American Voices: Kurt Vonnegut

The authors featured in our exhibit American Voices represent the evolution and flourishing of American writing. Writers of the 1600s and 1700s borrowed forms and themes from Europe, applying them to New World settings and issues. Then, over the course of the 1800s, a new, democratic style emerged, rooted in the way Americans talked and thought. Previously underrepresented voices began to be heard, culminating with an explosion of perspectives in the modern era. Taken together, this rich literary heritage reflects America in all of its complexity: its energy, hope, conflict, disillusionment, and creativity.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Kurt Vonnegut


Photo of Kurt Vonnegut in military uniform. Courtesy Vonnegut Family Archives/Kurt Vonnegut Museum & Library
Courtesy Vonnegut Family Archives/Kurt Vonnegut Museum & Library

In 1945, Kurt Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in an underground meat locker in Dresden, Germany, while Allied planes pummeled the city with thousands of bombs. An account of this horrific event is the centerpiece of Vonnegut’s irreverent, vernacular, and darkly funny Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), which blends science fiction, autobiography, traditional fiction, and philosophy.

In Slaughterhouse-Five and in many of his other 13 novels, Vonnegut questioned the meaning of existence, depicted the madness of war, and saw kindness as humanity’s only redeeming quality: these perspectives resonated with a country torn apart by military involvement in the Vietnam War. Vonnegut’s works, which also included essays, plays, and short stories, became classics of the counterculture.

“When the last living thing
has died on account of us,
how poetical it would be
if Earth could say,
in a voice floating up
from the floor of the Grand Canyon,
‘It is done.’
People did not like it here.”

—Kurt Vonnegut, “Requiem,” A Man Without a Country (2005)

The expression “So it goes”—flip, defeatist, hilarious—appears again and again in Vonnegut’s magnum opus, Slaughterhouse-Five:

“They had both found life meaningless, partly because of what they had seen in the war. Rosewater, for instance, had shot a fourteen-year-old fireman, mistaking him for a German soldier. So it goes. And Billy had seen the greatest massacre in European history, which was the fire-bombing of Dresden. So it goes.”

Continue your exploration of Vonnegut’s life and legacy with our podcasts! On AWM Author Talks, journalist Tom Roston discusses his recent book The Writer’s Crusade: Kurt Vonnegut and the Many Lives of Slaughterhouse-Five, in which he examines the connection between Vonnegut’s life and the novel. Did Vonnegut suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? Did Billy Pilgrim? Roston probes Vonnegut’s work, his personal history, and discarded drafts of the novel, as well as original interviews with the writer’s family, friends, scholars, psychologists, and other novelists including Karl Marlantes, Kevin Powers, and Tim O’Brien. The Writer’s Crusade is a literary and biographical journey that asks fundamental questions about trauma, creativity, and the power of storytelling.

And then, subscribe to our other podcast Nation of Writers to be notified when a new episode about Vonnegut is released later this month. For this episode, we chat with Julia Whitehead, Founder and CEO of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library and author of Breaking Down Vonnegut.

Select Works by Kurt Vonnegut

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