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The Life of the Acclaimed?Author, Kurt Vonnegut was as Rich as His Fictional Works

Kurt Vonnegut is widely known for his special brand of postmodernism, science fiction, and humour ? particularly his irreverent, semi-autobiographical novel?Slaughterhouse-Five, which earned him many accolades. In a career spanning over 50 years, Vonnegut published fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five works of non-fiction.

While works like?Slaughterhouse-Five?have pushed Vonnegut?s work into the cultural lexicon, the general public knows comparatively less about his personal life.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was born on November 11, 1922 in Indianapolis, Indiana. He was the youngest of three children of Kurt Vonnegut Sr. and his wife Edith (n?e Lieber). His older siblings were Bernard (born 1914) and Alice (born 1917). Vonnegut was descended from German immigrants who settled in the United States in the mid-19th century.?Vonnegut’s mother was born into Indianapolis high society, as her family, the Liebers, were among the wealthiest in the city, their fortune derived from ownership of a successful brewery.

Although both of Vonnegut’s parents were fluent German speakers, the ill feeling toward that country during and after World War I caused the Vonneguts to abandon the culture to show their American patriotism. Thus, they never taught their youngest son German or introduced him to German literature and tradition, leaving him feeling “ignorant and rootless”. Vonnegut later credited Ida Young, his family’s African-American cook and housekeeper for the first ten years of his life, for raising him and giving him values. “She gave me decent moral instruction and was exceedingly nice to me. So she was as great an influence on me as anybody.” Vonnegut described Young as “humane and wise”, adding that “the compassionate, forgiving aspects of his beliefs” came from her.

The financial security and social prosperity that the Vonneguts once enjoyed was destroyed in a matter of years. The Liebers’s brewery was closed in 1921 after the advent of Prohibition in the United States. When the Great Depression hit, few people could afford to build, causing clients at Kurt Sr.’s architectural firm to become scarce. Vonnegut’s brother and sister had finished their primary and secondary educations in private schools, but Vonnegut was placed in a public school, called Public School No. 43, now known as the James Whitcomb Riley School. He was not bothered by this, but both his parents were affected deeply by their economic misfortune.

His father withdrew from normal life and became what Vonnegut called a “dreamy artist.? His mother became depressed, withdrawn, bitter, and abusive. She laboured to regain the family’s wealth and status, and Vonnegut said she expressed hatred “as corrosive as hydrochloric acid” for her husband. Edith Vonnegut forayed into writing and tried to sell short stories to magazines like Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post with no success.

Kurt Vonnegut and Jane Marie Cox met in kindergarten at the Orchard School in Indianapolis, Indiana. They got together in high school. After he returned to the United States, 22-year-old Vonnegut married Jane Marie Cox, his high school girlfriend and classmate since kindergarten, on September 1, 1945. The pair relocated to Chicago, where Vonnegut enrolled in the?University of Chicago?as a graduate anthropology?student, courtesy of the?G.I. Bill, and worked for the Chicago City News Bureau at night.

Jane accepted a scholarship from the university to study Russian at a graduate level. Neither of them finished their degrees. Jane dropped out of the school after becoming pregnant with the couple’s first child, Mark (born May 1947), and after Kurt’s master’s thesis, which analyzed the?Ghost Dance?religious movement among Native Americans, was unanimously rejected, he left the university without his degree. Kurt and Jane had three children. He later adopted his sister’s three sons, after she died of cancer and her husband died in a train accident, keeping a total of six kids in the Vonnegut home. The Vonnegut clan expanded once in more in the ?70s, when Vonnegut and his second wife, Jill, adopted a child together.

Kurt Vonnegut, Junior was an American novelist, satirist, and most recently, graphic artist. Photo: Daniele Prati/Flickr

Kurt Vonnegut, Junior was an American novelist, satirist, and most recently, graphic artist. Photo: Daniele Prati/Flickr

He found his mother dead in her home. Edith Lieber Vonnegut was born into Indianapolis high society (her parents ran a popular brewery) and later married Kurt Sr., a successful architect. Prohibition and the Great Depression struck several great blows to the Vonnegut family?s finances, and Edith?s spirit. In 1944, Kurt returned home for Mother?s Day weekend. Upon his arrival, he found his mother, who had committed suicide via a fatal dose of sleeping pills.

