On November 11, 1922 in Indianapolis, Indiana, one of the most influential American Novelist of the twentieth century and one of the great Humanist of his time was born. “Being a Humanist means trying to behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishments after you are dead.” Kurt Vonnegut, Jr exerted this energy and you can see this sort of selflessness and light attitude throughout his works and his life.
Vonnegut enlisted in the United States Army while attending Cornell University, majoring in Chemistry, the army transferred him to Carnegie Institute of Technology and later to the University of Tennessee. During this time his mother, whom many claim, is to be the only women he truly ever loved, committed suicide the night before Mother’s Day. This is only the beginning of his compelling life. Once World War II came around he was reassigned to a combat because of lack of man power. Vonnegut was imprisoned in Dresden where he was captured. Fortunately, he was part of a group of American prisoners whom survived the bombing in an underground slaughterhouse where he was being sheltered which the Germans called Schlachthof Fünf (Slaughterhouse Five). Having to witness the allied firebombing of the city and complete devastation of its outcome, these experiences inspired his famous novel Slaughterhouse-Five. He would not write this novel for another 20 years or so. He notes “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,” He claimed this work to be a “failure” but it is clear that the audience disagrees, it quickly became a bestseller and helped recognize Vonnegut as an exceptional writer.
Report on the Barnhouse Effect was Vonneguts first published short story, around the same time he moved to Cape Cod to fully dedicate his time to writing. His first Novel Player Piano (1952) depicting a dystopian era in which human workers are replaced by machines, an ironically relevant theme in our current society, is also theme that has makes a constant appearance in all his works. The Sirens of Titans(1959), Cat’s Cradle(1963) as well as various other short stories shortly followed. When the 1960’s came around his style of writing started to morph and had more autobiographical approach. This is when Slaughterhouse-Five came along as well as other renowned works like Breakfast for Champions (1973) which also became a best-selling novel.
Vonnegut distinct and persuasive writing style combined satire, humor and science fiction to create some of his best works. His novels were celebrated and even closely studied; various universities had courses that analyzed Vonnegut’s writing in depth. Little do his fans know but he too had a career as a graphic artist beginning this career with the illustrations for Slaughterhouse-five and continued to develop with Breakfast for champions. Some of his other works were exhibited at the Margo Feiden Galleries Ltd in New York. Nanette Vonnegut, Vonnegut’s daughter, published a book of her father’s drawings in May of 2014 entitled Kurt Vonnegut’s Drawings.
Also recognized for his political views, Kurt Vonnegut was a lifetime member of the American Civil Liberties Union and was known to frequently address many moral issues. In 1968 he signed the “Writers and Editors war Tax Protest” pledge which vowed to refuse tax payment in protest against the Vietnam War. He was also not shy in voicing his opinion which did cause controversy at times. Isn’t this what we love about Vonnegut though, his true to self comments.
Vonnegut’s influence extends beyond literature, his wit and artistic bohemianism accompanied by his political point of view have made the audience recognize him as a strong intellectual character that abandons social conventions and although has gone through hardships he has been able to stay optimistic and true to his beliefs and craft.
“Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning to do afterward.” — Kurt Vonnegut
And in Celebration of Veterans day or in his case Armistice day, here is a quote from Breakfast of Champions.
“So this book is a sidewalk strewn with junk, trash which I throw over my shoulders as I travel in time back to November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.
Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.
So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.
What else is sacred? Oh, Romeo and Juliet, for instance.
And all music is.”
– Breakfast of Champions (1973)