“upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography”





author of Slaughterhouse-Five and one of
America‘s greatest humanists
dies at 84


Friday April 13, 2007


The phrase "So it goes" became famous when it appeared in the
novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) every time a death was reported. Its author
was Kurt Vonnegut,
who has died aged 84, following brain injuries incurred several weeks ago in a
fall. Vonnegut, who wrote 14 novels, managed to combine an exceptional humanity with a
remarkably blasé pessimism, and presented his despair at human life in such
engagingly simple terms that even Charlie Brown would have found it persuasive.

Once described by Gore Vidal as the worst
writer in America,
he was nonetheless at
one point said to be the novelist most widely taught in American universities.

He made the crossover from marginal science fiction writer into mainstream
bestseller and campus hero, finally becoming one of America‘s best loved national

Kurt Vonnegut Junior was born in Indianapolis
into a prosperous German-American family whose fortunes plummeted while he was
young. His
father was an architect, and his mother came from a brewing family who used a
special ingredient – coffee – to improve the flavour of their prizewinning
Already suffering from the anti-German effects of the
first world war, the brewery business was destroyed by prohibition, and
Vonnegut’s father was unemployed through most of the 1930s after the building
industry slumped with the depression.

While Vonnegut‘s
father developed an attitude of fatalistic weltschmerz, his mother struggled
against their changing circumstances. She tried to make money by writing short
stories, and was deeply saddened by her failure. Her son, meanwhile, went to the Ivy league Cornell University in New York State, until his education
was interrupted by the Japanese attack on
Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Soon
afterwards, Vonnegut volunteered for the
US army and was sent to
the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now the
Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh, and the University of Tennessee to study mechanical
Arriving home on leave for Mother’s Day in May
1944, he found that his mother had taken a fatal overdose the night before.

The army
posted Vonnegut to
Europe with the 106th Infantry
Division, where he served as an infantry scout in the 1944
Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes. Taken
prisoner, he was sent
Dresden, where he
laboured in a factory that produced vitamin syrup for pregnant women. He was there on February 13-14 1945, when British and
American bombers subjected the city to the massive aerial bombardment that
created the "
Dresden fire storm".
During the bombing he sheltered in an underground meat store named Schlachthof
Füaut;nf – Slaughterhouse Five.
He emerged to discover the city
razed, and was put to work clearing bodies. Almost 25 years and seven novels
later, Vonnegut turned
his war experiences into the basis of his most celebrated book. It was
published at a time when the war in Vietnam, and the struggle for civil rights
– and, in Europe, the events in Paris in May 1968 and the Eastern Bloc invasion
of Czechoslovakia – had generated a wave of radicalism across the US, and the
western world.

The fame
of Slaughterhouse-Five has made
Dresden seem like the central
experience of Vonnegut’s life, but Vonnegut played it down, saying that he was
more shocked by
Hiroshima. He
joked about it when he was interviewed by Martin Amis: after describing Dresden
as "a beautiful city full of museums and zoos – man at his greatest",
and emphasising that the raid failed to shorten the war, weaken the German war
effort, or free a single person from a death camp, he went on to explain that in the end only one
person benefited. "And who was that?" asked Amis. "Me. I got
several dollars for each person killed. Imagine."

September 1945 Vonnegut married a childhood sweetheart, Jane Marie Cox and they
settled in
Chicago. It was
a marriage which produced three children and lasted until their amicable
divorce in 1979: Vonnegut found his wife’s religion increasingly hard to live
with, and
remarried the photographer Jill Krementz. His two daughters became born-again
Christians, and his son, Mark, developed schizophrenia (he went on to write
Eden Express: A Memoir of Insanity (1975) about his experience).

In Chicago, Vonnegut
worked as a crime reporter for the Chicago City News Bureau and enrolled for an
anthropology course at the University of Chicago, which in 1947 failed his MA thesis on
Fluctuations Between Good and Evil in Simple Tales; in 1971 the anthropology
department accepted his novel Cat’s Cradle (1963) in lieu of a thesis, and
finally awarded him his degree.

In 1947
Vonnegut became a public relations writer for General Electric
based in Schenectady, New York
State. In 1950 he sold his first story, Report on the Barnhouse Effect, to
Collier’s Magazine. His stint
in PR was to inspire a number of stories and influenced his first novel, Player
Piano (1952), which satirises modern automation and corporate values.

