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Who is Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 14 May 2018
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Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was an American author noted for his darkly comic and often political novels and short stories. It's difficult to categorize his work by genre, though it often incorporates satire and science fiction. He is one of the most popular and influential American writers of the 20th century, and many of his works have been adapted to film, television, and stage. In addition to his written works, he created graphic art, beginning with felt-tip pen illustrations in his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was born on 11 November 1922 in Indianapolis, Indiana. He displayed interest in the written word early on, working on school newspapers in both high school and college. He attended Cornell University for two years beginning in 1941, then transferred to Carnegie Mellon University. In 1943, his college career was cut short when he enlisted in the US Army.

His difficult experiences during World War II informed his later work. On Mother's Day 1944, when he was home on leave, his mother committed suicide. Depression would also plague him throughout his life.

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Later in 1944, Vonnegut became separated from his battalion on the front and was captured by Nazi forces. He became a prisoner of war in Dresden, held underground in a meat locker belonging to a plant called slaughterhouse five — later the title of one of his best known books. He was one of only seven American prisoners to survive the Dresden bombing. In May, 1945, he was rescued by Soviet forces, and later awarded with a Purple Heart.

After World War II, he married Jane Marie Cox, his childhood sweetheart, with whom he had three children. He also returned to college, as a graduate student of anthropology at the University of Chicago. His first thesis was rejected, but his 1963 novel Cat's Cradle, which deals with some anthropological issues, was later accepted as his thesis, and he earned his Master's degree in 1971. He accepted a position at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, and Cat's Cradle became a commercial success shortly thereafter. He published Slaughterhouse-Five, widely considered his most important work, in 1969.

He separated from his first wife in 1970 and began living with photographer Jill Krementz. After his divorce was finalized in 1979, he married Krementz, and the two remained together until Vonnegut's death. He adopted four children, three of whom were the orphans of his sister.

Vonnegut continued to work as a novelist through the 1990s before turning his attention to overtly political writings. He was a frequent contributor to the progressive monthly In These Times, penning articles in which he passionately criticized the Bush administration and the Iraq War. A collection of his essays, A Man Without a Country, was published in 2005. He died on 11 April 2007 in Manhattan, New York, as a result of brain injuries incurred during a fall. He is remembered as one of the most influential and insightful authors of the 20th century.

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