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Infidels, Freethinkers, Humanists, and Unbelievers
Vonnegut, Kurt Jr. (1922- )
"All these people talk so eloquently about getting back to good old-fashioned values. Well, as an old poop I can remember back to when we had those old-fashioned values, and I say let's get back to the good old-fashioned First Amendment of the good old-fashioned Constitution of the United States -- and to hell with the censors! Give me knowledge or give me death!"

"Interviewer: Did the study of anthropology later color your writings?
Vonnegut: It confirmed my atheism, which was the faith of my fathers anyway. Religions were exhibited and studied as the Rube Goldberg inventions I'd always thought they were."

-- Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.


Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. is an American novelist, satirist, and most recently, graphic artist.

Kurt 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 War II.

He 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.

After 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.

He 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.

On 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.

With 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.

He 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.

Writing career
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.

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's mother committed suicide while he was in his early twenties. He himself attempted suicide in 1985 and later wrote about this in several essays.

Many 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.)

In 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).

Although 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.

A 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.

In 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.

Vonnegut 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.

Family
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.

His 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.

He is the younger brother of atmospheric scientist Bernard Vonnegut, now deceased.

Vonnegut's 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.

Politics
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 for them.

Walter 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.

With 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."

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 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 as follows:

"The old Lie: It is sweet and honorable to die for your country."

Kurt's son, Dr Mark Vonnegut recently argued that his father does not in fact support terrorism.

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 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.

More 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.

Vonnegut 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.

Vonnegut's 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)

Vonnegut 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.

There 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.

Trivia
Vonnegut reportedly smokes Pall Mall cigarettes, unfiltered, which he claims is an "honorable" way to commit suicide.

Vonnegut 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 Prize.

According 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."

The asteroid 25399 Vonnegut is named in his honor.

Vonnegut is quoted from an interview in Free Inquiry magazine: "For at least four generations my family has been proudly skeptical of organized religion."

In 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.

 
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