He quit in 1951 to become a full-time hack writer of science fiction, spending
over a decade in pulp obscurity. In time-honoured American fashion, he had to
supplement his income with a variety of jobs, including copywriting and car
selling; at one time he ran a Saab dealership. One of his fictional alter egos, Philboyd
Studge, is a
Pontiac dealer who goes
berserk after reading a story by Kilgore Trout, another Vonnegut alter ego.

The need
to earn money became still more pressing in 1958, when Vonnegut and his wife
took on the three orphaned children of his sister and brother-in-law, who died
within 24 hours of each other (his sister died of cancer and her husband, a
failed toy inventor, was drowned when his train plunged off a bridge).

In 1959 The Sirens of Titan was published, and Mother Night followed in
1961. Vonnegut
was never happy with the label of ‘science-fiction writer’, which he described
as being put into a drawer that "serious" critics use as a urinal.
few of his novels, in fact, could be described as straight science fiction,
although his fiction always had a speculative element. The best of his early books is perhaps Cat’s
Cradle (1963) a satirical examination of human beliefs through the religion of
"Bokonism". The title image (a construction of string with "No
damn cat, and no damn cradle") is a small example of the make-believe that
makes the world go round, bigger examples being religions and world views of
any kind. Even the finest of them are only what Vonnegut (within his own
categories of "Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons", later to be the
title of a book of essays) calls "Foma": the harmless untruths that
make life bearable. Cat’s Cradle was much admired by Graham Greene, among
God Bless You, Mr Rosewater (1965) was followed by a
collection of shorter works, Welcome to the Monkey House (1968). A year later
came Slaughterhouse Five.

As Vonnegut’s writing career went on, his critical reception declined.
"I have to keep reminding myself that I wrote those early books", he
admitted. "I wrote that. I wrote that. The only way I can regain credit
for my early work is – to die." Where his earlier work had relied on ingeniously wrought
metaphors and parables for the human situation, the later anti-fictions largely
give up on this fictional effort in favour of informal, cracker-barrel
philosophising from the author himself.

Even Slaughterhouse Five was far from universally admired. Many readers
found the story of infantry scout Billy Pilgrim’s wartime misadventures too
passive and morally quietistic: "Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were
the past, the present, and the future"
, Vonnegut wrote, and
"It was all right … Everything is all right, and everybody has to do
exactly what he does." He laid an extra layer of futility over his story by
adding the perspective of the Planet Tralfamadore, where the inhabitants see
all time as simultaneously present, and ended it with the preordained
"Poo-tee-weet?" of a bird.

Vonnegut’s father once complained that there were no bad guys in his
books, and Vonnegut attributed his largely blame-free world view to having
studied 1940s anthropology, with its total relativism and deliberate lack of
value judgments, as well as its sense of human cultures and religions as
arbitrary artifacts and "Rube Goldberg inventions". He received a less
friendly complaint while speaking at the Library of Congress in the early
1970s, when a man stood up during his speech and asked "What right have
you, as a leader of
America‘s young people, to
make those people so cynical and pessimistic?" Vonnegut had no ready
reply, so left the stage. He later commented: "The beliefs I have to
defend are so soft and complicated, actually, and, when vivisected, turn into
bowls of undifferentiated mush. I am a pacifist, I am an anarchist, I am a
planetary citizen, and so on."

Vonnegut went to Biafra during the Biafran war
(1967-70), where he
admired the Biafrans’ familial support networks: extended families "where
everyone feels needed"
subsequently became a plank of his
preaching, along with his hatred of technology. He hated nuclear power,
disliked computers and television, and had no faith in the idea of progress:
"The idea that the human race is going anywhere is a childhood myth, like
Santa Claus."

Vonnegut suffered intermittently from depression, which wasn’t helped by
the attempts of critics to – as he put it – squash him like a bug. He attempted
suicide in 1984, but joked in his 1997 novel, Timequake, that "I am a monopolar
depressive descended from monopolar depressives. That’s how come I write so
Certainly the insights of repression have rarely
been so charmingly or pithily expressed as they have in his work.

described by his critics as regressive, infantile and faux naif, Vonnegut was
an enthusiastic fellow traveller of what has been termed "dumbing
down". He professed to admire the student who defended his low college
grades by telling his father he was just dumb, and so-called dumbness took on a
moral quality for Vonnegut, to be equated with sincerity and decent ordinariness.

