Kurt Vonnegut Jr Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Indianapolis, Indiana, 1922. Education: Shortridge High School, Indianapolis, 1936-40; Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1940-42; Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, 1943; University of Chicago, 1945-47. Military Service: Served in the United States Army Infantry, 1942-45: Purple Heart. Career: Police reporter, Chicago City News Bureau, 1946; worked in public relations for the General Electric Company, Schenectady, New York, 1947-50. Since 1950 freelance writer. After 1965, teacher, Hopefield School, Sandwich, Massachusetts. Visiting lecturer, Writers Workshop, University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1965-67, and Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1970-71; visiting professor, City University of New York, 1973-74. Awards: Guggenheim fellowship, 1967; American Academy grant, 1970. M.A.: University of Chicago, 1971; D. Litt.: Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, New York, 1974. Member: American Academy, 1973. Lives in New York City.
Player Piano. New York, Scribner, 1952; London, Macmillan, 1953; as Utopia 14, New York, Bantam, 1954.
The Sirens of Titan. New York, Dell, 1959; London, Gollancz, 1962.
Mother Night. New York, Fawcett, 1962; London, Cape, 1968.
Cat's Cradle. New York, Holt Rinehart, and London, Gollancz, 1963.
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; or, Pearls Before Swine. New York, Holt Rinehart, and London, Cape, 1965.
Slaughterhouse-Five; or, The Children's Crusade. New York, Delacorte Press, 1969; London, Cape, 1970.
Breakfast of Champions; or, Goodbye, Blue Monday. New York, Delacorte Press, and London, Cape, 1973.
Slapstick; or, Lonesome No More! New York, Delacorte Press, andLondon, Cape, 1976.
Jailbird. New York, Delacorte Press, and London, Cape, 1979.
Deadeye Dick. New York, Delacorte Press, 1982; London, Cape, 1983.
Galápagos. New York, Delacorte Press, and London, Cape, 1985.
Bluebeard. New York, Delacorte Press, 1987; London, Cape, 1988.
Hocus Pocus; or, What's the Hurry, Son? New York, Putnam, andLondon, Cape, 1990.
Three Complete Novels. New York, Wings Books, 1995.
Timequake. New York, G.P. Putnam's, 1997.
Canary in a Cat House. New York, Fawcett, 1961.
Welcome to the Monkey House: A Collection of Short Works. NewYork, Delacorte Press, 1968; London, Cape, 1969.
Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction. New York, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1999.
Happy Birthday, Wanda June (as Penelope, produced Cape Cod, Massachusetts, 1960; revised version, as Happy Birthday, Wanda June, produced New York, 1970; London, 1977). New York, Delacorte Press, 1970; London, Cape, 1973.
The Very First Christmas Morning, in Better Homes and Gardens(Des Moines, Iowa), December 1962.
Between Time and Timbuktu; or, Prometheus-5: A Space Fantasy(televised 1972; produced New York, 1976). New York, Delacorte Press, 1972; London, Panther, 1975.
Fortitude, in Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons, 1974.
Timesteps (produced Edinburgh, 1979).
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, adaptation of his own novel (produced New York, 1979).
Auf Wiedersehen, with Valentine Davies, 1958;Between Time and Timbuktu, 1972.
Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons: Opinions. New York, DelacortePress, 1974; London Cape, 1975.
Sun Moon Star. New York, Harper, and London, Hutchinson, 1980.
Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage. New York, DelacortePress, and London, Cape, 1981.
Nothing Is Lost Save Honor: Two Essays. Jackson, Mississippi, Nouveau Press, 1984.
Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut, edited by William Rodney Allen. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1988.
Fates Worse than Death: An Autobiographical Collage of the 1980s. New York, Putnam, 1991.
Like Shaking Hands with God: A Conversation about Writing (withLee Stringer). New York, Seven Stories Press, 1999.
God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian. New York, Seven Stories Press, 2000.
