On November 11, 1922, American author Kurt Vonnegut was born. Vonnegut is most well known for famous works such as Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Breakfast of Champions. His works had a tendency to combine satire with witticism in the face of hopelessness and equal parts of science fiction.
Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis into a family of architects, most of whom attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.). Vonnegut attended Cornell University, and although he majored in chemistry, he was became the Assistant Managing Editor and Associate Editor of The Cornell Daily Sun, the university’s daily newspaper. Journalistic rules heavily influenced his writing. He adopted a straightforward style, always made sure to get his facts right, and knew his audience.
While at Cornell, Vonnegut enlisted in the United States army and served in World War II. His involvement in the war and tribulations as a prisoner of war greatly influenced his later works. He survived a devastating German bombing with a group of American soldiers who were held in an underground meat locker which was being used as a temporary detention center. The Germans called it Schlachthof Fünf or “Slaughterhouse Five,” which became the inspiration for Vonnegut’s famous novel of the same name. His brutal experiences here became a central theme for six of his other novels.
The devastation of war was not the only sorrow Vonnegut suffered during this time. Vonnegut’s mother, who became addicted to drugs and alcohol after the Depression, died from a drug overdose in 1944. After the war ended, Vonnegut married his childhood friend, Jane Cox, and they soon after had their first child. To support his family, Vonnegut began working in advertising, while writing short fiction stories on the side.
In a tragic turn of fate, Vonnegut’s sister died of cancer mere days after her husband was killed in a freak train accident. Vonnegut and his wife took over care of their children, doubling the size of their family and forcing Vonnegut to bring in more money. He began to focus his attention on producing novels rather than short stories, and produced a series of books ranging from sci-fi to economic injustice to religious satire. It was in these novels that his penchant for dark humor unraveled in his ability to make his readers laugh even after presenting them with bleak and horrific images. His novels grew a small cult following among college students. When Slaughterhouse-Five came out in 1969, Kurt Vonnegut became a household name, and he became one of the most famous living writers of the early 1970s. The 1970s were not a happy time for Vonnegut, however, as his family life began to fall apart. His marriage ended and his son suffered from a bipolar disorder, and he began living by himself in New York City. Themes of novels he wrote at this time revolved around the disintegration of families and he worked through emotional problems he had dealt with since childhood. He remarried in the 1980s and his novels at this time focused on social realism. Through the ’80s and ’90s he became a spokesman for the preserving Constitutional freedoms, controlling nuclear arms and protecting the environment.
Vonnegut is still looked up to today by many for his ability to attack controversial topics in a satirical and humorous way. To read some of Vonnegut’s most famous and memorable quotes, go here.