Slaughterhouse Five
Kurt Vonnegut
Contributed by Marinda Dreiling

The full title is Slaughterhouse-Five, or the Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death. When main character Billy Pilgrim winds up in Dresden, Germany, as a prisoner of war (POW) in World War II, he and 100 other American POWs are kept in an abandoned slaughterhouse called Slaughterhouse-Five. 

Vonnegut survived the bombing by sheltering in an underground meat locker on the grounds of the slaughterhouse where he was a prisoner Slaughterhouse-Five is where Billy Pilgrim, the main character, winds up during the war and where Kurt Vonnegut spend several months at the end of World War II.

The Children’s Crusade was a real historical event. Fired up by the religious fanaticism of the day a boy named Nicholas Cologne inspired thousands of children and teens to march out of France and Germany to go to Jerusalem and join the Crusades. It’s unclear if any of these kids ever made it to Jerusalem; many turned back and it’s likely that most of them died along the journey.

Duty-Dance With Death; the narrator is quoting the French writer Céline here, who said that all art depends on a dance with death. Céline, who fought for France in World War I, claims that he has spent his entire life "waltz[ing death] around". Billy Pilgrim also spends most of his life engaging with death—seeing it in his dreams, traveling back to it in time, trying to avoid it with the Tralfamadorians. But neither Billy’s nor the narrator’s dance with death is voluntary. Both of them have fought in a war beyond their control and not of their choosing.

Kurt Vonnegut was born on November 11th, 1922 in Indianapolis, Indiana. He was the third and last child born to Kurt Vonnegut, Sr. and Edith Lieber Vonnegut. Vonnegut’s father was an architect and his mother a member of a socially prominent family in the area. Vonnegut’s older siblings attended elite private schools but the stock market crash of 1929 forced the family to economize and they moved to a smaller house and young Kurt attended public school. At Shortridge High School Vonnegut became the editor of the school’s unique daily paper and while studying chemistry and biology at Cornell University he served as editor for the Cornell Sun. In 1943 he enlisted in the Army and as part of his military training he studied mechanical engineering. Before he left for service in Europe he returned to Indianapolis to visit his family. During his visit his mother committed suicide on Mother’s Day with an overdose of sleeping pills. Vonnegut went to Europe as an advance infantry scout and arrived in time to experience the last major German offensive of the war during the course of which he is taken prisoner and sent to Dresden to work in the factories. He survived the controversial firebombing of the city, which resulted in the largest single loss of life from a military operation in history. The experience informs most of his work and is the foundation for his most successful novel Slaughterhouse Five (1969).

After the war he married his childhood sweetheart Jane Cox and began graduate work in anthropology at the University of Chicago. While studying anthropology he worked as a part-time reporter for the City News Bureau. Vonnegut finished his course work but after his thesis proposal was rejected he left Chicago to work as a publicist for General Electric’s Research Laboratory in Schenectady, New York where he mingled with prominent scientists, including his brother Bernard, but became increasingly disillusioned with corporate America. His first short story "The Barnhouse Effect" was published in Collier’s magazine on February 11, 1950 and Vonnegut resigned his position at GE to move to Cape Cod in order to write full time. His first novel, Player Piano was published in 1952. Publication of stories did not provide an adequate income, however, and Vonnegut continued to work various odd jobs while writing during the 1950’s. In 1958 he and his wife, already parents to three children, adopted the three children of Vonnegut’s sister and brother-in-law who had died within days of each other. Vonnegut continued to publish stories and novels and came to rely upon the publication of paperback novels as the magazines that had sustained him during the 1950’s began to dry up. During these years he published works such as The Sirens of Titan (1959), Mother Night (1962) and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1964) which for the first time since Player Piano garnished critical attention. From 1965-67 Vonnegut taught at the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop and during this era his earlier works were rediscovered by the growing population of disaffected American youth. A Guggenheim Fellowship grant in 1968 allowed Vonnegut to revisit Dresden and a year later he published Slaughterhouse Five which became an immediate best-seller and established Vonnegut as one of the spokesmen of his age. Vonnegut began to experiment with dramatic works and non-fiction during the 1970’s and during this time he was awarded his M.A. in Anthropology by the University of Chicago after the school determined that Vonnegut’s 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle qualified as a thesis. In 1973 the City University of New York made him Distinguished Professor of English Prose.

Vonnegut and his wife officially divorced in 1979 and Vonnegut married the photographer Jill Krementz. Vonnegut’s 1976 novel Slapstick had received negative reviews but Vonnegut continued to publish novels such as Jailbird (1979), a children’s book Sun Moon Star (1980) Galïupagos (1985), and Bluebeard (1987). In 1985 Vonnegut attempted suicide and in 2000 he was hospitalized for smoke inhalation from a fire in his New York home. His 1997 novel Timequake was published as his last work.

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