Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on November 11, 1922, Armistice day, a fact that, as an adult, he was quite proud of, being born on a day associated with peace.[1] Descended from wealth and proud German-Americans, by the end of the 1920s, the Vonnegut family was faced with multiple crises of identity. The First World War made German ancestry complicated in the United States, and even though his two older siblings, Bernard and Alice, were taught to speak German from a young age and to have pride in their German forefathers, Vonnegut had both aspects of that cultural education denied to him. The end of the 1920s brought the end to the Vonnegut’s wealth and prosperity, as it did for so many Americans, with the Vonneguts’ losing the majority of his mother’s brewing inheritance and hi father’s work as an architect all but disappearing. This meant that Kurt was the only one of the Vonnegut children who did not attend private school, and later in life he came to believe that this gave him a more democratic friend base than his older siblings.[2][3] Kurt relationship with his older siblings was fairly typical of sibling relationships of the period. Bernard, eight years Kurt’s senior, was the family darling. Kurt’s father pushed Bernard, and later Kurt, to become scientists, believing that this was a keenly American way towards prosperity, and Bernard’s fascination with tinkering only helped to elevate Bernard in their father’s eyes. As the oldest of the three Vonnegut siblings, Bernard went on to graduate from MIT with a Ph.D. in physical chemistry in 1939. Kurt greatly respected Bernard’s work in the physical sciences[4], crediting him with his continuing fascination with science and technology.[5] Only five years his senior, Alice and Kurt were very close until her untimely death in 1957. “Vonnegut more than loved Alice; he was unusual as an author because he wrote for an audience of one: his sister.”[6]

At the end of eighth grade in June of 1936 Kurt explained that he wanted to “cure cancer with chemicals while working for the Eli Lilly Company”[7] indicating a fascination with science from a young age. Kurt later got into Harvard, MIT, and Cornell. Even though he declared a science major, Kurt found he enjoyed writing satirical pieces for the school newspaper more than his chemistry classes. During his sophomore year, he failed out however and was forced to enlist in the military. It was during his capture in Germany and the subsequent experience of the fire-bombing of Dresden that would inspire the writing of Slaughter House Five. Upon returning to the States, in 1945, Kurt enrolled at the University of Chicago, working towards a master in anthropology (he had two separate theses rejected, the one which was ultimately accepted was Cat’s Cradle for his creation and discussion of the religion of Bokononism which was not granted until 1973).[8]

Kurt got a job in the public relations office at General Electric in 1947, while Bernard was working there on “Project Cirrus,” a weather control project funded by the Department of Defense[9] His job entailed interviewing the scientists working in the research lab to write up press releases for the company, to promote the innovation of GE. In 1950, after the publication of his first short story, “Report on the Barnhouse Effect” in Collier’s Weekly, Kurt Vonnegut left General Electric to pursue writing full time. Vonnegut spent the rest of his life writing as his main occupation, except for a brief period, from 1956-1959, where he sold Fiats out of a dealership. In 1958, Alice and her husband died within 36 hours of each other (Alice from a long battle with breast cancer and her husband, James, from a tragic train accident) leaving her three oldest children to be raised by Vonnegut and his wife, Jane. In 1952, Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano, was published, followed by Sirens of Titan in 1959, Mother Night in 1961, 2BR02B in 1962, and Cat’s Cradle in 1963. After the publication of Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut moved, by himself, to Iowa to teach at the University of Iowa’s writer’s workshop. Vonnegut spent the rest of the 1960s working at Iowa, returning to New England after the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five where he lived until he divorced his first wife during the 1970s. He spent the next thirty year continuing to publish, writing a total of 14 novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five works of non-fiction. Kurt Vonnegut died on April 11, 2007, aged 84.

Much of the discussion of Kurt Vonnegut lies in literary circles, with few historical approaches discussing Vonnegut at length (when he is mentioned in historical pieces, it is within the context of lists of authors or works which fit as specific examples of fiction commenting on specific ideology).[10] Vonnegut has fallen out of favor in the past decade in academic discussion, since his death in April of 2007. Before that time, much of the analysis of Vonnegut were attempts to classify him as a writer, specifically debates around whether he was a modernist or a postmodernist. Modernism is defined by self-consciousness and irony, with an explicit rejection of the ideology of realism, while postmodernism encompasses a skepticism or rejection of grand narratives, ideologies and various tents of universalism.  There are many critics who fall on both sides of the debate, such as Jerome Klinkowitz who is firmly of the belief that Vonnegut was a postmodernist and M. Keith Booker who discusses him at length in relation to other authors that he sees as modern. Specifically, for the purposes of this paper, classifying Kurt Vonnegut as either a modernist or postmodernist is less important than the historical considerations of the works of Vonnegut and his views on science and technology during the 1950s. That being said, I lean towards the conclusion which Robert Tally reaches in his 2011 work Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel, that Vonnegut writes like a modernist, but discusses topics that are postmodern, thus making the debate about which category, modern or postmodern, he inhabits fuzzy and incomplete.[11]

