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Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1922 - 2007) was born to third-generation German-American parents in Indianapolis, Indiana, the setting for many of his novels. As a high-schooler at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis, Vonnegut worked on the nation's first and only daily high school newspaper. He briefly attended Butler University, but he dropped out when a professor said that his stories were not good enough. He attended Cornell University from 1941 to 1943, where he served as an opinions section editor for the student newspaper, the Cornell Daily Sun, and majored in chemistry before joining the U.S. Army during World War II. While attending Cornell University he was a member of The Delta Upsilon Fraternity following in the footsteps of his father. His experiences as an advance scout with the U.S. 106th Infantry Division during the Battle of the Bulge and as a prisoner of war earned him a Purple Heart and have influenced much of his work.

While a prisoner of war, Vonnegut witnessed the aftermath of the 1945 bombing of Dresden, Germany, which destroyed much of the city. Vonnegut was one of just seven American prisoners of war in Dresden to survive, in an underground meatpacking cellar known as Slaughterhouse Five. "Utter destruction," he recalls. "Carnage unfathomable." The Nazis put him to work gathering bodies for mass burial... Vonnegut explains. "But there were too many corpses to bury. So instead the Nazis sent in guys with flamethrowers. All these civilians' remains were burned to ashes." This experience formed the core of his most famous work, Slaughterhouse-Five and is a theme in at least six other books.

After the war, Vonnegut attended the University of Chicago as a graduate student in anthropology and also worked as a police reporter at the City News Bureau of Chicago. According to Vonnegut in Bagombo Snuff Box, the university rejected his first thesis on the necessity of accounting for the similarities between Cubist painting and Native American uprisings of the late 19th century, saying it was "unprofessional." (They later accepted his novel Cat's Cradle and awarded him the degree.) He left Chicago to work in Schenectady, New York, in public relations for General Electric. He attributes his unadorned writing style to his reporting work.

On the verge of abandoning writing, Vonnegut was offered a teaching job at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. While he was there Cat's Cradle became a bestseller, and he began "Slaughterhouse-Five," now widely regarded as one of the most significant works of American fiction in the 20th century.

Early in his adult life, he moved to Barnstable, Massachusetts, in the Cape Cod area. He married his childhood sweetheart, Jane Marie Cox, after returning from the war, but the couple separated in 1970. He did not divorce Cox until 1979, but from 1970 to 2000, Vonnegut lived in an East Side Manhattan brownstone, with the woman who would later become his second wife, the renowned photographer Jill Krementz. (Krementz and Vonnegut were married after the divorce from Cox was finalized.)

An honorary President of the American Humanist Association, a war-prisoner in Dresden, 1945 and a veteran from World War II, a chemist and an anthropologist, Kurt Vonnegut is among the most influential, experimental writers of the past century. His most celebrated piece of work, the semi-autobiographical “Slaughterhouse Five” (1969), is considered one of the best American novels of the 20th century according to Time magazine – it explores an experimental narrative structure, using space and time trips, and satirically describes his own experience of the Second World War. A brilliant master of gallows humor and science fiction, a ‘funny’ interpreter of history and politics’ cruelty and injustice, Kurt Vonnegut is one of the most prominent social figures of the post-war period and an author, whose work is already a classic. 

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