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Kurt Vonnegut: Indianapolis Author Draws on the Circle City for his Books

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., an Indianapolis native, became one of the most revered American authors of all time through his use of satire and wit. He is certainly one of the most notable people in Indianapolis and has contributed greatly to Indianapolis history and pride. Kurt Vonnegut’s rise to fame, through his great writing, places Indy on the map. He carries on the tradition of other great Indianapolis born authors such as Booth Tarkington, Theodore Dreiser, and James Whitcomb Riley.

Tribute video dedicated to Indianapolis, Indiana native author Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was born in Indianapolis, Indiana in November of 1922 to Kurt Vonnegut Sr. and Edith Sophia Lieber Vonnegut. He is the son of a line of German immigrants that found their way to the Circle City just after the Civil War. His ancestors are among the conscientious few that found Indianapolis societies like the Indiana German Heritage Society and the Indianapolis Maennerchor, two of the oldest cultural associations in Indy.

His father, Kurt Sr., was a respected Indianapolis business owner and architect. The young family enjoyed an extravagant lifestyle. Kurt’s two older siblings had a governess and went to private school. The family ate luxurious dinners at Indianapolis restaurants and attended many Indianapolis arts and Indianapolis performing arts events.

However, Anti-German sentiment following World War I caused his fathers business to suffer. And by the time Kurt was of school age, they had no more money for luxuries such as a private education. Kurt attended Indianapolis public schools, which serves to make him even more of the people of Indianapolis.

He graduated from Shortridge High School and attended Butler University for one semester before continuing his education at Cornell University. At Cornell, Kurt Vonnegut majored in bio-chemistry, though his passion lay with the schools newspaper, for which he wrote stories about the mounting war in Europe. In his articles for the Cornell Sun, Vonnegut expressed his opinion that America should not become involved in European affairs at the time.

However, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1943, Kurt Vonnegut joined the army and was soon fighting alongside the Europeans against Germany. The next year, he attempted to attain a special leave of absence for Mother’s Day to come home to Indianapolis. However, Edith was prone to bouts of depression and could not bear the thought of her son on the front lines. She committed suicide while he was home on leave.

While in Europe, Vonnegut experienced first hand what he would write about in his book, Slaughterhouse Five. After fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, he became a prisoner in a war camp in Dresden, Germany. He survived a firebombing in of the camp by hiding, with fellow prisoners, in an underground meat storage cellar. When he emerged, the land above was a ruin of ashes and smoke. For the next several days, he and his fellow prisoners pulled corpses from the ruins and cremated them. In 1945, the camp was liberated by Russian soldiers and Vonnegut was freed.

After spending some time in a military hospital, Vonnegut was released from the armed forces. He returned to Indianapolis, where he married his high school sweetheart, Jane Marie Cox. He and Cox moved to the Chicago, where Vonnegut attended his fourth university. His thesis was rejected, and he was yet to receive a degree from any of the higher educational institutions he enrolled in.

Eventually he moved to the Northeast with his wife, where they started a family together. In his time away from his day job at General Electric, Vonnegut began to draw on his experiences in Indianapolis, in World War II, and his political opinions to author short stories for various magazines. After gaining moderate success and discovering that by simply writing books he could earn enough to support his family, Vonnegut tried his hand at full length books. His first published book was Player Piano in 1951.

He published seven full length books in the 1950s and 60s that secured his positions as an influential voice for his generation, before hitting it really big with the publication of Slaughterhouse Five in 1970. Though the book was about his experience in World War II, the anti-war sentiment expressed int he novel resonated with the youth generation’s protests of the Vietnam War.

In total Kurt Vonnegut was the author of twenty-four books:

  • Player Piano or Utopia 14 (1952/1954)
  • The Sirens of Titan (1959)
  • Canary in a Cat House (1961)
  • Mother Night (1962)
  • Cat’s Cradle (1963)
  • God Bless You Mr. Rosewater (1965)
  • Welcome to the Monkey House (1968)
  • Slaughterhouse Five (1970)
  • Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1971)
  • Breakfast of Champions (1973)
  • Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons (Opinons) (1975)
  • Slapstick; or Lonesome No More! (1976)
  • Jailbird (1979)
  • Sun Moon Star (1980)
  • Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage (1981)
  • Deadeye Dick (1982)
  • Nothing is Lost Save Honor: Two Essays (1984)
  • Galapagos (1985)
  • Bluebeard (1987)
  • Hocus Pocus (1990)
  • Fates Worse than Death: An Autobiographical Collage of the 1980s (1991)
  • Timequake (1997)
  • Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (1999)
  • God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian (1999)

In 2007, when the author was 84, Indianapolis planned a citywide celebration of Kurt Vonnegut, an Indianapolis event not to be missed. Different nonprofit organizations around Indy were set to honor Kurt Vonnegut in various ways. The Indianapolis Public Library downtown, the Phoenix Theater, the Indiana Repertory Theater, ShadowApe Theater Company, Heartland Actors Repertory Theater, various Indianapolis universities, and many more all had their own special tribute to Kurt Vonnegut’s life and works.

Kurt Vonnegut himself was set to speak at Clowes Memorial Hall in the Spring of that year. However, this Indianapolis son passed away before he was able to return to a city and state that cherished him and his writings. As his proxy, one of Kurt’s sons spoke on his father behalf. The Indianapolis Star and NUVO Newsweekly covered the event and eulogized the famous Hoosier.

Vonnegut will be remembered for his ability to keep his finger on the pulse of American liberal sentiment. With dark humor, he satirized and brought into the spotlight many important issues that affected the whole country. His legacy lives on each time a new brain dives into one of his masterpieces, which have stood and will stand the test of time.