Kurt Vonnegut: Biography & Books

Instructor: Richard Davis

Richard teaches college writing and has a master's degree in creative writing.

Sometimes a writer's life is just as interesting as the work he or she produces. In this lesson, we'll examine the ups and downs of Kurt Vonnegut's life and career, exploring connections between his novels and the events that influenced them.

Who Was Kurt Vonnegut?

When people talk about postmodernism, they describe the movement as bringing a new sense of complexity, fragmentation, and self-consciousness to literature. In other words, postmodernism is just as much about the experience of reading as the literature itself. For example, David Foster Wallace's 1996 novel Infinite Jest contains 388 numbered endnotes, making the reader constantly flip between the text of the novel and the back of the book in order to follow the story. However, in the middle of all the difficulties of postmodernism, one author stands out as an exception. This author managed to create work that met the definition of 'postmodern' but did so in clear, sincere language that any reader could understand.

Kurt Vonnegut Portrait

This author was Kurt Vonnegut. During a career that spanned five decades, Kurt Vonnegut changed the way people think about fiction. Instead of relying on dense, complicated prose, Vonnegut used the language of everyday speech (including dirty jokes and curse words) to tell his stories. For example, every time a character dies in Slaughterhouse-Five (the novel that made Vonnegut a household name), Vonnegut uses the sentence 'So it goes.'

However, despite this simplicity of style, Vonnegut's work has a deep level of emotional complexity. The secret to this depth is the complex nature of Vonnegut's life, which shaped his unique sense of humor and humanity. Therefore, in order to understand Vonnegut's books, we must look at the complicated journey of the person who wrote them.

The Early Years (1922-1945)

On November 11, 1922, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. His parents, Kurt and Edith Vonnegut, were wealthy third-generation German-Americans. When the Great Depression struck in 1929, the Vonnegut family was forced to abandon a life of comfort in order to survive (an event that would influence several of Vonnegut's later novels). Young Kurt attended Shortridge High School, where his work on the school paper sparked his interest in writing.

After graduating from Shortridge in 1940, Vonnegut briefly attended Cornell University (where he studied chemistry) before enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1943. On May 14, 1944, while Vonnegut was home on leave, his mother, Edith, committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills (another event that would appear again and again in his novels).

Kurt Vonnegut

During the Battle of the Bulge on December 19, 1944, Vonnegut was taken prisoner, and he was sent to Dresden to work as a factory laborer. On February 13, 1945, Dresden was fire-bombed by the U.S. Air Force. Hiding in the basement of a slaughterhouse with German soldiers and other prisoners of war, Vonnegut survived the bombing. This pivotal moment in Vonnegut's life would serve as the inspiration for much of his work, but he struggled to write about his experience for two decades.

The Beginning of a Career (1945-1965)

After returning from the war in July 1945, Vonnegut married his childhood sweetheart, Jane Cox, and the newlyweds were both enrolled as graduate students at the University of Chicago later that year (Kurt studied anthropology, and Jane studied Slavic literature). In 1947, the couple had dropped out of graduate school because of the birth of their son, Mark (their two daughters, Edith and Nanette, would be born in 1949 and 1954). In order to support his growing family, Vonnegut took a job in public relations for General Electric in Schenectady, New York. He also began writing short stories at night, unaware that his side job would be the start of a long and productive career.

On February 11, 1950, Vonnegut's story 'Report on the Barnhouse Effect' was published by Collier's magazine. Shortly after this first major publication, Vonnegut quit General Electric, moved his family to Barnstable, Massachusetts, and began writing stories for a living. In 1952, he published his first novel Player Piano, which is set in a dystopia (a bleak future, as opposed to an idealized utopia) where human workers have been replaced by machines. In 1958, Vonnegut's sister Alice and her husband died, leaving four of their children in the care of Kurt and Jane.

Still, in the wake of this dramatic change, Vonnegut continued his work, publishing the science fiction epic The Sirens of Titan in 1959. In 1961, Vonnegut published Mother Night, a piece of historical fiction told by an American spy who pretends to be a Nazi radio personality. Two years later, in 1963, Vonnegut published Cat's Cradle, which tells the story of a journalist who witnesses (and survives) the end of the world. His 1965 novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, introduced readers to the comical character Eliot Rosewater, a childish but kind-hearted millionaire who would appear in several of Vonnegut's novels.

The Rise to Fame (1965-1982)

In the fall of 1965, Vonnegut was hired to teach for the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, and he relocated to Iowa City (leaving his family in Barnstable). During his time in Iowa, Vonnegut wrote the novel that finally came to terms with his experience in Dresden in 1945. Published in 1969, Slaughterhouse-Five tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, who becomes 'unstuck in time' while serving in World War II. Throughout the book, Vonnegut inserts himself into the narrative, drawing attention to the 'I' that's creating the story. Because the reader is constantly reminded that they are reading a piece of writing, this kind of fiction is known as metafiction.

In 1970, Vonnegut moved to New York City (once again leaving his family in Barnstable), where he enjoyed his increasing popularity. It was during this time that he formed a relationship with a photographer named Jill Krementz. Vonnegut and Krementz began living together in 1973.

In 1973, after a brief stint as a playwright, Vonnegut published Breakfast of Champions, which tells the intersecting stories of an insane used car dealer named Dwayne Hoover and a down-and-out science fiction writer named Kilgore Trout (a character who had appeared briefly in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and Slaughterhouse-Five). As a piece of metafiction, Breakfast of Champions is even more daring than Slaughterhouse-Five. Instead of just drawing the reader's attention to the story being told, Vonnegut himself enters the story as a character, using his powers as 'Creator' to influence the actions of other characters.

In 1976, Vonnegut published Slapstick, which tells the story of two siblings who are hideously deformed but supernaturally intelligent (Vonnegut describes the book as a tribute to his sister Alice). Slapstick was considered a 'flop' by most critics, but Vonnegut made a comeback in 1979 with Jailbird, a historical novel based on the Watergate Scandal of 1972 (which resulted in the resignation of President Nixon). Vonnegut and Krementz married in 1979, and they adopted their daughter Lily in 1982.

The Later Years (1982-2008)

Older Kurt Vonnegut Portrait

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