Vonnegut enrolled at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis in 1936. While there, he played clarinet in the school band and became an editor for the Tuesday edition of the school newspaper, The Shortridge Echo. Vonnegut said his tenure with the Echo allowed him to write for a large audience?his fellow students?rather than for a teacher, an experience he said was “fun and easy”.”It just turned out that I could write better than a lot of other people,? Vonnegut observed. “Each person has something he can do easily and can’t imagine why everybody else has so much trouble doing it.” For him, that was writing.

After graduating from Shortridge in 1940, Vonnegut enrolled at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He wanted to study the humanities or become an architect like his father, but his father and brother, a scientist, urged him to study a “useful” discipline. As a result, Vonnegut majored in biochemistry, but he had little proficiency in the area and was indifferent towards his studies. As his father had been a member at MIT, Vonnegut was entitled to join the Delta Upsilon fraternity, and did. He overcame stiff competition for a place at the university’s independent newspaper, The Cornell Daily Sun, first serving as a staff writer, then as an editor. By the end of his freshman year, he was writing a column titled “Innocents Abroad” which reused jokes from other publications. He later penned a piece, “Well All Right,? focusing on pacifism, a cause he strongly supported, arguing against U.S. intervention in World War II

The attack on Pearl Harbour brought the U.S. into the war. Vonnegut was a member of Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, but poor grades and a satirical article in Cornell’s newspaper cost him his place there. He was placed on academic probation in May 1942 and dropped out the following January. No longer eligible for a student deferment, he faced likely conscription into United States Army. Instead of waiting to be drafted, he enlisted in the army and in March 1943 reported to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for basic training. Vonnegut was trained to fire and maintain howitzers, a type of artillery, and later received instruction in mechanical engineering at the Carnegie Institute of Technology and the University of Tennessee as part of the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP). In early 1944, the ASTP was cancelled due to the Army’s need for soldiers to support the D-Day invasion, and Vonnegut was ordered to an infantry battalion at Camp Atterbury, south of Indianapolis in Edinburgh, Indiana, where he trained as a scout. He lived so close to his home that he was “able to sleep in his own bedroom and use the family car on weekends”.

Three months following his mother’s suicide, Vonnegut was sent to Europe as an intelligence scout with the ill fated 106th Infantry Division. In December 1944, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge, the final German offensive of the war. During the battle, the 106th Infantry Division, which had only recently reached the front and was assigned to a “quiet” sector due to its inexperience, was overrun by advancing German armored forces. The result was that over 500 members of the division were killed and over 6,000 were captured.

On December 22, Vonnegut was captured with about fifty other American soldiers. Vonnegut was taken by boxcar to a prison camp south of Dresden, in Saxony. During the journey, the Royal Air Force bombed the prisoner trains and killed about 150 men. Vonnegut was sent to Dresden, the “first fancy city he had ever seen”. He lived in a slaughterhouse when he got to the city, and worked in a factory that made malt syrup for pregnant women. Vonnegut recalled the sirens going off whenever another city was bombed. The Germans did not expect Dresden to get bombed, Vonnegut said. “There were very few air-raid shelters in town and no war industries, just cigarette factories, hospitals, clarinet factories.”

The Dresden work camp where they were imprisoned in an underground slaughterhouse was known by German soldiers as “Schlachthof F?nf” (Slaughterhouse Five).

On February 13, 1945, Dresden became the target of Allied forces. In the hours and days that followed, the Allies engaged in a fierce firebombing of the city. The offensive subsided on February 15, leaving tens of thousands dead. Vonnegut marveled at the level of both the destruction in Dresden and the secrecy that attended it. He had survived by taking refuge in a meat locker three stories underground. “It was cool there, with cadavers hanging all around”, Vonnegut said. “When we came up the city was gone … They burnt the whole damn town down.”Vonnegut and other American prisoners were put to work immediately after the bombing, excavating bodies from the rubble. He described the activity as a “terribly elaborate Easter-egg hunt”.

The American prisoners of war were evacuated on foot to the border of Saxony and Czechoslovakia after General George S. Patton captured Leipzig. With the captives abandoned by their guards, Vonnegut reached a prisoner-of-war repatriation camp in Le Havre, France, before the end of May 1945, with the aid of the Soviets..

Below is an incredible letter he wrote to his family that May from a repatriation camp, in which he informs them of his capture and survival. 25 years later, in 1969, Vonnegut’s stunning book, Slaughterhouse-Five, was released.

Transcript follows.


FROM:?Pfc. K. Vonnegut, Jr.,
12102964 U. S. Army.

TO:?Kurt Vonnegut,
Williams Creek,
Indianapolis, Indiana.

