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Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1922. He edited his high school newspaper and attended Cornell University, where he studied chemistry and wrote for the Cornell Daily Sun for about two years. Then Vonnegut joined the army, where he served with the U.S. 106th Infantry Division during World War II and earned a Purple Heart. He was taken captive and, as a prisoner of war, saw the bombing of Dresden in Germany. After the war ended, Vonnegut earned an advanced degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago and worked for the City News Bureau of Chicago, where he worked as a police reporter. He eventually left Chicago for Schenectady, New York, to work for General Electric in the public relations department. In 1951, he left his job to devote himself to writing.
Vonnegut published his first short story, “Report on the Barnhouse Effect,” in 1950. Numerous works of fiction followed, most of which are equal parts satire and science fiction. Some of his best-known works include The Sirens of Titan (1959), Cat’s Cradle (1963), and Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). Slaughterhouse-Five tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, who has lived through the bombing of Dresden and become a time traveler. Breakfast of Champions (1973), another well-known novel, features an experimental form and the introduction of the author as a character. Vonnegut has produced many other novels as well as short story collections and plays and written essays about many subjects, including suicide. His mother killed herself when he was a young man, and Vonnegut attempted suicide himself in 1985. After the publication of Timequake (1996), Vonnegut said that he was through writing fiction. Since then, he has written essays for the magazine In These Times. He has taught at Smith College, the City College of New York, Harvard University, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
A fervent liberal, Vonnegut is a lifetime member of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union). Although he rarely makes explicit mention of real-world politics in his fiction, many of his works have been interpreted as oblique jabs at various governments and systems of thought. Many of Vonnegut’s columns for In These Times criticize President George W. Bush and his handling of the Iraq war. The bestselling essay collection A Man Without a Country (2005) takes on both President Bush and Senator John Kerry. Never one to shy away from controversy, Vonnegut has tackled the debate about assisted suicide in his essay collection God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian (2001) and has made much-criticized comments to an Australian newspaper about the bravery of terrorists who die for their beliefs.
“Harrison Bergeron” is one of Vonnegut’s most important short stories. It was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1961 and was later republished as part of the short-story collection Welcome to the Monkey House (1968). Set in a dystopian America in 2081, it is often interpreted as a blistering critique of authoritarian governments. In its blend of satire and science fiction, “Harrison Bergeron” typifies Vonnegut’s work. The story expands on an idea first introduced, in abbreviated form, in Vonnegut’s novel The Sirens of Titans. In 1995, the short story was made into a TV movie.