Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (November 111922 – April 112007) was an American novelist known for works blending satire, black comedy, and science fiction.
- See also:
- Harrison Bergeron (1961)
- Cat's Cradle (1963)
- Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
- Who Am I This Time? (1982)
- Timequake (1997)
- 2081 (2009 film adaptation of "Harrison Bergeron")
- I sometimes wondered what the use of any of the arts was. The best thing I could come up with was what I call the canary in the coal minetheory of the arts. This theory says that artists are useful to society because they are so sensitive. They are super-sensitive. They keel over like canaries in poison coal mines long before more robust types realize that there is any danger whatsoever.
- "Physicist, Purge Thyself" in the Chicago Tribune Magazine (22 June 1969)
- High school is closer to the core of the American experience than anything else I can think of.
- Introduction to Our Time Is Now: Notes From the High School Underground, John Birmingham, ed. (1970)
- I was taught in the sixth grade that we had a standing army of just over a hundred thousand men and that the generals had nothing to say about what was done in Washington. I was taught to be proud of that and to pity Europe for having more than a million men under arms and spending all their money on airplanes and tanks. I simply never unlearned junior civics. I still believe in it. I got a very good grade.
- As quoted by James Lundquist in Kurt Vonnegut (1971)
- Well, I've worried some about, you know, why write books … why are we teaching people to write books when presidents and senators do not read them, and generals do not read them. And it's been the university experience that taught me that there is a very good reason, that you catch people before they become generals and presidents and so forth and you poison their minds with … humanity, and however you want to poison their minds, it's presumably to encourage them to make a better world.
- "A Talk with Kurt Vonnegut. Jr." by Robert Scholes in The Vonnegut Statement (1973) edited by Jerome Klinkowitz and John Somer October 1966), later published in Conversations With Kurt Vonnegut (1988), p. 123
- I was taught that the humanbrain was the crowning glory of evolution so far, but I think it’s a very poor scheme for survival.
- As quoted in The Observer [London] (27 December 1987)
- 1. Find a subject you care about.
2. Do not ramble, though.
3. Keep it simple.
4. Have the guts to cut.
5. Sound like yourself.
6. Say what you mean to say.
7. Pity the readers.
- As quoted in Science Fictionisms (1995), compiled by William Rotsler
- Literature is idiosyncratic arrangements in horizontal lines in only twenty-six symbols, ten arabic numbers, and about eight punctuation marks.
- Public conversation with Lee Stringer, in Like Shaking Hands With God (1999)
- You learn about life by the accidents you have, over and over again, and your father is always in your head when that stuff happens. Writing, most of the time, for most people, is an accident and your father is there for that, too. You know, I taught writing for a while and whenever somebody would tell me they were going to write about their dad, I would tell them they might as well go write about killing puppies because neither story was going to work. It just doesn't work. Your father won't let it happen.
- One of the great American tragedies is to have participated in a just war. It's been possible for politicians and movie-makers to encourage us we're always good guys. The Second World War absolutely had to be fought. I wouldn't have missed it for the world. But we never talk about the people we kill. This is never spoken of.
- I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."
- "Knowing What's Nice", an essay from In These Times (2003)
- We're terrible animals. I think that the Earth's immune system is trying to get rid of us, as well it should.
- On humans, interviewed by Jon Stewart, The Daily Show (13 September 2005)
- I have wanted to give Iraq a lesson in democracy — because we’re experienced with it, you know. And, in democracy, after a hundred years, you have to let your slaves go. And, after a hundred and fifty years, you have to let your women vote. And, at the beginning of democracy, is that quite a bit of genocide and ethnic cleansing is quite okay. And that’s what’s going on now.
- I do feel that evolution is being controlled by some sort of divine engineer. I can't help thinking that. And this engineer knows exactly what he or she is doing and why, and where evolution is headed. That’s why we’ve got giraffes and hippopotami and the clap.
- On evolution vs. "intelligent design", interviewed by Jon Stewart, The Daily Show (13 September 2005)
- [When Vonnegut tells his wife he's going out to buy an envelope] Oh, she says, well, you're not a poor man. You know, why don't you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I'm going to have a hell of a goodtime in the process of buying one envelope. I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babes. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And, and ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, and I don't know. The moral of the story is, is we're here on Earth to fart around. And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, what the computer people don't realize, or they don't care, is we're dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And, we're not supposed to dance at all anymore.
- Where is home? I've wondered where home is, and I realized, it's not Mars or someplace like that, it's Indianapolis when I was nine years old. I had a brother and a sister, a cat and a dog, and a mother and a father and uncles and aunts. And there's no way I can get there again.
- If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:
THE ONLY PROOF HE NEEDED
FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
- As quoted in "Vonnegut's Blues For America" Sunday Herald (7 January 2006)
- The only difference between Bush and Hitler is that Hitler was elected.
- As quoted in "Kurt Vonnegut's 'Stardust Memory'" by Harvey Wasserman in The Free Press (4 March 2006); In actuality, Hitler also wasn't elected by a clear majority vote. Although the Nazi Party was elected to the largest number of seats in the Reichstag, it did not have a majority, and could only form a government through a coalition. Eventually, Hitler was appointed as Chancellor by President Paul von Hindenburg, and used that position as leverage to gain dictatorial powers.
- People hate it when they're tickled because laughter is not pleasant, if it goes on too long. I think it's a desperate sort of convulsion in desperate circumstances, which helps a little.
- My brother got his doctorate in 1938, I think. If he had gone to work in Germany after that, he would have been helping to make Hitler's dreams come true. If he had gone to work in Italy, he would have been helping to make Mussolini's dreams come true. If he had gone to work in Japan, he would have been helping to make Tojo's dreams come true. If he had gone to work in the Soviet Union, he would have been helping to make Stalin's dreams come true. He went to work for a bottle manufacturer in Butler, Pennsylvania, instead. It can make quite a difference not just to you but to humanity: the sort of boss you choose, whose dreams you help come true.
Hitler dreamed of killing Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, homosexuals, Communists, Jehovah's Witnesses, mental defectives, believers in democracy, and so on, in industrial quantities. It would have remained only a dream if it hadn't been for chemists as well educated as my brother, who supplied Hitler's executioners with the cyanide gas known as Zyklon B. It would have remained only a dream if architects and engineers as capable as my father and grandfather hadn't designed extermination camps — the fences, the towers, the barracks, the railroad sidings, and the gas chambers and crematoria — for maximum ease of operation and efficiency.
- Speech at MIT (1985), referring to his brother Bernard Vonnegut, and the choices available to scientists and the intelligent, to serve humanity, or to betray it, as published in Fates Worse Than Death (1991), Ch. 12
Player Piano (1952)
- All page numbers from the mass market paperback edition published by Avon (Bard Books)
- During the war, in hundreds of Iliums over America, managers and engineers learned to get along without their men and women, who went to fight. It was the miracle that won the war — production with almost no manpower. In the patois of the north side of the river, it was the know-how that won the war. Democracy owed its life to know-how.
- Anita had the mechanics of marriage down pat, even to the subtlest conventions. If her approach was disturbingly rational, systematic, she was thorough enough to turn out a credible counterfeit of warmth.
- It was an appalling thought, to be so well-integrated into the machinery of society and history as to be able to move in only one plane, and along one line.
- When Paul thought about his effortless rise in the hierarchy, he sometimes, as now, felt sheepish, like a charlatan. He could handle his assignments all right, but he didn’t have what his father had, what Kroner had, what Shepherd had, what so many had: the sense of spiritual importance in what they were doing; the ability to be moved emotionally, almost like a lover, by the great omnipresent and omniscient spook, the corporate personality. In short, what Paul missed was what made his father aggressive and great: the capacity to really give a damn.
- "You think I'm insane?" said Finnerty. Apparently he wanted more of a reaction than Paul had given him.
"You're still in touch. I guess that's the test."
"Barely — barely."
"A psychiatrist could help. There's a good man in Albany."
Finnerty shook his head. "He'd pull me back into the center, and I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can't see from the center." He nodded, "Big, undreamed-of things — the people on the edge see them first."
- I figured things would be better in Washington, that I'd find a lot of people I admired and belonged with. Washington is worse, Paul—Ilium to the tenth power. Stupid, arrogant, self-congratulatory, unimaginative, humorless men. And the women, Paul—the dull wives feeding on the power and glory of their husbands.
