Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was born on the eleventh day of November, 1922, in Indianapolis, Indiana. His birth date, which fell on Armistice Day, would prove to be an omen for his pacifist views. He was the grandson of the first licensed architect in Indiana, and the son of a wealthy architect. The Great Depression, however, left Vonnegut's father out of work, and the wealth of the family soon diminished.
It was at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis that Vonnegut gained his first writing experience. During his last two years there he wrote for and was one of the editors of the Shortridge Daily Echo, which was the first high school daily newspaper in the country. At this young age Vonnegut learned to write for a wide audience that would give him immediate feedback, rather than just writing for an audience of one in the form of a teacher.
After graduating from Shortridge in 1940, Vonnegut headed for Cornell University. His father wanted him to study something that was solid and dependable, like science, so Vonnegut began his college career as a chemistry and biology major, following in the footsteps of his older brother, Bernard, who was to eventually be the discoverer of cloud seeding to induce precipitation. While Vonnegut struggled in his chemistry and biology studies, he excelled as a columnist and managing editor for the Cornell Daily Sun. But by 1943 Vonnegut was on the verge of being asked to leave Cornell due to his lackluster academic performance. He beat Cornell to the punch by enlisting in the army.
By this point Vonnegut's parents had given up on life, being unable to adjust to or accept the fact that they were no longer wealthy, world travellers. On May 14, 1944, his mother committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. His father was to remain a fairly isolated man the rest of his days, in full retreat from life, content to be in his own little world until his death on October 1, 1957 (Jailbird 12-13; hereinafter identified as "J").
On December 14, 1944, Vonnegut became a German prisoner of war after being captured in the Battle of the Bulge. He was sent to Dresden, an open city that produced no war machinery; thus it was off-limits to allied bombing. He and his fellow POW's were to work in a vitamin-syrup factory. On February 13, 1945, however, allied forces strafed Dresden, killing 135,000 unprotected civilians. Vonnegut and the other POW's survived the bombing as they waited it out deep in the cellar of a slaughterhouse, where they were quartered.
Vonnegut was repatriated on May 22, 1945, and on September first of that year he married Jane Marie Cox, a friend since kindergarten, for he thought, "'Who but a wife would sleep with me?'" (J 10).
Vonnegut spent the next two years in Chicago, attending the University of Chicago as a graduate anthropology student, and working for the Chicago City News Bureau as a police reporter. When his master's thesis was rejected, he moved to Schenectedy, New York, to work as a publicist for General Electric. It was here that his fiction career began. On February 11, 1950, Collier's published Vonnegut's first short story, "Report on the Barnhouse Effect." By the next year he was making enough money writing to quit his job at GE and move his family to West Barnstable, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod.
In 1952 his first novel, Player Piano, was published. By the time his next novel, The Sirens of Titan, was published in 1959, he had had dozens of short stories published, worked as an English teacher at a school for emotionally disturbed students, run a Saab dealership, seen his father die, witnessed the death of his 41-year old sister, Alice, due to cancer, which occurred less than forty-eight hours after her husband had died in a train accident, and had adopted three of Alice's four children to add to his own stable of three kids.
The sixties were highlighted by the publication of four more novels, a collection of short stories, and a two-year residency at the famous University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. The decade culminated with the publication of Vonnegut's sixth, and still best, novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, in 1968.
The early seventies were an interesting and hectic time for Vonnegut. Much in demand as the voice of the college-aged generation, he spent time teaching creative writing at Harvard, wrote a mildly successful off-Broadway play, got divorced, and saw his son Mark suffer a schizophrenic breakdown. By the time Breakfast of Champions was published in 1973, Vonnegut's life was starting to slow down just a bit as he dropped from his pinnacle in the national spotlight. The critically lambasted Slapstick appeared in 1976, which was followed by 1979's Jailbird.
Written by Glenn Berggoetz
(Originally a part of his essay AUTOBIOGRAPHY AND PHILOSOPHY IN THE PERSONAL NOVELS OF KURT VONNEGUT: 1968-1979)