Kurt Vonnegut, novelist and former CIT student, dies
Kurt Vonnegut’s official website currently features a framed picture of an open birdcage, drawn in his trademark squiggly black ink, with his name and life span beneath. The site has no links to a short biography, bibliography, tour dates, or contact information. Like his novels, Vonnegut’s website was both simple and profound in delivering its latest message: Last Wednesday, writer Kurt Vonnegut died in Manhattan. He was 84.
The author of novels such as Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle, and Sirens of Titan died as a result of brain injuries sustained during a fall several weeks ago, according to an April 12 article in The New York Times.
Vonnegut is known for his lighthearted approach to questions that have plagued human existence, chronicled in the 14 novels that bear his name. A World War II veteran, he witnessed the Dresden firebombing that burned thousands of civilians alive, which is a central topic in one of his most well-known novels, Slaughterhouse-Five.
Vonnegut briefly attended the Carnegie Institute of Technology to study mechanical engineering in 1943.
“He was his own man — one-of-a-kind writer,” said Hilary Masters, a Carnegie Mellon professor of English and creative writing. Masters recalled encountering Vonnegut at a PEN writers’ association party in New York: “He was doing his Mark Twain imitation — baggy white suit, bushy hair, and flowing mustache.”
Vonnegut appeals equally to the current generation of students and contemplative thinkers.
“The first time I took seriously a ‘meaning for life’ was when I read Sirens of Titan,” said sophomore fine arts major Brenda Battad.
Screenwriter James V. Hart told (MTV.com) on April 13 that he and Vonnegut recently adapted Sirens of Titan for film.
Vonnegut was born to Kurt Vonnegut Sr., an architect, and Edith Vonnegut in Indianapolis in 1922. Vonnegut’s brother Bernard, a physicist, died in 1997. In his early 20s, Vonnegut attended Cornell University, Carnegie Institute of Technology, and the University of Tennessee to study the sciences before shipping off to Europe with the army in 1944, according to The New York Times.
After the war, he married Jane Marie Cox and settled down in Chicago. As he worked to promote his writing, Vonnegut took many jobs. En route to getting turned down for a master’s degree in anthropology by the University of Chicago, Vonnegut worked as city police reporter.
In 1947, his family moved to the Northeast, first Schenectady, N.Y., and then to Cape Cod, Mass. He worked in public relations for General Electric, wrote for Collier’s magazine, taught emotionally disturbed children, and started a Saab auto dealership while trying to catch his first break in the publishing world.
“His early novels were very conventional and nothing special,” Masters said.
In the 1960s and ’70s, Vonnegut reeled off a series of novels that would establish his reputation among college students and opponents of the Vietnam War, beginning with his acclaimed Cat’s Cradle.
Even decades after the war that inspired his career, students seem to look to Vonnegut for moral guidance.
“His writing was a simple thing about bigger, more interesting topics,” said Jeremy Neuberg, a sophomore studying social and decision sciences.
In addition to his appearance, the potent American satire in Vonnegut’s writing helped draw comparisons to Mark Twain. But the alternate universes and parallel dimensions found in some of Vonnegut’s novels owed just as much to his training in the sciences as to creative word play and political engagement.
Vonnegut once reportedly referred to George W. Bush’s ascendance to the presidency and control of the federal government as a “Mickey Mouse coup d’état.”
“I think we are terrible animals and I think our planet’s immune system is trying to get rid of us, as it should,” Vonnegut said once as a guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Carnegie Mellon English professor Alan Kennedy recalled a Vonnegut guest lecture he heard while at the University of Edinburgh, around the time the film Slaughterhouse-Five was released.
“It seemed clear that Vonnegut didn’t like the movie,” Kennedy said. “He claimed that he had tried to get the director to insert a little smiling picture of Vonnegut in the upper right corner of every frame, so the audience would remember that there was an actual person behind this production. The movie is terrible and would be much better if it had included a personal touch.”
Kennedy’s assessed Vonnegut’s writing more positively.
“He became probably the most inventive, imaginative, and fresh storyteller of the second half of the 20th century,” he said.