Sunday, April 15, 2007

Apple #236: Kurt Vonnegut

By special request, I am interrupting the What's Your Favorite Place series to give you a brief biography of the recently departed Kurt Vonnegut. There have been tons of articles published about him since his death last week, and I don't want to re-hash what everyone has already said (modern-day Mark Twain, favorite on college campuses, etc. etc.). Instead, since I know only very sketchy details myself, I'm going to give you a biography.

  • Born in Indianapolis on Veterans' Day, 1922.
  • Went to Shortridge High School in Indianapolis, where he edited the student newspaper, the Echo.

Young Vonnegut
(Photo from Delos, an Italian sci-fi magazine)

I’ve been a coward about heroin and cocaine and LSD and so on, afraid they might put me over the edge. . . . But I’ll tell you one thing: I once had a high that not even crack cocaine could match. That was when I got my first driver’s license! Look out, world, here comes Kurt Vonnegut.

  • Studied chemistry and biology at Cornell from 1940 to 1942 but didn't achieve high marks. Also wrote anti-war articles for the Cornell Daily Sun.
  • Left Cornell before the university could ask him to leave and enrolled in what is now Carnegie Mellon to study engineering.
  • Shortly thereafter, he enlisted in the US Army in 1943.

Vonnegut in his Army uniform
(Photo from a French site about Vonnegut)

  • In 1944, his mother killed herself.
  • Also in 1944, he was sent to Europe. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, one of the worst battles of World War II. Over 75,000 Americans were killed or wounded or captured, while the Germans lost 80,000 to 100,000 during the coldest and snowiest winter in memory.
  • Vonnegut was captured and taken as a prisoner of war by the Germans.
  • He was being held in Dresden when he witnessed the city's firebombing by Allied troops and the total destruction of the city and its civilian population. The only reason he and his fellow POWs survived is because they hid in an underground meat locker, deep under a slaughterhouse where they had been making diet supplements for pregnant women.

Dresden, after the firebombing
(Photo from Tom G. Palmer's site)

This photo of Dresden, from Erich Ufschmid's site, is captioned Cremation on Altmarket, 1945

  • After the war, he returned home and in 1945 married his high school girlfriend, Jane Marie Cox.
  • He went to the University of Chicago where he studied graduate-level anthropology while working as a reporter for the Chicago City News Bureau. His graduate committee unanimously rejected his MA thesis, titled "Fluctuations Between Good and Evil in Simple Tales."
Q: What targets would you consider fair game for a satirist today?
KV: Assholes.

  • He and his wife had three children.
  • In 1947 he moved to Schenectady where he worked as a public relations representative for General Electric before his first novel was published.
  • That first novel, Player Piano, published in 1952, satirizes corporate culture. Perhaps it was based on things he saw and overhead while at General Electric? Whatever the inspiration, critics turned up their noses at it, calling it "mere science fiction."
One of the few good things about modern times: If you die horribly on television, you will not have died in vain. You will have entertained us.

  • It wasn't until his fourth novel, Cat's Cradle, was published eleven years later that his work gained widespread attention.
  • He showed the novel to the University of Chicago, which had rejected his MA thesis years ago, and they awarded him his graduate degree.
  • Anthropology thesis award-winning novel, Cat's Cradle
  • In 1958, his brother-in-law was killed in a train wreck and a few days later, his sister died of cancer. Following their deaths, Vonnegut and his wife adopted his sister's three children.
  • Slaughterhouse-Five, my personal favorite, was published in 1969. The Vietnam War was going full steam at the time and the novel is regarded as one of the pre-eminent anti-war novels of the 20th century.

Listen. All great literature is about what a bummer it is to be a human being.

  • In 1973, another favorite of mine, Breakfast of Champions, was published.
  • In 1970, he and Jane separated, and in 1979, they were officially divorced.
  • The following November, he married photographer Jill Krementz. Together they adopted a girl named Lily.

(Photo from Garrett's MySpace)

  • Despite his increasing success and his large family of seven children, he battled depression and attempted to take his own life in 1984.

Like my distinct betters Einstein and Twain, I now am tempted to give up on people too. And, as some of you may know, this is not the first time I have surrendered to a pitiless war machine. My last words? “Life is no way to treat an animal, not even a mouse.”

  • In 1991, he and Jill filed for divorce, but the petition was later withdrawn.
  • In 1997, Timequake was published, which he said would be his last novel. He did start working on another novel, this one about a stand-up comedian, but it was not published.
  • In 2000, his brownstone in New York City caught fire during the Superbowl, and Vonnegut was hospitalized for smoke inhalation.
  • His essays were collected in a volume called A Man Without a Country, which was published in 2005.
  • In 2007, he fell in his home and suffered brain injuries, which proved fatal.

I put my big question about life to my biological son Mark. Mark is a pediatrician, and author of a memoir, The Eden Express. It is about his crackup, straightjacket and padded cell stuff, from which he recovered sufficiently to graduate from Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Vonnegut said this to his doddering old dad: “Father, we are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.” So I pass that on to you. Write it down, and put it in your computer, so you can forget it.

Biography, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Library Factfiles, Kurt Vonnegut: Novelist from Indianapolis
Grade Saver, Biography of Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)
Books and Writers, Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)
World War II History Info, Battle of the Bulge: The German Counteroffensive
Quotes are from some of Mr. Vonnegut's articles which he wrote for In These Times
and have been collected in his book of essays, A Man Without a Country


  1. And so it goes.

    Thanks, Apple Lady.

  2. After winning over the liberals with his anti-war themes, he dared to be politically incorrect, with "fictional future" stories where beautiful people are made to look ugly, and gifted ones are handicapped so everyone else can feel equal. Unfortunately, the future isn't so fictional anymore. It seems to become more real every day.


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