Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Influences on Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and Loree Wilson Rackstraw
One reason I enjoy reading literary biographies and autobiographies is learning about the influences on writers, discovering why they wrote what they did and, in fact, why they wrote at all. Charles J. Shields, in his biography of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., details numerous influences.

The family dinner table

As the third child in the Vonnegut family, Kurt was nine years younger than his brilliant brother, who later became an important scientist, and five years younger than his sister. At dinner, his siblings, especially his brother, got most of the attention. To change the balance of power, Kurt learned to tell stories, mostly funny stories.

His mother

Vonnegut's mother was a frustrated writer who sent story after story to various magazines but never had even one published. Later, more because of the family's changing economic circumstances than her lack of writing success, she killed herself. These memories drove Vonnegut to succeed as a writer.

His sister

Vonnegut later said that when he wrote he always imagined Alice as his reader. Of all the family members, she had most appreciated his youthful wit, and she later supported his writing career. Her premature death affected him hard.

His newspaper career

Beginning on his high school newspaper and later as a student journalist at Cornell, Vonnegut learned to write in short, punchy and witty paragraphs that later became the trademark of his fiction.


Slaughterhouse-Five was an actual place, the underground Dresden slaughterhouse where he was held as a prisoner of war in the later months of World War II when the city was destroyed by fire bombs. That experience later inspired his novel Slaughterhouse-Five.

Billy Pilgrim

One of his fellow prisoners was a private named Joe Crone, who planned to become an Episcopal minister after the war. Awkward and innocent, Crone was as ill-fitted as a POW as he was as a soldier, regularly trading his food rations for cigarettes. It was Crone whom Vonnegut used as a model for Billy Pilgrim. The author later paid to have Crone's grave decorated with flowers every Memorial Day.


Vonnegut never earned a college degree, but he came close in the field of cultural anthropology. Shields writes, "His ironic distance as a novelist, sounding as detached as an entomologist observing insects, can be traced to his days as an anthropology student."

Kilgore Trout

The hapless science fiction writer who floats in and out of many of Vonnegut's novels was patterned originally after science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, although the character later seemed to represent Vonnegut himself.

Mary O'Hare

The wife of one of his former Army buddies, Mary O'Hare once accused Vonnegut of trying to write yet another novel glorifying war. "You were just babies then," she told him. That notion stuck with him and led to the phrase "The Children's Crusade," which he used as a subtitle for Slaughterhouse-Five. It also led to the novel becoming anything but another book glorifying war.

Montana Wildhack

Vonnegut is said to have modeled the young porn actress in Slaughterhouse-Five after his mistress, Lora Lee (Loree) Wilson, once one of his writing students.

Ambrose Bierce

Vonnegut, after he became successful, began to model himself after Mark Twain, even to the point of dressing like him and giving humorous lectures for which, like Twain, he was very well paid. Yet Shields argues that Bierce, not Twain, was the greater literary influence on Vonnegut's writing.

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