God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut

Did you know today would have been Kurt Vonnegut’s 90th birthday? In memory of one of the greatest writers of the last century, here is a look back at the author’s incredible life.

His Career Choice Was A Bit Surprising

Both Kurt’s dad and his grandfather were successful architects who attended MIT, so he no doubt had considered following in their footsteps when he was young. Unfortunately, the Great Depression resulted in the family’s firm going bankrupt and his parents both started struggling with mental illness -which probably made him reconsider that option.

When young Vonnegut went to Cornell University, he decided to major in chemistry, although he did work as the Assistant Managing Editor and Associate Editor of The Cornell Daily Sun. Then he enlisted in the Army while in school and they soon transferred him to the Carnegie Institute of Technology and then the University of Tennessee. The military also changed his course of study so he would major in mechanical engineering.

The Saddest of Game Changers

If suffering makes someone a better writer, then it’s no wonder Kurt Vonnegut is so incredible –and in Kurt’s case, the worst year of his life took place between May of 1944 and May of 1945.

First, his mother committed suicide with sleeping pills on Mother’s Day in 1944. He always had trouble with women after that point, once even commenting, “My theory is that all women have hydrofluoric acid bottled up inside.”

Only a little while later, Vonnegut was sent to fight on the front lines of WWII. He was captured on December 19, during the Battle of the Bulge. He was chosen as a leader of the POWs because he spoke a little German, but the position was quickly taken away after the feisty youngster was beaten when he told the German soldiers what he wanted to do to them after the Russians came and freed the prisoners.

Two months after the group was captured, they witnessed the U.S. bombing of Dresden, which served as the inspiration for his most famous work, Slaughterhouse-Five. Just like the character in his novel, Vonnegut survived the incident largely because his group was being detained in an underground meat locker the Germans called “Slaughterhouse Five.” The Americans were then put to work collecting bodies from the streets, basements and bomb shelters for a mass burial. Eventually, the Germans decided there were too many corpses for burial, so they sent troops in with flame throwers and reduced the remains to ash.

A few months later, the POWs were released when the Russians reached Dresden. By that point though, the terrible cost of the war had already made its mark on the writer. After returning to America, Kurt was awarded a Purple Heart, for a small bit of frostbite that he considered a “ludicrously negligible wound.”

Back On the Home Front

Kurt soon returned to school, attending the University of Chicago as a graduate student of anthropology. He was a terrible anthropology student, but he also worked at the City News Bureau of Chicago at the same time, where he was able to hone his writing skills. Still, his first thesis was denied and the writer left school before obtaining his degree. Eventually, in 1971, the school awarded him a Master’s Degree, after they accepted Cat’s Cradle as his thesis.

He decided to move to Schenectady, New York to work as a technical writer for General Electric, while writing and submitting short stories on the side. In 1951, he happily resigned to become a full-time writer.

Life In The Industry

Unfortunately, things didn’t go smoothly. One of his jobs during this period was at Sports Illustrated. Vonnegut was asked to write a story about a horse that jumped a fence and attempted to run away during a race. For hours, he stared at the blank piece of paper in front of him and then, he finally wrote “The horse jumped over the f*ing fence,” and walked out of the building, never to return.

While he had a few novels published during this time, including Player Piano and The Sirens of Titan, none of them were doing all that well and he began considering that maybe he wasn’t meant to be a writer. Fortunately, just in a nick of time, he was offered a teaching position at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop and while working there, he released Cat’s Cradle, which quickly became a best-seller. After finally seeing the rewards of all his hard work, he started working on his most personal novel to date, the semi-autobiographical Slaughterhouse-Five.

Around this time, Vonnegut, who was already a father of three, adopted his three nephews after his sister died from cancer. His brother-in-law was taking care of the boys while their mother was in the hospital, but only two days before she passed away, he died in a car crash, leaving Kurt to step in as their new father.

