[A-List] Kurt Vonnegut, Writer of Classics of the American Counterculture, Dies at 84
critical.montages at gmail.com
Wed Apr 11 22:41:17 MDT 2007
April 11, 2007
Kurt Vonnegut, Writer of Classics of the American Counterculture, Dies at 84
By DINITIA SMITH
Kurt Vonnegut, whose dark comic talent and urgent moral vision in
novels like "Slaughterhouse-Five," "Cat's Cradle" and "God Bless You,
Mr. Rosewater" caught the temper of his times and the imagination of a
generation, died Wednesday night in Manhattan. He was 84 and had homes
in Manhattan and in Sagaponack on Long Island.
His death was reported by Morgan Entrekin, a longtime family friend,
who said Mr. Vonnegut suffered brain injuries as a result of a fall
several weeks ago.
Mr. Vonnegut wrote plays, essays and short fiction. But it was his
novels that became classics of the American counterculture, making him
a literary idol, particularly to students in the 1960s and '70s.
Dog-eared paperback copies of his books could be found in the back
pockets of blue jeans and in dorm rooms on campuses throughout the
Like Mark Twain, Mr. Vonnegut used humor to tackle the basic questions
of human existence: Why are we in this world? Is there a presiding
figure to make sense of all this, a god who in the end, despite making
people suffer, wishes them well?
He also shared with Twain a profound pessimism. "Mark Twain," Mr.
Vonnegut wrote in his 1991 book, "Fates Worse Than Death: An
Autobiographical Collage," "finally stopped laughing at his own agony
and that of those around him. He denounced life on this planet as a
crock. He died."
Not all Mr. Vonnegut's themes were metaphysical. With a blend of
vernacular writing, science fiction, jokes and philosophy, he also
wrote about the banalities of consumer culture, for example, or the
destruction of the environment.
His novels — 14 in all — were alternate universes, filled with
topsy-turvy images and populated by races of his own creation, like
the Tralfamadorians and the Mercurian Harmoniums. He invented
phenomena like chrono-synclastic infundibula (places in the universe
where all truths fit neatly together) as well as religions, like the
Church of God the Utterly Indifferent and Bokononism (based on the
books of a black British Episcopalian from Tobago "filled with
bittersweet lies," a narrator says).
The defining moment of Mr. Vonnegut's life was the firebombing of
Dresden, Germany, by Allied forces in 1945, an event he witnessed
firsthand as a young prisoner of war. Thousands of civilians were
killed in the raids, many of them burned to death or asphyxiated. "The
firebombing of Dresden," Mr. Vonnegut wrote, "was a work of art." It
was, he added, "a tower of smoke and flame to commemorate the rage and
heartbreak of so many who had had their lives warped or ruined by the
indescribable greed and vanity and cruelty of Germany."
His experience in Dresden was the basis of "Slaughterhouse-Five,"
which was published in 1969 against the backdrop of war in Vietnam,
racial unrest and cultural and social upheaval. The novel, wrote the
critic Jerome Klinkowitz, "so perfectly caught America's
transformative mood that its story and structure became best-selling
metaphors for the new age."
To Mr. Vonnegut, the only possible redemption for the madness and
apparent meaninglessness of existence was human kindness. The title
character in his 1965 novel, "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater," summed up
"Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in
the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies,
you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I
know of, babies — 'God damn it, you've got to be kind.' "
Mr. Vonnegut eschewed traditional structure and punctuation. His books
were a mixture of fiction and autobiography, prone to one-sentence
paragraphs, exclamation points and italics. Graham Greene called him
"one of the most able of living American writers." Some critics said
he had invented a new literary type, infusing the science-fiction form
with humor and moral relevance and elevating it to serious literature.
He was also accused of repeating himself, of recycling themes and
characters. Some readers found his work incoherent. His harshest
critics called him no more than a comic book philosopher, a purveyor
of empty aphorisms.
With his curly hair askew, deep pouches under his eyes and rumpled
clothes, he often looked like an out-of-work philosophy professor,
typically chain smoking, his conversation punctuated with coughs and
wheezes. But he also maintained a certain celebrity, as a regular on
panels and at literary parties in Manhattan and on the East End of
Long Island, where he lived near his friend and fellow war veteran
Joseph Heller, another darkly comic literary hero of the age.
