, 1973, "Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., candid conversation"

External links

Databases Reviews

Interviews

Fan sites and remembrances

Obituaries and memorials

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