Several of his works were filmed, including Slaughterhouse-Five (1972),
Slapstick (Of Another Kind) (1982), Mother Night (1996), and in 1999 Breakfast
of Champions. Two years earlier, after the publication of Timequake, he
announced he would not be writing again. Then along came the second President
Bush, and A Man Without a Country: A Memoir of Life in George W Bush’s America
was published in 2006.

Vonnegut never attained the literary esteem of JD Salinger, another
favourite among young people, and his work retains the stigma of being an adolescent or
campus taste.
Nonetheless, his snappily expressed disaffection
with the ways of what passes for civilisation made him a spokesman for an America
that had lost its way after Hiroshima
and Vietnam. Humane, funny,
quotable, and disarmingly modest, it is as hard not to respect Vonnegut the man
as it is to unreservedly admire all of his work.
The individual
of whom JG Ballard once said "his sheer amiability could light up all the
cathedrals in America"
is no more. So it

His first wife
died in 1986. He is survived by the three children of his first marriage and
his wife and a daughter from his second.


Kurt Vonnegut dies at 84

Crown and agencies
Thursday April 12, 2007

, the
American novelist best known for his science fiction classic,
Slaughterhouse-Five, which begins with the bombing of Dresden during the second
world war and goes on to offer a blackly witty investigation of fate and free
died yesterday. According to his wife, the photographer
Jill Krementz, Vonnegut had sustained brain injuries from a fall at his home in
Manhattan some weeks earlier.

Vonnegut’s writing career spanned more than half a century and saw him
produce 14 novels (many of which were bestsellers) as well as dozens of short
stories, essays and plays. He ranged from the conventional science fiction of
his 1963 novel, Cat’s
Cradle (which hangs around the discovery of "ice-nine", a substance
with the properties of water but which is solid at room temperature)

to the satirical Breakfast of Champions (1973) and the semi-autobiographical
Slaughterhouse-Five, the catalyst for which was his own experience as a soldier
with the US 106th Infantry Division and as a prisoner of war during world war

Vonnegut’s body of work gains internal coherence from the reappearance of
key characters, from Kilgore Trout, the unappreciated science fiction writer of
Breakfast of Champions, whom Vonnegut described as his alter-ego, to Trout’s
greatest fan, Eliot Rosewater, who features in several of Vonnegut’s novels
following his debut as the eponymous hero of God Bless You, Mr Rosewater
(1965). Themes and concepts also resurface, from ice-nine to his ongoing
occupation with the mess humankind was making of the

Following the publication of his 1997 novel Timequake, which stars
Kilgore Trout and in which he returned again to ideas of determinism and free
will, he retired from writing novels, although he continued to publish short articles.
His 2005 nonfiction collection, A Man Without a Country, in which he gave free
rein to his contempt for the Bush administration (whom he described as "upper-crust
C-students who know no history or geography"
), became a
bestseller. He called the book’s success "a nice glass of champagne at the
end of a life".

Away from
writing novels, Vonnegut, a self-proclaimed humanist and sceptic, was an active
member of the PEN writers’ aid group and the American Civil Liberties Union,
and replaced Isaac Asimov as honorary president of the American Humanist
Association and worked as a senior editor and columnist for the politically
progressive monthly magazine, In These Times, which was published by the
Institute For Public Affairs.

was born in
Indianapolis on November 11, 1922, and studied chemistry
Cornell University before joining the
When he returned from the second world war, he married his
childhood sweetheart, Jane Marie Cox, with whom he had three children (he also
adopted his sister Alice’s three children when she died of cancer), and worked
as a reporter for Chicago’s City News Bureau. He went on to work in public relations for
General Electric (a job he reportedly hated).
He separated from
his first wife in 1970 and later married Krementz, with whom he adopted another

Vonnegut once said that, of all the ways to
die, he would prefer to go out in an airplane crash on the
peak of Mount Kilimanjaro. He often joked about the difficulties of
old age, saying in
an interview
with the Associated Press in 2005 that "when Hemingway killed himself he put a period at the
end of his life; old age is more like a semicolon."



Norwich, U(n) K(olon),


P.D.Doggy. 1970 4

… sine nobilitatis.

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