- You know, in a way I wish I hadn’t met you two. It’s much more convenient to think of the opposition as a nice homogeneous, dead-wrong mass. Now I've got to muddy my thinking with exceptions.
- These displaced people need something, and the clergy can’t give it to them—or it’s impossible for them to take what the clergy offers. The clergy says it’s enough, and so does the Bible. The people say it isn’t enough, and I suspect they’re right.
- "Strange business," said Lasher. "This crusading spirit of the managers and engineers, the idea of designing and manufacturing and distributing being sort of a holy war: all that folklore was cooked up by public relations and advertising men hired by managers and engineers to make big business popular in the old days, which it certainly wasn't in the beginning. Now, the engineers and managers believe with all their hearts the glorious things their forebears hired people to say about them. Yesterday's snow job becomes today's sermon."
- Doctor Paul Proteus, son of a successful man, himself rich with prospects of being richer, counted his material blessings. He found that he was in excellent shape to afford integrity.
- In order to get what we've got, Anita, we have, in effect, traded these people out of what was the most important thing on earth to them — the feeling of being needed and useful, the foundation of self-respect.
- The band at the far end of the hall, amplified to the din of an elephant charge, smashed and hewed at the tune as though in a holy war against silence.
- This silly playlet seemed to satisfy them completely as a picture of what they were doing, why they were doing it, and who was against them, and why some people were against them. It was a beautifully simple picture these procession leaders had. It was as though a navigator, in order to free his mind of worries, had erased all the reefs from his maps.
- Everybody's shaking in his boots, so don't be bluffed.
- Almost nobody's competent, Paul. It's enough to make you cry to see how bad most people are at their jobs. If you can do a half-assed job of anything, you're a one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind.
- And as Paul said these things to himself, a wave of sadness washed over them as though they’d been written in sand. He was understanding now that no man could live without roots—roots in a patch of desert, a red clay field, a mountain slope, a rocky coast, a city street. In black loan, in mud or sand or rock or asphalt or carpet, every man had his roots down deep—in home.
- “This husband of yours, he’d rather have his wife a— Rather, have her—” Halyard cleared his throat— “than go into public relations?”
“I’m proud to say,” said the girl, “that he’s one of the few men on earth with a little self-respect left.”
- Paul wondered at what thorough believers in mechanization most Americans were, even when their lives had been badly damaged by mechanization.
- “Why are you quitting?”
“Sick of my job.”
“Because what you were doing was morally bad?” suggested the voice.
“Because it wasn’t getting anybody anywhere. Because it was getting everybody nowhere.”
“Because it was evil?” insisted the voice.
“Because it was pointless.”
- Here it was again, the most ancient of roadforks, one that Paul had glimpsed before, in Kroner's study, months ago. The choice of one course or the other had nothing to do with machines, hierarchies, economics, love, age. It was a purely internal matter. Every child older than six knew the fork, and knew what the good guys did here, and what the bad guys did here. The fork was a familiar one in folk tales the world over, and the good guys and the bad guys, whether in chaps, breechclouts, serapes, leopardskins, or banker's gray pinstripes, all separated here.
Bad guys turned informer. Good guys didn't — no matter when, no matter what.
- And a step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction.
- "Things don't stay the way they are," said Finnerty. "It's too entertaining to try to change them."
The Sirens of Titan (1959)
- All page numbers are from the mass market paperback edition published by Dell, ninth printing (October 1971)
- Nominated for the 1960 Hugo Award
- Every passing hour brings the Solar System forty-three thousand miles closer to Globular Cluster M13 in Hercules—and still there are some misfits who insist that there is no such thing as progress.
- Mankind, ignorant of the truths that lie withing every human being, looked outward—pushed ever outward. What mankind hoped to learn in its outward push was who was actually in charge of all creation, and what all creation was all about.
- Chapter 1 “Between Timid and Timbuktu” (p. 7)
- These unhappy agents found what had already been found in abundance on Earth—a nightmare of meaningless without end. The bounties of space, of infinite outwardness, were three: empty heroics, low comedy, and pointless death.
Outwardness lost, at last, its imagined attractions.
Only inwardness remained to be explored.
Only the human soul remained terra incognita.
This was the beginning of goodness and wisdom.
- Chapter 1 “Between Timid and Timbuktu” (p. 8)
- He held up his watch to sunlight, letting it drink in the wherewithal that was to solar watches what money was to Earth men.
- Chapter 1 “Between Timid and Timbuktu” (p. 17)
- He ransacked his memory like a thief going through another man’s billfold.
- Chapter 1 “Between Timid and Timbuktu” (p. 22)
- “I tell you, Mr. Constant,” he said genially, “it’s a thankless job, telling people it’s a hard, hard Universe they’re in.”
- Chapter 1 “Between Timid and Timbuktu” (p. 25)
- “I liked him very much,” said Constant.
“The insane, on occasion, are not without their charms,” said Beatrice.
- Chapter 1 “Between Timid and Timbuktu” (p. 41)
- The riot, then, was an exercise in science and theology—a seeking after clues by the living as to what life was all about.
- Chapter 1 “Between Timid and Timbuktu” (p. 44)
- Sometimes I think it is a great mistake to have matter that can think and feel. It complains so. By the same token, though, I suppose that boulders and mountains and moons could be accused of being a little too phlegmatic.
- Chapter 2 “Cheers in the Wirehouse” (p. 45; epigram)
- “The hell with the human race!” said Beatrice.
“You’re a member of it, you know,” said Rumfoord.
“Then I’d like to put in for a transfer to the chimpanzees!” said Beatrice. “No chimpanzee husband would stand by while his wife lost all her coconuts.”
- Chapter 2 “Cheers in the Wirehouse” (p. 52)
- It is always pitiful when any human being falls into a condition hardly more respectable than that of an animal. How much more pitiful it is when the person who falls has had all the advantages!
- Chapter 2 “Cheers in the Wirehouse” (p. 52)
- Rumfoord had known that Constant would try to debase the picture by using it in commerce. Constant’s father had done a similar thing when he found he could not buy Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa” at any price. The old man had punished Mona Lisa by having her used in an advertising campaign for suppositories. It was the free-enterprise way of handling beauty that threatened to get the upper hand.
- Chapter 2 “Cheers in the Wirehouse” (p. 56)
- “Look,” said Rumfoord, “life for a punctual person is like a roller coaster.” He turned to shiver his hands in her face. “All kinds of things are going to happen to you! Sure,” he said, “I can see the whole roller coaster you’re on. And sure—I could give you a piece of paper that would tell you about every dip and turn, warn you about every bogeyman that was going to pop out at you in the tunnels. But that wouldn’t help you any.”
“I don’t see why not,” said Beatrice.
“Because you’d still have to take the roller-coaster ride,” said Rumfoord. “I didn’t design the roller coaster, I don’t own it, and I don’t say who rides and who doesn’t. I just know what it’s shaped like.
- Chapter 2 “Cheers in the Wirehouse” (pp. 57-58)
- Son—they say there isn’t any royalty in this country, but do you want me to tell you how to be king of the United States of America? Just fall through the hole in a privy and come out smelling like a rose.
- Chapter 3 “United Hotcake Preferred” (p. 65; epigram)
- “You go up to a man, and you say, ‘How are things going, Joe?’ And he says, ‘Oh fine, fine—couldn’t be better.’ And you look into his eyes, and you see things really couldn’t be much worse. When you get right down to it, everybody’s having a perfectly lousy time of it, and I mean everybody. And the hell of it is, nothing seems to help much.”
- Chapter 3 “United Hotcake Preferred” (p. 69)
- There is a riddle about a man who is locked in a room with nothing but a bed and a calendar, and the question is: How does he survive?
The answer is: He eats dates from the calendar and drinks water from the springs of the bed.
- Chapter 3 “United Hotcake Preferred” (p. 72)
- It was a marvelous engine for doing violence to the spirit of thousands of laws without actually running afoul of so much as a city ordinance.
- Chapter 3 “United Hotcake Preferred” (p. 78)
- All the things you are are going to be sued and sued successfully. And, while the litigants may not be able to get blood from turnips, they can certainly ruin the turnips in the process of trying.
- Chapter 3 “United Hotcake Preferred” (p. 85)
- He was too good a soldier to go around asking questions, trying to round out his knowledge.
A soldier’s knowledge wasn’t supposed to be round.
