The Writings Of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.


On May 29, 1945, twenty-one days after the Germans had
surrendered to the victorious Allied armies, a father in
Indianapolis received a letter from his son who had been
listed as "missing in action" following the Battle of the
Bulge. The youngster, an advance scout with the 106th
Infantry Division, had been captured by the Germans after
wandering behind enemy lines for several days. "Bayonets,"
as he wrote his father, "aren't much good against tanks."
Eventually, the Indianapolis native found himself shipped
to a work camp in the open city of Dresden, where he helped
produce vitamin supplements for pregnant women. Sheltered
in an underground meat storage locker, the Hoosier soldier
managed to survive a combined American/British firebombing
raid that devastated the city and killed an estimated
135,000 people - more than the number of deaths in the
atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. 

After the bombing, the soldier wrote his father, "we were
put to work carrying corpses from Air-Raid shelters; women,
children, old men; dead from concussion, fire or
suffocation. Civilians cursed us and threw rocks as we
carried bodies to huge funeral pyres in the city." Freed
from his captivity by the Red Army's final onslaught
against Nazi Germany and returned to America, the soldier -
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. - tried for many years to put into words
what he had experienced during that horrific event. At
first, it seemed to be a simple task. "I thought it would
be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden,
since all I would have to do would be to report what I had
seen," Vonnegut noted. It took him more than twenty years,
however, to produce "Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's
Crusade, A Duty-Dance With Death". 

The book was worth the wait. Released to an American
society struggling to come to grips with its involvement in
another war - in a small Asian country called Vietnam -
Vonnegut's magnum opus struck a nerve, especially with
young people on college campuses across the country.
Although its author termed the work a "failure," readers
did not agree, as "Slaughterhouse Five" became a
best-seller and pushed Vonnegut into the national spotlight
for the first time. 

His experiences, it seems, have always helped shape what
Vonnegut writes. Especially important was his life growing
up as a boy in Indianapolis. Revisiting his birthplace in
1986 to deliver the annual McFadden Memorial Lecture,
Vonnegut told a North Central High School audience: "All my
jokes are Indianapolis. All my attitudes are Indianapolis.
My adenoids are Indianapolis. If I ever severed myself from
Indianapolis, I would be out of business. What people like
about me is Indianapolis." This connection has not escaped
notice by readers. Fellow Hoosier writer Dan Wakefield once
observed that in most of Vonnegut's books there is at least
one character from Indianapolis and compared it to Alfred
Hitchcock's habit of appearing in each of his movies. 

The connection between the Vonneguts and Indianapolis
stretch back to the 1850s when Clemens Vonnegut Sr.,
formerly of Westphalia, Germany, settled in the city and
became business partners with a fellow German named
Vollmer. When Vollmer disappeared on a trip out West,
Vonnegut took over a business that grew into the profitable
Vonnegut Hardware Company - a company Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
worked for during the summers while attending high school
at Shortridge. 

Kurt's grandfather, Bernard Vonnegut, unlike his grandson,
disliked working in the hardware store. Possessing an
artistic nature, he studied architecture at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology and also received
training in Hannover, Germany. After a short stint working
in New York, Bernard returned to Indianapolis in 1883 and
joined with Arthur Bohn to form the architectural firm of
Vonnegut & Bohn. The firm designed such impressive
structures as Das Deutsche Haus (The Athenaeum), the first
Chamber of Commerce building, the John Herron Art Museum,
Methodist Hospital, the original L.S. Ayres store, and the
Fletcher Trust Building. 

Kurt Vonnegut's father, Kurt Vonnegut Sr., followed in his
father's footsteps and became an Indianapolis architect,
taking over his father's firm in 1910. On Nov. 22, 1913,
Kurt Senior married Edith Lieber, the daughter of
millionaire Indianapolis brewer Albert Lieber. The couple
had three children, Bernard, born in 1914; Alice, in 1917;
and, Kurt Jr., who came into the world on Nov. 11, 1922.
Fourth-generation Germans, the Vonnegut children were
raised with little, if any, knowledge about their German
heritage - a legacy, Kurt believed, of the anti-German
feelings vented during World War I. 

