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Kurt Vonnegut

By John Updike

Kurt Vonnegut, Junior, was born on Armistice Day, 1922, the third of three children of a distinguished German-American family long established in Indianapolis. It was once my pleasure and privilege to be with Kurt in Indianapolis, and it was wonderful to see how he expanded on that home turf: his smile widened, his gestures widened, and his soft, slow, rueful, considerate manner of speech became even more profoundly Midwestern. His family was locally eminent: Kurt, Senior, and his father, were architects; Kurt’s mother came from a well-to-do line of brewers, the Liebers, creators of Lieber Gold Medal Lager; and Kurt’s older brother, Bernard, was a physicist specializing in clouds and thunderstorms. Kurt, Junior, went east to college, to Cornell, and achieved academic probation before being enlisted, at the age of nineteen, to the Army.

The Army initially sent him to the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh and to the University of Tennessee to study mechanical engineering, but in 1944 he was shipped to Europe with the 106th Infantry Division and soon saw combat in the Battle of the Bulge—in his words, “the largest single defeat of American arms (the Confederacy included) in history.” His unit was nearly destroyed, and after several days of wandering behind enemy lines he was captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp near Dresden, and assigned, with other prisoners, to make vitamin-enriched malt syrup for pregnant women. The workplace was a slaughterhouse; when, on February 13, 1945, sirens went off, their guards led the prisoners to a meat locker two stories down. That saved their lives; overhead, British and American warplanes carpet-bombed the city, creating a firestorm. He wrote 25 years later, in Slaughterhouse-Five, “It wasn’t safe to come out of the shelter until noon the next day. When the Americans and their guards did come out, the sky was black with smoke. The sun was an angry little pinhead. Dresden was like the moon, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody in the neighborhood was dead. So it goes.” The prisoners were set to work gathering up dead bodies, which he elsewhere described as “seeming pieces of charred firewood two or three feet long—ridiculously small human beings, or jumbo fried grasshoppers, if you will.”

He returned from the war to an active and eventually triumphant life. He married his childhood sweetheart, Jane Marie Cox. They settled in Chicago. They had three children. In Chicago, Kurt worked as a reporter for the City News Bureau and studied for a master’s degree in anthropology at the University of Chicago. His thesis, titled “Fluctuations between Good and Evil in Simple Tales,” was unanimously rejected by the faculty. In 1947 he moved to Schenectady, New York, taking a job in public relations for the General Electric Company. Three years later he sold a short story to Collier’s and moved his family to Cape Cod, writing fiction for magazines like Argosy and the Saturday Evening Post, and, to add to his income, teaching emotionally disturbed children, doing advertising work, and selling Saab automobiles. When, in 1958, Kurt’s sister, Alice, and her husband died within a day of each other—she of cancer and he in a train crash—the Vonneguts adopted their three children. Around 1970 he and Jane separated and he moved to New York; in 1979 he married the photographer Jill Krementz, with whom he adopted a daughter, Lily. By this time his novels had made him rich and famous.

Vonnegut was unusual, if not unique, among postwar American writers in having had a primarily scientific education and in acquiring, in the long lead-up to his popular success, experience of the worlds of business and industry. In his first novel, Player Piano, an upstate factory and its minions are evoked; in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, the ups and downs of a Midwestern fortune are traced. Vonnegut was interested in how such things function, and his lawyers and optometrists and housewives may be employed for satiric ends but never with condescension; his fantasies are braced by a respectful practical side. Many males of his writing generation—Mailer, Heller, Salinger, to name three—shared an experience of World War Two’s combat, but Vonnegut’s close witness to the firebombing of Dresden and its charred aftermath was, even in those violent times, extraordinary, and it haunted his work in the form of apocalyptic holocausts—in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Indianapolis is imagined consumed by fire; in Cat’s Cradle, the world ends when all water turns to ice; in Slapstick, fluctuations in the force of gravity pull down structures all over the globe, the Chinese have miniaturized themselves to the size of germs, and a deserted Manhattan has become Skyscraper National Park.

When, in Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut faced his Dresden experience directly, he characteristically garlanded it with an antic science-fiction tale of how our hero, Billy Pilgrim, shaped like a bottle of Coca-Cola, was abducted by space aliens shaped like plumber’s helpers with a green eye in the palm of their hand-shaped heads. These Tralfamadorians put Billy in a Tralfamadorian zoo to demonstrate, with another abductee, the gorgeous motion-picture star Montana Wildhack, human mating procedures. With such inventions Vonnegut lightened his hard-won perception that the universe was basically atrocious, a vast sea of cruelty and indifference.

His pessimism is more astringent in early novels like The Sirens of Titan and Mother Night, before he perfected his mature, aggressively casual style. It seemed to me that Kurt did not always get enough credit for his artistry—for his free flow of invention, for the surreal beauty of his imagery, for the propelling rhythm of his short paragraphs and laconic sentences, a colloquial American style justly ranked with Mark Twain’s. His phenomenal success with college students, who were grateful for books about large matters that were easy to read and frequently hilarious, annoyed some critics. His personal charm and persuasiveness as a speaker, toastmaster, and political protester deflected attention, for others, from his vital presence on the page. He was a tall, loose-jointed man, with a splendid head of dark curly hair. He wrote, as I remember, hunched over at a low table, tapping out his space-spanning tales on a small portable. He proceeded deliberately, revising as he went. He smoked cigarettes as if they were good for him, and in one of the last conversations we had, in this very room as it happens, he told me that a recent X-ray had shown his lungs to be as pure as a child’s—he was considering offering himself to the tobacco industry as an advertisement. His manner was as gracious and gentle as his books were honest and wry. Everyone who knew Kurt, I think it safe to say, misses him. Indeed, it might be said that the planet misses him.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 6, 2007.

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