Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on November 11, 1922, Armistice day.[1] Descended from wealthy 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 have pride in their German forefathers, Kurt was denied that cultural education. The end of the 1920s also brought the end to the Vonneguts’ wealth and prosperity, as it did for so many Americans. 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] Kurt’s relationship with his older siblings was typical of sibling relationships of the period. Bernard was eight years Kurt’s senior and their father pushed him, and later Kurt, to become a scientist, believing that this was a keenly American vocation leading towards prosperity, and Bernard’s fascination with tinkering only helped to elevate Bernard in their father’s eyes. 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[3], crediting him with his continuing fascination with science and technology.[4] Only five years his senior, Alice was very close to Kurt until her untimely death in 1958. According to one biographer, “Vonnegut more than loved Alice; he was unusual as an author because he wrote for an audience of one: his sister.”[5]

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”[6] indicating a fascination with a practical, morally driven science from a young age, aimed at curing rather than inventing. Even though he declared a biochemistry major at Cornell, Kurt found he enjoyed writing satirical pieces for the school newspaper more than taking chemistry classes. During his sophomore year, he failed out of college however and was forced to enlist in the military. It was his capture in Germany and the subsequent experience of the fire-bombing of Dresden that would inspire the writing of Slaughterhouse-Five. Upon returning to the States, in 1945, Kurt enrolled at the University of Chicago, working towards a master’s degree in anthropology (he had two separate theses rejected, but one was ultimately accepted, his published book Cat’s Cradle for his creation and discussion of the religion of Bokononism, and his degree was not granted until 1973.)[7]

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.[8] Kurt’s job entailed interviewing the scientists working in the research lab to write up press releases for the company to promote the innovation of GE. It was from this job that Vonnegut had his most interaction with the practice of science. In 1950, after the publication of his first short story, “Report on the Barnhouse Effect” in Collier’s Weekly, Kurt 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 to 1959 when 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 The Sirens of Titan in 1959, Mother Night in 1961, 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 writers’ 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 years continuing to publish and died on April 11, 2007, aged 84.

There are some aspects of Vonnegut’s character that are important to keep in mind. Vonnegut often presents a conflicting picture of himself. This is most present in his discussions of science and technology, as well as his identity as a writer. Vonnegut is a vocal critic of twentieth century science and technology, while also constantly championing his brief education in the sciences at Cornell and his relationships with scientists. He claims to be a sort of “everyman” rather than an intellectual, especially with his readers, but he also wants literary scholars to take him seriously as a critic of science and technology rather than just a writer of science fiction. In interviews he is dismissive of the importance of domestic life yet in his writing a dysfunctional home life is central to some of the arguments he makes in both novels. These conflicting pictures he paints of himself reflect the conflicting ideas he has about the United States during this period and the role that science and technology have in twentieth century America. I explore these conflicting images in Appendix A.

[1] Vonnegut was immensely proud of this connection to Armistice Day and the peace associated with it. 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); “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.

[3] “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.

[4] 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.

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

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

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

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