PICTURED are two photos of the late great American author Kurt Vonnegut Jr., taken from the Associated Press. The left shows the writer in New York City in 1979 while the right shows Vonnegut delivering the commencement address at Lehigh University’s 136th Commencement in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in May 24, 2004.
Kurt Vonnegut, Author of ‘Slaughterhouse-Five,’ Dies
SAN FRANCISCO—Author Kurt Vonnegut, whose dark comedy explored themes of war, autocracy and runaway technology, died last night in Manhattan. He was 84.
His death was reported by longtime friend Morgan Entrekin, according to the New York Times. Vonnegut had suffered brain injuries from a recent fall, the newspaper said.
“He’s the closest thing we’ve had to Voltaire,” said Tom Wolfe, whose first book had a blurb from Vonnegut. “It’s a sad day for the literary world.”
Vonnegut came to define the psyche of contemporary American literature with his novels, plays, essays and short fiction. His experience as a prisoner of war in the 1940s in Germany was the basis for “Slaughterhouse-Five,” which was published while the US waged war in Vietnam.
Vonnegut’s most famous books include “Cat’s Cradle,” “Breakfast of Champions” and Slaughterhouse, which is listed 18th on Modern Library’s list of 100 best novels.
“He is the representative writer of the post World War American,” said Donald E. Morse, a professor at the University of Debrecen, Hungary, and author of “The Novels of Kurt Vonnegut: Imagining Being an American.” “This is the person who recorded the effects of the Great Depression on people, World War II, Vietnam, drugs, you name it, he covered it in his fiction and he did it in a way that we had to pay attention to.”
Like Ernest Hemmingway or Walt Whitman, Vonnegut was a journalist before becoming a novelist, an experience that imbued his writing with simplicity and clarity sometimes sneered at by fussier authors or critics, Morse said.
The approach influenced many young writers during the 1960s, including John Irving, author of “The World According to Garp,” who was a student of Vonnegut’s in a writer’s workshop at the University of Iowa.
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was born in Indianapolis on Nov. 11, 1922, to Kurt Sr. and Edith Vonnegut. He was the youngest of three children.
From the Associated Press:
Novelist Kurt Vonnegut, author of ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ and ‘Cat’s Cradle,’ dies at 84
NEW YORK—Kurt Vonnegut, the satirical novelist who captured the absurdity of war and questioned the advances of science in darkly humorous works such as “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “Cat’s Cradle,” has died. He was 84.
Vonnegut, who often marveled that he had lived so long despite his lifelong smoking habit, had suffered brain injuries after a fall at his Manhattan home weeks ago, said his wife, photographer Jill Krementz.
He died Wednesday.
The author of at least 19 novels, many of them best-sellers, as well as dozens of short stories, essays and plays, Vonnegut relished the role of a social critic. He lectured regularly, exhorting audiences to think for themselves and delighting in barbed commentary against the institutions he felt were dehumanizing people.
“I will say anything to be funny, often in the most horrible situations,” Vonnegut, whose watery, heavy-lidded eyes and unruly hair made him seem to be in existential pain, once told a gathering of psychiatrists.
A self-described religious skeptic and freethinking humanist, Vonnegut used protagonists such as Billy Pilgrim and Eliot Rosewater as transparent vehicles for his points of view. He also filled his novels with satirical commentary and even drawings that were only loosely connected to the plot. In “Slaughterhouse-Five,” he drew a headstone with the epitaph: “Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.”
But much in his life was traumatic, and left him in pain.
Despite his commercial success, Vonnegut battled depression throughout his life, and in 1984, he attempted suicide with pills and alcohol, joking later about how he botched the job.
His mother had succeeded in killing herself just before he left for Germany during World War II, where he was quickly taken prisoner during the Battle of the Bulge. He was being held in Dresden when Allied bombs created a firestorm that killed an estimated tens of thousands of people in the city.
“The firebombing of Dresden explains absolutely nothing about why I write what I write and am what I am,” Vonnegut wrote in “Fates Worse Than Death,” his 1991 autobiography of sorts.
But he spent 23 years struggling to write about the ordeal, which he survived by huddling with other POW’s inside an underground meat locker labeled slaughterhouse-five.
The novel, in which Pvt. Pilgrim is transported from Dresden by time-traveling aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, was published at the height of the Vietnam War, and solidified his reputation as an iconoclast.