Success Doesn’t Make For Happiness

While Slaughterhouse-Five was a best-seller, Vonnegut felt, to some extent, that it was the big story he was meant to tell and that after it was published, he had nothing left to say. He entered a period of depression and even vowed to never write another novel. He continued teaching while finishing a play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June, which he began working on years earlier.

Finally, after years of depression, he decided to get back to writing novels and Breakfast of Champions was released in 1973, again becoming an immediate best-seller. Around this time, he also left his first wife and childhood sweetheart, Jane Marie Cox, and moved in with the woman who would eventually be his second wife.

A year after Breakfast of Champions came out, one of the novel’s main characters, author Kilgore Trout, released a book of his own titled Venus on the Half Shell that seemed to match Vonnegut’s writing style. Many people really believed the novel was written by Kurt, but it was actually created by Philip Jose Farmer. Vonnegut was “not amused” by the tribute and even apparently called Farmer and angrily cursed him out over the phone.

On a semi-related note, for those of you wondering where Vonnegut got the name of his famous fictional sci-fi writer, it’s worth knowing that Kilgore Trout was loosely based on the real-life sci-fi writer Theodore Sturgeon.

All Good Things Must Come to An End

Image Via themarkpike [Flickr]

While things started to look up for Vonnegut throughout the seventies and eighties, his mother’s suicide, the horrors of war and his sister’s death continued to haunt him and in 1984, he even attempted to commit suicide. Throughout in the roughest times though, Kurt still had a great sense of humor. Even those who never read a book in their lives could appreciate the scene in the 1986 film Back to School where Vonnegut writes a term paper on his own novels for the main character only to have the professor slam his work, stating, "Whoever did write this doesn't know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut." –Now that’s something I think anyone who has ever taken an English class can relate to.

In 1997, after Timequake was published, Kurt announced his retirement –at least, from fiction writing. He continued to teach at Harvard and the City College of New York and he continued to write for the magazine In These Times. In retiring from fiction, he also gave up working on his one uncompleted novel, If God Were Alive Today. When asked about his decision to quit despite the requests from his dedicated fans, he replied, “The Army kept me on because I could type, so I was typing other people's discharges and stuff. And my feeling was, 'Please, I've done everything I was supposed to do. Can I go home now?' That's what I feel right now. I've written books. Lots of them. Please, I've done everything I'm supposed to do. Can I go home now?"

Of course, that didn’t mean that he wasn’t proud of his own writings. If you’ve ever wondered just how Vonnegut ranked his own work against one another, then you should check out his book Palm Sunday where he assigns each one a letter grade. He rates Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five the highest with an A-plus and Happy Birthday, Wanda June and Slapstick lowest with Ds. Of course, everything that came out after Palm Sunday remained unranked, including Galapagos, Hocus Pocus, and Timequake, so you'll have to draw your own conclusions on those titles.

Throughout his life, Vonnegut smoked unfiltered Pall Mall cigarettes, which he called a “classy way to commit suicide.” But in the end, it wasn’t cigarettes or depression that did him in. The writer died on April 11, 2007, when he fell down a flight of stairs at home and suffered massive head trauma. So it goes.

What do you guys think of the works of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.? Personally, he’s long been my favorite author and my favorite book is Cat’s Cradle, but even before I read any of his works, I absolutely loved his cameo in Back to School because it was something I could completely relate with.

Sources: Wikipedia, American Humanist Association, Notable Biographies, Good Reads, New York Times

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Mother Night is a real favorite of mine. It is a great companion piece to Slaughterhouse Five and contains one of Vonnegut's greatest lessons: We are who we pretend to be, so we must be very careful who we pretend to be.
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just a bit of a correction: Vonnegut's brother in-law did not die in a car crash. He died when his commuter train derailed and plunged off an open lift bridge into Newark Bay. Vonnegut and his family tried to keep news of his death away from his sister, but she found out and died a few days later.
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Vonnegut not only based Trout on Theodore Sturgeon, he stated that Sturgeon was "One of the best writers in America…certain to fascinate all sorts of readers, not only science fiction fans." High praise indeed.
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