Some of Kurt Vonnegut's critics have called him a skeptic, a pessimist, a fatalist, a malcontent — everything from a cynic to a worrywart — for his seemingly depressive view of civilization. Others have more accurately described him as a cultural scientist, a prophetic environmentalist offering humankind a glimmer of hope. Throughout much of Vonnegut's writing, one theme resounds again and again: Like the toll of a funeral bell, he warns civilization that time on Earth is running out. In a number of his lectures and autobiographical works, he counsels that one day soon, we will all go "belly-up like guppies in a neglected fishbowl." Suggesting an epitaph for our planet, he offers, "We could have saved it, but we were too darn cheap and lazy."
One of the things that shape Vonnegut's perception of civilization is the academic training he received while earning a master's degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago. He contends that because anthropology teaches students to seek explanations for humans' comfort and discomfort in culture, society, and history, his villains are never mere individuals: Instead, they are the culture, the society, and the history studied by anthropologists. In Hocus Pocus, for example, he says that the primary character, excluding himself, is imperialism.
The son and grandson of architects, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was born on November 11, 1922, in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Vonneguts, a family of German descent, held beliefs of pacifism and atheism — beliefs that figure prominently in Vonnegut's works. Educated in Indianapolis, his journalistic endeavors began as a reporter for his high-school newspaper and continued after he entered Cornell University in 1940 as a chemistry major, writing for the student newspaper.
The bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 changed Vonnegut's life. Despite his feelings of pacifism, he volunteered for military service. He was trained to operate a 240-millimeter howitzer, but because he had some university academic credit, and because he had been in the Reserve Officers Training Corps, the army sent him back to college at Carnegie Tech as part of the Army Specialized Training Program. When the army needed manpower for the invasion of Europe, he was sent to the infantry.
In the 106th Infantry Division, assigned to defend a 75-mile stretch of the Luxembourg-Germany border, he was made a battalion intelligence scout, requiring him to sneak out ahead of Allied lines and observe the enemy.
In the winter of 1944, the Germans began their last, major military offensive of the war: the Battle of the Bulge. Vonnegut's unit was unprepared for combat and was quickly overrun by the German army. Vonnegut was captured and placed in a work camp in Dresden, Germany. Along with 99 other American prisoners, he worked in a factory making a vitamin-enriched malt syrup for pregnant women.
The bombing of Dresden, which began on February 13, 1945, destroyed much of the city — hospitals, schools, churches, nursing homes, and apartment buildings. Up to 135,000 inhabitants were killed. After the air raid, Vonnegut was put on detail to remove and cremate the corpses that rotted throughout the city. Thousands of human carcasses were incinerated on huge funeral pyres or with flamethrowers. Vonnegut's perception of this horrific misery was amplified further during the days of his liberation. Confined in the Russian zone, he spent time with Nazi concentration camp survivors from Eastern Europe — particularly, from Auschwitz and from Birkenau — listening to these survivors' gruesome stories of the Holocaust.
After the war, he returned to Indianapolis and married his childhood sweetheart, Jane Cox, whom he had met in kindergarten. He entered the University of Chicago as a graduate student in anthropology, and in 1947, he accepted a public relations job with General Electric. Three years later, he quit his job to devote full time to writing. In 1952, he published his first novel, Player Piano, a work based somewhat on his experiences in the corporate environment.
Player Piano, like Vonnegut's next two novels, The Sirens of Titan (1959) and Mother Night (1961), met with little success. His fourth novel, Cat's Cradle (1963), became a cult favorite of the counterculture, and he acquired an underground reputation; the novel was especially revered on college campuses in the 1960s. Vonnegut followed this work with an assortment of reviews, essays, and speeches compiled in Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons (1965), as well as the darkly comic God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965), and then returned to writing fiction with Slaughterhouse-Five. Published in 1969, during the war in Vietnam, it received critical acclaim and became a bestseller. Vonnegut's use of the massive, unrelenting Allied firebombing of Dresden in World War II as the pivotal image of the novel was a natural analogy to the United States' bombing of North Vietnam "back to the Stone Age."
Having made his reputation as a novelist, Vonnegut turned to the theater in 1970, with Happy Birthday, Wanda June, a revised version of a play he had written years before under the title Penelope. The play ran for 142 performances off-Broadway and was moderately successful with critics. In 1972, he wrote a play for the National Television Network, Between Time and Timbuktu, or Prometheus-5. This endeavor was not so much a new work as a series of scenes from his novels and plays, strung together with a connecting plot. Also, Welcome to the Monkey House, a collection of his short stories that included some published earlier in Canary in a Cathouse, was issued in 1970.
Vonnegut's next novel — which he claimed would be his last — was published in 1973. Breakfast of Champions is a recapitulation of the major themes of Vonnegut's earlier works and is a farewell to his characters, whom he frees in the epilogue. The book met with a great deal of critical and popular acclaim. In 1976, he published Slapstick, which opens with his confession that the book will be his closest attempt yet at autobiography. Couched as a fictional story about Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, the final president of the United States, and his twin sister, Eliza, the novel is a tribute to Vonnegut's sister, Alice Vonnegut, who died of cancer at 41.