Kurt Vonnegut: A Comprehensive Bibliography by Asa B. Pieratt, Jr., Julie Huffman-Klinkowitz, and Jerome Klinkowitz, Hamden, Connecticut, Archon, 1987.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., by Peter J. Reed, New York, Warner, 1972; Kurt Vonnegut: Fantasist of Fire and Ice by David H. Goldsmith, Bowling Green, Ohio, Popular Press, 1972; The Vonnegut Statement edited by Jerome Klinkowitz and John Somer, New York, Delacorte Press, 1973, London, Panther, 1975, Vonnegut in America: An Introduction to the Life and Work of Kurt Vonnegut edited by Klinkowitz and Donald L. Lawler, New York, Delacorte Press, 1977, Kurt Vonnegut, London, Methuen, 1982 and Slaughterhouse Five: Reforming the Novel and the World, Boston, Twayne, 1990, both by Klinkowitz; Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. by Stanley Schatt, Boston, Twayne, 1976; Kurt Vonnegut by James Lundquist, New York, Ungar, 1977; Vonnegut: A Preface to His Novels by Richard Giannone, Port Washington, New York, Kennikat Press, 1977; Kurt Vonnegut: The Gospel from Outer Space by Clark Mayo, San Bernardino, California, Borgo Press, 1977; Vonnegut's Duty-Dance with Death: Theme and Structure in Slaughterhouse-Five by Monica Loeb, Ume[ao], Sweden, Ume[ao] Studies in the Humanities, 1979; Critical Essays on Kurt Vonnegut edited by Robert Merrill, Boston, Hall, 1990; Forever Pursuing Genesis: The Myth of Eden in the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut by Leonard Mustazza, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Bucknell University Press, 1990; Understanding Kurt Vonnegut by William Rodney Allen, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1991; Kurt Vonnegut by Donald E. Morse, San Bernardino, California, Borgo Press, 1992; Critical Response to Kurt Vonnegut edited by Leonard Mustazza, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1994; Sanity Plea: Schizophrenia in the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut by Lawrence R. Broer, Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama Press, 1994; Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s Slaughterhouse-Five, edited by Tonnvane Wiswell and M. Fogiel, illustrations by Matteo DeCosmo, Piscataway, New Jersey, Research & Education Association, 1996; The Short Fiction of Kurt Vonnegut by Peter J. Reed, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1997; Chaos Theory and the Interpretation of Literary Texts: The Case of Kurt Vonnegut by Kevin A. Boon, Lewiston, New York, Edwin Mellen Press, 1997; Wholeness Restored: Love of Symmetry as a Shaping Force in the Writings of Henry James, Kurt Vonnegut, Samuel Butler and Raymond Chandler by Ralf Norrman, Frankfurt am Main and New York, P. Lang, 1998; Kurt Vonnegut, edited by Harold Bloom, Philadelphia, Chelsea House Publishers, 2000.
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During the 1960s Kurt Vonnegut emerged as one of the most influential and provocative writers of fiction in America. His writing, indeed, constitutes an unremitting protest against horrors of the 20th century—the disastrous wars, the deterioration of the environment, and the dehumanization of the individual in a society dominated by science and technology. Such protest is by no means new in literature. The peculiar force of Vonnegut's voice may be traced to its complete contemporaneity. Fantasy (usually of the science variety), black humor, a keen sense of the absurd are the ingredients of his novels and stories.
Vonnegut has described himself as "a total pessimist." And indeed his writing offers little except wry laughter to counteract despair. This is certainly true of his first novel, Player Piano. The time of the story is the not-too-distant future and the place is an industrial city, Ilium, New York, which serves as the setting for much of Vonnegut's fiction and which resembles Schenectady, New York, where Vonnegut once worked in public relations. In the novel not only the local industry but industries throughout the nation have been completely mechanized. Machines supplant human workers because machines make fewer errors. All national policy is determined by huge computers located in Mammoth Cave. A small elite of scientists are in charge of all production. The masses, who are provided with all material necessities and comforts, including an impressive array of gadgetry, serve in either military or work battalions. Acutely aware of their dehumanization and worthlessness except as consumers of the huge output of the machines, the common people revolt under the leadership of a preacher and several renegade scientists. Though the revolt in Ilium, at least, is successful and many of the objectionable machines are destroyed, Vonnegut denies his readers any sense of satisfaction. He records that the rebels destroyed not only obnoxious machinery but also useful and necessary technological devices such as sewage disposal plants. Also, they soon began to tinker with the unneeded machines with a view to making them operative again. In the face of such inveterate stupidity the leaders suicidally surrender to the government forces.
