This will be my first time reading Slaughterhouse-Five. It was published in 1969, during the Vietnam War, and became an instant success due to its anti-war sentiment. My copy’s back cover describes Slaughterhouse-Five as “one of the world’s great anti-war books. Centering on the infamous bombing of Dresden, Billy Pilgrim’s odyssey through time reflects the mythic journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we are afraid to know.”
Kurt Vonnegut (1922 – 2007) was an American author and humorist, well known for his use of black humor and satire. Over a period of more than 50 years, he published fourteen novels, three short-story collections, five plays and five works of non-fiction. Slaughterhouse-Five was his sixth book, published in 1969, during the Vietnam War. It became his most famous book.
Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. He was the youngest of three children and his grandparents on both sides were German immigrants. Because of the anti-German sentiment in America during World War I, however, the Vonneguts gave up their German heritage. Vonnegut’s father was an architect and his mother came from one of the wealthiest families in Indianapolis, owners of a brewery.
The Great Depression hit the Vonneguts hard. His father had to give up his architectural business and they sold the family home. His father tried his hand at painting and his mother wrote for magazines. During these years, his mother became addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs.
Vonnegut attended Cornell University in 1940 where he studied biochemistry. He did not enjoy studying and received poor grades. He had already begun his writing career, however and was editor of the school newspaper. Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Vonnegut wrote a satirical article in the school paper. As a result, he was kicked out of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and put on academic probation. Soon after, he dropped out of Cornell and joined the Army as a private. In 1944, Vonnegut was captured by the Germans and was sent to Dresden, where he lived in a slaughterhouse and worked in a factory. When the Allied forces bombed Dresden in 1945, Vonnegut survived by hiding in an underground meat locker. Vonnegut’s experience at Dresden affected him deeply and Slaughterhouse-Five is a reflection of this experience.
After the war, Vonnegut attended the University of Chicago and studied anthropology, but he did not earn a degree. He also worked as a publicist for General Electric and wrote on the side. He quit GE in 1952 to write full-time and his first novel, Player Piano, was published that year. His work also appeared in Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post and Cosmopolitan. Early in his career, Vonnegut also worked as an English teacher, a copy writer for an ad agency. He and his wife Jane had three children and then adopted Vonnegut’s sister’s children after his sister and her husband died.
Later, Vonnegut spent nearly two years teaching at the writer’s workshop at the University of Iowa. In 1967 he won a Guggenheim Fellowship for research in Germany and traveled to Eastern Europe, including Dresden. He integrated his writings about World War II into the book that became Slaughterhouse-Five.
Slaughterhouse-Five sent Vonnegut’s career to new heights. He soon became a regular commencement speaker, lectured at Harvard, taught at City University of New York and received many honorary degrees. And he continued to write.
Vonnegut’s marriage to Jane ended in divorce in 1971 and in 1979 he married Jill Krementz, a photographer.
In his later years, Vonnegut was an outspoken supporter of several causes: preserving Constitutional freedoms, nuclear arms control and protection of the environment. He wrote throughout his life and died in 2007, at age 84.
Thanks to the following sources:
The Paris Review – The Art of Fiction No. 64 – a compilation of four interviews.
Visit The Strongest Librarian for A Complete List of Kurt Vonnegut Books.
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