Biography of Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)
One of the 20th century's great American pacifists was born on Armistice Day. Born in Indianapolis on November 11, 1922, Kurt Vonnegut entered a well-to-do family that was hit very hard by the Depression. Vonnegut went to public high school, unlike his two older siblings, and there gained early writing experience writing for the high school's daily paper. He enrolled at Cornell University in 1940 and, under pressure from his father and older brother, studied chemistry and biology. He had little real love for the subjects, and his performance was poor. He did, however, enjoy working for the Cornell Daily Sun. In 1942, Vonnegut left Cornell as the university was preparing to ask him to leave due to poor academic performance. He enrolled at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie-Mellon) in 1943. He studied there only briefly before enlisting in the U.S. Army. His mother killed herself by overdosing on sleeping pills in May 1944. In 1984, Vonnegut himself would attempt suicide by pills and alcohol.
On December 14, 1944, Vonnegut was captured in the Battle of the Bulge. He was held as a POW in Dresden, a beautiful German city with no major industries or military presence. The bombing of Dresden was unexpected. Vonnegut and the other POWs were some of the only survivors. They waited out the bombing in a meat cellar deep under the slaughterhouse.
Vonnegut was repatriated in May 1945. He returned to the United States and married Jane Marie Cox. He studied anthropology at the University of Chicago, but the department unanimously rejected his M.A. thesis. (According to the university's rules, a high-quality piece of writing could be substituted for a dissertation. Twenty years later, Vonnegut showed the department Cat's Cradle, and he was given his degree in 1971.) Vonnegut worked various jobs during his time at the University of Chicago and throughout the 1950s.
Vonnegut's first short story, "Report on the Barnhouse Effect," was published in 1950. Vonnegut has expressed some dissatisfaction with his short stories, saying that he mostly wrote them for money while working on his novels, which are more important to him. But some of his stories are accomplished works in their own right, and many readers gain their first exposure to Vonnegut through these stories, which combine in condensed form Vonnegut's trademark humor, fantasy, and social commentary. Dozens of Vonnegut's short stories and two novels appeared in the 1950s.
When his sister and her husband both died in 1958, Vonnegut adopted their three eldest children. He and his first wife had three children of their own, and they later adopted a seventh. Jane Marie Cox and Vonnegut separated in 1970, and in 1979 he married photographer Jill Krementz.
Due to his reputation as a science fiction writer, Vonnegut's first novels were published only as paperbacks with gaudy covers that misrepresented the novels and discouraged serious critical attention. The hardcover editions of Cat's Cradle (1963) and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965) were a significant improvement, although they sold only a few thousand copies. In 1966-1967, all of Vonnegut's novels were reissued in paperback, and he began to develop a significant underground following.
During the 1960s, Vonnegut published a collection of short stories and four more novels, including his sixth and greatest novel, Slaughterhouse Five. The novel's popularity and broad critical acclaim focused new attention on Vonnegut's earlier work, and soon The Sirens of Titan sold over 200,000 copies.
He has continued to write prolifically. His most recent novel is Timequake (1997). With its publication, he retired from fiction writing. His most recent book of essays is A Man without a Country (2005). He worked as a senior editor at In These Times, a progressive Chicago magazine, until his death.
Vonnegut has been an important mentor for young pacifists since he began writing. His novels are known for their dark humor and playful use of science fiction, as well as their serious moral vision and cutting social commentary. Although his novels have been criticized for being too simplistic, he has a cult following of readers who love his imagination and sense of humor. He is at once irreverent and highly moral, and this rare combination has made his voice integral to American literature.
Kurt Vonnegut passed away in 2007.