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10 Facts About Kurt Vonnegut

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10 Facts About Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut wrote great characters – and he was a bit of a character himself. A favorite of the counterculture and known best for Slaughterhouse-Five, the novelist died April 11, 2007. In the 84 years that preceded that day, he wrote some great books, did some weird stuff, and gained legions of fans. On the anniversary of his death, we present 10 facts you may not have known about the literary giant.

1. He once gave grades to all his novels. Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat's Cradle got A-pluses, while Happy Birthday, Wanda June got a dismal D. None of his books received a failing grade, but the book in which he offered the marks, Palm Sunday, received a C. He noted that he wasn't grading his books in comparison to other authors, but just in relation to each other.

2. He's a powerful symbol of the anti-censorship movement. Slaughterhouse-Five ranks among the most frequently banned and challenged books in schools and libraries, thanks to its sometimes coarse language and scenes. When one school board leader ordered copies of the book to be burned in the school furnace in 1973, Vonnegut wrote him a scathing and eloquent letter denouncing censorship and expressing his dismay with the school board's actions. Vonnegut's works and that letter are often highlighted during Banned Books Week – and at last year's literary Hay Festival in Wales, actor Benedict Cumberbatch delivered a reading of the letter in which he tried to capture "Vonnegut's angry voice."

3. There's an asteroid named after him. It's no secret that Vonnegut's wacky-but-deep science fiction is beloved by proud nerds, geeks and dorks the world over. And it's no surprise that many of them are scientists – like Charles W. Juels, an amateur astronomer who discovered hundreds of asteroids. One of the rocks he discovered Nov. 11, 1999 – Vonnegut's 77th birthday – was named 25399 Vonnegut in the author's honor. You can track its orbit around the sun here.

4. He was an artist … and he preferred drawing to writing. Vonnegut started by illustrating a few of his books, and he later began seriously pursuing art in addition to writing. He chose markers as his primary medium, enjoying their bright, bold colors. And he expressed a strong preference to drawing over writing, suggesting that drawing was an enjoyable activity throughout the creative process, while the only thing that made him happy about writing was a finished book. His daughter, Nanette, reported that he felt that "the making of pictures is to writing what laughing gas is to the Asian influenza."

5. He was a car salesman. Before his writing career took off, Vonnegut opened one of the first Saab dealerships in the U.S. The dealership was in Barnstable, Massachusetts, and was not a hit – Vonnegut closed its doors in less than a year.

6. He quit his job at Sports Illustrated after completing only one assignment. And, well, he didn't exactly complete it. As Vonnegut told it, he was hired in the magazine's early days, when publishers were experimenting – first with hiring sports fans who couldn't write, then with hiring writers who didn't care much about sports. Vonnegut was among the latter, and his first assignment was to cover a story about a racehorse that jumped a fence and ran away. Vonnegut stared at a blank page for hours, then wrote a single sentence and walked out for good. The sentence was, "The horse jumped over the f***ing fence."

7. His work was used by the U.S. Supreme Court. Vonnegut's short story "Harrison Bergeron" imagines a dystopia in which people with talents are given "handicaps" to make them more average – ugly masks for beautiful people, heavy weights worn by the strong and so on. In the case PGA Tour Inc. v. Martin, in which disabled golfer Casey Martin sought the right to ride in a golf cart between shots, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a dissent using "Harrison Bergeron" as part of his argument. The court ruled in favor of Martin.

8. He made a cameo appearance in Back to School. The 1986 comedy saw Rodney Dangerfield's character going to college later in life, with moderately disastrous results. He approaches his English paper on the novels of Kurt Vonnegut by hiring Vonnegut himself to write it. And then he gets an F on the paper, because, "Whoever did write it doesn't know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut."

9. His graduate thesis was rejected. It's not unusual to hear a story about a great luminary who failed before he or she succeeded, and Vonnegut is one of them. Enrolled at the University of Chicago in pursuit of a master's in anthropology, Vonnegut submitted a thesis on the similarities between cubist painters and the leaders of Native American uprisings in the 19th century. OK, yes, kind of a weird topic – and the university thought so, too, because they rejected it as unprofessional. Decades later, the university awarded him a degree, citing his novel Cat's Cradle as his thesis (even though he didn't submit it as such).

10. His most popular quote is just three words long. "So it goes" – it was Vonnegut's repeated epitaph for the dead in Slaughterhouse-Five. Generations of readers have connected with Vonnegut's expression of the inevitability of death, making the quote one of the most popular literary tattoos, literary T-shirt slogans and closing lines in Vonnegut obituaries. So it goes.