Mr. Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis in 1922, a fourth-generation
German-American and the youngest of three children. His father, Kurt
Sr., was an architect. His mother, Edith, came from a wealthy brewery
family. Mr. Vonnegut's brother, Bernard, who died in 1997, was a
physicist and an expert on thunderstorms.
During the Depression, the elder Vonnegut went for long stretches
without work, and Mrs. Vonnegut suffered from episodes of mental
illness. "When my mother went off her rocker late at night, the hatred
and contempt she sprayed on my father, as gentle and innocent a man as
ever lived, was without limit and pure, untainted by ideas or
information," Mr. Vonnegut wrote. She committed suicide, an act that
haunted her son for the rest of his life.
He had, he said, a lifelong difficulty with women. He remembered an
aunt once telling him, " 'All Vonnegut men are scared to death of
"My theory is that all women have hydrofluoric acid bottled up
inside," he wrote.
Mr. Vonnegut went east to attend Cornell University, but he enlisted
in the Army before he could get a degree. The Army initially sent him
to the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie-Mellon) in
Pittsburgh and the University of Tennessee to study mechanical
In 1944 he was shipped to Europe with the 106th Infantry Division and
shortly saw combat in the Battle of the Bulge. With his unit nearly
destroyed, he wandered behind enemy lines for several days until he
was captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp near Dresden, the
architectural jewel of Germany.
Assigned by his captors to make vitamin supplements, he was working
with other prisoners in an underground meat locker when British and
American war planes started carpet bombing the city, creating a
firestorm above him. The work detail saved his life.
Afterward, he and his fellow prisoners were assigned to remove the dead.
"The corpses, most of them in ordinary cellars, were so numerous and
represented such a health hazard that they were cremated on huge
funeral pyres, or by flamethrowers whose nozzles were thrust into the
cellars, without being counted or identified," he wrote in "Fates
Worse Than Death." When the war ended, Mr. Vonnegut returned to the
United States and married his high school sweetheart, Jane Marie Cox.
They settled in Chicago in 1945. The couple had three children: Mark,
Edith and Nanette. In 1958, Mr. Vonnegut's sister, Alice, and her
husband died within a day of each other, she of cancer and he in a
train crash. The Vonneguts adopted their children, Tiger, Jim and
In Chicago, Mr. Vonnegut worked as a police reporter for the Chicago
City News Bureau. He also studied for a master's degree in
anthropology at the University of Chicago, writing a thesis on "The
Fluctuations Between Good and Evil in Simple Tales." It was rejected
unanimously by the faculty. (The university finally awarded him a
degree almost a quarter of a century later, allowing him to use his
novel "Cat's Cradle" as his thesis.)
In 1947, he moved to Schenectady, N.Y., and took a job in public
relations for the General Electric Company. Three years later he sold
his first short story, "Report on the Barnhouse Effect," to Collier's
magazine and decided to move his family to Cape Cod, Mass., where he
wrote fiction for magazines like Argosy and The Saturday Evening Post.
To bolster his income, he taught emotionally disturbed children,
worked at an advertising agency and at one point started an auto
His first novel was "Player Piano," published in 1952. A satire on
corporate life — the meetings, the pep talks, the cultivation of
bosses — it also carries echoes of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World."
It concerns an engineer, Paul Proteus, who is employed by the Ilium
Works, a company similar to General Electric. Proteus becomes the
leader of a band of revolutionaries who destroy machines that they
think are taking over the world.
"Player Piano" was followed in 1959 by "The Sirens of Titan," a
science fiction novel featuring the Church of God of the Utterly
Indifferent. In 1961 he published "Mother Night," involving an
American writer awaiting trial in Israel on charges of war crimes in
Nazi Germany. Like Mr. Vonnegut's other early novels, they were
published as paperback originals. And like "Slaughterhouse-Five," in
1972, and a number of other Vonnegut novels, "Mother Night" was
adapted for film, in 1996, starring Nick Nolte.
In 1963, Mr. Vonnegut published "Cat's Cradle." Though it initially
sold only about 500 copies, it is widely read today in high school
English classes. The novel, which takes its title from an Eskimo game
in which children try to snare the sun with string, is an
autobiographical work about a family named Hoenikker. The narrator, an
adherent of the religion Bokononism, is writing a book about the
bombing of Hiroshima and comes to witness the destruction of the world
by something called Ice-Nine, which, on contact, causes all water to
freeze at room temperature.
