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Best known as the author of Slaughterhouse-Five; or, The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (1969), Vonnegut is acknowledged as a major voice in modern American literature and applauded for his satirical depictions of modern society.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing Up during the Great Depression
Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on November 11, 1922, the son of a successful architect. Both his mother’s and father’s families were of German heritage and were well established professionally and socially and, as Vonnegut reflects in the introduction to Slapstick; or, Lonesome No More! (1976), he and his siblings were born into a large, prosperous family that offered the support of many close relatives and the security of a preserved cultural heritage, things for which he later nostalgically yearned.
The Great Depression, a worldwide economic downturn caused by the collapse of the stock market in 1929, brought a halt to building and hence unemployment for Vonnegut’s architect father. Looking back on those years, Vonnegut said that during the Depression his family never went hungry, and although they moved to a new, somewhat smaller house, designed by his father, their lifestyle was not crimped. But his father found no work for ten years and became increasingly withdrawn and tentative. The experience was something Vonnegut seems never to have forgotten, and his fiction abounds with characters who fall into self-doubt when they lose productive social roles. The strains on Vonnegut’s mother, Edith, were also considerable, and she perhaps felt the family’s financial decline most acutely. with the goal of bringing in money, Edith began taking writing courses in an attempt to become a short-story writer. Though none of her stories was published, her attempt seems to have made an impression on her younger son.
From Prisoner of War to Publicist to Writer
After attending Cornell University, where he majored in chemistry and biology, Vonnegut enlisted in the United States Army, serving in World War II. He was taken prisoner by the German army. while a prisoner, he witnessed the Allied firebombing of the defenseless city of Dresden in 1945—an event that heavily influenced his later writing. At least 25,000 people were killed in the bombing raid (some historians estimate more than 100,000 were killed). Because the city had no military or strategic importance, the Allied decision to destroy is has been criticized in the years since the end of the war.
Vonnegut’s enlistment in the army had come as a final blow to his mother, who was already becoming increasingly prone to depression. He sought a special leave to return home for Mother’s Day the following year, only to have her commit suicide by an overdose of sleeping pills while he was there. His most direct references to this event come in Breakfast of Champions; or, Goodbye Blue Monday! (1973), but other indications of its impact may be seen in his recurring references to the mental health of his characters and conceivably in his portrayals of women and marriages.
Following the war, Vonnegut studied anthropology at the University of Chicago and subsequently moved to Schenectady, New York, to work as a publicist for the General Electric Corporation. During this period, he also began submitting short stories to various journals, and in 1951 he resigned his position at General Electric to devote his time solely to writing.
Early Works Ignored
Vonnegut published several novels throughout the 1950s and 1960s, beginning with Player Piano in 1952. However, his frequent use of elements of fantasy resulted in his classification as a writer of science fiction, a genre not widely accepted as ”serious literature,” and his work did not attract significant popular or critical interest until the mid-1960s, when increasing disillusionment within American society led to widespread admiration for his forthright, irreverent satires.
Exploring the Role of Technology in Society
Vonnegut focuses on the role of technology in human society in Cat’s Cradle (1963), widely considered one of his best works. The novel recounts the discovery of a form of ice, called ice-nine, which is solid at a much lower temperature than normal ice and is capable of solidifying all water on Earth. Ice-nine serves as a symbol of the enormous destructive potential of technology, particularly when developed or used without regard for the welfare of humanity. In contrast to what he considers the harmful truths represented by scientific discoveries, Vonnegut presents a religion called Bokononism, based on the concept that there are no absolute truths, that human life is ultimately meaningless, and that the most helpful religion would therefore preach benign lies that encourage kindness, give humanity a sense of dignity, and allow people to view their absurd condition with humor. The motif of the cat’s cradle, a children’s game played by looping string about the hands in a complex pattern, is used by Vonnegut to demonstrate the harm caused by the erroneous paradigms presented by traditional religions: ”No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat’s cradle is nothing but a bunch of X’s between somebody’s hands, and little kids look at all those X’s … no damn cat, and no damn cradle.” In the complex novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965), Vonnegut declares his admiration for ”true” writers of science fiction, introducing the character of Kilgore Trout—a deeply humanistic and almost wholly unappreciated science fiction writer who would make frequent appearances in Vonnegut novels from that point forward.
