Vonnegut, Jr. is an American novelist, satirist, and most recently,
Vonnegut Jr. was born to third-generation German American parents
in Indianapolis, the setting for many of his novels. As a high-schooler
at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis, Vonnegut worked on
the nation's first and only daily high school newspaper. He attended
Cornell University from 1941 to 1943, where he served as an opinions
section editor for the student newspaper, the Cornell Daily Sun
and majored in chemistry before joining the U.S. Army in World
is a combat infantry veteran and holds a Purple Heart. His experiences
as an advance scout with the U.S. 106th Infantry Division during
the Battle of the Bulge, and in particular his witnessing of the
bombing of Dresden, Germany, while a prisoner of war, would influence
much of his work. This event would also form the core of his most
famous work, Slaughterhouse-Five.
the war, he 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. He left Chicago to work in Schenectady,
New York, in public relations for General Electric. He attributes
his unadorned writing style to his reporting work.
married his childhood sweetheart, Jill Cox, after returning from
the war, but the couple separated in 1970. He did not divorce
Cox until 1979, but from 1970 to 2000, Vonnegut lived in an East
Side Manhattan brownstone, with his second wife, the renowned
photographer Jill Krementz. Krementz and Vonnegut were married
after the divorce was final between the author and his first wife.
January 31, 2000, 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, and after leaving the hospital he retired to Northampton,
Massachusetts. He taught an advanced writing class at Smith College
for a period in 2000, and he was recognized as New York State
Author for 2001-2003.
the publication of his novel Timequake, Vonnegut announced his
retirement from writing fiction. He currently writes for the magazine
In These Times, focusing on subjects ranging from contemptuous
criticism of the Bush administration to simple observational pieces
on topics like a trip to the post office. In 2005, many of his
essays were collected in a new bestselling book entitled A Man
Without A Country. Vonnegut referred to the book's success as
"a nice glass of champagne at the end of a life," although
the emotionally-charged essays belied no diminished energy on
the author's part.
has been a lecturer at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop
and at Harvard University, as well as a Distinguished Professor
at the City College of New York.
His first short story, "Report On the Barnhouse Effect"
appeared in 1950. His background at GE influenced his first novel,
the dystopian science fiction novel Player Piano (1952), in which
human workers have been largely replaced by machines. He continued
to write science fiction 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 orthodox science fiction
of Cat's Cradle (which in 1971 got him his master's degree) to
the acclaimed, semiautobiographical Slaughterhouse-Five, given
a more experimental structure by using time travel as a plot device.
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.
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 know," I said.
mother committed suicide while he was in his early twenties. He
himself attempted suicide in 1985 and later wrote about this in
hostile reviewers found the book formless, but it became one of
his best sellers. It includes, beyond the author himself, several
of Vonnegut's recurring characters. One of them, Kilgore Trout,
plays a major role and interacts with the author's character.
(Kazak, a dog from Galápagos and The Sirens of Titan, was
apparently a major character in an earlier draft; she attacks
Vonnegut's character as retribution for being cut out.)
addition to recurring characters, there are also recurring themes
and ideas. One of them is ice-nine, which is a new form of ice
with a different molecular 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 the ice-nine form of ice. However, this process
is not easily reversible, as the melting point of ice-nine is
114.4 degrees Fahrenheit (45.8 degrees Celsius).
many of his later novels involved science fiction themes, they
were widely read and reviewed outside the field, not least due
to their anti-authoritarianism, which matched the prevailing mood
of the United States in the 1960s. For example, his seminal short
story Harrison Bergeron graphically demonstrates how even the
debatably noble sentiment of egalitarianism, when combined with
too much authority, becomes horrific repression.
case could be made for Vonnegut's form of political satire through
extrapolation and exaggeration requiring a science fiction theme,
simply as a milieu for proposing alternative systems, while remaining
essentially political satire nonetheless. It is therefore easy
for those ignorant of science fiction's long-established (and,
for commentators such as Kingsley Amis, dominant) vein of satire
to claim that Vonnegut does not write science fiction. However,
his work is clearly in the science-fictional tradition descended
from Swift's Gulliver's Travels.
much of his work Vonnegut's own voice is apparent, often filtered
through the character of science fiction author Kilgore Trout
(based on 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.
maintained a long friendship with the writer Joseph Heller. The
two met in April, 1968 on the night Martin Luther King Jr was
shot, while both were attending a literary festival at the University
of Notre Dame. Heller and Vonnegut recalled the meeting and spoke
of their long association in a 1992 interview in Playboy.