- Chapter 5 “Letter From an Unknown Hero” (p. 120)
- The big trouble with dumb bastards is that they are too dumb to believe there is such a thing as being smart.
- Chapter 5 “Letter From an Unknown Hero” (p. 127)
- The lieutenant-colonel realized for the first time what most people never realize about themselves—that he was not only a victim of outrageous fortune, but one of outrageous fortune’s cruelest agents as well.
- Chapter 6 “A Deserter in Time of War” (p. 162)
- There is no reason why good cannot triumph as often as evil. The triumph of anything is a matter of organization. If there are such things as angels, I hope that they are organized along the lines of the Mafia.
- Chapter 7 “Victory” (p. 165; epigram)
- “Any man who would change the World in a significant way must have showmanship, a genial willingness to shed other people’s blood, and a plausible new religion to introduce during the brief period of repentance and horror that usually follows bloodshed.
“Every failure of Earthling leadership has been traceable to a lack on the part of the leader,” says Rumfoord, “of at least one of these three things.”
- Chapter 7 “Victory” (p. 174)
- “The name of the new religion,” said Rumfoord, “is The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent.
“The flag of that church will be blue and gold,” said Rumfoord. “These words will be written on that flag in gold letters on a blue field: Take Care of the People, and God Almighty Will Take Care of Himself.
“The two chief teachings of this religion are these,” said Rumfoord: “Puny man can do nothing at all to help or please God Almighty, and Luck is not the hand of God.”
- Chapter 7 “Victory” (p. 180)
- “During my next visit with you, fellow-believers,” he said, “I shall tell you a parable about people who do things that they think God Almighty wants done. In the meanwhile, you would do well, for background on this parable, to read everything that you can lay your hands on about the Spanish Inquisition.”
- Chapter 7 “Victory” (p. 181)
- “O Lord Most High, Creator of the Cosmos, Spinner of Galaxies, Soul of Electromagnetic Waves, Inhaler and Exhaler of Inconceivable Vacuum, Spitter of Fire and Rock, Trifler with Millennia—what could we do for Thee that Thou couldst not do for Thyself one octillion times better? Nothing. What could we do or say that could possibly interest Thee? Nothing. Oh, Mankind, rejoice in the apathy of our Creator, for it makes us free and truthful and dignified at last. No longer can a fool like Malachi Constant point to a ridiculous accident of good luck and say, ‘Somebody up there likes me.’ And no longer can a tyrant say, ‘God wants this or that to happen, and anybody who doesn’t help this or that to happen is against God.’ O Lord Most High, what a glorious weapon is Thy Apathy, for we have unsheathed it, have thrust and slashed mightily with it, and the claptrap that has so often enslaved us or driven us into the madhouse lies slain!”
- Chapter 10 “An Age of Miracles” (p. 215; epigram)
- There was not a country in the world that had not fought a battle in the war of all Earth against the invaders from Mars.
All was forgiven.
All living things were brothers, and all dead things were even more so.
- Chapter 10 “An Age of Miracles” (p. 216)
- “Thank God!” said Unk.
Redwine raised his eyebrows quizzically. “Why?” he said.
“Pardon me?” said Unk.
“Why thank God?” said Redwine. “He doesn’t care what happens to you. He didn’t go to any trouble to get you here safe and sound, any more than He would go to the trouble to kill you.”
- Chapter 10 “An Age of Miracles” (p. 226)
- I can think of no more stirring symbol of man’s humanity to man than a fire engine.
- Chapter 10 “An Age of Miracles” (p. 242)
- I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.
- Chapter 11 “We Hate Malachi Constant Because...” (p. 253)
- His poor soul was flooded with pleasure as he realized that one friend was all that a man needed in order to be well-supplied with friendship.
- Chapter 11 “We Hate Malachi Constant Because...” (p. 259)
- It may surprise you to learn that I take a certain pride, no matter how foolishly mistaken that pride may be, in making my own decisions for my own reasons.
- Chapter 12 “The Gentleman from Tralfamadore” (p. 285)
- “As far as I’m concerned,” said Constant, “the Universe is a junk yard, with everything in it overpriced. I am through poking around in the junk heaps, looking for bargains. Every so-called bargain,” said Constant, “has been connected by fine wires to a dynamite bouquet.”
- Chapter 12 “The Gentleman from Tralfamadore” (p. 290)
- It was in the nature of truly effective good-luck pieces that human beings never really owned them.
- Chapter 12 “The Gentleman from Tralfamadore” (p. 301)
- The controls were anything but a hunch-player’s delight in a Universe composed of one-trillionth part matter to one decillion parts black velvet futility.
- Epilogue “Reunion with Stony” (p. 303)
- “The worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody,” she said, “would be to not be used for anything by anybody.” ... “Thank you for using me,” she said to Constant, “even though I didn’t want to be used by anybody.”
- Epilogue “Reunion with Stony” (pp. 310-311)
- “I would say, ‘Is there anything I can do?’—but Skip once told me that that was the most hateful and stupid expression in the English language.”
- Epilogue “Reunion with Stony” (p. 313)
- “You finally fell in love, I see,” said Salo.
“Only an Earthling year ago,” said Constant. “It took us that long to realize that a purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.
- Epilogue “Reunion with Stony” (p. 313)
Mother Night (1961)
- We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.
- Introduction (1966)
- Sometimes misquoted as: Be careful what you pretend to be because you are what you pretend to be.
- And the city was lovely, highly ornamented, like Paris, and untouched by war. It was supposedly an “open” city, not to be attacked since there were no troop concentrations or war industries there. But high explosives were dropped on Dresden by American and British planes on the night of February 13, 1945, just about twenty-one years ago, as I now write. There were no particular targets for the bombs. The hope was that they would create a lot of kindling and drive firemen underground. And then tens of thousands of tiny incendiaries were scattered over the kindling, like seeds on freshly turned loam. More bombs were dropped to keep firemen in their holes, and all the little fires grew, joined one another, became one apocalyptic flame. Hey presto: fire storm. It was the largest massacre in European history, by the way. … Everything was gone but the cellars where 135,000 Hansels and Gretels had been baked like gingerbread men.
- If I'd been born in Germany, I suppose I would have been a Nazi, bopping Jews and gypsies and Poles around, leaving boots sticking out of snowbanks, warming myself with my secretly virtuous insides. So it goes.
- When you're dead you're dead.
- Make love when you can. It's good for you.
- Here lies Howard Campbell’s essence,
Freed from his body’s noisome nuisance.
His body, empty, prowls the earth,
Earning what a body’s worth.
If his body and his essence remain apart,
Burn his body, but spare this, his heart.
- "All people are insane," he said. "They will do anything at any time, and God help anybody who looks for reasons."
- There are plenty of good reasons for fighting," I said, "but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too. Where's evil? It's that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side. It’s that part of every man that finds all kinds of ugliness so attractive.
- Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile.
- "I had hoped, as a broadcaster, to be merely ludicrous, but this is a hard world to be ludicrous in, with so many human beings so reluctant to laugh, so incapable of thought , so eager to believe and snarl and hate. So many people wanted to believe me!"
- "You hate America, don't you?" she said.
"That would be as silly as loving it," I said. "It's impossible for me to get emotional about it, because real estate doesn't interest me. It's no doubt a great flaw in my personality, but I can't think in terms of boundaries. Those imaginary lines are as unreal to me as elves and pixies. I can't believe that they mark the end or the beginning of anything of real concern to the human soul. Virtues and vices, pleasures and pains cross boundaries at will."
- Drawn crudely in the dust of three window-panes were a swastika, a hammer and sickle, and the Stars and Stripes. I had drawn the three symbols weeks before, at the conclusion of an argument about patriotism with Kraft. I had given a hearty cheer for each symbol, demonstrating to Kraft the meaning of patriotism to, respectively, a Nazi, a Communist, and an American. "Hooray, hooray, hooray," I'd said.
- What froze me was the fact that I had absolutely no reason to move in any direction. What had made me move through so many dead and pointless years was curiosity. Now even that flickered out.
- Generally speaking, espionage offers each spy an opportunity to go crazy in a way he finds irresistible.
