How Kurt Vonnegut’s Life Efected His Work.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was born in Indianapolis in 1922. His father was an architect, his mother a noted beauty. Both spoke German, but wouldn’t teach Kurt the language because of all the anti-German sentiment following the first World War.
While in high school, Vonnegut edited the school’s daily newspaper. He attended Cornell for a little over two years and wrote for the Cornell Daily Sun. In 1942, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. In 1944, his mother committed suicide and he was taken prisoner following the Battle of the Bulge.
After the war, Vonnegut entered a Masters program in anthropology at the University of Chicago. His thesis, titled Fluctuations Between Good and Evil in Simple Tales, was not accepted, but eventually he was awarded his MA for his writings in Cat’s Cradle.
Throughout the 1950s Vonnegut published numerous short stories in national magazines. Player Piano, his first novel, appeared in 1952. This was followed by Sirens of Titan in 1959, Mother Night (1962), Cat’s Cradle (1963), God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965), and his most highly-praised book, Slaughterhouse Five in 1969. Vonnegut has been prolific in the subsequent years, too. His most recent novel Timequake was published in 1997.
On February 13, 1945, while Vonnegut was still a POW in Dresden, the city was bombed killing 135,000 citizens. Vonnegut and other Allied POW’s took shelter in an underground meat locker. This was the basis for one of Vonnegut’s most famous works, Slaughterhouse-Five.
All of this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.1 So begins Slaughterhouse-Five. In the book an American POW named Billy Pilgrim witnesses and survives the firebombing of Dresden. Later, after he makes it home from the war, Pilgrim is kidnapped by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. They explain to him their concept of time and space and that we exist solely for them.
Vonnegut has said that he always intended to write about his experience, but was unable to do so for more than twenty years. He wanted to simply describe what happened through a narrative, but it never worked. The novel is a response to war. It is so short and jumbled and jangled, says Vonnegut, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.2
It’s easy to see how Vonnegut’s war time experience had an influence on Slaughterhouse-Five but, his knowledge of war also had some influence on Cat’s Cradle.
Cat’s Cradle displays Vonnegut’s concern for technology and the belief that it will one day lead to the destruction of our society and our world. Many of his own beliefs come out through the narrator in the story, John.
Published in the wake of the Cold War, Cat’s Cradle tells about man’s ability of destroying life on earth. The narrator is trying to write a book entitled The Day the Earth Ended about the Hiroshima bombing.
He researches the life of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the inventors of the atomic bomb. The Hoenikker family closely resembles Vonnegut’s own family. Both have a son who is a scientist, a tall middle daughter, and a younger son.
In Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut concocts a new religion called Bokononism for the people of San Lorenzo. Bokononism’s purpose is to “provide people with better and better lies.”3 However the basis of this religion, The Books of Bokonon, explain upfront that it is false. In fact the first line in them is “Don’t be a fool! Close this book at once! It is nothing but foma!”
As you can see many of Vonnegut’s writings stem from his experiences of war and destruction, and his concern for society itself.