April 13, 2007

Alumnus Vonnegut dead at 84

The literary king of dark moral comedy is gone. So it goes.

Kurt Vonnegut (A.M. ’71), satirist, social critic, humanist, counterculture hero, and great American novelist, died in Manhattan on Wednesday of brain trauma, according to the New York Times. He was 84.

Vonnegut had suffered serious head injuries in a fall several weeks ago, his wife Jill Krementz told the Times.

Vonnegut was among the most influential American writers of the 20th century, a guiding moral light permeating his darkly comedic work. His dystopian and apocalyptic vision and his anti-war themes, delivered through the mouths of memorable characters like Kilgore Trout, Billy Pilgrim, and Eliot Rosewater, made him the voice of the Vietnam generation. Never a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, he joked it was because he had bankrupted a Saab dealership in his early days.

Revered for its unique blend of science fiction, metaphysics, social commentary, and absurdity, his work did not conform to traditional forms or genres. Vonnegut instead mixed autobiography, philosophy, and fiction and mocked rules of paragraph structure and punctuation. His work was critical in helping science fiction gain credence as a serious genre and expanding the reach of the non-fiction novel.

An intellectual hero to many U of C students, Vonnegut was a graduate student in anthropology at the University from 1945 to 1947, but left to take a job with the public relations department of General Electric after his first thesis was rejected as “unprofessional.”

The University later accepted Cat’s Cradle as his thesis and awarded him his A.M. in 1971. He commented to Playboy that “this was not an honorary degree but an earned one, given on the basis of what the faculty committee called the anthropological basis of my novels. I snapped it up most cheerfully, and I continue to have nothing but friendly feelings for the University, which gave me the most stimulating years of my life.”

A native of Indianapolis, Vonnegut was influenced by his time as a soldier and prisoner of war in World War II. Captured by the Germans in December 1944, he experienced the February 1945 bombing of Dresden from a meatpacking cellar in the city and was put to work gathering the bodies of the dead for mass burial. The bombing inspired what many consider his greatest novel, which took its name from the cellar that helped save his life: Slaughterhouse-Five.

Published in 1969, Slaughterhouse-Five helped shape the literary arc of the ’60s. On the verge of giving up writing after three novels, Vonnegut finally found financial success with Cat’s Cradle in 1963 and went on to publish such seminal works of the period as God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965), Slaughterhouse-Five, and Breakfast of Champions (1973).

In all, he published 14 novels in a creative career that lasted from 1947 to 2007, along with three collections of short stories, five collections of essays, and five plays.

Vonnegut came out of his semi-retirement in 2005 for his last published work, the essay collection A Man Without a Country. At one point, he wrote what could perhaps stand as a summary of his life’s work: “I saw the destruction of Dresden. I saw the city before and then came out of an air-raid shelter and saw it afterward, and certainly one response was laughter. God knows, that’s the soul seeking some relief. Any subject is subject to laughter...”

Ironically, Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut’s alter ego and recurring anti-hero, died at the age of 84 in his final work of fiction, Timequake.

Further works may be released posthumously, including his long-rumored return to the novel-writing world, If God Were Alive Today.

Vonnegut frequently commented that his longevity was unusual considering his smoking habit, calling it “a classy way to commit suicide.” A long-time sufferer from depression and the son of a suicide victim, Vonnegut attempted to kill himself in 1984.

“My father, like Hemingway, was a gun nut and was very unhappy late in life,” he told the Associated Press in 2005. “But he was proud of not committing suicide. And I’ll do the same, so as not to set a bad example for my children.”

Vonnegut leaves behind his wife Krementz, along with four biological and three adopted children.