“He was sort of like nobody else,” said Gore Vidal, who noted that he, Vonnegut and Norman Mailer were among the last writers around who served in World War II.
“He was imaginative; our generation of writers didn’t go in for imagination very much. Literary realism was the general style. Those of us who came out of the war in the 1940s made it sort of the official American prose, and it was often a bit on the dull side. Kurt was never dull.”
Vonnegut was born on Nov. 11, 1922, in Indianapolis, a “fourth-generation German-American religious skeptic Freethinker,” and studied chemistry at Cornell University before joining the Army.
When he returned, he reported for Chicago’s City News Bureau, then did public relations for General Electric, a job he loathed. He wrote his first novel, “Player Piano,” in 1951, followed by “The Sirens of Titan,” “Canary in a Cat House” and “Mother Night,” making ends meet by selling Saabs on Cape Cod.
Critics ignored him at first, then denigrated his deliberately bizarre stories and disjointed plots as haphazardly written science fiction. But his novels became cult classics, especially “Cat’s Cradle” in 1963, in which scientists create “ice-nine,” a crystal that turns water solid and destroys the earth.
Many of his novels were best-sellers. Some also were banned and burned for suspected obscenity. Vonnegut took on censorship as an active member of the PEN writers’ aid group and the American Civil Liberties Union. The American Humanist Association, which promotes individual freedom, rational thought and scientific skepticism, made him its honorary president.
His characters tended to be miserable anti-heroes with little control over their fate. Pilgrim was an ungainly, lonely goof. The hero of “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” was a sniveling, obese volunteer fireman.
Vonnegut said the villains in his books were never individuals, but culture, society and history, which he said were making a mess of the planet.
“We probably could have saved ourselves, but we were too damned lazy to try very hard … and too damn cheap,” he once suggested carving into a wall on the Grand Canyon, as a message for flying-saucer creatures.
He retired from novel writing in his later years, but continued to publish short articles. He had a best-seller in 2005 with “A Man Without a Country,” a collection of his nonfiction, including jabs at the Bush administration (“upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography”) and the uncertain future of the planet.
He called the book’s success “a nice glass of champagne at the end of a life.”
In recent years, Vonnegut worked as a senior editor and columnist at “In These Times.” Editor Joel Bleifuss said he had been trying recently to get Vonnegut to write something more for the magazine, but was unsuccessful.
“He would just say he’s too old and that he had nothing more to say. He realized, I think, he was at the end of his life,” Bleifuss said.
Vonnegut, who had homes in Manhattan and the Hamptons in New York, adopted his sister’s three young children after she died. He also had three children of his own with his first wife, Ann Cox, and later adopted a daughter, Lily, with his second wife, the noted photographer Jill Krementz.
Vonnegut once said that of all the ways to die, he’d prefer to go out in an airplane crash on the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro. He often joked about the difficulties of old age.
“When Hemingway killed himself he put a period at the end of his life; old age is more like a semicolon,” Vonnegut told The Associated Press in 2005.
“My father, like Hemingway, was a gun nut and was very unhappy late in life. But he was proud of not committing suicide. And I’ll do the same, so as not to set a bad example for my children.”
Various trivia from Nothing in Particular:
WHILE studying in the United States, multi-awarded Filipino writer Jose Y. Dalisay Jr. lost an autographed book by Vonnegut; a loss which he has never gotten over to this day.
WHILE on a US journalism grant, publisher Ibarra C. Gutierrez, then an editor for BusinessDay, which is now BusinessWorld, had dinner with Vonnegut, together with another Irish journalist who had previously put him up to it. During the meal, Vonnegut asked Gutierrez whether he already had children.
“Yes,” Gutierrez said.
“Then you can die now,” came Vonnegut’s reply.
First Vonnegut book that I read: Bluebeard in 1989, while on the way to Baguio City. While the author is popular for “Cat’s Cradle” and “Slaughterhouse Five,” I think his best work by far is Sirens of Titan, which was recently reissued by a London publisher and a copy of which I bought in a bookstore located inside an Ortigas area mall. This entry, I guess, is my way of paying tribute to the author whose works I read the most. Except for about five titles—including Palm Sunday, Timequake, and a few others—I think I have read everything the man has ever written, from Slaughterhouse Five to Galapagos, from Deadeye Dick to Jailbird (which is also a particularly good read).
Goodbye, Mr. Vonnegut. 😦