Kurt Vonnegut. The man, the myth, the legend. At least in Indiana.
When I was younger I read a large number of his novels including his iconic Slaughterhouse-Five, which was partially based on his own experiences in Germany during World War II. But even being raised in the Indianapolis, Indiana area I have been terribly remiss as to understand and learn about this incredible writer.
I grew up just north of Indianapolis in a city a about 20 miles from The Kurt Vonnegut Museum. I studied WWII history here, read many of his novels including his banned novels (because I had amazing teachers), and even have walked around or hung out in many of his old stomping grounds but never really knew more than he lived here too. So here we go:
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1922. He was the youngest of three children born to a German family that immigrated to the Midwest in the mid-1800s. They settled here in Indianapolis, eventually opening a hardware company that closed in the 1960s having run for over 100 years.
As a child his family went through many hardships including the closing of his mother’s family’s brewery during prohibition, the great depression, and general economic problems due to various issues. His father was quite absent throughout his life (though he was in the house and present physically) and his mother was noted as being caustic and abusive.
He attended schools in Indianapolis throughout his early life. Both his elementary and high school are still in operation in the city, with the high school holding the title of oldest public high school in Indianapolis. It was in these later years that he truly began to develop his writing skills becoming co-editor of the school paper. He graduated from high school and went on to attend Cornell University in Ithaca, NY majoring in biochemistry.
Though his major was not in any of the writing or humanities disciplines he continued to work and show passion in the subjects beating out others for a spot on the Cornell paper eventually rising to editor. He was a proficient writer with a wicked sense of humor. His career on at the Cornell Daily Sun was most well recognized by a piece he wrote denouncing the US stepping into WWII and preaching pacifism.
Unfortunately for Vonnegut the US did enter the war in late 1941. He had been a member of the ROTC while at college though he lost his place when he dropped out of school during the winter of 1943. Instead of just waiting to be drafted (members of the ROTC during the time could wave their conscription during this war) he instead signed up to be a member of the Army. He was sent to basic training and eventually made his way back to Indiana while studying mechanical engineering.
During this time his mother committed suicide, which Vonnegut found out about the day after it’s occurrence while on leave for Mother’s Day.
Eventually he was sent to Germany to fight. The Battle of the Bulge was the cap to his military career. His division was placed on this quiet front because of their inexperience and instead of a simple assignment they were instead overrun. Over 500 of the soldiers on the front were killed and over 6000 were captured by German forces, Vonnegut amongst them.
He was sent with many others to Dresden Prison Camp where he was forced to live in a slaughterhouse turned prisoner holding cell. It was here that he lived for two months before the city was bombed. Vonnegut and some of his fellow POWs hid in a meat locker to survive the bombing. They eventually emerged and were set to assist with the excavation of the city.
Eventually he was brought back to the states. He received a Purple Heart for his service and was discharged, returning to Indianapolis.
It was then that he married his high school sweetheart and the pair relocated to Chicago, Illinois to attend the University of Chicago majoring in Anthropology and Russian Literature respectively. It was here that their first child. The Vonnegut’s both left the university at different times, neither receiving a degree.
Throughout this part of his life Vonnegut held a variety of different jobs from a reporter at the City News Bureau in Chicago to a publicist for General Electric eventually becoming the prolific writer that we know him as today.
He published his first short piece in 1950 and then another later the same year. In 1952 his first novel was published. Player Piano drew inspiration from his work at GE.
As his family grew (he and his wife had three of their own children and three adopted children) he worked on his second novel as well as published various short stories and even opened a car dealership with a partner.
His novels had no similar plots of theming which is unique to Vonnegut, while his writing style is distinct. One only needs to be familiar with his style to be handed an unknown novel and know it belongs to Vonnegut. Most of his work seemed to be set in a science-fiction or dystopian like set of worlds and it wasn’t until his “second” novel that he worked on in the early 1950s was finally published that he seemed to truly hit his artistic stride.
Cat’s Cradle became one of his most well-known novels. Second only to Slaughterhouse-Five (which drew inspiration from his experience during the Dresden bombing and his time in the war). Due to the themes in Slaughterhouse-Five he became a major member of the anti-war movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
He taught briefly at Harvard, City College in NYC, and lectured at various events.
During this time his first marriage fell apart. The subsequent divorce left him reeling and was followed closely by his eldest son’s mental breakdown which sent his ever-lurking depression and shellshock (now known as PTSD) spiraling. He would fight with this mental illness and subsequent suicide attempts throughout the rest of his life. He even noted that smoking (which he had done since he was 12 or 14) was a “classy way to commit suicide” even going so far as joking in an interview a year or so before his death that he should sue the company of the cigarettes he smoked because they lied. The packaging stated that cigarettes could cause death and yet they didn’t kill him.
He at least held his good sense of humor till the end.
His second marriage came with an adopted daughter. And it was throughout this marriage that his popularity resurfaced.
At the time of his death in 2007 he had published 14 full novels (with several becoming best sellers), 3 short story collections, 5 plays and 5 non-fiction pieces along with a plethora of different articles, newspaper and magazine pieces, and even had a book of uncompleted works published posthumously. The film adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five was created in 1972 was praised by Vonnegut. He called it “flawless” which is high praise from anyone, especially the author himself.
Posthumously Vonnegut was inducted into the Science-Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame and even had an asteroid named after him.
And…for our intents and purposes…had Wade’s main mode of transportation named after him. If you want to know more about my views of why check out the article linked below.
[The Vonnegut article]