Most readers were probably not surprised when Kilgore Trout reappeared in Vonnegut's next work of fiction, Jailbird (1979). The novel begins with this admission: "Yes — Kilgore Trout is back again. He could not make it on the outside. That is no disgrace. A lot of good people can't make it on the outside." We get the feeling that Vonnegut is speaking more about himself than about Kilgore Trout. Like much of his work, Jailbird is a social commentary. In it, Walter F. Starbuck, a former official in President Richard M. Nixon's administration, is released from prison following a conviction in the Watergate conspiracy. Events following Starbuck's release culminate in his being hired by a titanic corporation that effectively controls over one-quarter of the U.S. economy. Vonnegut uses Starbuck's being hired by this industrial giant to point out the corruptness of U.S. industry, how there is no rhyme or reason for the decisions that are made daily by huge corporations. People become slaves to technology, and industry's main concern is increasing profit at workers' expense.
Vonnegut followed up Jailbird with Palm Sunday (1981), which he subtitled An Autobiographical Collage. In this work, he plays with different forms of writing, mixing together such different genres as speeches, letters, articles, and even a musical comedy. Always willing to push the limits of traditional forms of writing, Palm Sunday is one of Vonnegut's boldest attempts at experimental writing.
Over the next six years, Vonnegut published three novels, all of which deal with a son's relationship with his father, a relationship that is usually dysfunctional. In Deadeye Dick (1982), Rudy Waltz recounts growing up in Midland City, Ohio, with a father who is more interested in gun collecting than in having a meaningful relationship with his family. The title of the novel comes from people nicknaming Rudy "Deadeye Dick" after he accidentally shoots and kills a pregnant woman while playing with one of his father's guns.
Galapagos (1985), Vonnegut's next novel, is narrated by Leon Trout, Kilgore Trout's son, who is as bitter about life as his father was. Vonnegut addresses the problems of human greed and damaging technological advancements. The setting for the book is the islands of Galapagos, where Charles Darwin studied the animal life and then wrote Origin of Species, outlining his theory of evolution. Leon Trout's ghost, which has survived from the year 1986 to the year 1 million A.D., recounts the many mistakes humans have made in bringing about our planet's demise.
In Bluebeard (1987), Vonnegut's main character, Rabo Karabekian, has a bad family life, but he is able to overcome the alienation felt by so many of Vonnegut's characters. As an artist, he immerses himself in his art and in the paintings of great modern artists. He discovers that there is a world inside himself that is nurturing and nondestructive. Through his art, Rabo recreates his life and affirms his self-worth.
In the 1990s, Vonnegut published four major works, Hocus Pocus (1990), Fates Worse Than Death: An Autobiographical Collage of the 1980s (1991), Timequake (1997), and Bagombo Snuff Box (1999). Hocus Pocus is a fictional work concerning Eugene Debs Hartke, who is fired from Tarkington College in New York and then hired by the New York State Maximum Security Adult Correctional Institution, which is directly across a lake from the college. When the prisoners at the correctional facility escape, they hold hostages at the college, and Hartke is eventually made warden at the college, renamed the Tarkington State Reformatory.
Fates Worse Than Death is similar to Palm Sunday in that it contains various speeches, essays, and autobiographical commentary addressing Vonnegut's opinions on a broad range of issues. Vonnegut characterizes the work as "a sequel, not that anyone has clamored for one, to a book called Palm Sunday."
Timequake was Vonnegut's final novel, and it touched on many of the underlying themes that were apparent in Slaughterhouse-Five, such as determinism and having to live with one's past decisions. The title Timequake refers to a "hiccup" in the space-time continuum, causing the people of the year 2001 to be thrust back in time to the year 1991. Kilgore Trout returns once again to narrate as everyone is forced to relive the past 10 years, able to think freely but unable to change anything, thus reliving every bad choice, misstep, and painful moment over again.
Bagombo Snuff Box is a compilation of previously uncollected short fiction, some of the stories dating back to his earliest days of selling short stories to magazines, and was his last major publication.
In 1999, Vonnegut published God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, a collection of 21 brief flights of fancy that were originally read as 90-second "interludes" on Manhattan's public radio station, WNYC. Each interlude consists of Vonnegut interviewing dead individuals in heaven, with the help of famed assisted-suicide doctor Jack Kevorkian.
As the century turned and Kurt Vonnegut waded into his ninth decade, his writing took a more political turn. In A Man Without a Country (2005), subtitled "A Memoir Of Life In George W Bush's America," Vonnegut explores life, love, and politics, most often from his characteristic humanistic perspective. He claimed (as he had done with other books in the past) that this would be the last book he would publish. It turned out to be true this time: Kurt Vonnegut died on April 11, 2007, weeks after suffering a fall in his home that caused irreversible brain damage.
As with most great writers, after his death, his heirs continued to find and collect more of his writings, some of which had been previously published in periodicals, and some that had never been seen by the public at large. Two posthumous collections have been published since Vonnegut's death. Armageddon in Retrospect (2008), with an introduction by his son Mark, is a collection of essays and stories about war and peace. Look at the Birdie (2009) is a collection of previously unpublished short fiction.
Throughout his life, Kurt Vonnegut, known for his self-deprecating style, continued to ridicule his own work while at the same time staking out a claim as one of the preeminent American writers since World War II. In a 1996 interview, in which he promoted the cinematic release of Mother Night, he claimed that his best work had been published prior to his reaching the age of 55. Commenting on his increased popularity in the late 1990s, he said, "My life is essentially a garage sale now."