Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was born on November 11, 1922. Vonnegut’s accessible style, dry humor, and anti-war politics made him one of the most popular novelists of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Vonnegut grew up in Indianapolis, the son of German immigrants. In the years after World War I, his parents downplayed their ancestry, and Vonnegut often spoke in later life about wishing he’d had more of a connection to his German heritage. He discovered his gift for writing in high school, where he wrote for the school newspaper. He continued writing when he enrolled at Cornell University in 1940, writing for The Cornell Sun. Vonnegut wasn’t an enthusiastic student and was studying biochemistry mostly at the urging of his father and brother, who wanted him to major in something practical. He was placed on academic probation at the end of his second year and dropped out midway through his third.
Vonnegut enlisted in the United States Army and was sent to Europe in 1944, where he served as an intelligence scout with the infantry. He was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and sent to a prison camp in Dresden. In February 1945, the Allies bombed Dresden for three days. It is estimated that 25,000 civilians were killed in the bombing, which destroyed 1,600 acres. Vonnegut and some other prisoners survived the bombing by hiding in a meat locker three stories underground. After the bombing, the prisoners were put to work retrieving bodies from the rubble.
As the Allies advanced into Germany, the American prisoners were marched toward Czechoslovakia. Their guards eventually abandoned them, fearful of being captured themselves, and Vonnegut made it to a POW repatriation camp in France. He was sent back to the United States, where he finished the war as a clerk. After the war, Vonnegut was awarded a Purple Heart and discharged from the Army.
He began writing short stories in the evening while working for General Electric in Schenectady, New York. His first stories were published in 1950, and he quit his job in 1951 to write full time. His time at GE was reflected in his first novel, Player Piano (e-book | print), a satire of American corporate life after the Third World War. The novel was received well by critics. It went through several editions, including one printing for the Science Fiction Book Club, giving Vonnegut an “SF writer” label that he never liked and spent his career trying to shake.
His second novel, 1959’s The Sirens of Titan (e-book | print), didn’t help him shake the SF identity, since it was a novel about a Martian invasion of Earth. In it, Vonnegut first introduced the planet of Tralfamadore, which he would use in several of his novels, whenever he needed an alien species or planet. There’s no particular consistency to the Tralfamadorians who appear in different stories; it’s just his generic term for “insert aliens here,” with the characteristics of the aliens changing from book to book.
The 1961 novel Mother Night (e-book | print) was the story of an American double agent sentenced to death as a Nazi when the American government refuses to acknowledge that he is an American agent. Vonnegut’s “moral” to the story, repeated throughout the book, has become one of his best-known lines: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
Vonnegut introduced another recurring character in 1965’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (e-book | print), a novel about a millionaire’s crisis of conscience. Kilgore Trout was an author of particularly trashy science fiction novels, and he became a sort of fictional alter-ego for Vonnegut. (Though as with Tralfamadore, Trout's biographical details were flexible, depending on how Vonnegut needed to use him in any given book.) A decade later, a novel “by” Trout was published; Venus on the Half Shell (e-book | print) was actually written, with Vonnegut’s permission, by Philip Jose Farmer.
These early Vonnegut novels were critical successes, and they are among the books for which he’s best known today. But at the time of their original publication, they weren’t big sellers, and Vonnegut seriously considered giving up writing. He decided to stick with it after he was offered a teaching position at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. That position led to a Guggenheim Fellowship, and Vonnegut chose to use that money to study in Germany.
Vonnegut’s trip to Germany included a visit to Dresden. He hadn’t seen much of the city during his imprisonment there and was devastated by how badly damaged the city still was more than twenty years after the bombing. His visit helped to inspire the novel that would make him famous to the wider mainstream audience.
The central character of Slaughterhouse-Five (e-book | e-audio | print | audio) is Billy Pilgram; like Vonnegut, he is an American soldier who survives the Allied bombing of Dresden. As a result, Billy becomes “unstuck in time,” and the novel tells the story of his life in a non-linear fashion, as Billy experiences the moments of his life out of order. The novel’s narrator is anonymous but seems to be a version of Vonnegut himself.
Slaughterhouse-Five was a smash, spending four months on the New York Times bestseller list. It is considered a classic of anti-war literature and frequently appears on lists of the best American novels. Its success carried over to Vonnegut’s next novel, Breakfast of Champions (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), in which the recurring character Kilgore Trout takes center stage. Breakfast of Champions was not as popular with the critics as Vonnegut’s earlier work had been, and that set the tone for the second half of Vonnegut’s career. His later novels were less popular with the critics, but sold vastly better than his pre-Slaughterhouse novels had.
Vonnegut’s appeal isn’t hard to understand. His style is straightforward and his tone is conversational; he states his messages bluntly and repeatedly. Vonnegut doesn’t want to impress the reader with his enormous vocabulary or make anyone work too hard to get the point of a book. He brings a dry humor to his skepticism about the institutions of humanity, but that skepticism never fully curdles into cynicism; it’s always tempered by the warm affection he shows for his characters.
Vonnegut’s last novel, Timequake (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), was published in 1997. It’s narrated by another version of Vonnegut, and Kilgore Trout is once again a central figure. Vonnegut explores notions of free will while talking about how difficult it was to write Timequake; there are lots of rambling digressions, to the point that the book is almost more digression than plot.
In the 2005 essay collection, A Man Without a Country (e-book | print | audio), Vonnegut wrote about politics and society. The book was another bestseller. In a January 2007 interview, Vonnegut said that he expected it would be his last book; he died three months later, on April 11, 2007, of injuries sustained in a fall.
Vonnegut’s work was adapted into other media several times, with mixed results. Movies were made of Mother Night and Breakfast of Champions in the 1990s, but they didn’t find much of an audience. The 1972 adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five (streaming | DVD) was more successful, with Vonnegut calling it “flawless’ and “so harmonious with what I felt when I wrote the book.”
The PBS series American Playhouse adapted Vonnegut’s short story “Who Am I This Time” in 1982, with Susan Sarandon and Christopher Walken in a tale of romance in a community theater. And God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater was adapted as a musical in 1979 by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, the first project for the team that went on to write several Disney musicals a decade later. It had only a short run off-Broadway, but the score was recorded in 2017.
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