Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (born 1922) is acknowledged as a major voice in American literature and applauded for his pungent satirical depictions of modern society. Emphasizing the comic absurdity of the human condition, he frequently depicts characters who search for meaning and order in an inherently meaningless and disorderly universe.
Vonnegut was born on November 11, 1922, in Indianapolis, Indiana, the son of a successful architect. After attending Cornell University, where he majored in chemistry and biology, he enlisted in the United States Army, serving in the Second World War and eventually being taken prisoner by the German Army. 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.
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 with American society led to widespread admiration for his forthright, irreverent satires. His 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 Vietnam. 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. In recent years, Vonnegut has also become a prominent and vocal critic of censorship and militarism in the United States.
Although many critics attribute Vonnegut's classification as a science-fiction writer to a complete misunderstanding of his aims, the element of fantasy is nevertheless one of the most notable features of his early works. Player Piano depicts a fictional city called Ilium in which the people have relinquished control of their lives to a computer humorously named EPICAC, after a substance that induces vomiting, while the The Sirens of Titan (1959) takes place on several different planets, including a thoroughly militarized Mars, where the inhabitants are electronically controlled. The fantastic settings of these works serve primarily as a metaphor for modern society, which Vonnegut views as absurd to the point of being surreal, and as a backdrop for Vonnegut's central focus: the hapless human beings who inhabit these bizarre worlds who struggle with both their environments and themselves. For example, in Player Piano, the protagonist, Dr. Paul Proteus, rebels against the emotional vapidity of his society, wherein, freed from the need to perform any meaningful work, the citizens have lost their sense of dignity and purpose. Proteus joins a subversive organization devoted to toppling the computer-run government and participates in an abortive rebellion. Although he is imprisoned at the end of the novel, Vonnegut suggests that Proteus has triumphed in regaining his humanity.
Vonnegut once again 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 God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; or, Pearls before Swine (1965), Vonnegut presents one of his most endearing protagonists in the figure of Eliot Rosewater, a philanthropic but ineffectual man who attempts to use his inherited fortune for the betterment of humanity. Rosewater finds that his generosity, his genuine concern for human beings, and his attempts to establish loving relationships are viewed as madness in a society that values only money. The novel includes traditional religions in its denunciation of materialism and greed in the modern world, suggesting that the wealthy and powerful invented the concept of divine ordination to justify and maintain their exploitation of others.
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 more than 135,000 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. Although the attack claimed more lives than the bombing of Hiroshima and was directed at a target of no apparent military importance, it attracted little attention, and Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut's attempt to both document and denounce this event. Like Vonnegut, the protagonist of Slaughterhouse-Five, named Billy Pilgrim, has been present at the bombing of Dresden and has been profoundly affected by the experience. His feelings manifest themselves in a spiritual malaise that culminates in a nervous breakdown. In addition, he suffers from a peculiar condition, that of being "unstuck in time," meaning that he randomly experiences events from his past, present, and future. The novel is therefore a complex, nonchronological narrative in which images of suffering and loss prevail. Charles B. Harris has noted: "Ultimately, [Slaughterhouse-Five] is less about Dresden than it is about the impact of Dresden on one man's sensibilities. More specifically, it is the story of Vonnegut's story of Dresden, how he came to write it and, implicitly, why he wrote it as he did."
In the works written after Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut often focuses on the problems of contemporary society in a direct manner. Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday (1973) and Slapstick, or Lonesome No More (1976), for example, examine the widespread feelings of despair and loneliness that result from the loss of traditional culture in the United States; Jailbird (1979) recounts the story of a fictitious participant in the Watergate scandal of the Nixon administration, creating an indictment of the American political system; Galapagos (1985) predicts the dire consequences of environmental pollution; and Hocus-Pocus; or, What's the Hurry, Son? (1990) deals with the implications and aftermath of the war in Vietnam. In the 1990s, he also published Fates Worse Than Death (1991) and Timequake (1997). Although many of these works are highly regarded, critics frequently argue that in his later works Vonnegut tends to reiterate themes presented more compellingly in earlier works. 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.
Nevertheless, Vonnegut remains one of the most esteemed American satirists. Noted for their frank and insightful social criticism as well as their innovative style, his works present an idiosyncratic yet compelling vision of modern life.
Further Reading on Kurt Vonnegut Jr
Authors in the News, volume 1, Gale, 1976.
Bellamy, Joe David, editor, The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers, University of Illinois Press, 1974.
Bryant, Jerry H., The Open Decision, Free Press, 1970.
Chernuchin, Michael, editor, Vonnegut Talks!, Pylon, 1977.
Clareson, Thomas D., editor, Voices for the Future: Essays on Major Science Fiction Writers, volume 1, Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1976.
Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography: Broadening Views, 1968-1988, Gale, 1989.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, volume 1, 1973; volume 2, 1974; volume 3, 1975; volume 4, 1975; volume 5, 1976; volume 8, 1978; volume 12, 1980; volume 22, 1982; volume 40, 1986; volume 60, 1991.