Another major area of study of Kurt Vonnegut is again an attempt to classify the type of fiction which Vonnegut was producing, mainly trying to understand whether or not Vonnegut was a science fiction writer, science fiction is an important area of study to understand the period of the 1950s. Since the 1950s was a high period for the production of both written and visual science fiction, attempts to classify Vonnegut as one of those writers remains important to many literary scholars. From a literary standpoint, the genre of science fiction typically deals with imaginative concepts such as futuristic science and technology, space and time travel, parallel universes and extraterrestrial life. It often explores the potential consequences of scientific and technological innovations, usually avoiding tropes of the fantasy genre. Historically, science-fiction has had a grounding in actual science, but now this is only expected of hard science fiction. The attempt to classify him as a genre writer is due, in part, to the publication of the novel Sirens of Titan, arguably a science fiction novel depicting alien invasions, occupying distant planets and moons, and teleportation. Writers such as Peter Freese in The Clown of Armageddon and Hartley Spatt in “Kurt Vonnegut: Ludic Luddite” are quick to point out the many scientific themes which Vonnegut explores in his texts, from the evolutionary process in Galapagos to the tricky physics of being unstuck in time in Slaughterhouse Five.[12] Furthering the argument to call Vonnegut a writer of science fiction are those who make close comparisons between Player Piano and the dystopian novels of a previous generation, mainly Brave New World and 1984, such as Margaret Daniels and Heather Bowen in “Feminist Implications of Anti-Leisure in Dystopian Fiction” and Robert Tally in Critical Insights. These writers do well to point out that, while they firmly believe the Vonnegut occupies a space in science fiction, that he often fits well with dystopian fiction, and the business of whether he is a modernist or a postmodernist is never really resolved. Vonnegut is difficult to categorize even for those whose sole purpose is to place him within a specific literary category.

One can even point to the words of the man himself. When discussing the publication of his first novel, one which grapples with the relationship of man and machine and clear overtones of science fiction, Vonnegut said, “there was no avoiding it since the General Electric Company was science fiction.”[13] However, Vonnegut also said, in his autobiography, A Man Without a Country,

I became a so-called science fiction writer when someone declared that I was a science fiction writer. I did not want to be classified as one, so I wondered in what way I’d offended that I would not get credit for being a serious writer. I decided that it was because I wrote about technology, and most fine American writers know nothing about technology. I got classified as a science fiction writer simply because I wrote about Schenectady, New York.[14]

While the determination of the man himself should not be the ultimate deciding factor as to whether he is a science fiction writer, he brings up a fair point. There is a fundamental disconnect between literary critics and the subject matter which Vonnegut discusses. His understanding of technology is unusual for writers of this period, because of his background at Cornell, in the military, and working at General Electric.[15] From his perspective, Vonnegut is simply telling the truth as he sees it, in an increasingly technical world. It is difficult to classify Vonnegut from a literary standpoint as a science fiction writer, due to the fact that his commentary on science and technology utilizes more contemporary science and technology rather than contemplating futuristic versions (in Player Piano the way which Vonnegut envisions computers is fairly close to what actual computers looked and functioned like in 1952). There is also the precarious nature of being classified as a genre writer, because it can often be a way of dismissing an author. Thus Vonnegut’s aversion to being terms a science fiction writer. As a historian, on the other hand, while the specifics of the classification do not make much of a difference, I would say that Kurt Vonnegut is writing science fiction, in so much that he his writing fiction that deals heavily with science and technology in realistic settings and grapples the ethics and morality. This is not an effort to dismiss him as a genre writer, as would be done in literary circles, but instead to place him among his contemporaries, such as Isaac Asimov, who are striving to understand changing scientific and technological environments.

