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Kurt Vonnegut


In 1968, the year Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was writing Slaughterhouse-Five, the war in Vietnam was at its height. Each evening it invaded millions of American living rooms on the television news, and what viewers saw of the conflict night after night made them worried and uneasy about what was taking place. Opinion polls showed that most Americans were then in favor of the war, but a wave of antiwar protest had welled up across the country, mainly on college campuses. Peaceful demonstrations gave way to riots as hostility deepened between prowar and antiwar factions.

And there was violence of another kind that year. In the spring, two prominent figures were assassinated: first Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the inspirational leader of the civil rights movement, then Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the leading Democratic candidate for president, who was running on an antiwar platform. Americans were shocked by these brutal killings, and they began to share with the war protesters a general mood of anger and frustration.

For Kurt Vonnegut in 1968, the atrocities of the war in Vietnam had a deeper significance. Twenty- three years earlier, he had been a soldier in the last months of World War II. As a prisoner of war, he was in Dresden, Germany, on the night of February 13, 1945, when Allied bombers attacked so fiercely that they created a great fire-storm that incinerated the entire city. Some 135,000 people died in the raid, perhaps twice the number of people killed in Hiroshima when the first atom bomb was dropped there about six months later.

Vonnegut spent that night with other POWs and their guards in an underground shelter. When it was possible to leave the shelter the next afternoon, he saw the aftermath of the fire-storm. The city looked like a desolate moonscape: nothing moved anywhere.

For years Vonnegut wanted to tell the story of his Dresden experience, and in Chapter I of Slaughterhouse-Five he describes the difficulties he had in trying to write about it. By 1968 America's escalation of the war in Vietnam and the growing protest against the war had added to his sense of urgency about completing the book. Vonnegut's other writings show that he identified strongly with the younger generation's antiwar and antiestablishment attitudes. If ever he was going to write his antiwar book, 1968 was surely the time to do it.

Vonnegut's "modern ideas" go all the way back to his childhood in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he was born- appropriately- on Armistice Day, November 11, 1922. His parents came from three generations of prosperous and cultured German-Americans, and they instilled in their youngest child their own values of pacifism and humanistic atheism. From his mother Kurt learned a love of the arts, but he tried to follow his father's advice that science was the career of the future. His older brother was already a successful physicist when Vonnegut went to Cornell in 1940 and majored in biochemistry. But then America entered World War II, and in 1943 Vonnegut joined the army. After a brief study of engineering at Carnegie Tech, he was sent to Europe. There he served as an infantry scout until he was captured by Germans following the Battle of the Bulge. Vonnegut's experience as a prisoner of war forms the basis of Billy Pilgrim's Dresden story in Slaughterhouse-Five.

After the war, Vonnegut married a childhood sweetheart and enrolled in the University of Chicago graduate school to study anthropology. Apparently he still believed he wanted to be a scientist. He wrote a master's thesis on the stories of different peoples of the world, showing that many of these stories were similar in structure even though the people who wrote them couldn't possibly have known anything about each other. The thesis was rejected, and Vonnegut quit school to go to work for General Electric in Schenectady, New York. His job in public relations involved explaining and justifying to the public the work of a large scientific corporation. Much of what Vonnegut considers the hypocrisy involved in presenting a good image (the main function of public relations) appears in Slaughterhouse-Five as "official" rationalizations for disasters such as Hiroshima and the firebombing of Dresden.

While he was at General Electric, Vonnegut began writing fiction, and in 1950 he "dropped out" to become a full-time writer. His first novel, Player Piano (1952), is a futuristic satire of the dog-eat-dog mentality of the corporate world he had tried to fit into for three years.

Thus began what Vonnegut calls his "scrawny years," when he supported his family (and financed his novel-writing) by selling short stories to popular magazines. He admits that many of these stories- most of them are science fiction- are slick, built around a clever gimmick, yet they always uphold such solid American values as the nuclear family and the good guys winning in the end.

His second novel, The Sirens of Titan (1959), is also in the science fiction mold, but it is so far- fetched that it is a parody of mainstream science fiction. In it, aliens manipulate all of human history in order to deliver a spare part to one of their stranded astronauts. The home planet of the aliens is Tralfamadore, one of the principal settings in Slaughterhouse-Five.

Vonnegut's third novel, Mother Night (1961), hasn't a trace of science fiction in it. It's the story of Howard W. Campbell, Jr. (who also turns up in Slaughterhouse-Five), a brilliant Nazi propagandist who is actually an American spy. While barely mentioning Dresden, Mother Night profiles the "military manner" of thinking that Vonnegut encountered as an American soldier in World War II, and he returns to this subject in Chapter 9 of Slaughterhouse-Five.

None of his early novels brought Vonnegut much attention or helped much to support his family. By now he had moved his family to Cape Cod, where he supplemented his income from writing by selling cars and doing odd jobs. In 1957 his sister Alice died of cancer at the age of forty, just two days after her husband was killed in a train wreck. (The two catastrophes coming so close together perhaps inspired Vonnegut, in Slaughterhouse-Five, to have the death of Billy Pilgrim's wife occur while he is in the hospital recovering from the plane crash.) The Vonneguts adopted three of Alice's children, adding them to their own family of three children. The increased financial strain, coupled with the lack of recognition as a writer, must have been enormously discouraging.

The next two novels began to change all that. Cat's Cradle (1963), a grim fantasy about the end of the world, and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, in which the Slaughterhouse characters Eliot Rosewater and Kilgore Trout first appear, at least earned some attention from a handful of critics. And enough of Vonnegut's fellow writers now admired him that he was invited to lecture at the famous Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. Finally, he won a Guggenheim fellowship, and it enabled him to revisit Dresden in 1967- a trip he describes in the first and last chapters of Slaughterhouse-Five. He finished the book the following year, and it was published early in 1969.

Before Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut's books had been popular mainly on college campuses and among the liberal communities of New York and San Francisco. This allowed most "experts" on American fiction to dismiss him as a "cult" author. But the appearance of Slaughterhouse- Five set off a frenzy of critical appraisal that treated Vonnegut as a serious writer for the first time. Long articles appeared in major magazines and newspapers across the country. Book clubs scrambled to get their hands on the novel. Hollywood optioned the film rights. Vonnegut's five earlier novels were reissued, and critics began to chart the development of his artistic vision through his works.

Not all the appraisal was positive. One reviewer dismissed Vonnegut's writing as "a series of narcissistic giggles," while others deplored his pacifism as being adolescent or downright un- American. But the majority of critical opinion was favorable, and it remains so today. Many critics claim that Vonnegut's most lasting contribution to American fiction is his innovative style, the "telegraphic-schizophrenic manner" of storytelling he developed for Slaughterhouse-Five. Others believe he is more important as a satirist of American life, and they rank him with Sinclair Lewis and Mark Twain. For these reasons, Vonnegut is generally regarded as among the most influential (and popular) American novelists to emerge in the 1960s and 1970s.


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