Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on November 11, 1922, the son of accomplished German immigrants. His grandfather held the distinction of being the first licensed architect in Indiana; his father was also an architect, while his mother’s side of the family owned prosperous breweries. Prohibition’s outlawing of alcoholic beverages, which went into effect in 1919, had already curtailed the brewery business at the time of Vonnegut’s birth, but he enjoyed an affluent, privileged childhood nonetheless. Family finances suffered, however, during the Great Depression, as the demand for new building construction tapered off.
Vonnegut attended high school in Indianapolis and began his writing career on the school newspaper. He continued his journalistic endeavors with the Cornell Daily Sun, the college newspaper of Cornell University, where he majored in biochemistry. Vonnegut left school to enlist in the U.S. Army in 1942. Arriving home on special leave for Mother’s Day in 1944, Vonnegut found that his mother had committed suicide the night before by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. After returning to his unit, he was captured at the Battle of the Bulge (fought in France from December 16, 1944, to January 16, 1945) and imprisoned in Dresden, Germany, for the remainder of the war. Held captive in an underground meat storage cellar, Vonnegut survived the British and American bombings that leveled the city. He was liberated by the Russians and awarded one of America’s highest military honors, the Purple Heart.
Vonnegut attended the University of Chicago after the war and then worked as a police reporter. From 1947 to 1950 he was a publicist for General Electric Corporation in Schenectady, New York, where he learned much about the technology that would later permeate his fiction. Leaving General Electric in 1950, Vonnegut turned to writing full-time, gaining a minor reputation as a science fiction writer but receiving little acclaim. It was not until the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five in 1969 that Vonnegut received any serious critical attention. After the success of this novel, however, his earlier works were republished, and he came to be regarded as one of America’s most original and provocative writers.