When Vonnegut is discussed in relation to technology, which is an overwhelming theme in the literature studying his life and work, critics have come to the consensus that technological “progress” is a notion with which Vonnegut shows much discomfort. This will be elaborated upon later, but for now, most scholars seem to agree that Kurt Vonnegut is skeptical of the way which technology works in the twentieth century.[16]  Everyone who points to Vonnegut’s discussion of science and technology is necessarily calling making the argument that he is a science fiction writer. Critics such as Loree Rackstraw in “Quantum Leaps in the Vonnegut Mindfield,” “Science and Sensibility in the Short Fiction of Kurt Vonnegut,” Adam Bogar in “Can a Machine be a Gentleman?: Machine Ethics and Ethical Machine,” and Lorna Jowett in “Folding Time: History, Subjectivity, and Intimacy in Vonnegut” are working to understand the fundamental nature of how Vonnegut grapples with science and technology in his texts. There are overwhelming themes within his works, even if the worlds he creates are less works of science fiction and more creating a discussion of overlapping nature of science and fiction in reality. While Spatt does try to discuss Vonnegut as a science fiction writer, he does well to point out that there is more to Vonnegut’s discussion of science and technology than the genre of science fiction can capture, there is something real and raw to the power of Vonnegut’s fears of technology. “His fear of machinery has a nightmare corollary, running through all of Vonnegut’s novels: the image of mechanized humanity, people who have become no more than machines.”[17] Spatt also points to the realness of the way Vonnegut ends the world in Cat’s Cradle and Galapagos (1985). Both works portray the world as we know it ending through acts of science gone awry, which while fictional and fanciful, never overly complicate the science involved, and never seem far-fetched.[18] The most overwhelming discussion of science and technology surrounding the work of Vonnegut, though, is the way which he plays with time, particularly in Slaughterhouse Five though also in some of his earlier works, especially Sirens of Titan, where the protagonist is also “unstuck” in time.

Another major area of interests to scholars of Vonnegut, outside of literary classifications and the uses of literary devices to discuss science and technology is two-fold but both are directly related to attempting to understand Kurt Vonnegut the man. The first is the way which religion and morality work in his writing and the second is the function of war. The critical consensus is that while Vonnegut is overwhelmingly critical of organized, modern religions, underlying each of his novels is a plea for a more moral and ethical society, in whatever form that may take. Both literary scholars, and myself, find this underlying morality rather than the mechanics of the religions which Vonnegut presents, to be the more interesting vein of study. Paul Thomas, in “No Damn Cat, and No Damn Cradle: The Fundamental Flaws in Fundamentalism according to Vonnegut”, Claire Allen in “Wampeters and Foma? Misreading Religion in Cat’s Cradle and the Book of Dave,” David Andrews in “Vonnegut and Aethetic Humanism” and Donald Morse in “You Cannot Win, You Cannot Break Even, You Cannot Get Out of the Game: Kurt Vonnegut and the Notion of Progress” all wrestle with and come to the conclusion that while the functions of an organized religion are often repulsive to Vonnegut (the Ghost Shirt Society in Player Piano and Bokononism in Cat’s Cradle both work to sway the protagonists into situations that they may not otherwise be comfortable with) morality in general is of the utmost importance to maintaining both order in society and humanity in general. Thomas states,

Vonnegut offers contemporary readers universal considerations of the complexities inherent in the human condition (his persistent wrestling with free will, for example), and his works create numerous alternate universes that are essentially mirrors of our real world, focusing often on humans creating our own suffering because of our habitual weaknesses as humans.[19]

This sentiment is shared across the board among Vonnegut critics and scholars. There is something fundamentally human about the way which Vonnegut presents realities where people struggle with the morality and ethics of the situations which they create.