Dresden in the Context of the Vietnam War
Vonnegut’s reputation was greatly enhanced in 1969 with the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five, a vehemently antiwar novel that appeared during the peak of protest against American involvement in the war in Vietnam. The first printing in March 1969 ran to ten thousand copies, the first Delta printing a year later was twenty-five thousand copies, and the first Dell edition of 1971 was seven hundred thousand copies. The 1972 Universal Pictures’ film adaptation, directed by George Roy Hill, also contributed to the popularity of both book and author. Rather suddenly, twenty years into his career as a writer, Vonnegut found himself famous, prosperous, and even something of a guru figure to the Woodstock generation. Simultaneously he was at last earning the acclaim of academics—led by Leslie A. Fiedler, Tony Tanner, and Robert Scholes—and reviewers.
Vonnegut described Slaughterhouse-Five as a novel he was compelled to write, since it is based on one of the most extraordinary and significant events of his life. During the time he was a prisoner of the German army, Vonnegut witnessed the Allied bombing of Dresden, which destroyed the city and killed tens of thousands of people. One of the few to survive, Vonnegut was ordered by his captors to aid in the grisly task of digging bodies from the rubble and destroying them in huge bonfires. Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut s attempt to both document and denounce the destruction of Dresden. The protagonist of the novel, Billy Pilgrim, is, as Vonnegut was, a prisoner of war in Dresden during the firebombing.
Continued Social Critique
During the 1970s and 1980s, Vonnegut continued to serve as an important commentator on American society, publishing a series of novels in which he focused on topics ranging from political corruption to environmental pollution. He also became a prominent and vocal critic of censorship and militarism in the United States. As time went on, he proved to be a remarkably durable author. His recent novels demonstrate that his skills matured while his imagination remained fresh. Such a long, steady career is rare in American letters. In addition to his stories, novels, plays, and nonfiction, he has written many introductions, essays, and commentaries in every conceivable type of book and magazine. He also continued to be in demand as a speaker and to draw large audiences right up until his death in 2007. The heading Vonnegut commonly used for these engagements was ”How to Get a Job Like Mine,” which served to launch him into an evening of entertainment in which he tended to talk about absolutely anything but what that title suggests.
A Literary Farewell
Timequake, which Vonnegut declared would be his last novel, proved difficult for him to complete. After several attempts, Vonnegut proved unable to complete it as originally conceived. Eventually he abandoned the original narrator and much of the plot. Calling his original version ”Timequake One,” he began a new version, narrated in first person, in which he wove together fragments from the old, an account of his struggles with it, and personal memoir. Timequake (1997) proved to be Vonnegut’s last novel, making it a fitting coda to a successful literary career. Vonnegut died at the age of 84 on April 11, 2007—after several years of conscientious and vehement critique of U.S. foreign policy following the terrorist attacks of2001.
Works in Literary Context
Vonnegut has come to be recognized as a thoughtful social critic who pondered the impact of technology, science, and social behavior on human existence and the natural environment. As a satirist, he acknowledged his debt to Voltaire and Jonathan Swift, while his brand of humor was influenced by Mark Twain and comedians such as Laurel and Hardy, W. C. Fields, and Bob and Ray. Vonnegut’s enduring themes—social injustice, economic inequality, environmental exploitation, and militaristic barbarity—spring from his experiences growing up in the Depression and surviving World War II.