Cat's Cradle (1963)
- Full title: Cat's Cradle These are just a sample for more from this work see: Cat's Cradle
- We Bokonists believe that humanity is organized into teams, teams that do God's Will without ever discovering what they are doing. Such a team is called a karass by Bokonon "If you find your life tangled up with somebody else's life for no very logical reasons," writes Bokonon, "that person may be a member of your karass." At another point in The Books of Bokonon he tells us, "Man created the checkerboard; God created the karass." By that he means that a karass ignores national, institutional, occupational, familial, and class boundaries. It is as free form as an amoeba.
- Someday, someday, this crazy world will have to end,
And our God will take things back that He to us did lend.
And if, on that sad day, you want to scold our God,
Why go right ahead and scold Him. He'll just smile and nod.
- Peculiar Travel Suggestions are Dancing Lessons From God
- Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before.
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965)
- Full title: God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine
- Thus did a handful of rapacious citizens come to control all that was worth controlling in America. Thus was the savage and stupid and entirely inappropriate and unnecessary and humorless American class system created. Honest, industrious, peaceful citizens were classed as bloodsuckers, if they asked to be paid a living wage. And they saw that praise was reserved henceforth for those who devised means of getting paid enormously for committing crimes against which no laws had been passed. Thus the American dream turned belly up, turned green, bobbed to the scummy surface of cupidity unlimited, filled with gas, went bang in the noonday sun.
- I love you sons of bitches. You’re all I read any more. You're the only ones who’ll talk all about the really terrific changes going on, the only ones crazy enough to know that life is a space voyage, and not a short one, either, but one that’ll last for billions of years. You’re the only ones with guts enough to really care about the future, who really notice what machines do to us, what wars do to us, what cities do to us, what big, simple ideas do to us, what tremendous misunderstanding, mistakes, accidents, catastrophes do to us. You're the only ones zany enough to agonize over time and distance without limit, over mysteries that will never die, over the fact that we are right now determining whether the space voyage for the next billion years or so is going to be Heaven or Hell.
- "Eliot Rosewater" to a group of science fiction writers
- We few, we happy few, we band of brothers — joined in the serious business of keeping our food, shelter, clothing and loved ones from combining with oxygen.
- "Eliot Rosewater" to a group of volunteer firemen.
- Like all real heroes, Charley had a fatal flaw. He refused to believe that he had gonorrhea, whereas the truth was that he did.
- On Charley Warmergran, the Fire Chief of Rosewater.
- He alienated his friends in the sciences by thanking them extravagantly for scientific advances he had read about in the recent newspapers and magazines, by assuring them, with a perfectly straight face, that life was getting better and better, thanks to scientific thinking.
- Concerning Eliot Rosewater.
- A sum of money is a leading character in this tale about people, just as a sum of honey might properly be a leading character in a tale about bees.
- Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies — "God damn it, you've got to be kind."
- We don't piss in your ashtrays,
So please don't throw cigarettes in our urinals.
- Eliot Rosewater's favorite poem, from the wall of the men's room at the Log Cabin Inn.
Welcome to the Monkey House (1968)
- A collection of previously published short stories
- The public health authorities never mention the main reason many Americans have for smoking heavily, which is that smoking is a fairly sure, fairly honorable form of suicide.
"Harrison Bergeron" (1961)
- These are just a few samples; for more from this short story, see Harrison Bergeron
- The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren't only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.
- Paragraph 1 (p. 7 of Welcome to the Monkey House)
- It was then that Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, came into the studio with a double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun. She fired twice, and the Emperor and the Empress were dead before they hit the floor.
- Paragraph 78 (p. 13 of Welcome to the Monkey House)
- Full title: Slaughterhouse-Five, Or The Children's Crusade : A Duty-dance with Death These are just a few samples, for more from this work see Slaughterhouse-Five
- So it goes.
- Recurring statement throughout the novel on the subject of life, death and mortal existence.
- The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.
When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in the particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is "So it goes."
- Billy writing a letter to a newspaper describing the Tralfamadorians
- Billy coughed when the door was opened, and when he coughed he shit thin gruel. This was in accordance with the Third Law of Motion according to Sir Isaac Newton. This law tells us that for each reaction there is a reaction which is equal and opposite in direction. This can be useful in rocketry.
- Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.
- Derby described the incredible artificial weather that Earthlings sometimes create for other Earthlings when they don't want those other Earthlings to inhabit Earth any more.
- Robert Kennedy, whose summer home is eight miles away from the home I live in all year round, was shot two nights ago. He died last night. So it goes.
Martin Luther King was shot a month ago. He died, too. So it goes.
And everyday my government gives me a count of corpses created by the military service in Vietnam. So it goes.
My father died many years ago now — of natural causes. So it goes. He was a sweet man. He was a gun nut, too. He left me his guns. They rust.
- I have this disease late at night sometimes, involving alcohol and the telephone. I get drunk, and I drive my wife away with a breath like mustard gas and roses. And then, speaking gravely and elegantly into the telephone, I ask the telephone operators to connect me with this friend or that one, from whom I have not heard in years.
Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1970)
- A play, performed in New York City from October 7, 1970 - March 14, 1971
- Things die. All things die.
- Introduction, "About This Play"
- All through the day I'm so confident. That's why I'm such a good salesman, you know? I have confidence, and I look like I have confidence, and that gives other people confidence.
- Maybe God has let everybody who ever lived be reborn — so he or she can see how it ends. Even Pitecanthropus erectus and Australopithecus and Sinanthropus pekensis and the Neanderthalers are back on Earth — to see how it ends. They're all on Times Square — making change for peepshows. Or recruiting Marines.
- You know what gets me? … How everybody says "fuck" and "shit" all the time. I used to be scared shitless if I'd say "fuck" or "shit" in public, by accident. Now everybody says "fuck" and "shit", "fuck" and "shit" all the time. Something very big must have happened while we were out of the country.
- The new heroism — put a village idiot into a pressure cooker, seal it up tight, and shoot him at the moon.
- Hello, I am Wanda June. Today was going to be my birthday, but I was hit by an ice-cream truck before I could have my party. I am dead now. I am in Heaven. That is why my parents did not pick up my cake at the bakery. I am not mad at the ice-cream truck driver, even though he was drunk when he hit me. It didn't hurt much. It wasn't even as bad as the sting of a bumblebee. I am really happy here! It's so much fun. I'm glad the driver was drunk. If he hadn't been, I might not have gone to Heaven for years and years and years. I would have had to go to high school first, and then beauty college. I would have had to get married and have babies and everything. Now I can just play and play and play. Any time I want any pink cotton candy I can have some. Everybody up here is happy — the animals and the dead soldiers and people who went to the electric chair and everything. They're all glad for whatever sent them here. Nobody is mad. We're all too busy playing shuffleboard. So if you think of killing somebody, don't worry about it. Just go ahead and do it. Whoever you do it to should kiss you for doing it. The soldiers up here just love the shrapnel and the tanks and the bayonets and the dum dums that let them play shuffleboard all the time — and drink beer.
- Don't lecture me on race relations. I don't have a molecule of prejudice. I've been in battle with every kind of man there is. I've been in bed with every kind of woman there is — from a Laplander to a Tierra del Fuegian. If I'd ever been to the South Pole, there'd be a hell of a lot of penguins who looked like me.
- No grown woman is a fan of premature ejaculation.
- I have this theory about why men kill each other and break things. … Never mind. It's a dumb theory. I was going to say it was all sexual … but everything is sexual … but alcohol.
- When I was a naive young recruit in Spain, I used to wonder why soldiers bayoneted oil paintings, shot the noses off statues and defecated into grand pianos. I now understand: it was to teach civilians the deepest sort of respect for men in uniform — uncontrollable fear.
- Wars would be a lot better, I think, if guys would say to themselves sometimes "Jesus — I'm not going to do that to the enemy. That's too much."
Between Time and Timbuktu (1972)
- Full title: Between Time and Timbuktu, or Prometheus-5 (the script for a public-television NET Playhouse special based on previously published material)
- This script, it seems to me, is the work of professionals who yearned to be as charming as inspired amateurs can sometimes be.
- I don't like film. Film is too clankingly real, too permanent, too industrial for me. … The worst thing about film, from my point of view, is that it cripples illusions which I have encouraged people to create in their heads. Film doesn't create illusions. It makes them impossible. It's a bullying form of reality, like the model rooms in the furniture department of Bloomingdale's.
"Vonnegut" redirects here. For other uses, see Vonnegut (disambiguation).
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (; November 11, 1922 – April 11, 2007) was an American writer. In a career spanning over 50 years, Vonnegut published 14 novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five works of non-fiction. He is most famous for his darkly satirical, best-selling novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).
