Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | Barron's Booknotes
BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was born into a prominent family on November 11, 1922, in Indianapolis, Indiana. His father and grandfather were both architects. In addition, his family members were known for being pacifists and atheists, two philosophies that shape Vonnegut's thinking and writing.
Vonnegut was educated in Indianapolis. In high school, he was a good student and served as a reporter for his school paper, the Daily Echo. In 1940, he graduated and went to Cornell University, where he studied biochemistry and wrote for the college paper. Before graduation and in spite of his pacifist background, he volunteered for military service in 1943 because of World War II. He served in the infantry and participated in the Allied invasion of Europe. Like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, he was captured by the Nazis and imprisoned in Dresden. He was in the city when Dresden was bombed and destroyed.
After the war, Vonnegut attended the University of Chicago, studying anthropology and working part-time as a reporter. He also married Jane Cox, his childhood sweetheart. He quit college when his master's thesis was not accepted and went to work for General Electric in Schenectady, New York. After working for three years as a public relations employee, he quit in 1950 to devote himself to his writing full-time. His first novel, Player Piano, was published in 1952; it was largely based on his experiences at General Electric and met with little popularity.
Vonnegut's next novels were not published for several years. The Sirens of Titan, published in 1959, and Mother Night, published in 1961, were unpopular, just like his first novel. As a result, Vonnegut was forced to write and publish short stories to support himself and his family. His next novel, Cat's Cradle (1963), met with some success and even became popular with college students. As a result, his next novels, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965) and Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), sold well and received critical review. In 1968, he published Welcome to the Monkey House, a collection of stories and essays; and in 1970, he published a collection of his short stories, Canary in a Cat House.
During the 1970's, Vonnegut tried his hand at writing drama. Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1970) had a successful off- Broadway run. In 1972, he wrote a play for television, Between Time and Timbuktu, which was largely based on excerpts from his earlier novels and plays.
In 1973, he returned to writing novels, publishing Breakfast of Champions. In 1976, he published Slapstick; or Lonesome No more!, a comedy which is judged as one of his weakest works. Jailbird (1979) is a novel satirizing American politics.
Deadeye Dick (1982) deals with the accidental explosion of a neutron bomb in Ohio. Galapagos (1985) deals with a confusion of past, future and present related to various human views. Bluebeard (1987) is a novel that employs a minor character from Breakfast of Champions. Hocus Pocus (1990) is a narrative by a Vietnam veteran, set in 2001.
Slaughterhouse-Five is largely set during World War II. It focuses on the capture of American soldiers by the Germans in 1945 during the Battle of the Bulge. The captured men are taken to Dresden to work in hard labor. On February 13, 1945, Dresden is destroyed by an allied air raid. All the inhabitants of the city, except for a few American prisoners and their German guards, are annihilated. The survivors were later used to dig through the rubble for corpses and to begin the clean-up of the city. This factual background information is a key to understanding the book and the core around which the other sub-plots revolve.
Slaughterhouse-Five is a sophisticated novel that mixes surrealism, science fiction, dark comedy, philosophic meditation, and impressionistic imagery. It also contains elements of autobiography, documentary, and fantasy. The documentary and the fantastic often appear in the form of inclusions from other sources - an imaginary story by Kilgore Trout or an actual book on a factual subject. The autobiography comes in the war scenes. Like Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut served in the infantry in World War II, was captured by the Nazis, was imprisoned in Dresden during its bombing and destruction; therefore, most of the tales of war included in the book come out of Vonnegut's memory.
On the night of February 13, 1945, Vonnegut was sheltered in Dresden in an underground meat locker while the Allies unleashed one of the most relentless air raids of the war. A firestorm was created that essentially annihilated the historic half-timbered city and left some 35,000 people dead. After the raid the prisoners emerged to the blasted landscape that Vonnegut describes so vividly in Slaughterhouse-Five. For him, the experience became a subject about which he felt compelled to write, but with which he still found it hard to come to terms. In Slaughterhouse-Five, he finally confronts his terrible war memories and tries to put them to rest, just as Billy Pilgrim does.
Throughout the book, Vonnegut mixes a tight style and rambling digressions. Much of the narrative is succinct, using clipped phrases and curt sentences; sometimes, however there are looser digressions that seem to ramble on and explanations that seem unnecessary. Vonnegut also mixes his points of view. Although the majority of the novel is told from an omniscient third person narrator, Vonnegut also intrudes upon the novel, especially in the first and last chapters, to tell about himself and why he is writing the book.