Today in Literary History – November 11, 1922 – Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is born

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., whose satirical novels are a wonderful mix of wild imagination and bleak humour, was born on November 11, 1922. To me, Vonnegut was always aware of the sadness in the world – its unfairness and cosmic ironies. Even though he viewed life with anger and bitterness, he still managed to turn life’s absurdities into comedy informed by wonder.

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A 38-foot-tall Vonnegut mural in Indianapolis

He came from a wealthy family in Indianapolis that lost its money in the 1929 stock market crash. His father, an architect, became withdrawn and distracted and his mother suffered severe depression. She committed suicide (on Mother’s Day) shortly before Vonnegut shipped out to Europe in the Second World War.

Vonnegut’s war experience was the central defining event of his life and the basis for his best book, Slaughterhouse Five, published in 1969. Vonnegut himself suffered from chronic depression. Some of it may have been genetic, but he probably also dealt with what we would now call PTSD.

Vonnegut’s unit was captured by the Germans and he was a POW, held in a slaughterhouse in the city of Dresden. When the Americans fire-bombed Dresden in 1945 Vonnegut hid in an underground meat locker and survived. He and the other survivors were put to work reclaiming bodies from the rubble of the city.

After the war Vonnegut worked at various jobs, including writing copy for an advertising company, the subject of his first novel Player Piano in 1952, a satire on climbing the corporate ladder.

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He wrote more novels and short stories, increasingly full of aliens and the trappings of science fiction. He felt that he was pigeon-holed as a science fiction writer and not taken seriously enough by critics.

By the time I started reading Vonnegut, when I was in high school, his books were shelved under fiction, but I was vaguely aware that he was considered a genre writer, because of the sci-fi elements and the humour.

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Reading him as I got older I was struck more by his dark side. He is dazzled by the possibilities of the universe but he is also quite angry at the human propensity for evil and stupidity. This comes through more clearly in his political essays.

Vonnegut was a life-long smoker and often referred to smoking as “a slow and honourable suicide.”

Late in life he said he was going to sue the manufacturer of his favourite cigarettes, “Because I’m 83 years old. The lying bastards! On the package Brown & Williamson promised to kill me.” Vonnegut died a year later after a head injury from a fall, not from tobacco.

So it goes.

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