Born and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana, Vonnegut attended Cornell University but dropped out in January 1943 and enlisted in the United States Army. As part of his training, he studied mechanical engineering at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) and the University of Tennessee. He was then deployed to Europe to fight in World War II and was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. He was interned in Dresden and survived the Allied bombing of the city by taking refuge in a meat locker of the slaughterhouse where he was imprisoned. After the war, Vonnegut married Jane Marie Cox, with whom he had three children. He later adopted his sister's three sons, after she died of cancer and her husband was killed in a train accident.
Vonnegut published his first novel, Player Piano, in 1952. The novel was reviewed positively but was not commercially successful. In the nearly 20 years that followed, Vonnegut published several novels that were only marginally successful, such as Cat's Cradle (1963) and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1964). Vonnegut's breakthrough was his commercially and critically successful sixth novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. The book's anti-war sentiment resonated with its readers amidst the ongoing Vietnam War and its reviews were generally positive. After its release, Slaughterhouse-Five went to the top of The New York Times Best Seller list, thrusting Vonnegut into fame. He was invited to give speeches, lectures and commencement addresses around the country and received many awards and honors.
Later in his career, Vonnegut published several autobiographical essays and short-story collections, including Fates Worse Than Death (1991), and A Man Without a Country (2005). After his death, he was hailed as a morbidly comical commentator on the society in which he lived and as one of the most important contemporary writers. Vonnegut's son Mark published a compilation of his father's unpublished compositions, titled Armageddon in Retrospect. Numerous scholarly works have examined Vonnegut's writing and humor.
Family and early life
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was born on November 11, 1922 in Indianapolis, Indiana. He was the youngest of three children of Kurt Vonnegut Sr. and his wife Edith (née Lieber). His older siblings were Bernard (born 1914) and Alice (born 1917). Vonnegut was descended from German immigrants who settled in the United States in the mid-19th century; his patrilineal great-grandfather, Clemens Vonnegut of Westphalia, Germany, settled in Indianapolis and founded the Vonnegut Hardware Company. Kurt's father, and his father before him, Bernard, were architects; the architecture firm under Kurt Sr. designed such buildings as Das Deutsche Haus (now called "The Athenæum"), the Indiana headquarters of the Bell Telephone Company, and the Fletcher Trust Building. Vonnegut's mother was born into Indianapolis high society, as her family, the Liebers, were among the wealthiest in the city, their fortune derived from ownership of a successful brewery.
Although both of Vonnegut's parents were fluent German speakers, the ill feeling toward that country during and after World War I caused the Vonneguts to abandon that culture to show their American patriotism. Thus, they did not teach their youngest son German or introduce him to German literature and tradition, leaving him feeling "ignorant and rootless." Vonnegut later credited Ida Young, his family's African-American cook and housekeeper for the first 10 years of his life, for raising him and giving him values. "[She] gave me decent moral instruction and was exceedingly nice to me. So she was as great an influence on me as anybody." Vonnegut described Young as "humane and wise", adding that "the compassionate, forgiving aspects of [his] beliefs" came from her.
The financial security and social prosperity that the Vonneguts once enjoyed were destroyed in a matter of years. The Liebers's brewery was closed in 1921 after the advent of Prohibition in the United States. When the Great Depression hit, few people could afford to build, causing clients at Kurt Sr.'s architectural firm to become scarce. Vonnegut's brother and sister had finished their primary and secondary educations in private schools, but Vonnegut was placed in a public school, called Public School No. 43, now known as the James Whitcomb Riley School. He was not bothered by this,[a] but both his parents were affected deeply by their economic misfortune. His father withdrew from normal life and became what Vonnegut called a "dreamy artist". His mother became depressed, withdrawn, bitter, and abusive. She labored to regain the family's wealth and status, and Vonnegut said she expressed hatred "as corrosive as hydrochloric acid" for her husband. Edith Vonnegut forayed into writing and tried to sell short stories to magazines like Collier's and The Saturday Evening Post with no success.
High school and Cornell
Vonnegut enrolled at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis in 1936. While there, he played clarinet in the school band and became a co-editor (along with Madelyn Pugh) for the Tuesday edition of the school newspaper, The Shortridge Echo. Vonnegut said his tenure with the Echo allowed him to write for a large audience—his fellow students—rather than for a teacher, an experience he said was "fun and easy". "It just turned out that I could write better than a lot of other people", Vonnegut observed. "Each person has something he can do easily and can't imagine why everybody else has so much trouble doing it."
After graduating from Shortridge in 1940, Vonnegut enrolled at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He wanted to study the humanities or become an architect like his father, but his father[b] and brother, a scientist, urged him to study a "useful" discipline. As a result, Vonnegut majored in biochemistry, but he had little proficiency in the area and was indifferent towards his studies. As his father had been a member at MIT, Vonnegut was entitled to join the Delta Upsilon fraternity, and did. He overcame stiff competition for a place at the university's independent newspaper, The Cornell Daily Sun, first serving as a staff writer, then as an editor. By the end of his freshman year, he was writing a column titled "Innocents Abroad" which reused jokes from other publications. He later penned a piece, "Well All Right", focusing on pacifism, a cause he strongly supported, arguing against U.S. intervention in World War II.
World War II
The attack on Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into the war. Vonnegut was a member of Reserve Officers' Training Corps, but poor grades and a satirical article in Cornell's newspaper cost him his place there. He was placed on academic probation in May 1942 and dropped out the following January. No longer eligible for a student deferment, he faced likely conscription into the United States Army. Instead of waiting to be drafted, he enlisted in the army and in March 1943 reported to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for basic training. Vonnegut was trained to fire and maintain howitzers and later received instruction in mechanical engineering at the Carnegie Institute of Technology and the University of Tennessee as part of the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP). In early 1944, the ASTP was canceled due to the Army's need for soldiers to support the D-Day invasion, and Vonnegut was ordered to an infantry battalion at Camp Atterbury, south of Indianapolis in Edinburgh, Indiana, where he trained as a scout. He lived so close to his home that he was "able to sleep in [his] own bedroom and use the family car on weekends". On May 14, 1944, Vonnegut returned home on leave for Mother's Day weekend to discover that his mother had committed suicide the previous night by overdosing on sleeping pills.[c]
Three months after his mother's suicide, Vonnegut was sent to Europe as an intelligence scout with the 106th Infantry Division. In December 1944, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge, the final German offensive of the war. During the battle, the 106th Infantry Division, which had only recently reached the front and was assigned to a "quiet" sector due to its inexperience, was overrun by advancing German armored forces. Over 500 members of the division were killed and over 6,000 were captured.
On December 22, Vonnegut was captured with about 50 other American soldiers. Vonnegut was taken by boxcar to a prison camp south of Dresden, in Saxony. During the journey, the Royal Air Force bombed the prisoner trains and killed about 150 men. Vonnegut was sent to Dresden, the "first fancy city [he had] ever seen". He lived in a slaughterhouse when he got to the city, and worked in a factory that made malt syrup for pregnant women. Vonnegut recalled the sirens going off whenever another city was bombed. The Germans did not expect Dresden to get bombed, Vonnegut said. "There were very few air-raid shelters in town and no war industries, just cigarette factories, hospitals, clarinet factories."
On February 13, 1945, Dresden became the target of Allied forces. In the hours and days that followed, the Allies engaged in a fierce firebombing of the city. The offensive subsided on February 15, with around 25,000 civilians killed in the bombing. Vonnegut marveled at the level of both the destruction in Dresden and the secrecy that attended it. He had survived by taking refuge in a meat locker three stories underground. "It was cool there, with cadavers hanging all around", Vonnegut said. "When we came up the city was gone ... They burnt the whole damn town down." Vonnegut and other American prisoners were put to work immediately after the bombing, excavating bodies from the rubble. He described the activity as a "terribly elaborate Easter-egg hunt".
The American prisoners of war were evacuated on foot to the border of Saxony and Czechoslovakia after General George S. Patton captured Leipzig. With the captives abandoned by their guards, Vonnegut reached a prisoner-of-war repatriation camp in Le Havre, France, before the end of May 1945, with the aid of the Soviets. He returned to the United States and continued to serve in the Army, stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, typing discharge papers for other soldiers. Soon after he was awarded a Purple Heart about which he remarked "I myself was awarded my country's second-lowest decoration, a Purple Heart for frost-bite." He was discharged from the U.S. Army and returned to Indianapolis.
