KURT VONNEGUT, JR. Biography - Writers


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Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (born 1922) is acknowledged as a major voice in American           
literature and applauded for his pungent satirical depictions of modern society.     
Emphasizing the comic absurdity of the human condition, he frequently depicts         
characters who search for meaning and order in an inherently meaningless and         
disorderly universe.                                                                 
Vonnegut was born on November 11, 1922, in Indianapolis, Indiana, the son of a       
successful architect. After attending Cornell University, where he majored in         
chemistry and biology, he enlisted in the United States Army, serving in the         
Second World War and eventually being taken prisoner by the German Army.             
Following the war, Vonnegut studied anthropology at the University of Chicago         
and subsequently moved to Schenectady, New York, to work as a publicist for the       
General Electric Corporation. During this period, he also began submitting short     
stories to various journals, and in 1951, he resigned his position at General         
Electric to devote his time solely to writing.                                       
Vonnegut published several novels throughout the 1950s and 1960s, beginning with     
Player Piano in 1952. However, his frequent use of elements of fantasy resulted       
in his classification as a writer of science fiction, a genre not widely             
accepted as "serious literature," and his work did not attract significant           
popular or critical interest until the mid-1960s, when increasing                     
disillusionment with American society led to widespread admiration for his           
forthright, irreverent satires. His reputation was greatly enhanced in 1969 with     
the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five, a vehemently antiwar novel that appeared     
during the peak of protest against American involvement in Vietnam. During the       
1970s and 1980s, Vonnegut continued to serve as an important commentator on           
American society, publishing a series of novels in which he focused on topics         
ranging from political corruption to environmental pollution. In recent years,       
Vonnegut has also become a prominent and vocal critic of censorship and               
militarism in the United States.                                                     
Although many critics attribute Vonnegut's classification as a science-fiction       
writer to a complete misunderstanding of his aims, the element of fantasy is         
nevertheless one of the most notable features of his early works. Player Piano       
depicts a fictional city called Ilium in which the people have relinquished           
control of their lives to a computer humorously named EPICAC, after a substance       
that induces vomiting, while the The Sirens of Titan (1959) takes place on           
several different planets, including a thoroughly militarized Mars, where the         
inhabitants are electronically controlled. The fantastic settings of these works     
serve primarily as a metaphor for modern society, which Vonnegut views as absurd     
to the point of being surreal, and as a backdrop for Vonnegut's central focus:       
the hapless human beings who inhabit these bizarre worlds who struggle with both     
their environments and themselves. For example, in Player Piano, the protagonist,     
Dr. Paul Proteus, rebels against the emotional vapidity of his society, wherein,     
freed from the need to perform any meaningful work, the citizens have lost their     
sense of dignity and purpose. Proteus joins a subversive organization devoted to     
toppling the computer-run government and participates in an abortive rebellion.       
Although he is imprisoned at the end of the novel, Vonnegut suggests that             
Proteus has triumphed in regaining his humanity.                                     
Vonnegut once again focuses on the role of technology in human society in Cat's       
Cradle (1963), widely considered one of his best works. The novel recounts the       
discovery of a form of ice, called ice-nine, which is solid at a much lower           
temperature than normal ice and is capable of solidifying all water on Earth.         
Ice-nine serves as a symbol of the enormous destructive potential of technology,     
particularly when developed or used without regard for the welfare of humanity.       
In contrast to what he considers the harmful truths represented by scientific         
discoveries, Vonnegut presents a religion called Bokononism, based on the             
concept that there are no absolute truths, that human life is ultimately             
meaningless, and that the most helpful religion would therefore preach benign         
lies that encourage kindness, give humanity a sense of dignity, and allow people     
to view their absurd condition with humor. The motif of the cat's cradle, a           
children's game played by looping string about the hands in a complex pattern,       
is used by Vonnegut to demonstrate the harm caused by the erroneous paradigms         
presented by traditional religions: "No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat's           
cradle is nothing but a bunch of X's between somebody's hands, and little kids       
look at all those X's ... no damn cat, and no damn cradle."                           
In God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; or, Pearls before Swine (1965), Vonnegut             
presents one of his most endearing protagonists in the figure of Eliot Rosewater,     
a philanthropic but ineffectual man who attempts to use his inherited fortune         
for the betterment of humanity. Rosewater finds that his generosity, his genuine     
concern for human beings, and his attempts to establish loving relationships are     
viewed as madness in a society that values only money. The novel includes             
traditional religions in its denunciation of materialism and greed in the modern     
world, suggesting that the wealthy and powerful invented the concept of divine       
ordination to justify and maintain their exploitation of others.                     
Vonnegut described Slaughterhouse-Five as a novel he was compelled to write,         
since it is based on one of the most extraordinary and significant events of his     
life. During the time he was a prisoner of the German Army, Vonnegut witnessed       
the Allied bombing of Dresden, which destroyed the city and killed more than 135,000 
people. One of the few to survive, Vonnegut was ordered by his captors to aid in     
the grisly task of digging bodies from the rubble and destroying them in huge         
bonfires. Although the attack claimed more lives than the bombing of Hiroshima       
and was directed at a target of no apparent military importance, it attracted         
little attention, and Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut's attempt to both document     
and denounce this event. Like Vonnegut, the protagonist of Slaughterhouse-Five,       
named Billy Pilgrim, has been present at the bombing of Dresden and has been         
profoundly affected by the experience. His feelings manifest themselves in a         
spiritual malaise that culminates in a nervous breakdown. In addition, he             
suffers from a peculiar condition, that of being "unstuck in time," meaning that     
he randomly experiences events from his past, present, and future. The novel is       
therefore a complex, nonchronological narrative in which images of suffering and     
loss prevail. Charles B. Harris has noted: "Ultimately, [Slaughterhouse-Five] is     
less about Dresden than it is about the impact of Dresden on one man's               
sensibilities. More specifically, it is the story of Vonnegut's story of Dresden,     
how he came to write it and, implicitly, why he wrote it as he did."                 
In the works written after Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut often focuses on the         
problems of contemporary society in a direct manner. Breakfast of Champions, or       
Goodbye Blue Monday (1973) and Slapstick, or Lonesome No More (1976), for             
example, examine the widespread feelings of despair and loneliness that result       
from the loss of traditional culture in the United States; Jailbird (1979)           
recounts the story of a fictitious participant in the Watergate scandal of the       
Nixon administration, creating an indictment of the American political system;       
Galapagos (1985) predicts the dire consequences of environmental pollution; and       
Hocus-Pocus; or, What's the Hurry, Son" (1990) deals with the implications and       
aftermath of the war in Vietnam. In the 1990s, he also published Fates Worse         
Than Death (1991) and Timequake (1997). Although many of these works are highly       
regarded, critics frequently argue that in his later works Vonnegut tends to         
reiterate themes presented more compellingly in earlier works. Many also suggest     
that Vonnegut's narrative style, which includes the frequent repetition of           
distinctive phrases, the use of colloquialisms, and a digressive manner, becomes     
formulaic in some of his later works.                                                 
Nevertheless, Vonnegut remains one of the most esteemed American satirists.           
Noted for their frank and insightful social criticism as well as their               
innovative style, his works present an idiosyncratic yet compelling vision of         
modern life. His most recent works include two collections of short fiction           
Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (1999) and God Bless You, Dr.           
Kevorkian (1999). He was hospitalized for smoke inhalation in January 2000 after     
a fire at his home in New York, and in 2001 announced that he was at work on a       
new novel, If God Were Alive Today.