With America's entry into the Great War on the side of the
Allies, anything associated with Germany became suspect. In
Indianapolis, the city orchestra disbanded because its
soprano soloist was German; city restaurants renamed
kartoffel salade as Liberty cabbage; the Deutche Haus
became the Athenaeum; and the board of education stopped
the teaching of German in schools. The anti-German feeling
so shamed Kurt's parents, he noted, that they resolved to
raise him "without acquainting me with the language or the
literature or the music or the oral family histories which
my ancestors had loved. They volunteered to make me
ignorant and rootless as proof of their patriotism." 

His parents did pass on to their youngest child their love
of joke-telling, but, with the world his parents loved
shattered by World War I, Vonnegut also learned, as he put
it, "a bone-deep sadness from them." As the offspring of a
wealthy family, the two eldest Vonnegut children had been
educated at private schools - Bernard at Park School and
Alice at Tudor Hall School for Girls. The Great Depression,
however, reduced the elder Vonnegut's commissions to a mere
trickle. Hit hard in the pocketbook, the Vonneguts pulled
young Kurt from the private Orchard school after the third
grade and enrolled him at Public School No. 43, the James
Whitcomb Riley School, located just a few blocks from the
family's Illinois Street home. Kurt Jr.'s mother Edith, a
refined lady used to comfort and privilege, attempted to
reassure her son that when the Depression ended he would
resume his proper place in society - swim with the children
of Indianapolis's leading families at the Athletic Club,
play tennis and golf with them at the Woodstock Golf and
Country Club. But Kurt thrived in his new surroundings.
"She could not understand," he later said, "that to give up
my friends at Public School No. 43 ... would be for me to
give up everything." Even today, Vonnegut said, he feels
"uneasy about prosperity and associating with members of my
parents' class on that account." Part of that unease may
have come from the idealism he learned while a public
school student - an idealism that is often reflected in his

To Vonnegut, America in the 1930s was an idealistic,
pacifistic nation. While in the sixth grade, he said he was
taught "to be proud that we had a standing army of just
over a hundred thousand men and that the generals had
nothing to say about what was done in Washington. I was
taught to be proud of that and to pity Europe for having
more than a million men under arms and spending all their
money on airplanes and tanks. I simply never unlearned
junior civics. I still believe in it." 

Along with instilling Vonnegut with a strong sense of
ideals and pacifism, his time in Indianapolis's schools
started him on the path to a writing career. Attending
Shortridge High School from 1936 to 1940, Vonnegut during
his junior and senior years edited the Tuesday edition of
the school's daily newspaper, The Shortridge High School
Echo. His duties with the newspaper, then one of the few
daily high school newspapers in the country, offered
Vonnegut a unique opportunity to write for a large audience
- his fellow students. It was an experience he described as
being "fun and easy." "It just turned out," Vonnegut noted,
"that I could write better than a lot of other people. Each
person has something he can do easily and can't imagine why
everybody else has so much trouble doing it." In his case
that something was writing. Looking back on his school
days, Vonnegut felt lucky to have been born in
Indianapolis. "That city," he writes in his collection
Fates Worse Than Death, "gave me a free primary and
secondary education richer and more humane than anything I
would get from any of the five universities I attended."
Vonnegut also had high praise for the city's *widespread
system of free libraries whose attendants seemed, to his
young mind, to be "angels of fun and information." 

