Kurt Vonnegut, Junior (born November 11, 1922) is an American novelist, satirist, and most recently, graphic artist. He was recognized as New York State Author for 2001-2003.
He was born in Indianapolis, the setting for many of his novels. He attended Cornell University from 1941 to 1943, where he wrote a column for the student newspaper, the Cornell Daily Sun. Vonnegut trained as a chemist and worked as a journalist before joining the U.S. Army and serving in World War II. He is a combat infantry veteran and holds a Purple Heart.
After the war, he attended the University of Chicago as a graduate student in anthropology and also worked as a police reporter at the City News Bureau of Chicago. He left Chicago to work in Schenectady, New York, in public relations for General Electric. He attributed his unadorned writing style to his reporting work.
His experiences as an advance scout in the Battle of the Bulge, and in particular his witnessing of the bombing of Dresden, Germany, whilst a prisoner of war, would inform much of his work. This event would also form the core of his most famous work, Slaughterhouse-Five, the book that would make him a millionaire. This acerbic 200-page book is what most people mean when they describe a work as "Vonnegutian" in scope.
Vonnegut is a self-proclaimed humanist and socialist (influenced by the style of Indiana's own Eugene V. Debs) and has recently done a print advertisement for the American Civil Liberties Union. He is also a notable world federalist.
He taught an advanced writing class at Smith College for a period in 2000, and has now retired to Northampton, Massachusetts, where he lives with his wife Jill Krementz . He is also the younger brother of atmospheric scientist Bernard Vonnegut, now deceased.
This background influenced his first novel, the dystopian science fiction novel Player Piano (1952), in which human workers have been largely replaced by machines. He continued to write science fiction short stories before his second novel, The Sirens of Titan, was published in 1959. Through the 1960s the form of his work changed, from the orthodox science fiction of Cat's Cradle (which in 1971 got him his master's degree) to the acclaimed, semiautobiographical Slaughterhouse-Five, given a more experimental structure by using time travel as a plot device.
These structural experiments were continued in Breakfast of Champions (1973), which included the many rough illustrations, lengthy non-sequiturs and an appearance by the author himself, as a deus ex machina. Many hostile reviewers found the book formless, but it became one of his best sellers, and was later filmed. It includes, beyond the author himself, several of Vonnegut's recurring characters. One of them, Kilgore Trout, plays a major role and interacts with the author's character. Other cameos include Eliot Rosewater from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and Francine Pefko from Cat's Cradle. (Kazak, a dog from Galápagos and The Sirens of Titan, was apparently a major character in an earlier draft; he attacks Vonnegut's character as retribution for being cut out.)
Although many of his later novels involved science fiction themes, they were widely read and reviewed outside the field, not least due to their anti-authoritarianism, which matched the prevailing mood of the United States in the 1960s. For example, his seminal short story Harrison Bergeron graphically demonstrates how even the noble (to some) sentiment of egalitarianism, when combined with too much authority, becomes horrific repression. A case could be made for Vonnegut's form of political satire through extrapolation and exaggeration requiring a science fiction theme, simply as a milieu for proposing alternative systems, while remaining essentially political satire nonetheless. In this sense Vonnegut's work is no more or less science fiction than is Swift's Gulliver's Travels.
In much of his work Vonnegut's own voice is apparent, often filtered through the character of science fiction author Kilgore Trout (based on real-life science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon), characterized by wild leaps of imagination and a deep cynicism tempered by humanism. In 1974 Venus on the Half-Shell, a book by Philip José Farmer aping the style of Vonnegut and attributed to Kilgore Trout, was published. This action caused a falling out of the two friends and considerable confusion amongst readers.
Vonnegut currently writes for the magazine In These Times.
His work as a graphic artist got its start in the illustrations he did for Slaughterhouse-Five and, more particularly, in Breakfast of Champions, which included numerous felt-tip pen illustrations of sphincters and other, less indelicate images. As he lost interest in writing, his focus shifted to graphics artwork, particularly silk-screen prints, pursued in collaboration with Joe Petro III in the 1990s.
More recently, Vonnegut participated in the project The Greatest Album Covers That Never Were, where he created an album cover for Phish called Hook, Line and Sinker, which has been included in a traveling exhibition for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Vonnegut smokes Pall Mall cigarettes, which he claims are a "classy" way to commit suicide.
Kurt Vonnegut has six children (three of his own and three adopted). Two of these children have published books, including his only son, Mark Vonnegut, who wrote The Eden Express: A Memoir of Insanity, about his experiences in the late 1960s and his major psychotic breakdown and recovery; the tendency to insanity he acknowledged may be partly hereditary, influencing him to take up the study of medicine and orthomolecular psychiatry. Mark was named after Mark Twain whom Vonnegut considered an American saint.
His daughter, Edith Vonnegut has also had her work published. She is an artist, her book: Domestic Goddesses. Edith was once married to Geraldo Rivera. Edith was named after Kurt Vonnegut's mother, Edith Lieber.
Vonnegut's three adopted children are his nephews. James, Steven and Kurt Adams. They are his sister's sons. They were adopted after within a period of 24-hours, their father drowned when his commuter train went off an open drawbridge in New Jersey and Alice, Kurt's sister, died of cancer in New Jersey too. The 4th and youngest of the boys went to live with a first cousin of their father in Birmingham, Alabama as an infant. His name is Peter Nice.
His youngest daughter is Nanette. Nanette was named after Nanette Schnull, Vonnegut's father's mother.
Vonnegut used to run a car dealership called "Saab Cape Cod" in West Barnstable, Massachusetts but he failed to sell the Swedish two-stroke SAAB cars, and went into bankruptcy. He has jokingly said that this may be the reason he has never received a Nobel prize. 
The asteroid 25399 Vonnegut is named in his honour.
There was an incorrect urban legend widely circulated on the Internet that Kurt Vonnegut gave a commencement address at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1997 in which he advised students to wear sunscreen - the main theme and title of a quite odd pop song by Baz Luhrmann. In fact, the commencement speaker at MIT in 1997 was Kofi Annan and the putative Vonnegut speech was an article published in the Chicago Tribune on June 1, 1997 by columnist Mary Schmich.
Vonnegut did, however, play himself in a cameo in 1986's Back To School, starring Rodney Dangerfield, and is invoked as a pop culture reference in many teen flicks.
According to a 1996 online interview, Vonnegut said he had "sold the [film] rights to Cat's Cradle outright and for all eternity to Hilly Elkins , who has never done anything with it and never will and won't sell it back. Cat's Cradle now lies at a crossroads with a stake through its heart. Jerry Garcia had the rights to [The] Sirens of Titan for many years. When he died, we bought the rights back from his estate. Player Piano was bought outright by Ed Pressman quite a while ago. We've been talking to him, asking him to do something with it or let us have it back."
Short story collections
Last updated: 08-04-2005 17:57:10