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Vonnegut, Kurt

Category: Writer

 Naomi Faust (secretary): “I’m indestructible. And even if I did fall,
Christmas angels would catch me.”
Dr Asa Breed (science administrator): “They’ve been known to miss.”

Kurt Vonnegut (1st November 11, 1922– April 11th, 2007) was an American writer.

In a career spanning over 50 years, Vonnegut published 14 novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five works of non-fiction.

Vonnegut published his first novel, Player Piano, in 1952. The novel was reviewed positively, but was not commercially successful. In the nearly 20 years that followed, Vonnegut published several novels that were only marginally successful, such as Cat's Cradle (1963) despite its profound content. His other books include God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, A Man Without a Country, Welcome to the Monkeyhouse and, with Lee Stringer, Like Shaking Hands with God.

Vonnegut's magnum opus, however, was his immediately successful sixth novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. The book's anti-war sentiment resonated with its readers amidst the ongoing Vietnam War. After its release, Slaughterhouse-Five went to the top of The New York Times Best Seller list, thrusting Vonnegut into the limelight. He was invited to give speeches, lectures, and commencement addresses around the country and received many awards and honours.

 from Cat's Cradle "Round and round and round we spin,
With feet of lead and wings of tin..."

Later in his career, Vonnegut published several autobiographical essays and short-story collections, including Fates Worse Than Death (1991), and A Man Without a Country (2005).  After his death, Vonnegut's son Mark published a compilation of his father's unpublished compositions, titled Armageddon in Retrospect.

But there is one rarely mentioned facet of Kurt Vonnegut - he was a prophet.  Perhaps only now is it apparent how very good he was at prophecy and we have provided a series of observations based on his books to illustrate how accurate he was.

Kurt Vonnegut was also an extremely human, generous and caring person, traumatised by the war, and his parents’ behaviour – his mother’s suicide and his family’s plunge into poverty as a result of the Depression.  This open, emotional battered person also had a premonition that his brother-in-law had died in a rail accident and thankfully acted on this premonition.  It did not prevent the death, but it did help his dying sister’s children who were orphaned as a result.

To outward appearances he was described as 'exhibiting black humour', with novels that were extremely disturbing.  On the other hand when you have been through all that he went through at the age he did, humour must be about all that prevents you from going mad, and it is quite likely to be black.

 Life

 

Vonnegut was born and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana.  Kurt's father, and his father before him, Bernard, were architects; the architecture firm under Kurt Sr. designed such buildings as Das Deutsche Haus (now called "The Athenæum"), the Indiana headquarters of the Bell Telephone Company, and the Fletcher Trust Building.

Vonnegut's mother was born into Indianapolis high society, as her family, the Liebers, were among the wealthiest in the city, their fortune derived from ownership of a successful brewery.  So money making came first. 

Vonnegut later credited Ida Young, his family's African-American cook and housekeeper for the first 10 years of his life, for raising him and giving him values.
"[She] gave me decent moral instruction and was exceedingly nice to me. So she was as great an influence on me as anybody." Vonnegut described Young as "humane and wise", adding that "the compassionate, forgiving aspects of my beliefs came from her".

Vonnegut and future wife Jane at Cornell frat party, 1942

When the Great Depression hit, his parents were badly affected, losing almost their entire fortune.  His father withdrew from normal life and became what Vonnegut called a "dreamy artist". His mother became depressed, withdrawn, bitter, and abusive. She laboured to regain the family's wealth and status, and Vonnegut said she expressed hatred "as corrosive as hydrochloric acid" for her husband.

Vonnegut enrolled at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He wanted to study the humanities or become an architect like his father, but his father and brother, a scientist, ‘urged him’ [forced him] to study a "useful" discipline. As a result, Vonnegut had, rather inevitably, little interest in his studies.

