Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1922-2007) was born and raised in Indianapolis and later left college to enlist in the U.S. Army during World War II. He spent time as a German prisoner of war and won a Purple Heart, a distinction he later mocked. After the war, he worked as a newspaper reporter and in public relations before selling his first story to Collier’s magazine in 1950. Shortly thereafter he quit his regular job and embarked on a literary career, taking part-time jobs to pay the bills. Only with the publication, eighteen years later, of his second collection of stories, Welcome to the Monkey House—which included “Harrison Bergeron,” first published in 1961—did he gain some positive critical attention. A year later his autobiographical novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, made him a literary celebrity, a status he held for the rest of his life.
Vonnegut was politically active in many liberal-left political causes, giving numerous speeches on political issues of the day: he was, among other things, an ardent defender of free speech, an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, and an advocate of socialism. His political views sometimes made it into his stories, which often combined science fiction, satire, and dark humor. His much-loved “Harrison Bergeron” is no exception, though there is considerable disagreement regarding the political message—if any—that Vonnegut was attempting to convey. Whatever the author’s intention, the story demands both careful reading and thoughtful reflection regarding the issues it raises.
Watch editors Amy A. Kass, Leon R. Kass, and Diana Schaub converse with guest host James W. Ceaser (University of Virginia) about the story. For more about Kurt Vonnegut and “Harrison Bergeron,” visit whatsoproudlywehail.org/curriculum/the-meaning-of-america/equality.