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Author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Dies at Age 84

  • Chris Martin

American novelist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., died April 11, at his home in New York weeks after a fall, which led to a brain injury. He is survived by his second wife, photographer Jill Krementz, and seven children. VOA's Steve Norman reports:

Kurt Vonnegut emerged as one of the most influential and provocative writers in the United States, during the 1960's. His writing was an ongoing protest against what he felt were the horrors of the 20th Century. He wrote of an unending sequence of disastrous wars, the destruction of the environment and the dehumanization of the individual, in a society dominated by science and technology. He had a particular dislike for computers.

"One thing I don't like about computers in the home is it cheats people out of the experience of becoming," he said. "Important life experiences are food, but also becoming. This involves reading, study, practicing of art."

Vonnegut's themes were by no means unique to contemporary literature. It was rather the way he expressed his protest that made his works so forceful and popular. Fantasy, science fiction, humor, a keen sense of the absurd, and despair were the ingredients of his satires. In his fantastic tales, he would show the frustrations of average people with their burdens and boredom.

Kurt Vonnegut was a self-proclaimed pessimist. In his novel Breakfast of Champions, about a middle-aged American car salesman, Vonnegut wrote that hard work, intelligence, and perseverance do not guarantee anything in a changing America. He believed the individual was not the controller of his own destiny, but the subject to many uncertainties.

In a conversation with a good friend, New York TV talk show host Charlie Rose, Vonnegut, well into his 70s by then, admitted his best work was behind him.

"I've graded all my books," he added. "I've given myself A-plus, A-minus. I've given A-plus to Cat's Cradle. I've given A-plus to Mother Night and to Slaughterhouse-Five."

Slaughterhouse-Five is considered by many to be Vonnegut's most powerful novel. It was about his experience, during World War Two, as a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany, when he witnessed the firebombing of that city.

Kurt Vonnegut became a freelance writer in 1950 and, two years later, published his first novel, Player Piano. This futuristic story takes place in a city where the industry has been fully mechanized. The people of the city, aware they are being phased out, revolt and destroy all the machinery. They soon realize they have destroyed the technological devices they depend upon for their existence. Another of Vonnegut's well-known works, Cat's Cradle, is the story of two families - one of them black, the other white - who struggle to live in an icy, empty environment.

In his novels, Vonnegut's heroes are unexceptional characters. The author's popularity can be linked to his use of ordinary people whose frustrations force them to work together to correct the ills of their society. He saw personal satisfaction as inconceivable in a fragmented world. Some thought of him as counter-culture and angry. These two Ohio State University students showed up with thousands of others in 1996 hoping to hear the author speak:

STUDENT1: "Vonnegut was a Secular humanist and we thought that it would be a really great opportunity to come see someone famous that had a philosophical bent."

STUDENT2: "I'm excited to see what he has to say. I heard he's angry too."

Vonnegut pleaded, in his surreal way, for an end to the hierarchies of religion, status, money and intelligence that he said divide people and make them adversaries.

Born on 11 November 1922, in Indianapolis, Indiana, Vonnesgut went to Cornell University. And as he wrote book after book he became a hero of his culture, because he celebrated human vulnerabilities, something most can understand. Kurt Vonnegut died at age 84.

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