An obvious question arises: Why should Vonnegut or his readers concern themselves with the dehumanization of apparent morons?What, indeed, is there to be dehumanized? An answer is not readily forthcoming, but perhaps Vonnegut believes that there is some value in trying to save humanity from its own stupidity. In each novel there is at least one person who is aware of human folly, and thus is living proof that intellectual blindness is not universal. More frequently than not, these discerning individuals are reformers, as in Player Piano, who make self-sacrificing efforts to improve the lot of their fellow beings. Thus The Sirens of Titan, which in plot is a rather conventional example of science fiction with an interplanetary setting, has as its reformer a man who, having been rendered immortal, omniscient, and virtually omnipotent by entrapment in a "chrono-synclasticinfundibulum," sets about uniting all nations of the world in bonds of brotherhood by staging an abortive attack against the earth by Martians. The latter are earthlings abducted to Mars and converted to automatons by the insertion in their skulls of radio antennae through which orders are transmitted from a central directorate. These unfortunates are thus subjected to ruthless dehumanization and exploitation, but for a worthwhile end. The scheme is successful; the earth becomes united after the defeat of the Martians and the unity is cemented by the establishment of a new religion—the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. The happy outcome is somewhat clouded, however, by the revelation that all human history has been determined by the trivial needs of the inhabitants of the planet Tralfamadore in one of the more remote galaxies.
Cat's Cradle and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; or, Pearls Before Swine also focus upon the efforts of altruistic individuals to alleviate misery. Cat's Cradle presents an entirely new religion, Bokonism, (named for its founder, Bokonon), much of the doctrine of which is written in Calypso verse. According to Bokonism religion should be an opiate; its function is to deceive and, by deceiving, make people happy. It teaches that God directs human destinies and that humankind is sacred, and it promotes an ethic of love, which believers manifest by pressing the soles of their feet against those of fellow believers. Bokonism was founded and flourished on a Caribbean island oppressed by a Duvalier-type dictator. It flourished because it was outlawed, for, according to Cat's Cradle at least, a religion functions most vigorously when opposed to the existing social order. There can be no doubt that Bokonism brings relief to the wretched islanders, the final horror of whose existence is that of being congealed, along with the rest of the world, by ice-nine, a discovery of an Ilium scientist. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; or, Goodbye, Blue Monday recounts the efforts of an enormously wealthy man to alleviate human misery through the more or less random disbursement of the Rosewater Foundation's almost limitless funds.
Two other novels, Mother Night and Slaughterhouse-Five; or, The Children's Crysade, both of which focus on World War II, contain no such reformers or philanthropists. In these the protagonists are never really in a position to be altruistic, even though they wish to be. In Mother Night Howard W. Campbell, Jr., serves schizophrenically as the Nazis' chief English-language radio propagandist at the same time that he is one of the allies' most effective spies. Years after the war he finds himself in an Israeli prison awaiting trial along with Adolf Eichmann. Here he commits suicide, even though a bizarre turn of events has ensured his acquittal. He realizes that one who has played his dual roles has betrayed beyond recovery his own humanity—a realization achieved by few Vonnegut characters in analogous situations.