After graduating from Shortridge, Vonnegut went east to
college, enrolling at Cornell University. If he had gotten
his way, the young man would have become a third-generation
Indianapolis architect. His father, however, was so full of
sorrow and anger about having had no work as an architect
during the Great Depression, that he persuaded his son that
he too would be unhappy if he pursued the same trade.
Instead of architecture, Vonnegut was urged by his father
to study something useful, so he majored in chemistry and
biology. In hindsight, Vonnegut believed it was lucky for
him as a writer that the studied the physical sciences
instead of English. Because he wrote for his own amusement,
there were no English professors to tell him for his own
good how bad his writing might be or one with the power to
order him what to read. Consequently, both reading and
writing have been "pure pleasure" for the Hoosier author.
To the young Vonnegut, Cornell itself was a "boozy dream,"
partly because of the alcohol he imbibed and also because
he found himself enrolled in classes for which he had no
talent. He did, however, find success outside the classroom
by working for the Cornell Daily Sun. 

Before the end of his freshman year, Vonnegut had taken
over the "Innocents Abroad" column, which reprinted jokes
from other publications. He later moved on to write his own
column, called "Well All Right," in which he produced a
series of pacifistic articles. Reminiscing about his days
at Cornell at an annual banquet for the Daily Sun, Vonnegut
recalled that he was happiest at the university when he was
all alone late at night "walking up the hill after having
helped put the Sun to bed." Vonnegut's days at the eastern
university were interrupted by America's entry into World
War II. "I was flunking everything by the middle of my
junior year," he admitted. "I was delighted to join the
army and go to war." In January 1943 he volunteered for
military service. Although he was rejected at first for
health reasons - he had caught pneumonia while at Cornell -
the Army later accepted him and placed him in its
Specialized Training Program, sending him to study
mechanical engineering at the Carnegie Institute of
Technology in Pittsburgh and at the University of

Some have wondered how Vonnegut, who stresses pacifism in
his work, could volunteer so eagerly to go to war. It is a
question even Vonnegut has trouble answering. "As for my
pacifism," he has said, "it is nothing if not ambivalent."
When he asks himself what person in American history he
would most like to have been, Vonnegut admits to nominating
none other than Joshua Lawrence Chamberlin, college
professor and Civil War hero whose valiant bayonet charged
helped save the day for the Union at the Battle of
Gettysburg. Although Vonnegut received instruction on the
240-millimeter howitzer, which he later dubbed the ultimate
terror weapon of the Franco-Prussian War, he eventually
ended up as a battalion intelligence scout with the 106th
Infantry Division, which was based at Camp Atterbury, just
south of Indianapolis. It was while he was with the 106th
that he met and became friends with Bernard V. O'Hare, who
joined Vonnegut as a POW in Dresden and would go on to play
a large role in the genesis of Slaughterhouse-Five. 

On Mother's Day in 1944 Vonnegut received leave from his
duties and returned home to find that his mother had
committed suicide the previous evening. Edith Vonnegut had
grown increasingly depressed over her family's lost fortune
and her inability to remake that fortune by selling fiction
to popular magazines of the day. "She studied magazines,"
her son recalled, "the way gamblers study racing forms."
Although Edith was a good writer, Vonnegut noted that she
"had no talent for the vulgarity the slick magazines
required." Fortunately, he added, he "was loaded with
vulgarity," and when he grew up he was able to make her
dream come true by writing for such publications as
Collier's, Cosmopolitan, The Saturday Evening Post, and The
Ladies' Home Journal. Three months after his mother's
death, Vonnegut was sent overseas just in time to become
engulfed in the last German offensive of the war - the
Battle of the Bulge. 

Captured by the Germans, Vonnegut and other American
prisoners were shipped in boxcars to Dresden - "the first
fancy city" he had ever seen, Vonnegut said. As a POW, he
found himself quartered in a slaughterhouse and working in
a malt syrup factory. Each day he listened to bombers drone
overhead on their way to drop their loads on some other
German city. On Feb. 13, 1945, the air raid siren went off
in Dresden and Vonnegut, some other POWs and their German
guards found refuge in a meat locker located three stories
under the slaughterhouse. "It was cool there, with cadavers
hanging all around," Vonnegut said. "When we came up the
city was gone. They burnt the whole damn town down." In
recalling the aftermath of the bombing, which created a
firestorm that killed approximately 135,000 people, for the
Paris Review, Vonnegut described walking into the city each
day to dig into basements to remove the corpses as a
sanitary measure: When we went into them, a typical shelter
. . . looked like a streetcar full of people who'd
simultaneously had heart failure. Just people sitting in
chairs, all dead. They were loaded on wagons and taken to
parks, large open areas in the city which weren't filled
with rubble. The Germans got funeral pyres going, burning
the bodies to keep them from stinking and from spreading
disease. It was a terribly elaborate Easter egg hunt. 

