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Kurt Vonnegut Jr., 1996

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This story originally appeared in the Spring 1996 Perspectives

This American short story writer, novelist and critic writes: "I am the son and grandson of Indianapolis architects, who were also good painters, so it was natural that I should go into the arts. I was told by my father to be anything but an architect. He had been made gloomy by years and years of very little work. And, when my brother, Bernard, began to do very well as a chemist, I was given more or less direct orders to become a chemist too."

So Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. kept away from the arts and studied chemistry for three years at Cornell University. "I was delighted to catch pneumonia during my third year and upon recovery, to forget everything I ever learned about chemistry and go to war.

"I was a battalion scout and was easily captured. The most interesting thing I saw during the war, I suppose, was the destruction of Dresden, the largest single massacre in European history. I was a prisoner of war in a meat locker under a slaughterhouse when the worst of the firestorm was going on. After that I worked as a miner of corpses, breaking into cellars where over a hundred thousand Hansels and Gretels were baked like gingerbread men.

"After the war I went to the University of Chicago, where they allowed me to be a graduate student in anthropology, even though I had no degree. I stayed there for three years, also working as a police reporter for the Chicago City News Bureau. I went broke and hired out as a flack for the research laboratory of the General Electric Company. At the end of my third year, I began to sell short stories to Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post."

Slaughterhouse Five, which became a best seller and was made into a film, made Vonnegut a literary celebrity. Several of his novels are now required reading at several universities. Cat's Cradle and The Sirens of Titan have sold nearly 200,000 copies each.

He says he was "worried about why I write books when presidents and generals do not read them." He concludes that the trick is to catch them at school, "before they become generals and senators and presidents and poison their minds with humanity." When asked what sort of writer he would most like to be known as, Vonnegut replies, "George Orwell."

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Slaughter House Five

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Cat's Cradle

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