Slaughterhouse-Five; or, The Children's Crusade, perhaps Vonnegut's most impressive novel, presents two characters who can see beneath the surface to the tragic realities of human history but make no attempt to bring about a change. These are the author himself, who is a frequent commentator, and the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim. The central event is the fire-bombing of Dresden—a catastrophe that Vonnegut had witnessed as a prisoner of war. Billy Pilgrim's liberating insights are the outgrowth of his being freed from the prison of time and, as a result, seeing the past, present and future as one and coexistent. One consequent realization is that death is an illusion. Though his periods of release from time occur on earth, their significance is explained to him by inhabitants of the distant planet Tralfamadore, to which he is transported on a Tralfamadorian spaceship. Though Billy finds no way to improve the tragically absurd condition of humanity, he does arrive at an understanding of it and a resultant deepening of compassion.
Four novels after Slaughterhouse-Five—Breakfast of Champions; or, Goodbye, Blue Monday, Slapstick; or, Lonesome No More!, Jailbird, and Deadeye Dick—continue to satirize human folly in its contemporary manifestations, still relying on fantasy, black humor, and the absurd as tools of satire. Yet their tone differs from that of the earlier fiction. The seriousness of theme and, above all, the compassion implicit in such books as Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five are all but absent. Slapstick; or, Lonesome No More!, indeed, would be appropriate as a title for any of the four. Fun and wit and laughs aplenty are not lacking, but thought is in short supply. The clown has shoved aside the thinker. But in the novel following these four, Galápagos, Vonnegut achieves a more subtle and more effective irony. For an epigraph he quotes from Anne Frank's Diary: "In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart." Though Vonnegut, or the narrator, declares that he agrees with this statement, the characters and events in the novel provide overwhelming evidence that most people are evil at heart. According to the novel, human beings have used their "big brains"—evolution's prized gift—to destroy themselves and the world they live in. But when, by a fantastic series of events that only Vonnegut could dream up, the human species is reduced to only ten individuals marooned on the Galápagos Islands, a reverse process of evolution sets in, the "big brains" disappear, and after a million years the human species is transformed into a gentle, seal-like mammal which actually is "good at heart."
In Galápagos there is a haunting quality that is not sustained in two later novels—Bluebeard and Hocus Pocus; or, What's the Hurry, Son? The protagonist in Bluebeard is an artist, one of the founders of the abstract expressionist school of painting but later a fanatical representationalist. His great opus, which he keeps locked in a potato barn on Long Island, is an eight-by-sixty-four foot depiction of a World War II scene, presenting each object and every one of innumerable men and women in the minutest detail. Most of the satire, which is gentler than in most of Vonnegut's work, is directed against artists and writers, though peripherally other matters such as war and genocide are dealt with. Hocus Pocus; or, What's the Hurray, Son? roams over a wider field of ills: the deterioration of American education, the "buying of America" by the Japanese, the Vietnam war, the prison system, and racism.
The narrator of Hocus Pocus remarks: "All I ever wanted to overthrow was ignorance and self-serving fantasies." Later he asserts: "The truth can be very funny in an awful way, especially as it relates to greed and hypocrisy." These two statements admirably sum up Vonnegut's intention and tone in most of his fiction. To achieve his purposes (and perhaps to carry along readers with short attention spans) he employs a technique, especially in his later novels, of breaking his narratives into brief sections of no more than a paragraph, in which he recounts an anecdote that more often than not ends with a punch line. The effect somewhat resembles the performance of a stage or television comedian, though with Vonnegut there is an underlying seriousness.
Timequake was Vonnegut's first novel after a seven-year silence—and, as he revealed publicly, it was to mark the end of his career. Actually, "novel" is a bit of a strong word to apply to what is really a collection of observations, or sketches for a novel, that Vonnegut's sci-fi writer alter-ego Kilgore Trout would have written if he'd gotten around to it. The premise is that "a sudden glitch in the space-time continuum" has forced everyone to repeat the period from 1991 to 2001 without being able to change a thing.
On 30 January 2000, fire struck Vonnegut's New York brown-stone; he suffered smoke inhalation, but survived.
—Perry D. Westbrook,
updated by Judson Knight