Through his usually damaged, faltering antiheroes his stories search for what gives life meaning in a society in which cultural certainties are absent. The technique in much of his work may be characterized as postmodern; rather than following classical prose models, it instead uses choppy, vernacular sentences and deemphasizes traditional conventions of plot, theme, time, and character development. Like postmodern buildings, which unite the architecture of disparate styles and eras, his novels combine comedy with pathos, fantasy with history, and didacticism with farce. Such forms as poetry, science fiction, satire, drama, graffiti, lyrics, drawings, and even recipes appear in the novels. They deconstruct the social myths on which society often thoughtlessly runs and repeatedly defamiliarize the commonplace daily world to make their audience reexamine its habits of thinking. At the same time, Vonnegut cuts quickly to the issue, actions are reported succinctly, and the prose is geared toward moving the story along and holding the reader’s attention. His style, conspicuous for its short sentences and paragraphs, owes much to his background in journalism.
The Human Condition as Absurd
Emphasizing the comic absurdity of the human condition, Vonnegut frequently depicts characters who search for meaning and order in an inherently meaningless and disorderly universe. He focuses in particular on the futility of warfare, the destructive power of technology, and the human potential for both irrationality and evil. He also mocks institutions such as government and religion, which, in his opinion, offer harmful, ill-founded belief systems as remedies to real problems. Although his message is ultimately pessimistic, finding no remedy for the plight of humanity, Vonnegut approaches his subjects with humor and compassion. His works have been described by Richard Giannone as ”comic masks covering the tragic farce that is our contemporary life.”
After his death in 2007, numerous celebrities paid tribute to Vonnegut’s contributions to the world of art and literature. Comedian Jon Stewart ran a television tribute on his program The Daily Show, Michael Moore dedicated his 2007 film Sicko to Vonnegut, and historian Howard Zinn published an obituary noting Vonnegut’s contributions to the socialist movement, amongst many others.
Works in Critical Context
Critics have frequently argued that in his later works Vonnegut tended to reiterate themes presented more compellingly in earlier works. Charles Berryman, for example, writes, ”In the novels which follow [Slaughterhouse-Five], however, the weight of history is often lacking, and the narrators who suffer a private trauma are apt to appear more absurd than tragic.” Many also suggest that Vonnegut’s narrative style, which includes the frequent repetition of distinctive phrases, the use of colloquialisms, and a digressive manner, becomes formulaic in some of his later works. While criticized by some as pessimistic, other critics have noted that other aspects of Vonnegut’s works counter his gloomy worldview. Edward Haley Foster writes, ”Vonnegut can appear sentimental even in his best work, but it may be this, together with his comic sense, that allows his work to escape the bitterness, if not the resignation, that his bleak view of experience would encourage.”
While early responses to Slaughterhouse-Five sometimes emphasized its initial reception, as seen in the New York Times Book Review assertion that ”you’ll either love it, or push it back in the science-fiction corner,” recent criticism has tended to a reading of the work within the historical context of the Vietnam War era and Vonnegut’s work as a whole. For instance, critic Charles B. Harris observes, ”At its deeper levels of meaning Slaughterhouse-Five… posits an uncertain world and, as such, may be perceived as a metaphor for an indeterminate universe.” From a historical standpoint, critic Jerome Klinkowitz writes, “Slaughterhouse-Five was Vonnegut’s first best-seller. [It] catapulted him to sudden national fame, and brought his writing into serious intellectual esteem.”
- Allen, William Rodney. Understanding Kurt Vonnegut. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.
- Bly, William. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Woodbury, N.Y.: Barron’s, 1985.
- Klinkowitz, Jerome. Kurt Vonnegut. London & New York: Methuen, 1982.
- Lundquist, James. Kurt Vonnegut. New York: Ungar, 1977.
- Mustazza, Leonard. The Critical Response to Kurt Vonnegut. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1994.
- Morse, Donald E. Kurt Vonnegut. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo, 1992.
- Reed, Peter J. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. New York: Warner, 1972.
- –. The Short Fiction of Kurt Vonnegut. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1997.
- –and Marc Leeds. The Vonnegut Chronicles: Interviews and Essays. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1996.
- Schatt, Stanley. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1976.
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