Few comic fiction writers since Mark Twain have achieved the combination of popularity and critical acclaim attained by social satirist Kurt Vonnegut (VON-uh-guht) or had similarly long and productive careers. Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on November 11, 1922, to Kurt Vonnegut, Sr., and the former Edith Lieber, Vonnegut was the youngest of three gifted children. His brother, Bernard, has made noteworthy contributions to the science of meteorology, and his sister, Alice, who died of cancer at age forty-one, showed talent as a sculptor. Vonnegut’s father and paternal grandfather were architects, while the Liebers owned a prosperous local brewery. Unfortunately, anti-German prejudice inspired by World War I plus financial setbacks resulting from Prohibition and the Great Depression reduced the family’s fortunes. Kurt, Jr., went to Shortridge High School in Indianapolis, where he wrote for its Daily Echo newspaper.
A student in biochemistry at Cornell University from 1940 to 1942, Vonnegut wrote for the Cornell Sun, decrying American involvement in World War II. Nevertheless, he enlisted in the U.S. Army early in 1943. The war years brought Vonnegut the double trauma of his mother’s suicide and his own capture by German troops during the Battle of the Bulge. His experiences as a war prisoner in Dresden during that city’s destruction by incendiary bombs in February of 1945 provide much of the material for Slaughterhouse-Five, his most acclaimed novel.
Soon after his repatriation, Vonnegut married Jane Marie Cox and became a student in anthropology at the University of Chicago, working part-time as a police reporter. After the university’s rejection of his master’s thesis, Vonnegut, in 1947, accepted a job as a writer of public-relations copy for the General Electric Company in Schenectady, New York. This experience inspired him with a hatred of corporate insensitivity and an awareness of the destructive social impact of science and technology, themes of importance in Player Piano, his first novel, published in 1952, and much of the rest of his writing. Technology was already the villain in his first accepted short story, “Report on the Barnhouse Effect,” which appeared in the February, 1950, issue of Collier’s.
By 1951, having moved from Schenectady to Cape Cod, Vonnegut had begun writing full time, relying mainly on the sale of short stories for his livelihood. When the short-story market weakened in the late 1950’s, his desire to publish further novels became an urgent need. His second novel, The Sirens of Titan, appeared in 1959, attracting little immediate critical attention despite its eventual high reputation among Vonnegut’s works. The book narrates the wanderings of a reluctant space traveler, Malachi Constant, whose life, like the lives of many of Vonnegut’s characters, is determined not by will but by cosmic accident; Constant achieves some measure of fulfillment only when he discovers his capacity to love.
The declared theme of Vonnegut’s third novel, Mother Night, is that “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” The novel’s central character, Howard W. Campbell, Jr., plays his double role as spy and collaborator so well that he loses himself in his own and the world’s duplicity.
Two more novels of the 1960’s, Cat’s Cradle and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, augmented Vonnegut’s reputation among an increasingly devoted cult readership and anticipated themes which would receive definitive treatment in Slaughterhouse-Five, the book for which Vonnegut is best known. In Slaughterhouse-Five, the loving, unstable innocent is Billy Pilgrim, who evangelizes his consoling religious message despite having witnessed the technological marvel of incendiary warfare at Dresden and despite knowing (because he has become “unstuck in time”) precisely how technology will end the universe. The culmination of years of struggle to cope creatively with the horrors Vonnegut had experienced in World War II, Slaughterhouse-Five brought its author international acclaim.
The catharsis of completing his “Dresden novel” and the success of the film adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five led Vonnegut to consider abandoning the novel form. He experimented with new devices in the next novels that many readers found perplexing. Breakfast of Champions includes the first publication of Vonnegut’s simple line drawings in a book that attempts to dispel its author’s personal despondency while lamenting the collapse of a national culture. Readers either celebrated it or found it trivial, and it enjoyed at once Vonnegut’s best initial sales and worst reviews. Slapstick and Jailbird were both found pessimistic and enervated by reviewers, but they show continuing growth in Vonnegut’s versatility within the novel’s form, his unrelenting assiduity as a social commentator, and the increasingly subtle weaving of autobiography into his fiction. In Deadeye Dick, his tenth novel and the first after his sixtieth birthday, the autobiographical allusions abound, despite the warning, “This is fiction, not history, so should not be used as a reference book.” Again experimental, Deadeye Dick is metafictional (its setting being the world of Breakfast of Champions) and punctuated by recipes and “playlets”
Three years in the writing, Galápagos is a brilliant novel that questions the perception of evolution as continuing upward progress. Here those who survive a million years into the future do so through intellectual devolution. Bluebeard reflects Vonnegut’s long-held interest in the visual arts. In these later books, Vonnegut’s male protagonists are increasingly debilitated, physically and emotionally, and are led to health by the stronger women. The narrator of Hocus Pocus is another battered survivor who looks back over his life as a collection of “if only” fragments. The tone of these three novels is far more positive than that of the previous group, however, and they have been well received. Nearly forty years after Player Piano, Hocus Pocus showed Vonnegut returning to the same setting and many similar themes, such as the human search for purpose, the perils of uncontrolled technology, and the costs of short-sighted military, scientific, and political ambitions. However, the novelist continued to grow in authority, in originality, and in the assurance of the authorial voice over the course of an unusually long career.
In 1997 Vonnegut published what he proclaimed would be his last book, Timequake. This loosely structured novel placed his favorite character, the long-suffering Kilgore Trout, and Vonnegut himself in a future time warp in which everyone on Earth is forced to relive a ten-year period. A work of metafiction is laced with personal reminiscences about Vonnegut’s real life and relatives. God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, which appeared two years later, recounts an imaginary “near-death” experience at the hands of the controversial practitioner of assisted-suicide and contains interviews with thirty famous dead people, ranging from William Shakespeare to Adolf Hitler. Bagombo Snuff Box, which also appeared in 1999, comprises previously uncollected magazine stories from the early 1950’s. This book is most interesting for the revealing introductions and afterword that Vonnegut wrote for it. Before his death in 2007, Vonnegut published A Man Without a Country (2005), a nonfiction collection of his writings.