Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
- Honorary Degree (1973)
Doctor of Humane Letters
Presenter: John William Ryan
BIOGRAPHYKurt Vonnegut, Jr., the son of Kurt and Edith Lieber Vonnegut, was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, and he now resides in Barnstable, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. After graduating from Shortridge High School, Vonnegut attended Cornell University, Carnegie Institute of Technology, and the University of Chicago. During 1942-45, Vonnegut served in the United States Army in the infantry as a combat scout, was captured and held prisoner of war in Dresden, and was awarded the Purple Heart. In 1945, he married Jane Marie Cox; and they have three children: Mark, Edith, and Nanette.
Vonnegut's early career was a varied one that did, however, include writing as part of his responsibilities. In 1947, he was a police reporter for the Chicago City News Bureau; in 1947-50, a public relations official for General Electric Company, Schenectady, New York; and in 1950, a free-lance writer. In 1965-67, he held a lectureship at the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop; in 1967-68, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship; in 1970-71, he had a creative writing post at Harvard University. Vonnegut's career as a writer of fiction began with the publication of short stories in such magazines as Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Cosmopolitan, Playboy, and Esquire; and these stories—collected in Canary in a Cathouse (1961) and Welcome to the Monkey House (1968)—reflect themes developed in his famous novels, just as his articles (published in a variety of periodicals but recently collected and republished) indicate his concern with problems of his time.
Although Vonnegut is also the author of several plays, such as the often-staged Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1970), his fame today is as a novelist whose literary techniques and concepts have caused him to be given varied classifications by critics: Science Fictionist, Absurdist, Black Comedian, or Black Humorist. Today, critics are beginning to recognize that Vonnegut, who may lie within the American literary tradition of which Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger is a notable example, is a social critic and satirist whose innovative style, concern with time, and multiple viewpoints have caused famous English novelist Graham Greene to consider him to be one of the most important writers of the United States. Moreover, the themes, the biting criticisms, and the satiric wit of his novels have created a Vonnegut cult among the younger generation of readers in both the United States and in European countries in which many of his books have been translated.
Vonnegut's novels are concerned with his complex characters' ability to distinguish between reality and illusion in a pluralistic universe; and the six major novels which expose this central concern are Piano Player (1952), Mother Night (1961), Cat's Cradle (1963), God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; or, Pearls Before Swine (1965), Slaughterhouse-Five; or, The Children's Crusade (1969), The Sirens of Titan (1970), and Breakfast of Champions (1973). Although the complicated characters who are the protagonists of Vonnegut's novels seek comfort in ideologies, the final message that his novels seemingly convey is that man's action needs to be determined by a moral standard, that every human being is important, that mankind needs love and compassion, and that all men must be kind to their fellow men.