“We are what we pretend to be,
so we must be careful what we pretend to be.”
— from Mother Night, by Kurt Vonnegut
In novels, essays, and plays produced during a career that spanned more than four decades, Kurt Vonnegut was the voice of several generations, a champion for those who, like himself, viewed society’s excesses and eccentricities with more than a little skepticism. When he died on April 11, 2007, at the age of 84, Vonnegut was hailed as a “literary idol” whose works became “classics of the American counterculture,” according to Dinitia Smith, writing his obituary for The New York Times.
Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1922, Vonnegut attended Cornell University, but left to enlist in the Army during World War II. He was captured behind enemy lines and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Dresden. By a quirk of fate, Vonnegut was working in an underground meat locker when the Allies began their carpet-bombing campaign that destroyed the city. One of the few to survive, Vonnegut used his experience as the inspiration for his 1972 novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade, a semi-autobiographical account of an infantryman who is shocked by the horrors of war. Released during the height of Vietnam War protests, Slaughterhouse-Five, with its anti-war message, propelled Vonnegut to the top of the bestseller lists and made him an instant cult hero.
The novel’s success inspired readers to go back and look at Vonnegut’s earlier books, works published as pulp paperbacks and catalogued, to Vonnegut’s consternation, as works of science fiction. From Player Piano (1952) with its parody of corporate culture and machines that rule the earth, to The Sirens of Titan (1959), featuring the “Church of God of the Utterly Indifferent,” and Mother Night (1961) about an American writer on trial in Israel for war crimes committed in Nazi Germany, Vonnegut demonstrated that he could handle weighty subjects using a satiric touch that was often criticized for its depressing fatalism.
Novelists have long struggled to find ways of writing the messages their social consciences dictate in a manner their readers will understand, if not accept. To this end, Vonnegut was a devoted practitioner of his craft, attacking subjects as controversial as war, imperialism, evolution, and organized religion. Lorrie Moore, writing in The New York Times (10/6/85) called Vonnegut a “postmodern Mark Twain: grumpy and sentimental, antic and religious,” while other critics lauded him for “avoiding preaching-to-the-converted complacency.” (Thomas M. Disch, Times Literary Supplement, 11/8/85).
Vonnegut was survived by his wife, the photographer Jill Krementz; their daughter, Lily; his children from his first marriage: Mark, Edith, and Nanette; and his sister Alice’s children, Tiger, Jim, and Steven, whom Vonnegut adopted when Alice and her husband died within a day of each other in 1958.
St. Charles Library Holdings
Mother Night (1962)
Cat’s Cradle (1963)
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; or, Pearls Before Swine (1965)
Welcome to the Monkey House (1968) (a collection of short works)
Slaughterhouse-Five; or, The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (1969) *
Breakfast of Champions; or, Goodbye, Blue Monday! (1973)
Wampeters, Foma, & Granfalloons: Opinions (essays) (1974)
Slapstick; or, Lonesome No More! (1976)
Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage (1981)
Sun, Moon, Star (1981)
Deadeye Dick (1982)
Hocus Pocus (1990) *
Fates Worse Than Death: An Autobiographical Collage of the 1980s (1991)
Timequake (1997) *
God Bless You, Dr. Kervorkian (1999)
Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (1999)
A Man Without a Country (2005) *, **, ER