One of the most distinctive voices in American letters, Kurt Vonnegut crafted an eclectic library of some of the most savage, bleak and funny critiques of American society in the 20th century. His early adulthood shaped by a series of traumas, from the suicide of his mother through his trials as a prisoner of war after being captured by Germans during their Ardennes offensive late that year, Vonnegut survived to publish his first novel, Player Piano, in 1952, and in his ensuing short stories and books would reflect his unique means of coping with horror: darkly comic and hyperbolic satire of the atomic age and human self-importance in general. But the author would struggle personally, pigeonholed as a science-fiction specialist and wracked by self-doubt and depression, until a stint teaching at the University of Iowa where he began exploring more personal strains of prose. It would result in Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), a novel integrating stark accounts of his own trials as a POW surviving the firebombing of Dresden with a sci-fi-ish non-linear narrative, crystallizing his overriding image of man as a barely evolved primate incapable of ascertaining any real context to his existence. Establishing himself as the most relentlessly iconoclastic voice of his literary generation, Vonnegut would be the subject of book-bannings by the conservatives he often lampooned and became an unflinching defender of progressive causes, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, the honorary president of the American Humanist Association and a venomous critic of American foreign policy from Vietnam to Iraq. Vonnegut's works would go on to inspire countless pop cultural paeans and several movie adaptations, as he himself became one of the most revered men in literature, mentioned in the same breath as his hero Mark Twain and similarly leavening his dour, fatalist perspective of his species with his unstaunched flare for comedy. He died in 2007.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was born on Nov. 11, 1922, in Indianapolis, IN, to Kurt and Edith Vonnegut, the former an MIT-trained architect, as was his own father, who lent his name to their local architectural firm Vonnegut and Bohn. Kurt Jr. grew up in a secular household of what he would later call "freethinkers," loosely affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist church, and at one point he himself would mull becoming a Unitarian minister. He received his elementary education at Indianapolis's fledgling Orchard School, soon to be renowned for its progressive teaching methods. He developed a penchant for the written word and, as he matured, he fancied himself becoming a newspaper reporter, but, upon graduating Shortridge High School in 1940, he matriculated at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, initially to major in biochemistry. But Vonnegut found his talents were not particularly suited to science, struggling in his studies even as he found more of a groove writing for the Cornell Daily Sun. With the U.S. going to war in late 1941 and Vonnegut on the verge of flunking out, in 1943 he enlisted in the U.S. Army, which gauged something other than frontline infantry aptitudes in the young man and put him on a mechanical engineering curriculum, sending him to the Carnegie Institute of Technology, then the University of Tennessee. He was scheduled to ship out to the U.K., but on leave back in Indianapolis for Mother's Day before he went, Vonnegut's mother, who had long battled depression, killed herself with an overdose of sleeping pills. It would be an ominous year for him generally, as he found himself with the 106th Infantry Division in the Ardennes Forest in December when German forces launched their last-ditch surprise offensive there. Caught behind enemy lines, Vonnegut was captured on Dec. 14, and imprisoned in Dresden.
He dealt with the horrors of war by demonstrating what would become his trademark dark comedic streak, at one point using his rudimentary German to admonish some of his guards about how he would join the oncoming Russians in meting violent payback to them, then taking a severe beating for it. In February 1945, Allied air forces firebombed Dresden and, though he survived in an underground slaughterhouse, he and other prisoners would be tasked with clearing some of the tens of thousands of corpses from the ruins of the ravaged city, until the exasperated Germans resorted to immolating the dead with flamethrowers. Soviet troops did liberate him, and, upon returning to the U.S., he married Jane Marie Cox, whom he had known since kindergarten, and began a graduate anthropology degree at the University of Chicago, supporting himself by working at syndicated news service. When the university rejected no less than three masters theses, his brother Bernard helped him land a job with General Electric, Kurt taking a public relations post in the Schenectady, NY, GE research facility where Bernard worked. Kurt and Jane lived in the nearby town of Alplaus, where they began a family and he wrote fiction. In 1950, he published his first short story, "Report on the Barnhouse Effect," in Collier's Magazine, and the next year he quit G.E. and move the family to Provincetown, MA, to commit himself to writing fulltime. He published his first novel, Player Piano in 1952, a funny, near-future examination of a dystopian world in which technocratic engineers have become a new oligarchy - earning him an early classification as a sci-fi writer.