Dear people:

I’m told that you were probably never informed that I was anything other than “missing in action.” Chances are that you also failed to receive any of the letters I wrote from Germany. That leaves me a lot of explaining to do — in precis:

I’ve been a prisoner of war since December 19th, 1944, when our division was cut to ribbons by Hitler’s last desperate thrust through Luxemburg and Belgium. Seven Fanatical Panzer Divisions hit us and cut us off from the rest of Hodges’ First Army. The other American Divisions on our flanks managed to pull out: We were obliged to stay and fight. Bayonets aren’t much good against tanks: Our ammunition, food and medical supplies gave out and our casualties out-numbered those who could still fight – so we gave up. The 106th got a Presidential Citation and some British Decoration from Montgomery for it, I’m told, but I’ll be damned if it was worth it. I was one of the few who weren’t wounded. For that much thank God.

Well, the supermen marched us, without food, water or sleep to Limberg, a distance of about sixty miles, I think, where we were loaded and locked up, sixty men to each small, unventilated, unheated box car. There were no sanitary accommodations — the floors were covered with fresh cow dung. There wasn’t room for all of us to lie down. Half slept while the other half stood. We spent several days, including Christmas, on that Limberg siding. On Christmas eve the Royal Air Force bombed and strafed our unmarked train. They killed about one-hundred-and-fifty of us. We got a little water Christmas Day and moved slowly across Germany to a large P.O.W. Camp in Muhlburg, South of Berlin. We were released from the box cars on New Year’s Day. The Germans herded us through scalding delousing showers. Many men died from shock in the showers after ten days of starvation, thirst and exposure. But I didn’t.

Under the Geneva Convention, Officers and Non-commissioned Officers are not obliged to work when taken prisoner. I am, as you know, a Private. One-hundred-and-fifty such minor beings were shipped to a Dresden work camp on January 10th. I was their leader by virtue of the little German I spoke. It was our misfortune to have sadistic and fanatical guards. We were refused medical attention and clothing: We were given long hours at extremely hard labor. Our food ration was two-hundred-and-fifty grams of black bread and one pint of unseasoned potato soup each day. After desperately trying to improve our situation for two months and having been met with bland smiles I told the guards just what I was going to do to them when the Russians came. They beat me up a little. I was fired as group leader. Beatings were very small time: — one boy starved to death and the SS Troops shot two for stealing food.

On about February 14th the Americans came over, followed by the R.A.F. their combined labors killed 250,000 people in twenty-four hours and destroyed all of Dresden — possibly the world’s most beautiful city. But not me.

After that we were put to work carrying corpses from Air-Raid shelters; women, children, old men; dead from concussion, fire or suffocation. Civilians cursed us and threw rocks as we carried bodies to huge funeral pyres in the city.

When General Patton took Leipzig we were evacuated on foot to (‘the Saxony-Czechoslovakian border’?). There we remained until the war ended. Our guards deserted us. On that happy day the Russians were intent on mopping up isolated outlaw resistance in our sector. Their planes (P-39’s) strafed and bombed us, killing fourteen, but not me.

Eight of us stole a team and wagon. We traveled and looted our way through Sudetenland and Saxony for eight days, living like kings. The Russians are crazy about Americans. The Russians picked us up in Dresden. We rode from there to the American lines at Halle in Lend-Lease Ford trucks. We’ve since been flown to Le Havre.

I’m writing from a Red Cross Club in the Le Havre P.O.W. Repatriation Camp. I’m being wonderfully well feed and entertained. The state-bound ships are jammed, naturally, so I’ll have to be patient. I hope to be home in a month. Once home I’ll be given twenty-one days recuperation at Atterbury, about $600 back pay and — get this — sixty (60) days furlough.

I’ve too damned much to say, the rest will have to wait, I can’t receive mail here so don’t write.

May 29, 1945


Kurt – Jr.

Dresden,view from the city hall. Dresden in ruins after Allied bombings, February 1945, Germany, WWII.

Dresden,view from the city hall. Dresden in ruins after Allied bombings, February 1945, Germany, WWII.

Dresden after the bombing raid.

Dresden after the bombing raid.

He returned to the United States and continued to serve in the Army, stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, typing discharge papers for other soldiers. Soon after he was awarded a Purple Heart about which he remarked “I myself was awarded my country’s second-lowest decoration, a Purple Heart for frost-bite.” He was discharged from the U.S. Army and returned to Indianapolis

As one of only a handful of Dresden bombing survivors, it is ironic that what Vonnegut described as a ?ludicrously negligible wound? sent him home.

