Born on November 11, 1922, in Indianapolis, Indiana, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is the son of Kurt Vonnegut Sr., a wealthy architect, and Edith Sophia Vonnegut. Vonnegut's two older siblings, Alice and Bernard, attended private school, but the Depression's impact on the family's fortunes forced Vonnegut to attend Shortridge, a public high school. Vonnegut showed an early literary bent, working as an editor of Shortridge's daily newspaper. He later attended Cornell, where, at his father and brother's urging, he studied biochemistry. But, science held little appeal for Vonnegut. He found a great deal more enjoyment as a columnist and editor for the Cornell Daily Sun. While the university contemplated expelling him for his poor academic performance, Vonnegut enlisted in the U.S. Army.
Vonnegut's experiences as a soldier had a profound impact on his writing and philosophy. His mother, who had a long history of mental instability, committed suicide in 1944 while Vonnegut was away at war. Soon thereafter, Vonnegut was captured by the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans forced Vonnegut, along with other POWs, to work in a factory in Dresden, a city that had no strategic value in the war. Nevertheless, on February 13, 1945, the Allied forces firebombed the city while Vonnegut and the other POWs took shelter in the meat locker of a slaughterhouse. The bombing of Dresden yielded a death toll of over a hundred thousand defenseless civilians in a matter of hours, greater than the initial death count of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. The scene of senseless misery and mass destruction at Dresden played a key role in Vonnegut's development of pacifist views. It would be 20 years before Vonnegut could bring himself to write about the experience in Slaughterhouse-Five, published at the height of the Vietnam War.
When Vonnegut returned to the United States, he worked as a journalist and studied anthropology at the University of Chicago. After his master's thesis was rejected, he traveled to Schenectady, New York, where he took a job with General Electric, which provided inspiration for his novel Player Piano, a sobering examination of industrialization's effect on society. After he quit his job at General Electric, Vonnegut took a job teaching English in Rhode Island and continued writing novels that heavily influenced the 1960s counter-culture generation, Slaughterhouse-Five most particularly. Vonnegut gained a reputation as a science fiction writer; he was not pleased with the title because science fiction occupied a low status in the world of literature. After a failed suicide attempt in 1984, Vonnegut continues to publish novels that provide often hilarious, often macabre, and always sobering explorations of the dangers inherent in the combination of human folly and mankind's technological capacity for mass destruction.