In 1954, oddly enough, he took a job with Sports Illustrated, then seeking to build a more literary staff. At one point, tasked with writing a story about a racehorse who bolted from the track, Vonnegut, as he later recalled, stared at his typewriter until he finally left the building having only typed the sentence, "The horse jumped over the f---ing fence." Vonnegut sold what short stories he could through the decade and, in 1958, saw his family expand abruptly when his sister Alice died of cancer mere days after her husband had been killed in a train-wreck in New Jersey. Vonnegut and Jane adopted three of their children, adding to three of their own. In 1959, he published the novel The Sirens of Titan, another sci-fi-esque outing involving an invasion of Earth by Martians and man's affectation of religion, hyperbolically eviscerating human hubris with a bleak and comic sense of cosmic relativity. It also introduced what would become a recurring narrative touchstone, a planet of a nigh-omniscient beings called Tralfamadore. Originally published as a Dell paperback, the novel built a minor buzz as transcendent of the sci-fi genre, and publisher Houghton Mifflin reissued it in hardbound in 1961. Also that year, Vonnegut published the short-story collection Canary in a Cathouse and the novel Mother Night, a disturbing tale told from the perspective of an expatriate American on trial for war-crimes for his actions during World War II. He reveals that, in becoming an American voice of Nazi radio propaganda, he was actually serving as an agent of U.S. intelligence sending coded messages to the Allies, but found out he played his part so well that may have done more harm than good, crystallized in his summary sentence: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."
In 1963, Vonnegut published Cat's Cradle, another send-up of mankind's penchant for hubris, drawing a stark analogy to nuclear brinksmanship via an unconscionable technology a scientist has developed to solidify all the Earth's water, inevitably used to casually destroy life on the planet. Two years later, however, Vonnegut was disillusioned by his limited success - he had opened the nation's first Saab dealership in Barnstable, MA - and, when author Robert Lowell turned down a job teaching at the vaunted University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, a former editor of Vonnegut's invited him to fill the slot. The author transplanted to Iowa City, IA, and there committed himself to a more intensive study of his craft, the Workshop encouraging him to explore his personal narrative where his journalistic training discouraged it. It was during that process that Cat's Cradle became a bestseller, and Vonnegut published God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, a black-comedic tale about a senator's son who inherits a fortune and sets about helping an eclectic mix of rural Indiana folks, even as he is plagued the machinations of those attempting to wrest his money from him before he can give it away. Tapping into his most personal, traumatic experience, Vonnegut at Iowa began a novel about Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier whose wartime trials paralleled the author's own, including the nightmare of Dresden, yet who amid his trials became "unstuck in time," vaulting back and forth between the various stages of his life and thus living it out of order, shepherded by the Tralfamadorians. Hailed as a masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five hit No. 1 on The New York Times' bestseller list, the Times' glowing March 31 review bespeaking Vonnegut's transcendence of genre by calling him "an indescribable writer whose . . . books are like nothing else on earth."
With fame came changes. Harvard University in 1970 hired him to teach creative writing, a job he would follow with a short stint as at City University of New York in 1972 and '73. The University of Chicago in 1971 belatedly bestowed a masters degree upon him, citing Cat's Cradle as an acceptable thesis. Vonnegut also began a relationship with photographer Jill Krementz, becoming estranged from Jane, though the couple would not officially divorce until 1979 (he and Krementz marrying subsequently), and his family dealt with still more travail when their biological son Mark suffered a mental breakdown in 1972. Vonnegut's tragicomic anti-war play "Happy Birthday, Wanda June" was produced as a feature film in 1971, and 1972 saw an ambitious and remarkably faithful adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five by American New Wave director George Roy Hill. Though the film did not strike box-office gold, it did win the Jury Prize at Cannes and would remain the gold standard of feature adaptations of Vonnegut's a-linear storytelling, oft-described as "unfilmable." But success cemented a shift away from the standard linear narrative style of his earlier work and towards more experimental structure, as witnessed in his next book, Breakfast of Champions (1973), the tale of a Midland City, OH, car salesman, Dwayne Hoover, who becomes convinced that the writings of a relatively unknown fatalist sci-fi writer, Kilgore Trout (first introduced in Slaughterhouse-Five), are reality. Though Trout would become a running proxy for Vonnegut's own voice and opinions, the real author also broke the proverbial fourth wall by introducing himself as a character, exposing his own pathos, such as his fear he might commit suicide like his mother.