Vonnegut, Kurt - Graduation Speech [later years]
The credits I brought with me were near-flunks in chemistry, physics, math, and biology. I had actually twice flunked a course whose purpose is to exclude people like me from careers as scientists, which is thermodynamics.  Despite my inability to o’er-leap the intellectual barrier of thermodynamics, or pile of shit, if you like, I still wanted to be respected as a person who thought scientifically, who loved the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It was obvious that only a pseudoscience was a possibility for me. Ideally, I thought, it should be a pseudoscience socially superior to astrology, meteorology, hairdressing, economics, or embalming.

 

Eventually, a satirical article in Cornell's newspaper resulted in him being placed on academic probation in May 1942, he dropped out in January 1943. No longer eligible for a student deferment, he faced likely conscription into United States Army. Instead of waiting to be drafted, he enlisted in the army.

In early 1944, Vonnegut was ordered to an infantry battalion at Camp Atterbury, south of Indianapolis  in training for the D-Day invasion. He lived so close to his home that he was "able to sleep in [his] own bedroom and use the family car on weekends". On May 14, 1944, Vonnegut returned home on leave for Mother's Day weekend to discover that his mother had apparently committed suicide the previous night by overdosing on sleeping pills.  She was inebriated at the  time.

Three months following his mother's suicide, Vonnegut was sent to Europe as an intelligence scout with the ill-fated 106th Infantry Division. In December 1944, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge, the final German offensive of the war. During the battle, the 106th Infantry Division, which had only recently reached the front and was assigned to a "quiet" sector due to its inexperience, was overrun by advancing German armoured forces. The result was that over 500 members of the division were killed and over 6,000 were captured.

 

On December 22, Vonnegut was captured and taken by boxcar to a prison camp south of Dresden, in a slaughterhouse. Vonnegut recalled the sirens going off whenever another city was bombed.

On February 13, 1945, Dresden became the target of Allied forces. In the hours and days that followed, the Allies engaged in a fierce firebombing of the city. The offensive subsided on February 15th, leaving tens of thousands dead. Vonnegut survived by taking refuge in a meat locker three stories underground. "It was cool there, with cadavers hanging all around, …when we came up the city was gone... They burnt the whole damn town down." Vonnegut and other American prisoners were put to work immediately after the bombing, excavating bodies from the rubble.

The American prisoners of war were evacuated on foot to the border of Saxony and Czechoslovakia after General Patton captured Leipzig. With the captives abandoned by their guards, Vonnegut reached a prisoner-of-war repatriation camp in Le Havre, France, before the end of May 1945, with the aid of the Soviets. He was still only 22 years old when he eventually returned to the United States.

Vonnegut with his wife Jane, and children (from left to right): Mark, Edith and Nanette, in 1955.

After he returned from the war, Vonnegut married Jane Marie Cox, his high school girlfriend and classmate since kindergarten, on September 1, 1945.  The pair relocated to Chicago; there, Vonnegut enrolled in the University of Chicago as an anthropology student.

Vonnegut, Kurt - Graduation Speech

I came here in 1946, immediately following my participation in a war. It was the Second World War, a name and event worthy of H. G. Wells. That war ended with our dropping atomic bombs on the civilians, and their pets and house plants, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, quite a surprise to one and all. That such bombs were possible was first demonstrated in the abandoned football stadium of this very university, where the importance of contact sports had been discounted. The university president at that time, Robert Maynard Hutchins, was famous for saying that, whenever he felt in need of exercise, he lay down until the feeling passed. He finally wound up in a California think tank.

 

It was whilst married to Jane that he adopted his sister's three sons, —James, Steven, and Kurt, aged 14, 11, and 9 respectively - after she died of cancer and her husband died in a train accident. 

Later career and events

Vonnegut and Jill Krementz photographed by Saul Leiter
on March 17, 1978

After Slaughterhouse-Five was published, Vonnegut embraced the fame and financial security that attended its release. In addition to briefly teaching at Harvard University as a lecturer in creative writing in 1970, Vonnegut taught at the City College of New York as a distinguished professor during the 1973-1974 academic year. He was later elected vice president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and given honorary degrees by, among others, Indiana University and Bennington College.