Kurt Vonnegut has three biological children. In addition, when
his sister Alice died of cancer at the age of 41, he adopted three
of her four children. He also adopted a daughter; Lily, thus giving
him a total of seven children. 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, and to whom he bears some resemblance, in both
style and facial appearance.
daughter Edith Vonnegut, an artist, has also had her work published
in a book entitled Domestic Goddesses. Edith was once married
to Geraldo Rivera. She was named after Kurt Vonnegut's mother,
Edith Lieber. His youngest daughter is Nanette, named after Nanette
Schnull, Vonnegut's paternal grandmother.
is the younger brother of atmospheric scientist Bernard Vonnegut,
four adopted children are his nephews: James, Steven and Kurt
Adams and Lilly, girl he adopted in 1982. James, Steven and Kurt
were adopted after a traumatic twenty-four-hour period in 1958,
in which their father's commuter train went off an open drawbridge
in New Jersey and their mother, Kurt's sister Alice, died of cancer.
(In Slapstick or Lonesome No More, Kurt recounts that Alice's
husband died two days before Alice herself. Her family tried to
hide the knowledge from her, but she found 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. Lilly is a singer and actor.
Vonnegut is a Humanist; he currently serves as Honorary President
of the American Humanist Association, having replaced Isaac Asimov
in what Vonnegut calls "that totally functionless capacity".
He 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 is a lifetime member of the American
Civil Liberties Union, and recently did a print advertisement
Starbuck, the main character of his novel Jailbird, was a minor
bureaucrat in the Nixon administration who found himself swept
up in the Watergate scandal. Otherwise, while he frequently addressed
moral and political issues, Vonnegut rarely dealt with specific
political figures until after his retirement from fiction. His
collection God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian referenced controversial
assisted suicide proponent Jack Kevorkian.
his columns for In These Times, he began a blistering attack on
the administration of President George W. Bush 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."
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."
an interview with an Australian newspaper, Vonnegut made the comment
that suicide bombers are "very brave people". Contrary
to the common assertion that suicide bombers act simply because
they hate freedom, Vonnegut described their motivation as being
that "They 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."
He concluded by saying that "It is sweet and noble - sweet
and honourable I guess it is - to die for what you believe in."
The World War I poem, Dulce Et Decorum Est, by Wilfred Owen, concludes
old Lie: It is sweet and honorable to die for your country."
son, Dr Mark Vonnegut recently argued that his father does not
in fact support terrorism.
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 of sphincters
and other, less indelicate images. Later in his career, he became
more interested in artwork, particularly silk-screen prints, pursued
in collaboration with Joe Petro III.
recently, 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.
in pop culture
In 1974, Venus on the Half-Shell, a book by Philip José
Farmer aping the style of Vonnegut and attributed to Kilgore Trout,
was published. This action caused a falling out of the two friends
and some confusion amongst readers.
couplet from Cat's Cradle, "Nice, Nice, Very Nice.."
was put to music by the Southern California group Ambrosia and
recorded on their self-title debut album (1975). Vonnegut, heard
the song in NYC while visiting his daughter and immediately wrote
a letter to the band, saying, "And I myself am crazy about
our song, of course, but what do I know and why wouldn't I be?
This much I have always known, anyway: Music is the only art that's
really worth a damn. I envy you guys." (from: liner notes
of Ambrosia Anthology, 1997)
played himself in a cameo in 1986's Back To School and is invoked
as a pop culture reference in many teen flicks such as Can't Hardly
Wait, in which the character Preston (Ethan Embry) is bound for
Massachusetts to attend a writing seminar by the acclaimed author.
He also appears very briefly in Keith Gordon's film of his novel
Mother Night and as a TV commercial director in the film version
of Breakfast of Champions.
was a widely-circulated urban legend on the Internet that Kurt
Vonnegut gave a commencement address at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology in 1997 in which he advised students to wear sunscreen
- the main theme and title of a quite odd pop song by Baz Luhrmann.
In fact, the commencement speaker at MIT in 1997 was Kofi Annan
and the supposed Vonnegut speech was an article published in the
Chicago Tribune on June 1, 1997 by columnist Mary Schmich.
Vonnegut reportedly smokes Pall Mall cigarettes, unfiltered, which
he claims is an "honorable" way to commit suicide.
claims to have run a car dealership called "Saab Cape Cod"
in West Barnstable, Massachusetts but failed to sell the Swedish
two-stroke SAAB cars, and went into bankruptcy. He has jokingly
said that this may be the reason he has never received a Nobel
to a 1996 online interview, Vonnegut said he had "sold the
[film] rights to Cat's Cradle outright and for all eternity to
Hilly Elkins, who has never done anything with it and never will
and won't sell it back. Cat's Cradle now lies at a crossroads
with a stake through its heart. Jerry Garcia had the rights to
Sirens of Titan for many years. When he died, we bought the rights
back from his estate. Player Piano was bought outright by Ed Pressman
quite a while ago. We've been talking to him, asking him to do
something with it or let us have it back."
asteroid 25399 Vonnegut is named in his honor.
is quoted from an interview in Free Inquiry magazine: "For
at least four generations my family has been proudly skeptical
of organized religion."
Palm Sunday (p 210, paperback) in a speech he says "You have
just heard an atheist thank God not once, but twice. And listen
to this: God bless the class of 1974." On page 327 he calls
himself a "Christ-worshipping agnostic." He also makes
several Biblical references in the opening pages of Player Piano.