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".
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.
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 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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.' "
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.
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
From the floor
Of the Grand Canyon,
"It is done."
People did not like it here.''
"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."
"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."
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