Kurt Vonnegut Dies Aged 84
By Paul Sullivan; Financial Times: April 12, 2007
Kurt Vonnegut, the great American satirical novelist, died on Wednesday at the age of 84 as a result of head injuries sustained in a fall at his home in New York last week.
”So it goes” is the catchphrase that runs throughout Slaughterhouse-Five, his best known work. It was a refrain that seems to sum up his long and varied life, and the ironic detachment with which he composed his masterly portraits of human folly. Best known for his novels of the 1960s and early 1970s Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut believed that art was “a way to make your soul grow“, a way to stave off television’s capacity to numb through repetition.
Kurt Vonnegut was born to German-American parents on November 11, 1922, in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he lived until he enrolled at Cornell University in 1940. At Cornell, he struggled academically, as a biochemistry student, but thrived as a columnist for the university’s newspaper. He left in 1942 without taking a degree. The following year he enlisted in the US army. He was captured at the Battle of the Bulge on December 22, 1944, and held prisoner in Dresden in Germany. When Allied planes bombed the city on February 22, 1945, Vonnegut sought shelter in an underground meat locker, the inspiration for Slaughterhouse-Five.
He was freed in May 1945. Later that year he married Jane Marie Cox, a childhood friend, and moved to Chicago. There he began working at the Chicago City News Bureau, the fabled training ground for the city’s reporters, and also enrolled at the University of Chicago. In 1947, however, his MA thesis “On the fluctuations between good and evil in simple tales” was roundly rejected by the anthropology department and he left the university.
His first short story was published in Collier’s magazine in 1950 but he had to struggle to earn a living as a freelance writer. His first novel, Player Piano, was published in 1952. Classified as science fiction, it was a limited success, as were The Sirens of Titan (1959) and Mother Night (1961). Then, in 1963, the publication of Cat’s Cradle drew the attention of Graham Greene, who called the book one of the best of the year. A comedy about the end of the world, the novel is about an author who originally intended to write a book entitled The Day the World Ended, about the inventor of the nuclear bomb, but ends up on an island with the inventor’s three children where the world’s end begins.
God Bless You, Mr Rosewater—a portrait of a man who decides to give away his fortune—followed the next year and was widely reviewed. On the strength of it, Vonnegut was invited to join the faculty of the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, where he lectured from 1965 to 1967. That year, he received a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, which enabled him to return to Dresden and work on Slaughterhouse-Five, one of the great anti-war novels.
When it appeared in 1969, Slaughterhouse-Five was a tremendous success, reaching number one on the New York Times bestseller list and bringing Vonnegut national attention. The story follows Billy Pilgrim, a prisoner of war in Dresden, and a man who has become “unstuck in time”, as he travels back and forth across the years of his life. Published as the US was escalating its presence in Vietnam, Slaughterhouse-Five made a folk hero out of its wiry-haired, bushy-mustached 37-year-old author.
Vonnegut’s fame was sudden and accolades came quickly, including an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1970 and an appointment to teach creative writing at Harvard University. In 1971, the University of Chicago finally awarded him his MA, accepting Cat’s Cradle as his thesis. The same year, however, he separated from his wife, with whom he had had three children, and moved alone to New York City.
Sinking into a depression, he wrote Breakfast of Champions, which drew partly on his experience opening the second Saab dealership in the US. It was published in 1973 and became a commercial success, despite tepid reviews.
In 1973, Vonnegut was named Distinguished Professor of English at City College. New York, replacing Anthony Burgess, but he resigned the following year. For the first time, he had enough money to write full time, but he never equalled his earlier work. His later novels include Jailbird (1979), Deadeye Dick (1982), Galapagos (1985), Hocus Pocus (1990), and Timequake (1997) as well as several collections of essays and autobiographical writings. In 1999, his early short stories were collected in Bagombo Snuff Box. His last published book was God Bless You, Dr Kevorkian (2000), a collection of meditations on death and the afterlife that he originally read on New York public radio. In the autumn of 2000 he returned to teaching at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.
For him personally, the years after Slaughterhouse-Five were often marred by hardship. In 1979, Vonnegut divorced his first wife and married the photographer Jill Kremnentz and the couple had one child, Lily, in 1982. Three years later, however, Vonnegut’s depression returned and he attempted suicide. Nevertheless, Vonnegut continued to be a public figure, lobbying on behalf of young artists and speaking out against the debasement of American culture. In the final analysis, Perhaps the ironic epitaph he wrote for himself in Slaughterhouse-Five best shows his capacity to face the darker side of life: “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.” So it goes.