Marriage, University of Chicago and early employment
After he returned to the United States, 22-year-old Vonnegut married Jane Marie Cox, his high school girlfriend and classmate since kindergarten, on September 1, 1945. The pair relocated to Chicago; there, Vonnegut enrolled in the University of Chicago on the G.I. Bill, as an anthropology student in an unusual five-year joint undergraduate/graduate program that conferred a master's degree. He augmented his income by working as a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago at night. Jane accepted a scholarship from the university to study Russian literature as a graduate student. Jane dropped out of the program after becoming pregnant with the couple's first child, Mark (born May 1947), while Kurt also left the University without any degree (despite having completed his undergraduate education) when his master's thesis on the Ghost Dance religious movement was unanimously rejected by the department.[d]
Shortly thereafter, General Electric (GE) hired Vonnegut as a publicist for the company's Schenectady, New York research laboratory. Although the job required a college degree, Vonnegut was hired after claiming to hold a master's degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago. His brother Bernard had worked at GE since 1945, contributing significantly to an iodine-based cloud seeding project. In 1949, Kurt and Jane had a daughter named Edith. Still working for GE, Vonnegut had his first piece, titled "Report on the Barnhouse Effect", published in the February 11, 1950 issue of Collier's, for which he received $750. Vonnegut wrote another story, after being coached by the fiction editor at Collier's, Knox Burger, and again sold it to the magazine, this time for $950. Burger suggested he quit GE, a course he had contemplated before. Vonnegut moved with his family to Cape Cod, Massachusetts to write full-time, and left GE in 1951.
On Cape Cod, Vonnegut made most of his money writing pieces for magazines such as Collier's, The Saturday Evening Post, and Cosmopolitan. He also did a stint as an English teacher, wrote copy for an advertising agency, and opened the first American Saab dealership, which eventually failed. In 1952, Vonnegut's first novel, Player Piano, was published by Scribner's. The novel has a post-Third World War setting, in which factory workers have been replaced by machines.
Player Piano draws upon Vonnegut's experience as an employee at GE. He satirizes the drive to climb the corporate ladder, one that in Player Piano is rapidly disappearing as automation increases, putting even executives out of work. His central character, Paul Proteus, has an ambitious wife, a backstabbing assistant, and a feeling of empathy for the poor. Sent by his boss, Kroner, as a double agent among the poor (who have all the material goods they want, but little sense of purpose), he leads them in a machine-smashing, museum-burning revolution.Player Piano expresses Vonnegut's opposition to McCarthyism, something made clear when the Ghost Shirts, the revolutionary organization Paul penetrates and eventually leads, is referred to by one character as "fellow travelers".
In Player Piano, Vonnegut originates many of the techniques he would use in his later works. The comic, heavy-drinking Shah of Bratpuhr, an outsider to this dystopian corporate United States, is able to ask many questions that an insider would not think to ask, or would cause offense by doing so. For example, when taken to see the artificially intelligent supercomputer EPICAC, the Shah asks it "what are people for?" and receives no answer. Speaking for Vonnegut, he dismisses it as a "false god". This type of alien visitor would recur throughout Vonnegut's literature.
The New York Times writer and critic Granville Hicks gave Player Piano a positive review, favorably comparing it to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Hicks called Vonnegut a "sharp-eyed satirist". None of the reviewers considered the novel particularly important. Several editions were printed—one by Bantam with the title Utopia 14, and another by the Doubleday Science Fiction Book Club—whereby Vonnegut gained the repute of a science fiction writer, a genre held in disdain by writers at that time. He defended the genre, and deplored a perceived sentiment that "no one can simultaneously be a respectable writer and understand how a refrigerator works."
After Player Piano, Vonnegut continued to sell short stories to various magazines. In 1954 the couple had a third child, Nanette. With a growing family and no financially successful novels yet, Vonnegut's short stories sustained the family. In 1958, his sister, Alice, died of cancer two days after her husband, James Carmalt Adams, was killed in a train accident. Vonnegut adopted Alice's three young sons—James, Steven, and Kurt, aged 14, 11, and 9 respectively.
Grappling with family challenges, Vonnegut continued to write, publishing novels vastly dissimilar in terms of plot. The Sirens of Titan (1959) features a Martian invasion of Earth, as experienced by a bored billionaire, Malachi Constant. He meets Winston Rumfoord, an aristocratic space traveler, who is virtually omniscient but stuck in a time warp that allows him to appear on Earth every 59 days. The billionaire learns that his actions and the events of all of history are determined by a race of robotic aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, who need a replacement part that can only be produced by an advanced civilization in order to repair their spaceship and return home—human history has been manipulated to produce it. Some human structures, such as the Kremlin, are coded signals from the aliens to their ship as to how long it may expect to wait for the repair to take place. Reviewers were uncertain what to think of the book, with one comparing it to Offenbach's opera The Tales of Hoffmann.
Rumfoord, who is based on Franklin D. Roosevelt, also physically resembles the former president. Rumfoord is described, "he put a cigarette in a long, bone cigarette holder, lighted it. He thrust out his jaw. The cigarette holder pointed straight up." William Rodney Allen, in his guide to Vonnegut's works, stated that Rumfoord foreshadowed the fictional political figures who would play major roles in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and Jailbird.
Mother Night, published in 1961, received little attention at the time of its publication. Howard W. Campbell Jr., Vonnegut's protagonist, is an American who goes to Nazi Germany during the war as a double agent for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, and rises to the regime's highest ranks as a radio propagandist. After the war, the spy agency refuses to clear his name and he is eventually imprisoned by the Israelis in the same cell block as Adolf Eichmann, and later commits suicide. Vonnegut wrote in a foreword to a later edition, "we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be". Literary critic Lawrence Berkove considered the novel, like Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to illustrate the tendency for "impersonators to get carried away by their impersonations, to become what they impersonate and therefore to live in a world of illusion".
Also published in 1961 was Vonnegut's short story, "Harrison Bergeron", set in a dystopic future where all are equal, even if that means disfiguring beautiful people and forcing the strong or intelligent to wear devices that negate their advantages. Fourteen-year-old Harrison is a genius and athlete forced to wear record-level "handicaps" and imprisoned for attempting to overthrow the government. He escapes to a television studio, tears away his handicaps, and frees a ballerina from her lead weights. As they dance, they are killed by the Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers. Vonnegut, in a later letter, suggested that "Harrison Bergeron" might have sprung from his envy and self-pity as a high school misfit. In his 1976 biography of Vonnegut, Stanley Schatt suggested that the short story shows "in any leveling process, what really is lost, according to Vonnegut, is beauty, grace, and wisdom". Darryl Hattenhauer, in his 1998 journal article on "Harrison Bergeron", theorized that the story was a satire on American Cold War misunderstandings of communism and socialism.
With Cat's Cradle (1963), Allen wrote, "Vonnegut hit full stride for the first time". The narrator, John, intends to write of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the fictional fathers of the atomic bomb, seeking to cover the scientist's human side. Hoenikker, in addition to the bomb, has developed another threat to mankind, ice-9, solid water stable at room temperature, and if a particle of it is dropped in water, all of it becomes ice-9. Much of the second half of the book is spent on the fictional Caribbean island of San Lorenzo, where John explores a religion called Bokononism, whose holy books (excerpts from which are quoted), give the novel the moral core science does not supply. After the oceans are converted to ice-9, wiping out most of humankind, John wanders the frozen surface, seeking to have himself and his story survive.
Vonnegut based the title character of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1964), on an accountant he knew on Cape Cod, who specialized in clients in trouble and often had to comfort them. Eliot Rosewater, the wealthy son of a Republican senator, seeks to atone for his wartime killing of noncombatant firefighters by serving in a volunteer fire department, and by giving away money to those in trouble or need. Stress from a battle for control of his charitable foundation pushes him over the edge, and he is placed in a mental hospital. He recovers, and ends the financial battle by declaring the children of his county to be his heirs. Allen deemed God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater more "a cry from the heart than a novel under its author's full intellectual control", that reflected family and emotional stresses Vonnegut was going through at the time.