The discussion of Kurt Vonnegut as a commentator on war runs deep, particularly because Vonnegut frequently brought up his aversion to war during his professional life, and often touted his status as a recipient of a Purple Heart as a means of trying to connect with Middle America.[20] There are numerous scholars who focus on the ways which Vonnegut discusses war, mainly focusing on the commentary he provides about World War II. Phillip Tew in “Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night,” Rachel McCoppin in “’God Damn It, You’ve Got to Be Kind’: War and Altruism in the Works of Kurt Vonnegut,” Elizabeth Abele in “The Journey Home in Kurt Vonnegut’s World War II Novels,” Lawrence Broer in “Duty Dance with Death: A Farewell to Arms and Slaughterhouse-Five,” and many others all focus on the way which Vonnegut makes the dangers of war real for his audience, especially the trauma it brings to those who have to take part in the conflict. Since it would seem that he is commentating on the Second World War, that is where many critics keep their discussion, especially in regards to Mother Night (1961) and Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). However, some scholars, such as Rachel McCoppin, do well to point out that Vonnegut’s most famous novel, while partially set in World War II and about the fire-bombing of Dresden, is really a commentary about a more contemporary war occurring when it was published, Vietnam.[21] There is even discussion of Vonnegut and his aversion to war in very late life which surrounds the open criticism he makes of the War on Terror.[22] Chris Glover explores Vonnegut’s vocal criticism of the War on Terror at length in “Somewhere in There Was Springtime”: Kurt Vonnegut, his Apocalypses, and His Post-9/11 Heirs.”

[1] Charles J. Shields. And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2011)

[2] Jerome Klinkowitz. Kurt Vonnegut’s America (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2009)

[3] “A key to Vonnegut’s tremendous popularity is just how very ordinary he really is. His works present stories of rather ordinary people going about their ordinary lives, facing often ordinary problems.” In Critical Insights: Kurt Vonnegut edited by Robert Tally (Amenia, NY: Salem Press, 2013): 3

[4] “While Vonnegut has a deep respect for science and philosophy-he often proudly recites the accomplishments of his brother, Bernard, who graduated with a doctorate from MIT and was a highly respected scientist responsible for such discoveries as the effect of silver iodide in the artificial creation of rain and snow-at no time is he willing to place the study of either science or philosophy above the practical concerns of everyday life. It is human life, its dignity, that Vonnegut wishes most to preserve.” In Kurt Vonnegut’s Crusade: Or, How a Postmodern Harlequin Preached a New Kind of Humanism by Todd Davis (Albany: University of New York, 2006): 9

[5] Robert K. Musil. “There must be More to Love than Death” in Kurt Vonnegut: The Last Interview and Other Conversations edited by Tom McCartan (New York: Melville House, 2011): 69

[6] Charles J. Shields. And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2011): 146

[7] Tom McCartan. Kurt Vonnegut: The Last Interview and Other Conversations. (New York: Melville House, 2011): 26

[8] Robert Tally Jr. Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel: A Postmodern Iconography. (London: Continuum International, 2011, Kindle Edition): location 244

[9] Ginger Strand. The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015): 81

[10] Some writers who approach Vonnegut in this manner in some of their works: M. Keith Booker, Roslynn D. Haynes, Timothy Melley, Robert Genter, Julia Kirk Blackwelder, and James O. Castagnera

[11] Robert Tally. Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel: A Postmodern Iconography. (London. Continuum Internation, 2011, Kindle Edition): location 139

[12] Hartley Spatt. “Ludic Luddite” in At Millennium’s End: New Essays on the Work of Kurt Vonnegut edited by Kevin Boon (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001): 123

[13] Charles Shields. And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut A Life (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2011): 103

[14] Kurt Vonnegut. A Man Without a Country (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005): 15

[15] Charles Shields. And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut A Life (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2011)

[16] Donald Morse. “You Cannot Win, You Cannot Break Even, You cannot Get Out of the Game: Kurt Vonnegut and the Notion of Progress” in At Millennium’s End: New Essays on the Work of Kurt Vonnegut edited by Kevin Alexander Boon (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001): 92

[17] Hartley Spatt. “Kurt Vonnegut: Ludic Luddite” in At Millennium’s End: New Essays on the Work of Kurt Vonnegut edited by Kevin Alexander Boon (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001): 121

[18] Ibid., 123

[19] Paul Thomas. “’No Damn Cat, and No Damn Cradle’: The Fundamental Flaws in Fundamentalism according to Vonnegut” in New Critical Essays on Kurt Vonnegut edited by David Simmons (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009): 28

[20] Kurt Vonnegut. Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage (New York: Dial Press, 1981): 10

[21] Elizabeth Abele. “’God Damn It, You’ve Got to Be Kind’: War and Altruism in the Works of Kurt Vonnegut,” in New Critical Essays on Kurt Vonnegut edited by David Simmons (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009): 49

[22] Vonnegut spends an entire chapter of his final autobiography, A Man Without a Country criticizing the Bush administration for their invasion of Iraq following 9/11. While he works to make clear that he is a patriot, since returning to the States after his captivity in Dresden, Vonnegut is a very vocal pacifist.