Kurt Vonnegut, the Indianapolis-born literary giant behind seminal 20th-century novels "Slaughterhouse-Five" and "Breakfast of Champions," died Wednesday evening at age 84.LINK: Author Kurt Vonnegut dies at 84
Vonnegut, who often marveled that he had lived so long despite his lifelong smoking habit, had suffered brain injuries after a fall at his Manhattan home weeks ago, said his wife, photographer Jill Krementz.
"He's the closest thing we've had to Voltaire," Tom Wolfe, whose first book had a blurb from Vonnegut, told Bloomberg News Service. "It's a sad day for the literary world."
Vonnegut had been scheduled to speak in Indianapolis on April 27 as part of the ongoing "Year of Vonnegut" celebration honoring his life and work. Vonnegut's son Mark planned to give the 2007 McFadden Memorial Lecture written by his father.
The author's writing was distinctive for its combination of the satirical and the fantastical, and leavened by a black humor that looked disdainfully upon humankind's capacity for destruction.
"I will say anything to be funny, often in the most horrible situations," Vonnegut, whose watery, heavy-lidded eyes and unruly hair made him seem to be in existential pain, once told a gathering of psychiatrists.
Other notable novels include "Cat's Cradle," "The Sirens of Titan" and "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater."
Vonnegut grew up in a prominent Indianapolis family, born in 1922 to Kurt (Sr.) and Edith Vonnegut. His father and grandfather were architects, and his mother was the daughter of millionaire brewer Albert Lieber.
Though he left Indianapolis more than 50 years ago, Mr. Vonnegut never severed his ties to the city.
"Today, Indianapolis mourns the loss of a native son and literary legend," said Mayor Bart Peterson in a statement Wednesday night. Born and raised in Indianapolis, Kurt Vonnegut regularly referenced his Hoosier ties and spoke fondly of his formative years here. The pride that Vonnegut often expressed in his Indianapolis roots is certainly reciprocated by the pride we feel in his tremendous life and legendary work. He and his imaginative, thought-provoking literature will be greatly missed. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Vonnegut family," Peterson said.
While serving in the Army during World War II, he was captured by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge. As a prisoner of war, he witnessed the 1945 firebombing of Dresden. The horrific deaths of thousands of civilians later inspired him to write "Slaughterhouse-Five," widely regarded as his masterpiece, nearly a quarter-century later.
"He is the representative writer of the post-World War American," Donald E. Morse, a professor at the University of Debrecen, Hungary, and author of "The Novels of Kurt Vonnegut: Imagining Being an American," told Bloomberg. "This is the person who recorded the effects of the Great Depression on people, World War II, Vietnam, drugs, you name it, he covered it in his fiction and he did it in a way that we had to pay attention to."
A graduate of Shortridge High School who attended Cornell University before enlisting in the military, Vonnegut began publishing short stories in the 1950s while working in public relations for General Electric. His first novel, "Player Piano," was published in 1952.
He publicly proclaimed his 1997 novel "Timequake" would be his last work of fiction. He continued writing essays, often contemptuous of the presidency of George W. Bush, which were published in a 2005 collection titled "A Man Without a Country."
An avowed humanist, Vonnegut became more pessimistic about human capacity for good in his later years. In a 2004 essay he wrote, "Only a nut case would want to be a human being, if he or she had a choice." And he told the Los Angeles Times in a 2005 interview, "I think we're a very bad idea. Look at the 20th century. You've got the Holocaust, two world wars, Hiroshima. Let's just call it off."
Tragedy was a recurring trait throughout his life. Vonnegut's mother killed herself in 1944, and he attempted suicide in 1984. He wrote about his attempt several times. He suffered smoke inhalation during a 2000 fire that destroyed part of his New York townhouse.
Vonnegut married his childhood sweetheart, Jane Marie Cox, in 1945. They had a son, Mark, and two daughters, Edith and Nanette. After his sister Alice and her husband died within days of each other in 1958, the Vonneguts adopted three of the couple's four children. Kurt and Jane Marie separated in 1970 and divorced in 1979. Vonnegut married Krementz in 1979, and they adopted a daughter, Lily, in 1982.
I read Sirens of Titan last year and loved it. I am actually currently reading Slaughterhouse-Five for my Banned Books Literature class...
May he R.I.P.
LINK: About Political Humor: The Political Wisdom of Kurt Vonnegut
LINK: Since 1995, Kurt Vonnegut contributed his distinct art and words to the pages of In These Times, and we were deeply saddened to learn of his passing. Tomorrow, we will remember his work as a teacher, artist, humanist, and friend. But for now, here’s a compilation of Vonnegut’s contributions.