Freed from captivity by Russian troops, Vonnegut returned
to the United States and married Jane Marie Cox on Sept. 1,
1945. The young couple moved to Chicago where Vonnegut
worked on a master's degree in anthropology at the
University of Chicago. While going to school, he also
worked as a reporter for the Chicago City News Bureau.
Failing to have his thesis, "Fluctuations Between Good and
Evil in Simple Tales," accepted, Vonnegut left school to
become a publicist for General Electric's research
laboratories in Schenectaduy, New York. 

As an aside, in 1971 the University of Chicago finally
awarded Vonnegut a master's degree in anthropology for his
novel Cat's Cradle. While working for GE, Vonnegut began
submitting stories to mass-market magazines. His first
published piece "Report on the Barnhouse Effect," appeared
in Collier's February 11, 1950 issue - an article for which
he received $750 (minus, of course, a 10 percent agent's
commission). Writing his father of his success, Vonnegut
confidently stated: "I think I'm on my way. I've deposited
my first check in a savings account and . . . will continue
to do so until I have the equivalent of one year's pay at
GE. Four more stories will do it nicely. I will then quit
this goddamn nightmare job, and never take another one so
long as I live, so help me God." Vonnegut was almost as
good as his word. He quit his job at GE in 1951 and moved
to Cape Cod to write full time. 

Although he sold a steady stream of stories to a succession
of magazines, the Hoosier writer did have to take other
jobs to supplement his income. He worked as an English
teacher in a school on Cape Cod, wrote copy for an
advertising agency, and opened one of the first Saab
dealerships in the United States. With his short stories,
and novels like Player Piano, published in 1952, and The
Sirens of Titan, released in 1959, Vonnegut was often
typecast by critics as a science fiction writer. "The
feeling persists," Vonnegut has said, "that no one can
simultaneously be a respectable writer and understand how a
refrigerator works, just as no gentleman wears a brown suit
in the city." It was also during these years that his
father and sister died. 

In the novels Vonnegut published leading up to
Slaughterhouse Five, which also included such works as
Mother Night, Cat's Cradle and God Bless You, Mr.
Rosewater, themes emerged that would find their full
flowering with Slaughterhouse Five. There is, according to
Vonnegut, an "almost intolerable sentimentality beneath
everything" he writes - a sentimentality he might have
learned from a black cook employed by the Vonnegut family
named Ida Young. Young often read to the young Kurt from an
anthology of idealistic poetry about "love which would not
die, about faithful dogs and humble cottages where
happiness was, about people growing old, about visits to
cemeteries, about babies who die." 

The essence of Vonnegut's work might be best expressed by
one of his characters, crazed millionaire Elliot Rosewater,
who proclaims: "Goddamn it, you've got to be kind." After
all, Vonnegut has reminded us time after time, "pity is
like rust to a cruel social machine." After briefly
touching on his World War II experience in other works -
Rosewater, for example, hallucinates that Indianapolis
becomes engulfed in a firestorm - Vonnegut finally, in
1969, delivered to the reading public a book dealing with
the Dresden bombing. 