After spending almost two years at the writer's workshop at the University of Iowa, teaching one course each term, Vonnegut was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for research in Germany. By the time he won it, in March 1967, he was becoming a well-known writer. He used the funds to travel in Eastern Europe, including to Dresden, where he found many prominent buildings still in ruins. At the time of the bombing, Vonnegut had not appreciated the sheer scale of destruction in Dresden; his enlightenment came only slowly as information dribbled out, and based on early figures he came to believe that 135,000 had died there.[e]
Vonnegut had been writing about his war experiences at Dresden ever since he returned from the war, but had never been able to write anything acceptable to himself or his publishers—Chapter 1 of Slaughterhouse-Five tells of his difficulties. Released in 1969, the novel rocketed Vonnegut to fame. It tells of the life of Billy Pilgrim, who like Vonnegut was born in 1922 and survives the bombing of Dresden. The story is told in a non-linear fashion, with many of the story's climaxes—Billy's death in 1976, his kidnapping by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore nine years earlier, and the execution of Billy's friend Edgar Derby in the ashes of Dresden for stealing a teapot—disclosed in the story's first pages. In 1970, he was also a correspondent in Biafra during the Nigerian Civil War.Slaughterhouse-Five received generally positive reviews, with Michael Crichton writing in The New Republic, "he writes about the most excruciatingly painful things. His novels have attacked our deepest fears of automation and the bomb, our deepest political guilts, our fiercest hatreds and loves. No one else writes books on these subjects; they are inaccessible to normal novelists." The book went immediately to the top of The New York Times Best Seller list. Vonnegut's earlier works had appealed strongly to many college students, and the antiwar message of Slaughterhouse-Five resonated with a generation marked by the Vietnam War. He later stated that the loss of confidence in government that Vietnam caused finally allowed for an honest conversation regarding events like Dresden.
Later career and events
After Slaughterhouse-Five was published, Vonnegut embraced the fame and financial security that attended its release. He was hailed as a hero of the burgeoning anti-war movement in the United States, was invited to speak at numerous rallies, and gave college commencement addresses around the country. In addition to briefly teaching at Harvard University as a lecturer in creative writing in 1970, Vonnegut taught at the City College of New York as a distinguished professor during the 1973-1974 academic year. He was later elected vice president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and given honorary degrees by, among others, Indiana University and Bennington College. Vonnegut also wrote a play called Happy Birthday, Wanda June, which opened on October 7, 1970 at New York's Theatre de Lys. Receiving mixed reviews, it closed on March 14, 1971. In 1972, Universal Pictures adapted Slaughterhouse-Five into a film which the author said was "flawless".
Meanwhile, Vonnegut's personal life was disintegrating. His wife Jane had embraced Christianity, which was contrary to Vonnegut's atheistic beliefs, and with five of their six children having left home, Vonnegut said the two were forced to find "other sorts of seemingly important work to do." The couple battled over their differing beliefs until Vonnegut moved from their Cape Cod home to New York in 1971. Vonnegut called the disagreements "painful", and said the resulting split was a "terrible, unavoidable accident that we were ill-equipped to understand." The couple divorced and they remained friends until Jane's death in late 1986. Beyond his marriage, he was deeply affected when his son Mark suffered a mental breakdown in 1972, which exacerbated Vonnegut's chronic depression, and led him to take Ritalin. When he stopped taking the drug in the mid-1970s, he began to see a psychologist weekly.
Requiem (ending)–Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country, 2005
When the last living thing
has died on account of us,
how poetical it would be
if Earth could say,
in a voice floating up
from the floor
of the Grand Canyon,
"It is done."
People did not like it here.
Vonnegut's difficulties materialized in numerous ways; most distinctly though, was the painfully slow progress he was making on his next novel, the darkly comical Breakfast of Champions. In 1971, Vonnegut stopped writing the novel altogether. When it was finally released in 1973, it was panned critically. In Thomas S. Hischak's book American Literature on Stage and Screen, Breakfast of Champions was called "funny and outlandish", but reviewers noted that it "lacks substance and seems to be an exercise in literary playfulness." Vonnegut's 1976 novel Slapstick, which meditates on the relationship between him and his sister (Alice), met a similar fate. In The New York Times's review of Slapstick, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt said Vonnegut "seems to be putting less effort into [storytelling] than ever before", and that "it still seems as if he has given up storytelling after all." At times, Vonnegut was disgruntled by the personal nature of his detractors' complaints.
In 1979, Vonnegut married Jill Krementz, a photographer whom he met while she was working on a series about writers in the early 1970s. With Jill, he adopted a daughter, Lily, when the baby was three days old. In subsequent years, his popularity resurged as he published several satirical books, including Jailbird (1979), Deadeye Dick (1982), Galápagos (1985), Bluebeard (1987), and Hocus Pocus (1990). In 1986, Vonnegut was seen by a younger generation when he played himself in Rodney Dangerfield's film Back to School. The last of Vonnegut's fourteen novels, Timequake (1997), was, as University of Detroit history professor and Vonnegut biographer Gregory Sumner said, "a reflection of an aging man facing mortality and testimony to an embattled faith in the resilience of human awareness and agency." Vonnegut's final book, a collection of essays entitled A Man Without a Country (2005), became a bestseller.
Death and legacy
Vonnegut's sincerity, his willingness to scoff at received wisdom, is such that reading his work for the first time gives one the sense that everything else is rank hypocrisy. His opinion of human nature was low, and that low opinion applied to his heroes and his villains alike — he was endlessly disappointed in humanity and in himself, and he expressed that disappointment in a mixture of tar-black humor and deep despair. He could easily have become a crank, but he was too smart; he could have become a cynic, but there was something tender in his nature that he could never quite suppress; he could have become a bore, but even at his most despairing he had an endless willingness to entertain his readers: with drawings, jokes, sex, bizarre plot twists, science fiction, whatever it took.
In a 2006 Rolling Stone interview, Vonnegut sardonically stated that he would sue the Brown & Williamson tobacco company, the maker of the Pall Mall-branded cigarettes he had been smoking since he was twelve or fourteen years old, for false advertising. "And do you know why?" he said. "Because I'm 83 years old. The lying bastards! On the package Brown & Williamson promised to kill me." He died on the night of April 11, 2007 in Manhattan, as a result of brain injuries incurred several weeks prior from a fall at his New York brownstone home. His death was reported by his wife Jill. Vonnegut was 84 years old. At the time of his death, Vonnegut had written fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays and five non-fiction books. A book composed of Vonnegut's unpublished pieces, Armageddon in Retrospect, was compiled and posthumously published by Vonnegut's son Mark in 2008.
When asked about the impact Vonnegut had on his work, author Josip Novakovich stated that he has "much to learn from Vonnegut—how to compress things and yet not compromise them, how to digress into history, quote from various historical accounts, and not stifle the narrative. The ease with which he writes is sheerly masterly, Mozartian."Los Angeles Times columnist Gregory Rodriguez said that the author will "rightly be remembered as a darkly humorous social critic and the premier novelist of the counterculture", and Dinitia Smith of The New York Times dubbed Vonnegut the "counterculture's novelist."
Kurt Vonnegut has inspired numerous posthumous tributes and works. In 2008, the Kurt Vonnegut Society was established, and in November 2010, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library was opened in Vonnegut's hometown of Indianapolis. The Library of America published a compendium of Vonnegut's compositions between 1963 and 1973 the following April, and another compendium of his earlier works in 2012. Late 2011 saw the release of two Vonnegut biographies, Gregory Sumner's Unstuck in Time and Charles J. Shields's And So It Goes. Shields's biography of Vonnegut created some controversy. According to The Guardian, the book portrays Vonnegut as distant, cruel and nasty. "Cruel, nasty and scary are the adjectives commonly used to describe him by the friends, colleagues, and relatives Shields quotes", said The Daily Beast's Wendy Smith. "Towards the end he was very feeble, very depressed and almost morose", said Jerome Klinkowitz of the University of Northern Iowa, who has examined Vonnegut in depth.
Like Mark Twain, Mr. Vonnegut used humor to tackle the basic questions of human existence: Why are we in this world? Is there a presiding figure to make sense of all this, a god who in the end, despite making people suffer, wishes them well?
Vonnegut's works have evoked ire on several occasions. His most prominent novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, has been objected to or removed at various institutions in at least 18 instances. In the case of Island Trees School District v. Pico, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a school district's ban on Slaughterhouse-Five—which the board had called "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy"—and eight other novels was unconstitutional. When a school board in Republic, Missouri decided to withdraw Vonnegut's novel from its libraries, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library offered a free copy to all the students of the district.
