When I was in college at Western Kentucky in the early ’70s, I always knew my education encompassed far more than the formal classes I was attending each semester. Discovering Kurt Vonnegut was a part of that education from outside the formal path. From his wiki intro:
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was an American writer. His works such as Cat’s Cradle (1963), Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), and Breakfast of Champions (1973) blend satire, gallows humor, and science fiction. As a citizen he was a lifelong supporter of the American Civil Liberties Union and a critical pacifist intellectual. He was known for his humanist beliefs and was honorary president of the American Humanist Association.
The New York Times headline at the time of Vonnegut’s passing called Vonnegut “the counterculture’s novelist.”
The first Vonnegut book I read was Cat’s Cradle which I was given by one of my dormitory neighbors. From the Goodreads.com synopsis:
Dr Felix Hoenikker, one of the founding ‘fathers’ of the atomic bomb, has left a deadly legacy to the world. For he is the inventor of ‘ice-nine’, a lethal chemical capable of freezing the entire planet. The search for its whereabouts leads to Hoenikker’s three ecentric children, to a crazed dictator in the Caribbean, to madness. Felix Hoenikker’s Death Wish comes true when his last, fatal gift to mankind brings about the end, that for all of us, is nigh
I very nearly converted to Bokononism after this. I also knew that Vonnegut was an author I would need to investigate further. In a later book Vonnegut did a “self-assessment” where Cat’s Cradle was one of two books where he gave himself an A+. It was nominated for a Hugo Award in 1964. In 1971, it was accepted by the University of Chicago as his Master’s Thesis for anthropology (they had rejected his original thesis “…on the necessity of accounting for the similarities between Cubist painters and the leaders of late 19th Century Native American uprisings, saying it was “unprofessional.”")
Slaughterhouse-Five was the second book he gave himself an A+ for. As wiki notes, Vonnegut’s time as a German POW (including being held in Dresden at the time of the fire-bombing,) had a profound affect on Vonnegut:
He witnessed the Allied firebombing of Dresden in February 1945, which destroyed most of the historic city.
Vonnegut was part of a group of American prisoners of war who survived the bombing in an underground slaughterhouse meat locker used as an ad hoc detention facility. The German guards called the building Schlachthof Fünf (“Slaughterhouse Five”), and the POWs adopted that name. Vonnegut said that the aftermath of the attack on the defenseless city was “utter destruction” and “carnage unfathomable”. The experience was the inspiration for his famous novel Slaughterhouse-Five, and is a central theme in at least six of his other books. In Slaughterhouse-Five – which is nominally a fictional work – he described the ruined city as resembling the surface of the moon and said the German guards put the surviving POWs to work, breaking into basements and bomb shelters to gather bodies for mass burial, while German civilians cursed and threw rocks at them. Vonnegut remarked, “There were too many corpses to bury. So instead the Germans sent in troops with flamethrowers. All these civilians’ remains were burned to ashes.”
The lead character in Slaughterhouse-five, Billy Pilgrim, was also a POW in Dresden who was later captured by aliens and did time travel:
A fatalistic optometrist ensconced in a dull, safe marriage, in Ilium, New York. He randomly travels in time and is abducted by aliens from planet Tralfamadore, who see everything in the fourth dimension. During World War II, he was a POW (Prisoner of War) in Dresden, which has a lasting effect on his post-war life. His time travel occurs at desperate times in his life; he re-lives events past and future, and becomes fatalistic (though not a defeatist) because he has seen when, how, and why he will die.
I read Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano at some point after reading Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-five. One minor point that I seem to remember from Player Piano is that the US political system had degenerated to the point where the presidency was just a figurehead with an actor elected via marketing campaigns because he could look good and speak the appropriate lines. Unfortunately, though I have searched for a synopsis that covers this point, I have not found it but I do remember thinking Vonnegut was a bit prescient with this idea. I had read the book prior to Reagan’s presidency but after the elections of 1960 and 1968 with the following publications of The Making of the President and The Selling of the President.
Vonnegut has not had much of his work made into movies although there was more than I had been aware of. Slaughterhouse-five is probably the best known of the movies from his work although the cast is not all that well known. Breakfast of Champions starred Bruce Willis, Nick Nolte, and Albert Finney (as Kilgore Trout, a character who shows up in many of Vonnegut’s works.) Slapstick starred Jerry Lewis, MAdeline Kahn, and Marty Feldman.
And as Billy Pilgrim says throughout Slaughterhouse-five, “So it goes.”
Picture from Greg Younger licensed under Creative Commons