Slaughterhouse Five is the story of Billy Pilgrim, like
Vonnegut, a young infantry scout captured by the Germans in
the Battle of the Bulge and taken to Dresden where he and
his other prisoners survive the Feb. 13, 1945 firebombing
of the city. Pilgrim copes with his war trauma through time
travels to the planet Tralfamadore, whose inhabitants have
the ability to see all of time - past, present, and future
- simultaneously. The book is so short, jumbled and
jangled, Vonnegut explained, because "there is nothing
intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed
to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever
again." Vonnegut's strange, yet fascinating, trip through
World War II, which one critic called "an inspired mess,"
did not come easy. He worked on the book on and off for
many years. In 1967 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship and
returned to Dresden with his fellow POW Bernard O'Hare to
gather material for the book. Three years earlier Vonnegut
had visited O'Hare at his Pennsylvania home and received,
as he recounts in the opening chapter to Slaughterhouse
Five, a rather chilly reception from his friend's wife,
Mary, who believed the Hoosier author would gloss over the
soldiers' youth and write something that could be turned
into a movie starring Frank Sinatra or John Wayne. "She
freed me," Vonnegut reflected, "to write about what infants
we really were: 17, 18, 19, 20, 21. We were baby-faced, and
as a prisoner of war I don't think I had to shave very
often. I don't recall that was a problem." He promised Mary
O'Hare that if he ever finished his Dresden book there
would be no parts in it for actors like John Wayne;
instead, he'd call it "The Children's Crusade." 

Vonnegut kept his word. Slaughterhouse Five, or The
Children's Crusade, A Duty Dance with Death, with its
recapitulation of previous themes and characters (such old
favorites as Kilgore Trout, Eliot Rosewater and Howard
Campbell Jr. appear), brings together in one book all of
what Vonnegut had been trying to say about the human
condition throughout his career. With wild black humor
mixed with his innate pessimism and particular brand of
compassion, Vonnegut asks his readers not to give up on
their humanity, even when faced with potential disaster -
offering as an example Lot's wife who was turned into a
pillar of salt for daring to look back at her former home. 

Although Vonnegut considered the book a failure - it had to
be, he said, as it "was written by a pillar of salt" - the
public disagreed. Written during the height of the Vietnam
War, Slaughterhouse Five's compassion in the face of
terrible slaughter struck a nerve with an American populace
trying to come to grips with the war and a society that
seemed to be, at best, headed for major changes. After all,
Vonnegut's book was released during a year that saw such
shocking events as Neil Armstrong taking the first step on
the moon, the New York Mets winning the World Series, more
than a half a million youngsters gathering on Max Yasgur's
dairy farm in New York for a music festival called
Woodstock, and the uncovering of a massacre of Vietnamese
civilians by American troops in a village named My Lai. 

Slaughterhouse Five's success, and the release of a feature
film based on the book in 1972, gained Vonnegut a position
as an American cultural icon. College students, in
particular, responded well to Vonnegut's sense of the
absurd, his Cassandra-like warnings about the bleak future
the planet faced. "I do moralize," Vonnegut has admitted.
He added that he tells his readers "not to take more than
they need, not to be greedy. I tell them not to kill, even
in self defense. I tell them not to pollute water or the
atmosphere. I tell them not to raid the public treasury."
For those wondering about the phrase, "So it goes," which
appears every time a character dies in Slaughterhouse Five
(which happens one hundred and three times, by the way),
Vonnegut was inspired to use the phrase after reading
French author Celine's masterpiece, Journey to the End of
the Night. Using the phrase, Vonnegut noted, exasperated
many critics, and seemed fancy and tiresome to him too, but
it "somehow had to be said." 

Since its publication, Slaughterhouse Five has retained its
reputation as Vonnegut's greatest, and most controversial,
work. It has been used in classrooms across the country,
and also been banned by school boards. In 1973 school
officials in Drake, North Dakota, went so far as to
confiscate and burn the book, an action Vonnegut termed
"grotesque and ridiculous." He was glad, he added, that he
had "the freedom to make soldiers talk the way they do

Asked for his thoughts on the book, Vonnegut responded by
claiming that only one person on the entire planet
benefited from the bombing. "The raid," Vonnegut said,
"didn't shorten the war by half a second, didn't free a
single person from a death camp. Only one person benefited
- not two or five or ten. Just one." That one person was
Vonnegut who, according to his own reckoning, has received
over the years about five dollars for every corpse.

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