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Harrison Bergeron | Study Guide

Kurt Vonnegut

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Kurt Vonnegut | Biography


Early Life

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on November 11, 1922, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is best known for satirical novels and short stories highlighting the absurdities of American culture and politics. His father was an architect, and his mother came from a wealthy family, but the family's fortunes were substantially diminished by the Great Depression. After an illustrious high school career during which he wrote for his school's newspaper, Vonnegut studied chemistry at Cornell University, describing himself as a mediocre student. He continued his interest in journalism, working as a writer and editor for Cornell's Daily Sun.

War Experience

Vonnegut joined the U.S. Army in 1943 and was sent to Fort Bragg in North Carolina. As the army prepared for D-Day (the Allied invasion of Normandy, France, from June 1944 to August 1944 that liberated Western Europe from the control of Nazi Germany), he was transferred to Camp Atterbury, near Indianapolis. During his time at Camp Atterbury, in May 1944, Vonnegut's mother, Edith, died from an overdose of sleeping pills. A month later Vonnegut began his journey to Europe with the army. His regiment arrived in France on December 6, 1944. On December 19 his unit was captured by Germans during the Battle of the Bulge, the final German offensive campaign during World War II.

Vonnegut and the other prisoners were transported via rail in cattle cars to a prisoner of war camp in Bad Orb, Germany, but he was transferred to a camp near Dresden, Germany, in January 1945. The prisoners were housed in a concrete-block slaughterhouse in Dresden, where he witnessed the massive firebombing of the city in 1945 by British and American forces.

Life as a Writer

After the war Vonnegut led a civilian life, publishing his first novel, Player Piano, in 1952 and then four other books before finally finishing his "Dresden novel" in response to the war, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). By 1969 Vonnegut had developed a niche following as a satirical science fiction author, but Slaughterhouse-Five, which was nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo Awards, brought his work into the mainstream and earned him widespread fame. However, his 12th novel, Bluebeard (1987), received mixed reviews upon publication, some labeling it sentimental and others praising it as a sequel to his seventh novel, Breakfast of Champions (1973).

Throughout his life Vonnegut maintained his antiwar stance and continued to tackle social, political, and economic issues in his writing. During the 1980s, Vonnegut suffered from depression, and he attempted to commit suicide in 1984. He continued to write and publish extensively until his death on April 11, 2007, in New York City. Vonnegut published a total of 14 novels, 6 plays, and 9 collections of short stories and essays in his lifetime, and his work remains widely read and admired for its dark wit and social satire, economy of style, and experimental structure.

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