Kurt Vonnegut

(1922-2007), American

Kurt Vonnegut was an important American writer, central to the counter-culture movement of the 1960s and anti-war advocates for decades to come. Kurt Vonnegut is one of the best writers of the 20th century. His novels, from Slaughterhouse-Five to Mother Night are noted for their originality and satirical tone. Today, the author is remembered for his anti-war sentiments and willingness to directly address the complex and difficult subject matter.


Life Facts

  • Kurt Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, in November of 1922.
  • Vonnegut was deployed to Europe and fought at the Battle of the Bulge.
  • The publication of Slaughterhouse-Five in 1969 brought Vonnegut literary fame.
  • Vonnegut suffered from depression later in life and started seeing a psychologist.
  • He died in Manhattan New York City on April 11th, 2007.

Interesting Facts

  • As a student, writing came easily to Kurt Vonnegut
  • In 1959, he published The Sirens of Titan that details a Martian invasion of Earth.
  • Vonnegut was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in the mid-1960s.
  • He took refuge in a meat locker during the firebombing of Dresden.
  • He also taught at Harvard University in 1970 and City College of New York from 1973-74.

Explore more facts about Kurt Vonnegut.


Famous Books by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut’s best-known novel. It takes place non-linearly, depicting the life of Billy Pilgrim. He’s captured by Tralfamadorians, present during the firebombing of Dresden, and captured as a POW. It’s famed for its depiction of life, death, and free will.  The Sirens of Titan features a bored, incredibly rich businessman, Malachi Constant. He takes a journey from Earth to Mars before an interplanetary war. The novel features the Tralfamadorians famous for their role in Slaughterhouse-Five.  Cat’s Cradle is one of Kurt Vonnegut’s most important books. It is part satire and part science fiction. It uses black humor, flashbacks, and fictional history to depict ice-nine, a terrifying substance created by the atomic bomb’s co-creator.  Mother Night takes the form of a memoir written by Howard W. Campbell Jr. He’s an American who moved to Germany and became a propagandist and pianist. The novel’s famed for its use of metafiction and depiction of Campbell’s war trial.   Player Piano was Vonnegut’s first novel. It depicts a dystopian world fueled by automation and inspired by the writer’s time working at GE or General Electric. The novel conveys how damaging a life controlled by technology could be.  Kurt Vonnegut also wrote short stories too. Explore Vonnegut’s best short stories.


Early Life

Kurt Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, in November of 1922. He was the youngest of three children born to his father, Kurt Sr., and his mother, Edith. His parents were the children of German immigrants who both spoke the language fluently. Despite their direct heritage, the Vonneguts had no interest in German culture due to their First World War role. When speaking about his youth, Kurt Vonnegut cites the family’s cook and housekeeper to nurture him and provide him with moral guidelines. His family suffered during the Great Depression, financially and emotionally.  Vonnegut attended public school and then enrolled in Shortridge High School in 1936. He was in the band, co-edited the school’s newspaper, and expressed a love of writing. It was something he described as coming easily to him, unlike his classmates who struggled with the task. He later attended Cornell University, where he intended to become an architect like his father. Instead, he majored in biochemistry. He served as a staff writer and then editor for his university’s newspaper, The Cornell Daily Sun. 

World War II

During World War II, Vonnegut was a member of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps before his poor grades meant he lost his place. He enlisted in the army and trained at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Unfortunately, during this period, his mother committed suicide, an event historian contribute to her loss of wealth during the Great Depression and career disappointments.  Vonnegut was deployed to Europe and fought at the Battle of the Bulge. He was captured on December 22 with 50 American soldiers. He was sent to Dresden, where he lived in a  slaughterhouse. He experienced the firebombing of Dresden and recalled the sound of sirens going off whenever another city was bombed. He survived the main assault on the city by hiding in a meat locker underground. These are a few of the events that made their way into his classic novel Slaughterhouse-Five.  He was repatriated after the war and discharged with a Purple Heart for frostbite he’d suffered. Soon after this, he married Jane Marie Cox. He was twenty-two at the time. He also enrolled at the University of Chicago and worked as a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago. He eventually left the university without a degree. 

 

Literary Career

His first novel was published in 1952. It was titled Player Piano and was set post-Third World War. Throughout, he tapped into his experiences working at GE and satirizes the corporate ladder. The novel was reviewed positively by The New York Times. He sold some short stories during this period (many of which were compiled into Cat’s Cradle. His family was expanding, with Jane having their third child.  In 1959, he published The Sirens of Titan that details a Martian invasion of earth and focuses on Malachi Constant, a businessman. It’s in this novel that he first mentions the Tralfamadorians who also feature in Slaughterhouse-Five. Around this period, he also published Mother Night. Cat’s Cradle was published in 1963 and was at the time his most important book. The following year he published God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.  Vonnegut was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in the mid-1960s and used the funds to travel to Eastern Europe. The publication of Slaughterhouse-Five in 1969 brought Vonnegut the literary fame he deserved. It tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes “unstuck” in time and starts to experience his life non-linearly. He lives through experiences similar to Vonnegut’s own, including the firebombing of Dresden. Billy is also kidnapped by Tralfamadorians and placed in their zoo. Michael Crichton was one of several writers who gave the novel a positive review as it rocketed to the top of The New York Times Bestseller list.  Over the next years, his reputation as a skilled writer with an anti-war message allowed him to speak at various rallies. He also taught at Harvard University in 1970 and City College of New York from 1973-74. Vonnegut was awarded several honorary degrees during this period, but his personal life was falling apart. His relationship with his wife was damaged due to their divergent religious beliefs, and he eventually moved out. They divorced but remained friends until Jane’s death.


Later Life and Death

Kurt Vonnegut suffered from depression later in life and started seeing a psychologist. His dark novel Breakfast of Champions was published in 1973. It was followed by Slapstick, Jailbird, Deadeye Dick, Hocus Pocus, among others. Vonnegut retained his reputation as a successful and skilled writer but attempted suicide in 1984. He died in Manhattan, New York City, on April 11th, 2007, as a result of injuries he’d suffered from an earlier fall. He was eighty-four years old.  His work is hailed as some of the most important of the 20th century. After his death, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library was published in his hometown, and several collections of his writing were published. 


Influence from other Writers

Kurt Vonnegut was notably influenced by writers such as Joseph Heller, Mark Twain, and George Orwell.


Literature by Kurt Vonnegut

Explore literature by Kurt Vonnegut below, created by the team at Book Analysis.