ADSactly Literature: For the Love of Cult Authors: Kurt Vonnegut
What exactly is a “cult author”? Not someone who writes about cults, certainly, but rather a writer who had (either during his lifetime or posthumously) gathered a cult following – squadrons of rabid fans re-reading his or her books over and over and quoting them to anyone who’s willing to listen.
It’s tricky to define exactly what makes a cult book, but chances are you’ll know when you read one. It’s often something obscure, because our society is obsessed with the strange and quirky. A cult author often comes at ya from the fringes of society, they write about the subcultures, about the downtrodden, about the underground. They represent that world you’d kinda like to inhabit, but are often too scared to do so. And often enough, they become the fascination of a lifetime.
In this new @adsactly series, we’ll be taking a look at several “cult authors” who mesmerize audiences well after their deaths. And I feel no such series would be complete without an installment about inimitable American author Kurt Vonnegut.
I was going to say that Kurt Vonnegut is one of those authors whose writing is so fascinating and so strangely unique that you can’t help loving him. But then I changed my mind. See, I don’t think Vonnegut is like any other author, precisely because he was so different to all the writers who had gone before him. Personally, I have yet to find a writer who fills me with the same delight and wonder when I read him.
Kurt Vonnegut was born into a well-to-do family, on the 11th of November, 1922. Like Charles Bukowski, another great American author we’ve featured in our series, he was of German descent, his great-grandfather having immigrated to the States in the mid 19th century. However, Vonnegut didn’t learn German as a child. In the post World War I America of his youth, German immigrants were regarded (understandably) with great suspicion, so the Vonnegut family stayed well away from all things German. Vonnegut perceived this as a lack of origin and left him feeling a little bit lost, not knowing his heritage.
Despite his father being a prosperous architect and his mother’s family owning a brewery, the family hit on hard times during the Prohibition and Great Depression, forcing them to downgrade both their living arrangements and the education of their children. Supposedly, this financial decline was the root cause of his mother’s depression. She would take her own life when Kurt was 21.
Interestingly, Vonnegut was a pacifist, as WWII rolled around and argued against the war. However, bad grades at University as well as a satirical article in the university newspaper got him placed on academic probation at the age of 20 and soon after, he dropped out and was forced to enlist in the army.
Soon after his mother’s untimely death, he was sent to Europe to fight. During the Battle of the Bulge, he was captured by German forces and kept in a POW camp near Dresden, where he worked in an underground slaughterhouse, was tortured by sadistic guards and had to salvage jewelry off dead bodies, which he described as "terribly elaborate Easter-egg hunt". This experience would later serve as inspiration for his hugely successful novel, ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’. The camp was eventually liberated by American forces and Vonnegut returned to the States.
Here, he resumed his career as a writer, but struggled to gain recognition and financial stability for the next 20 years. Although he frequently sold short stories to magazines to support himself and his growing family, Vonnegut was only recognized as the phenomenon we know today after he published ‘Cat’s Cradle’ in 1963.
Kurt, Jane and the three Vonnegut children src
During this time, he worked a variety of jobs, from managing a car dealership, to copywriter, to English teacher and journalist. After returning from the war, he married his childhood sweetheart (seriously, they’d met in kindergarten), Jane Marie Cox, with whom he had three children. As if that wasn’t a hard enough situation for a struggling writer, when Vonnegut was 36, his older sister died of cancer. Tragically, only a few days after, her husband died in a train-wreck and Vonnegut had to adopt the couple’s three young sons. With a household of eight people to feed and clothe, things couldn’t have been easy for Vonnegut. Still, he somehow pulled through (which is remarkable, in my opinion) and eventually received well-deserved recognition.
‘Cat’s Cradle’ was followed by other Vonnegut masterpieces, such as ‘God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater’ and ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’. In these books, as well as in his earlier work, it’s easy to see the stress he was under, as there’s a ‘situation spinning out of control’ theme running through all of them. During this time, Vonnegut taught a writer’s workshop at the University of Iowa and was awarded a scholarship for research in Germany, where he traveled and visited Dresden once again. It was here that he began work on Slaughterhouse, which would truly cement his name as a writer and award him financial security.
Published in 1969, during the Vietnam War, the novel (with its strong anti-war themes) was an immediate success and Vonnegut was invited to speak at several protests and rallies. Oddly, it wasn’t during his years of financial hardship that he suffered a breakdown, but during his years of fame (post-Slaughterhouse). In 1971, he divorced from Jane, his wife of almost three decades due to religious differences. This, coupled with an inability to write (as well as bitter critiques when he did manage to publish a novel) depressed the writer greatly, making him take pills, see a psychologist and even attempt suicide.
But it was not to be and Vonnegut (thankfully) went on to write many more novels, which even though received moderate appreciation at the time are regarded as great books today. He died in 2007, at the age of 84, as a result of brain injuries sustained during a fall. He continues to influence writers, as well as other artists to this day.
Vonnegut wrote compelling stories, as satirical as they were full of hope (or at least managed to give readers hope, which is really the best an author can hope for). He wrote a lot of science fiction, frequently employing themes of dystopic world and aliens in his novels. Another of his common themes was that of politics and war. Naturally, in the rocky second half of the 20th century, as well as today, such stories hit close to home for many readers and Vonnegut books are never out of print, constantly allowing new readers to find their way to them.
Irving with Vonnegut src
Vonnegut inspired many writers, most famously John Irving, who was Vonnegut’s friend and colleague at the Iowa writer’s workshop. But as always, Vonnegut’s most important legacy exists not in other writers, but in his devoted readers, whose lives he’s inspired and pushed further.
One of my favorite pieces of Vonnegut writing comes not from a novel, but from a letter to high school students that goes as follows:
What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what's inside you, to make your soul grow.
SO, here's to a phenomenal writer and inspriation. What's your favorite Vonnegut story?
Authored by @honeydue
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