He dealt with another family death, that of his sister, in the largely figurative and surreal "Slapstick" (1976), which centered around two freakishly tall twins addled when they are separated but brilliant when they are together. The book six years hence would be adapted as "Slapstick of Another Kind" (1982), a Madeleine Kahn and Jerry Lewis vehicle largely bereft of the book's intelligence and subtleties. He returned to rapier form in 1979 with "Jailbird," a novel narrated by fictional Nixonite brought down in the Watergate scandal, offering up Vonnegut's own take on the repressive ministrations of American reactionaries and corporate culture through the decades. Vonnegut returned to his fictional Midland City in 1983 with Deadeye Dick, a tale of man socially disabled by accidentally killing a woman when he was a child, then the eventual nuclear immolation of the town, and, per usual, the author wove in pre-established characters like Dwayne Hoover and artist Rabo Karabekian. But in 1984, Vonnegut's own demons came to a head. He fulfilled his own prophecy and attempted suicide via the ingestion of alcohol and barbiturates. Recovering and returning to the typewriter, he ventured again into apocalyptic science in the Darwinian themed Galapagos (1985) and, in 1987, made Karabekian the overtly Vonnegut-esque narrator of his next novel, the memoir of a cantankerous septuagenarian protagonist, Bluebeard (1987). He took a film role for the first time in, of all things, "Back to School" (1986), a film starring revived stand-up comic Rodney Dangerfield as a wealthy boor who enrolls in college along with his son and, when he struggles in an American lit class, hires Vonnegut to pen a paper on Vonnegut's writings. The professor derides the work as ignorant of the author's works. Curiously, the actor who played Dangerfield's son, Keith Gordon, directed the relatively faithful adaptation of Mother Night ten years later, with Nick Nolte in the lead role and Vonnegut himself doing a brief cameo.
The author would pen another novel, Hocus Pocus (1990), another strange, non-linear tale of a Vietnam veteran and college professor who finds his life turned upside down when his pessimistic nature makes him the target of a wave of neo-McCarthyism led by a reactionary talk radio host - but thereafter he would struggle with longform work. In 1991, he collected a series of speeches and essays into a personal memoir, Fates Worse Than Death, laying bare much of his troubled personal life. Also that year, the cable channel Showtime premiered "Monkey House" (1991), an anthology series that adapted from various entries in his 1968 short story collection Welcome to the Monkey House. But Vonnegut would not publish again until 1997, when he cobbled together what he referred to as a "stew," partly novel, partly memoir, in which he again liberally wove his own issues into the narrative, even as it dealt with his longtime proxy Kilgore Trout. Timequake dealt with a chronological anomaly in which Earth's citizens of the year 2001 found themselves transported back in time ten years and had to cope with all the travail in their lives they now knew to be impending - a literal iteration of the fatalist determinism that had long underlay his stories. He published his last collection of short stories, Bogambo Snuff Box in 1999, and that year would also see the ill-received release of the movie "Breakfast of Champions" with an estimable cast led by Bruce Willis as Dwayne Hoover and Albert Finney as Trout. But the movie received nearly universal pans and faded quickly from theaters. In early 2000, Vonnegut's longtime habit of smoking unfiltered Pall Malls was suspected as the cause of a minor fire in his Manhattan townhouse, the author hospitalized briefly for smoke inhalation.
Musing in a 2005 collection A Man Without a Country, Vonnegut famously wrote, "I am going to sue the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company, manufacturers of Pall Mall cigarettes, for a billion bucks! . . . [F]or many years now, right on the package, Brown and Williamson have promised to kill me. But I am now 82. Thanks a lot, you dirty rats. The last thing I ever wanted was to be alive when the three most powerful people on the whole planet would be named Bush, Dick and Colon." Indeed, in the 2000s, in essays for the magazine In These Times and interviews, Vonnegut became an irascible and untempered critic of the Bush administration's austerity at home and adventurism abroad. In 2003, he told his editor in an In These Times interview, that the U.S. "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, a.k.a. 'Christians' . . ." In 2007, Vonnegut took a supporting role in the indie film "Never Down," but in the spring of that year, he fell in his home, suffering head trauma. Hospitalized for several weeks, he never recovered and died on Apr. 11, 2007, in Manhattan. A posthumous collection of never-published short stories and personal correspondence, Armageddon in Retrospect, was published in 2008. In 2009, A Man Without a Country lent its title to a documentary on the author.
By Matthew Grimm