Soon after his return from the war, Kurt Vonnegut married his high school girlfriend, Jane Marie Cox. The couple had three children. He worked several jobs before his writing career took off, including newspaper reporter, teacher, and public relations employee for General Electric.

Showing Vonnegut’s talent for satire, his first novel,?Player Piano, took on corporate culture and was published in 1952. More novels followed, including The Sirens of Titan?(1959),?Mother Night?(1961), and?Cat’s Cradle?(1963). War remained a recurring element in his work, and one of his best-known works,?Slaughterhouse-Five, draws some of its dramatic power from his own experiences. The narrator, Billy Pilgrim, is a young soldier who becomes a prisoner of war and works in an underground meat locker, not unlike Vonnegut, but with a notable exception: Pilgrim begins to experience his life out of sequence and revisits different times repeatedly. He also has encounters with the Tralfamadorians. This exploration of the human condition mixed with the fantastical struck a chord with readers, giving Vonnegut his first best-selling novel.

Emerging as a new literary voice, Kurt Vonnegut became known for his unusual writing style?long sentences and little punctuation?as well as his humanist point of view. He continued writing short stories and novels, including?Breakfast of Champions?(1973),?Jailbird?(1979) and?Deadeye Dick(1982). Vonnegut even made himself the subject of?Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage?(1981).

Despite his success, Kurt Vonnegut wrestled with his own personal demons. Having struggled with depression on and off for years, he attempted to take his own life in 1984. Whatever challenges he faced personally, Vonnegut became a literary icon with a devoted following. He counted writers such as Joseph Heller, another WWII veteran, as his friends.

Schools are still banning Slaughterhouse-Five. According to the American Library Association (ALA),?Slaughterhouse-Five?is among the?most banned book of the 21st century. In 2011, for example, the Republic, Missouri school board voted 4-0 to remove it from area high schools based on a recommendation from an assistant professor at Missouri State University.

The professor, Wesley Scoggins, wrote, ?This is a book that contains so much profane language, it would make a sailor blush with shame. The ?f word? is plastered on almost every other page. The content ranges from naked men and women in cages together so that others can watch them having sex to God telling people that they better not mess with his loser, bum of a son, named Jesus Christ.?

According to ALA officials, proposed bans like these are symptomatic of societies in flux. ?People want something they can control when times are changing,??said Barbara Jones, the director of the ALA?s Office for Intellectual Freedom. ?When times are hard, people get anxious about traditional values.? Because of the ban, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library gave away 150 free copies of?Slaughterhouse-Five?to any student who wanted to read it.

Vonnegut?s time in sportswriting was as brief as it was memorable. Case in point: his final ?story.? After receiving an assignment to write about an escaped racehorse, Vonnegut sat down at his typewriter for hours, where he managed to write one single sentence before walking out ? for good ? in exasperation. The sentence? ?The horse jumped over the f***ing fence.?

He considered his smoking ?a classy way to commit suicide? Vonnegut started smoking Brown & Williamson?s Pall Mall cigarettes at age 13. He told?Rolling Stone?in a 2006 interview that he ought to sue the company for false advertising. ?And do you know why?? he said, ?Because I?m 83 years old. The lying bastards! On the package Brown & Williamson promised to kill me.?

Vonnegut always held firemen in high regard, and beyond portraying them as selfless in his novels, Vonnegut wanted to pay tribute in real life. Thus, after returning from WWII Vonnegut became a volunteer firefighter at a station in Alplaus, New York.

His last novel was?Timequake?(1997), which became a best seller despite receiving mixed reviews. Kurt Vonnegut chose to spend his later years working on nonfiction. His last book was?A Man Without a Country, a collection of biographical essays. In it, he expressed his views on politics and art, and shed more light on his own life.

Vonnegut definitely had survived a lot. His once wealthy family was impoverished by the Great Depression, causing grim strains in his parents’ marriage. His mother committed suicide. His beloved sister died of breast cancer, a day after her husband was killed in a train accident. But the defining horror of Vonnegut’s life was his wartime experience and surviving the Dresden bombing, only to be sent into the ruins as prison labour in order to collect and burn the corpses. The ordeal cropped up continually in his work.

Kurt Vonnegut died on April 11, 2007, at the age of 84, as a result of head injuries sustained in a fall at his home in New York a few weeks earlier. He was survived by his second wife, photographer Jill Krementz, their adopted daughter, Lily, and six children from his first marriage.

When he died, the firehouse executed the traditional salute to a fallen member. The bells tolled a special cadence in his honour. The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library speculates that of all the tributes the author?s death inspired, Vonnegut would have found this one especially meaningful.

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