Meanwhile, Vonnegut's personal life was disintegrating. His wife Jane had embraced Christianity, which was contrary to Vonnegut's more spiritual and all-embracing beliefs.

Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, 1999
Some of you may know that I am neither Christian, nor Jewish, nor Buddhist, nor a conventionally religious person of any sort. I am a humanist, … I myself have written, "If it weren't for the message of mercy and pity in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, I wouldn't want to be a human being. I would just as soon be a rattlesnake."

With five of their six children having left home, Vonnegut said the two were forced to find "other sorts of seemingly important work to do." The couple battled over their differing beliefs until Vonnegut moved from their Cape Cod home to New York in 1971. Vonnegut called the disagreements "painful", and said the resulting split was a "terrible, unavoidable accident that we were ill-equipped to understand." 

Slapstick (1976)
I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, "Please — a little less love, and a little more common decency.

The couple divorced and they remained friends until Jane's death in late 1986.  Beyond his marriage, he was also deeply affected when his son Mark suffered a mental breakdown in 1972.

1969 shot of Edie and her father, taken by Henry
Grossman for Life magazine

In 1979, Vonnegut married Jill Krementz, a photographer whom he met while she was working on a series about writers in the early 1970s. With Jill, he adopted a daughter, Lily, when the baby was three days old.  After this he seemed to unblock the block and he published several satirical books, including Jailbird (1979), Deadeye Dick (1982), Galápagos (1985), Bluebeard (1987), and Hocus Pocus (1990).

Death

In a 2006 Rolling Stone interview, Vonnegut sardonically stated that he would sue the Brown & Williamson tobacco company, the maker of the Pall Mall-branded cigarettes he had been smoking since he was fourteen years old, for false advertising. "And do you know why?" he said. "Because I'm 83 years old. The lying bastards! On the package Brown & Williamson promised to kill me."

He died on the night of April 11, 2007 in Manhattan, as a result of brain injuries incurred several weeks prior from a fall at his New York brownstone home. His death was reported by his wife Jill. Vonnegut was 84 years old.

Dinitia Smith, The New York Times, 2007

Like Mark Twain, Mr. Vonnegut used humour to tackle the basic questions of human existence: Why are we in this world? Is there a presiding figure to make sense of all this, a God who in the end, despite making people suffer, wishes them well?

 

The asteroid 25399 Vonnegut is named in his honor.

References

 

Novels

Player Piano (1952)

The Sirens of Titan (1959)

Mother Night (1961)

Cat's Cradle (1963)

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965)

Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

Breakfast of Champions (1973)

Slapstick (1976)

Jailbird (1979)

Deadeye Dick (1982)

Galápagos (1985)

Bluebeard (1987)

Hocus Pocus (1990)

Timequake (1997)

 

Fiction

Canary in a Cathouse (1961)

Welcome to the Monkey House (1968)

Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1970)

Between Time and Timbuktu (1972)

Sun Moon Star (1980)

Bagombo Snuff Box (1997)

God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian (1999)

Armageddon in Retrospect (2008) – short stories and essays

Look at the Birdie (2009)

While Mortals Sleep (2011)

We Are What We Pretend to Be (2012)

Sucker's Portfolio (2013)

Nonfiction

Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons (1974)

Palm Sunday (1981)

Nothing Is Lost Save Honor: Two Essays (1984)

Fates Worse Than Death (1991)

A Man Without a Country (2005)[60]

Kurt Vonnegut: The Cornell Sun Years 1941–1943 (2012)

If This Isn't Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young (2013)

Vonnegut by the Dozen (2013)

Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (2014)

 

 

 

Michael Crichton - The New Republic
he writes about the most excruciatingly painful things. His novels have attacked our deepest fears of automation and the bomb, our deepest political guilts, our fiercest hatreds and loves. No one else writes books on these subjects; they are inaccessible to normal novelists.

sometimes, one wishes a prophet were proved wrong.................

 

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