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Kurt Vonnegut: 1922-2007

His popular novels blended social criticism, dark humor

April 12, 2007|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

When the family money ran out, he left private school for the public Shortridge High School in Indianapolis, where his scrawny physique made him the butt of jokes. Nicknamed "Snarf" after classmates spied him sniffing his armpits absentmindedly, he described himself as "a real skinny, narrow-shouldered boy ... a preposterous kind of flamingo," not unlike the oddball Billy Pilgrim in the novel that would make Vonnegut famous. He found a niche on the staff of the campus newspaper, the Echo, as a writer and editor.

When he went off to Cornell University in 1940, he followed his older brother into science as a chemistry major. Unlike his brother, however, Vonnegut was a poor student who gained attention for his practical jokes, such as showing up for final exams of large classes he was not enrolled in and shredding the exam in front of the astonished instructor.

He also became known for writing, which took up most of his time in college. He served as managing editor of the Cornell Daily Sun as well as author of a thrice-weekly humor column.

Many years later, when he was asked to identify his cultural influences, he would often name serious writers such as Twain, Jonathan Swift and James Joyce. "But the truth is that I am a barbarian, whose deepest cultural debts are to Laurel and Hardy ... Buster Keaton, Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Charlie Chaplin ... and so on," he wrote in 1972. "They made me hilarious during the Great Depression and all the lesser depressions after that."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday April 13, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 65 words Type of Material: Correction
Kurt Vonnegut photos: In the obituary of author Kurt Vonnegut in some editions of Thursday's Section A, two of the photos were incorrectly credited. The photo of Vonnegut sitting on a park bench was taken by Jennifer S. Altman for The Times, not by Diane Bondareff of the Associated Press; the photo of the author with his wife was taken by Bondareff, not by Altman.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 15, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Vonnegut obituary: In the obituary of novelist Kurt Vonnegut that appeared in Thursday's Section A, the last name of novelist Jay McInerney was misspelled as MacInerny.

He was close to flunking out of Cornell in early 1943 when he joined the Army and was sent to Carnegie Institute of Technology and the University of Tennessee to study mechanical engineering. He was trained in artillery and as an advance infantry scout.

Just before Vonnegut shipped out to England, his mother committed suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills on Mother's Day, 1944. She had suffered bouts of depression after failing to make much money writing magazine fiction in the 1930s, an activity she took on to bolster the family income. According to her son's recollection, she also had become dependent on alcohol and "unlimited amounts of prescribed barbiturates." Her death was the first in a series of bizarre and brutal turns in Vonnegut's life that would color his later writing.

In late 1944, Vonnegut was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and wound up in a prisoner work group in Dresden, a city so treasured for its baroque beauty that no one thought it would be targeted. If he remained there, Vonnegut thought, he would be safe until the war ended.

But on Feb. 13, 1945, Dresden was hit by successive waves of British and American bombers, which destroyed the city's extraordinary architecture and art treasures and killed at least 60,000 people and perhaps as many as 200,000 -- more than in the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

Vonnegut and his group were spared because their prison was as good as a concrete-block underground bunker: "a cool meat-locker under a slaughterhouse," two floors below ground, which they shared with six guards and "ranks and ranks of dressed cadavers of cattle, pigs, horses and sheep."

When the bombing was over, he emerged to find that the Allies had "burnt the whole damn town down." He and the other prisoners were put to work as "corpse miners," recovering the dead who had suffocated in bomb shelters. Vonnegut dragged out the bodies and piled them on huge communal funeral pyres. The recovery effort eventually was halted and the Germans just torched the dead where they lay, turning the shelters into crematories.

"It was a fancy thing to see, a startling thing," Vonnegut would recall in a 1977 Paris Review interview.

Emotional event

Although he would sometimes downplay Dresden's importance, he acknowledged that the experience gave him "something to write about."

It also blackened his view of the world.

"The firebombing of Dresden was an emotional event without a trace of military importance.... " he said in an undated speech reprinted in "Fates Worse Than Death."

"I will say again what I have often said in print and in speeches, that not one Allied soldier was able to advance as much as an inch because of the firebombing of Dresden. Not one prisoner of the Nazis got out of prison a microsecond earlier. Only one person on earth clearly benefited, and I am that person," said Vonnegut, referring to his bestselling novel. "I got about five dollars for each corpse, not counting my fee tonight."

The horror and absurdity of the catastrophe would plague him for years as he tried, and finally rejected, the idea that one could write conventionally about something that so utterly defied logic.

Dresden capped a period swollen with trauma for Vonnegut, who struggled in later years with his own depressions and once nearly took his own life.

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