Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was born to third-generation German-American parents in Indianapolis, Indiana, the setting for many of his novels. As a high-schooler at Shortridge High in Indianapolis, Vonnegut worked on the nation's first and only daily high-school newspaper, The Daily Echo. He briefly attended Butler University in Indianapolis, but he dropped out when a professor said his stories were not good enough. He attended Cornell University from 1941 to 1943, where he served as an opinions section editor for the student newspaper, the Cornell Daily Sun, and majored in chemistry before joining the U.S. Army during World War II. His experiences as an advance scout with the U.S. 106th Infantry Division during the Battle of the Bulge and as a prisoner of war earned him a Purple Heart and have influenced much of his work.
While a prisoner of war, Vonnegut witnessed the aftermath of the 1945 bombing of Dresden, Germany, which destroyed much of the city. Vonnegut was one of just seven American prisoners of war in Dresden to survive, in an underground meatpacking cellar known as Slaughterhouse Five. "Utter destruction," he recalls. "Carnage unfathomable." The Nazis put him to work gathering bodies for mass burial, Vonnegut explains. "But there were too many corpses to bury. So instead the Nazis sent in guys with flamethrowers. All these civilians' remains were burned to ashes." This experience formed the core of his most famous work, Slaughterhouse-Five and is a theme in at least six other books.
After the war, Vonnegut attended the University of Chicago as a graduate student in anthropology and also worked as a police reporter at the City News Bureau of Chicago. According to Vonnegut in Bagombo Snuff Box, the university rejected his first thesis on the necessity of accounting for the similarities between Cubist painting and Native American uprisings of the late 19th century, saying it was "unprofessional." (They later accepted his novel Cat's Cradle and awarded him the degree.) He left Chicago to work in Schenectady, New York, in public relations for General Electric. He attributes his unadorned writing style to his reporting work. On the verge of abandoning writing, Vonnegut was offered a teaching job at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. While he was there Cat's Cradle became a bestseller, and he began Slaughterhouse-Five, now widely regarded as one of the most significant works of American fiction in the 20th century.
A Man Without a Country
by Kurt Vonnegut and Dan Simon.