Tally, writing in 2013, suggests that Vonnegut has only recently become the subject of serious study rather than fan adulation, and much is yet to be written about him. "The time for scholars to say 'Here's why Vonnegut is worth reading' has definitively ended, thank goodness. We know he's worth reading. Now tell us things we don't know." Todd F. Davis notes that Vonnegut's work is kept alive by his loyal readers, who have "significant influence as they continue to purchase Vonnegut's work, passing it on to subsequent generations and keeping his entire canon in print—an impressive list of more than twenty books that [Dell Publishing] has continued to refurbish and hawk with new cover designs." Donald E. Morse notes that Vonnegut, "is now firmly, if somewhat controversially, ensconced in the American and world literary canon as well as in high school, college and graduate curricula". Tally writes of Vonnegut's work:
Vonnegut's 14 novels, while each does its own thing, together are nevertheless experiments in the same overall project. Experimenting with the form of the American novel itself, Vonnegut engages in a broadly modernist attempt to apprehend and depict the fragmented, unstable, and distressing bizarreries of postmodern American experience ... That he does not actually succeed in representing the shifting multiplicities of that social experience is beside the point. What matters is the attempt, and the recognition that ... we must try to map this unstable and perilous terrain, even if we know in advance that our efforts are doomed.
The Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame inducted Vonnegut posthumously in 2015.
The asteroid 25399 Vonnegut is named in his honor.
In the introduction to Slaughterhouse-Five Vonnegut recounts meeting filmmaker Harrison Starr at a party who asked him whether his forthcoming book was an anti-war novel — "I guess" replied Vonnegut. Starr responded "Why don't you write an anti-glacier novel?". This underlined Vonnegut's belief that wars were, unfortunately, inevitable, but that it was important to ensure the wars one fought were just wars.
In 2011, NPR wrote, "Kurt Vonnegut's blend of anti-war sentiment and satire made him one of the most popular writers of the 1960s." Vonnegut stated in a 1987 interview that, "my own feeling is that civilization ended in World War I, and we're still trying to recover from that", and that he wanted to write war-focused works without glamorizing war itself. Vonnegut had not intended to publish again, but his anger against the George W. Bush administration led him to write A Man Without a Country.
Slaughterhouse-Five is the Vonnegut novel best known for its antiwar themes, but the author expressed his beliefs in ways beyond the depiction of the destruction of Dresden. He has one character, Mary O'Hare, opine that "wars were partly encouraged by books and movies", made by "Frank Sinatra or John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men". Vonnegut made a number of comparisons between Dresden and the bombing of Hiroshima in Slaughterhouse-Five and wrote in Palm Sunday (1991) that "I learned how vile that religion of mine could be when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima".
Nuclear war, or at least deployed nuclear arms, is mentioned in almost all of Vonnegut's novels. In Player Piano, the computer EPICAC is given control of the nuclear arsenal, and is charged with deciding whether to use high-explosive or nuclear arms. In Cat's Cradle, John's original purpose in setting pen to paper is to write an account of what prominent Americans had been doing as Hiroshima was bombed.
Some of you may know that I am neither Christian nor Jewish nor Buddhist, nor a conventionally religious person of any sort. I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I'm dead. [...] I myself have written, "If it weren't for the message of mercy and pity in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, I wouldn't want to be a human being. I would just as soon be a rattlesnake."
Vonnegut was an atheist and a humanist, serving as the honorary president of the American Humanist Association. In an interview for Playboy, he stated that his forebears who came to the United States did not believe in God, and he learned his atheism from his parents. He did not however disdain those who seek the comfort of religion, hailing church associations as a type of extended family. Like his great-grandfather Clemens, Vonnegut was a freethinker. He occasionally attended a Unitarian church, but with little consistency. In his autobiographical work Palm Sunday, Vonnegut says he is a "Christ-worshiping agnostic"; in a speech to the Unitarian Universalist Association, he called himself a "Christ-loving atheist". However, he was keen to stress that he was not a Christian.
Vonnegut was an admirer of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, particularly the Beatitudes, and incorporated it into his own doctrines. He also referred to it in many of his works. In his 1991 book Fates Worse than Death, Vonnegut suggests that during the Reagan administration, "anything that sounded like the Sermon on the Mount was socialistic or communistic, and therefore anti-American". In Palm Sunday, he wrote that "the Sermon on the Mount suggests a mercifulness that can never waver or fade." However, Vonnegut had a deep dislike for certain aspects of Christianity, often reminding his readers of the bloody history of the Crusades and other religion-inspired violence. He despised the televangelists of the late 20th century, feeling that their thinking was narrow-minded.
Religion features frequently in Vonnegut's work, both in his novels and elsewhere. He laced a number of his speeches with religion-focused rhetoric, and was prone to using such expressions as "God forbid" and "thank God". He once wrote his own version of the Requiem Mass, which he then had translated into Latin and set to music. In God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, Vonnegut goes to heaven after he is euthanized by Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Once in heaven, he interviews 21 deceased celebrities, including Isaac Asimov, William Shakespeare, and Kilgore Trout—the last a fictional character from several of his novels. Vonnegut's works are filled with characters founding new faiths, and religion often serves as a major plot device, for example in Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan and Cat's Cradle. In The Sirens of Titan, Rumfoord proclaims The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. Slaughterhouse-Five sees Billy Pilgrim, lacking religion himself, nevertheless become a chaplain's assistant in the military and display a large crucifix on his bedroom wall. In Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut invented the religion of Bokononism.
Vonnegut did not particularly sympathize with liberalism or conservatism, and mused on the specious simplicity of American politics. "If you want to take my guns away from me, and you're all for murdering fetuses, and love it when homosexuals marry each other [...] you're a liberal. If you are against those perversions and for the rich, you're a conservative. What could be simpler?" Regarding political parties, Vonnegut said, "The two real political parties in America are the Winners and the Losers. The people don’t acknowledge this. They claim membership in two imaginary parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, instead."
Vonnegut disregarded more mainstream political ideologies in favor of socialism, which he thought could provide a valuable substitute for what he saw as social Darwinism and a spirit of "survival of the fittest" in American society, believing that "socialism would be a good for the common man". Vonnegut would often return to a quote by socialist and five-time presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs: "As long as there is a lower class, I am in it. As long as there is a criminal element, I'm of it. As long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free." Vonnegut expressed disappointment that communism and socialism seemed to be unsavory topics to the average American, and believed that they may offer beneficial substitutes to contemporary social and economic systems.
Vonnegut's writing was inspired by an eclectic mix of sources. When he was younger, Vonnegut stated that he read works of pulp fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and action-adventure. He also read the Classics, like those of Aristophanes. Aristophanes, like Vonnegut, wrote humorous critiques of contemporary society. Vonnegut's life and work also share similarities with that of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn writer Mark Twain. Both shared pessimistic outlooks on humanity, and a skeptical take on religion, and, as Vonnegut put it, were both "associated with the enemy in a major war", as Twain briefly enlisted in the South's cause during the American Civil War, and Vonnegut's German name and ancestry connected him with the United States' enemy in both world wars.
Vonnegut called George Orwell his favorite writer, and admitted that he tried to emulate Orwell. "I like his concern for the poor, I like his socialism, I like his simplicity", Vonnegut said. Vonnegut also said that Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, heavily influenced his debut novel, Player Piano, in 1952. Vonnegut commented that Robert Louis Stevenson's stories were emblems of thoughtfully put together works that he tried to mimic in his own compositions. Vonnegut also hailed playwright and socialist George Bernard Shaw as "a hero of [his]", and an "enormous influence." Within his own family, Vonnegut stated that his mother, Edith, had the greatest influence on him. "[My] mother thought she might make a new fortune by writing for the slick magazines. She took short-story courses at night. She studied magazines the way gamblers study racing forms."
Early on in his career, Vonnegut decided to model his style after Henry David Thoreau, who wrote as if from the perspective of a child, allowing Thoreau's works to be more widely comprehensible. Using a youthful narrative voice allowed Vonnegut to deliver concepts in a modest and straightforward way. Other influences on Vonnegut include The War of the Worlds author H. G. Wells, and satirist Jonathan Swift. Vonnegut credited newspaper magnate H. L. Mencken for inspiring him to become a journalist.