Mr. Vonnegut shed the label of science fiction writer with
"Slaughterhouse-Five." It tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, an
infantry scout (as Mr. Vonnegut was), who discovers the horror of war.
"You know — we've had to imagine the war here, and we have imagined
that it was being fought by aging men like ourselves," an English
colonel says in the book. "We had forgotten that wars were fought by
babies. When I saw those freshly shaved faces, it was a shock. My God,
my God — I said to myself, 'It's the Children's Crusade.' "
As Mr. Vonnegut was, Billy is captured and assigned to manufacture
vitamin supplements in an underground meat locker, where the prisoners
take refuge from Allied bombing.
In "Slaughterhouse-Five," Mr. Vonnegut introduced the recurring
character of Kilgore Trout, his fictional alter ego. The novel also
featured a signature Vonnegut phrase.
"Robert Kennedy, whose summer home is eight miles from the home I live
in all year round," Mr. Vonnegut wrote at the end of the book, "was
shot two nights ago. He died last night. So it goes.
"Martin Luther King was shot a month ago. He died, too. So it goes.
And every day my Government gives me a count of corpses created by
military science in Vietnam. So it goes."
One of many Zen-like words and phrases that run through Mr. Vonnegut's
books, "so it goes" became a catchphrase for opponents of the Vietnam
"Slaughterhouse-Five" reached No.1 on best-seller lists, making Mr.
Vonnegut a cult hero. Some schools and libraries have banned it
because of its sexual content, rough language and scenes of violence.
After the book was published, Mr. Vonnegut went into severe depression
and vowed never to write another novel. Suicide was always a
temptation, he wrote. In 1984, he tried to take his life with sleeping
pills and alcohol.
"The child of a suicide will naturally think of death, the big one, as
a logical solution to any problem," he wrote. His son Mark also
suffered a breakdown, in the 1970s, from which he recovered, writing
about it in a book, "Eden Express: A Memoir of Insanity."
Forsaking novels, Mr. Vonnegut decided to become a playwright. His
first effort, "Happy Birthday, Wanda June," opened Off Broadway in
1970 to mixed reviews. Around this time he separated from his wife,
Jane, and moved to New York. (She remarried and died in 1986.)
In 1979 Mr. Vonnegut married the photographer Jill Krementz. They have
a daughter, Lily. They survive him, as do all his other children.
Mr. Vonnegut returned to novels with "Breakfast of Champions, or
Goodbye Blue Monday" (1973), calling it a "tale of a meeting of two
lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying
fast." This time his alter ego is Philboyd Sludge, who is writing a
book about Dwayne Hoover, a wealthy auto dealer. Hoover has a
breakdown after reading a novel written by Kilgore Trout, who
reappears in this book, and begins to believe that everyone around him
is a robot.
In 1997, Mr. Vonnegut published "Timequake," a tale of the millennium
in which a wrinkle in space-time compels the world to relive the
1990s. The book, based on an earlier failed novel of his, was, in his
own words, "a stew" of plot summaries and autobiographical writings.
Once again, Kilgore Trout is a character. "If I'd wasted my time
creating characters," Mr. Vonnegut said in defense of his "recycling,"
"I would never have gotten around to calling attention to things that
Though it was a bestseller, it also met with mixed reviews. "Having a
novelist's free hand to write what you will does not mean you are
entitled to a free ride," R. Z. Sheppard wrote in Time. But the
novelist Valerie Sayers, in The New York Times Book Review, wrote:
"The real pleasure lies in Vonnegut's transforming his continuing
interest in the highly suspicious relationship between fact and
fiction into the neatest trick yet played on a publishing world
consumed with the furor over novel versus memoir."
Mr. Vonnegut said in the prologue to "Timequake" that it would be his
last novel. And so it was.
His last book, in 2005, was a collection of biographical essays, "A
Man Without a Country." It, too, was a best seller.
In concludes with a poem written by Mr. Vonnegut called "Requiem,"
which has these closing lines:
When the last living thing
has died on account of us,
how poetical it would be
if Earth could say,
in a voice floating up
from the floor
of the Grand Canyon,
"It is done."
People did not like it here.
More information about the A-List