Why the University of Chicago Rejected Kurt Vonnegut’s Master’s Thesis (and How a Novel Got Him His Degree 27 Years Later)

vonnegut drawing

Image by Daniele Prati, via Flickr Com­mons

Kurt Von­negut has been gone a dozen years now, but in that time his stock in the world of Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture has only risen. Just a few months ago we fea­tured the new­ly opened Kurt Von­negut Muse­um and Library here on Open Cul­ture, and we’ve also post­ed about every­thing from his writ­ing tips to his let­ters to his draw­ings. And we’ve fea­tured his con­cep­tion of “the shape of all sto­ries” as orig­i­nal­ly laid out in his mas­ter’s the­sis at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, where between 1945 and 1947 he per­formed anthro­po­log­i­cal research into the Native Amer­i­can-inspired Ghost Dance reli­gious move­ment of the late 19th cen­tu­ry. “The fun­da­men­tal idea,” wrote Von­negut, “is that sto­ries have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper, and that the shape of a giv­en society’s sto­ries is at least as inter­est­ing as the shape of its pots or spear­heads.”

None of this flew with the anthro­pol­o­gy depart­ment. In an essay in his book Palm Sun­day Von­negut explains the unan­i­mous rejec­tion of his the­sis, “The Fluc­tu­a­tions Between Good and Evil in Sim­ple Tasks,” due to the fact that “it was so sim­ple and looked like too much fun. One must not be too play­ful.” Opt­ing not to have a sec­ond go before the com­mit­tee, the still-young Von­negut — with his har­row­ing expe­ri­ence in the Sec­ond World War only a cou­ple of years behind him — decid­ed to take a job as a pub­li­cist at Gen­er­al Elec­tric instead. In 1950, while still employed at GE, he would first pub­lish a piece of fic­tion: “Report on the Barn­house Effect” in Col­lier’s mag­a­zine. “Years lat­er,” says the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Chron­i­cle’s obit­u­ary for Von­negut, “the uni­ver­si­ty accept­ed Cat’s Cra­dle as Vonnegut’s the­sis, award­ing him an A.M. in 1971.”

“This was not an hon­orary degree but an earned one,” said Von­negut in a 1973 inter­view, “giv­en on the basis of what the fac­ul­ty com­mit­tee called the anthro­po­log­i­cal val­ue of my nov­els. I snapped it up most cheer­ful­ly and I con­tin­ue to have noth­ing but friend­ly feel­ings for the Uni­ver­si­ty.” Indeed, Von­negut called his time as a Phoenix “the most stim­u­lat­ing years of my life.” Gen­er­a­tions of read­ers have found in Von­negut’s work — not just Cat’s Cra­dle, the one that final­ly got him his aca­d­e­m­ic cre­den­tials, but oth­er nov­els like Moth­er NightBreak­fast of Cham­pi­ons, and of course Slaugh­ter­house-Five as well — some of the most stim­u­lat­ing writ­ing to come out of post­war Amer­i­ca. And yet Von­negut, as he writes in Palm Sun­day, con­tin­ued to regard his first mas­ter’s the­sis as “my pret­ti­est con­tri­bu­tion to my cul­ture.” The more suc­cess­ful the cre­ator, it can often seem, the more dear he holds his fail­ures.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Kurt Von­negut Dia­grams the Shape of All Sto­ries in a Master’s The­sis Reject­ed by U. Chica­go

Kurt Vonnegut’s Term Paper Assign­ment from the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop Teach­es You to Read Fic­tion Like a Writer

Kurt Von­negut: Where Do I Get My Ideas From? My Dis­gust with Civ­i­liza­tion

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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Comments (5)
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  • Ed Schroeder says:

    I had drinks one night in the late 1990s with one of the anthro­pol­o­gy pro­fes­sors on the com­mit­tee (whose name I no longer remember)that reject­ed Von­negut’s the­sis. We both had one to many and he opened up about being on the com­mit­tee that reject­ed Von­negut’s the­i­sis. I find the above arti­cle an inter­est­ing spin at rewrit­ing his­to­ry.

    • OC says:


      Would you care to set the record straight and tell us the real rea­son why the com­mit­tee reject­ed the the­sis?

      We are all ears.


  • Rebecca McCarthy says:

    If you are a grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, you are con­sid­ered a “Maroon.” Not a Phoenix.

  • Román Fernández Arias says:

    We prob­a­bly can’t, I am cur­rent­ly try­ing to locate it and this is all I found.

    “Kurt’s papers were donat­ed to Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty’s library. You can browse what’s in the col­lec­tion online, but I don’t believe that any of the papers are avail­able dig­i­tal­ly right now.” http://www.indiana.edu/~liblilly/lilly/mss/index.php?p=vonnegutinv&i=4

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