November 17, 2000

Kurt Vonnegut '44 Honored, Named N.Y. State Author

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From a student at Cornell to a world-renowned author, Kurt Vonnegut ’44 has returned to his New York literary roots. Wednesday, he was named the new State Author by the New York State Writers Institute.

According to the Institute, Vonnegut has “left an indelible print on our literary landscape, inspiring generations of imitators, but no equals.”

“It is a most agreeable honor, with my 78th birthday only a few days away, that New York State should declare so publicly that I, although born in Indianapolis, am one of its own,” Vonnegut said in a statement.

Vonnegut is best-known for his world-famous novels, which include “Slaughterhouse Five,” “Cat’s Cradle,” “Breakfast of Champions” and “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.” Modern Library recently ranked “Slaughterhouse Five” as the 18th best novel of the 20th Century.

As State Author of New York, Vonnegut joins an impressive list of past recipients that includes Norman Mailer and E.L. Doctorow. By winning the award, Vonnegut will receive $10,000 and “shall promote and encourage fiction within the State and shall give two public readings within the State each year,” according to the Institute, which tapped Vonnegut upon the recommendation of two advisory panels of distinguished authors.

Although a native of Indiana, Vonnegut credits New York as the birthplace of his accomplished literary career. At Cornell, Vonnegut was a columnist for The Sun from 1941-43. He also served as a Sun editor during his years in Ithaca. He did not graduate from Cornell, but instead entered the U.S. Army as a private at the height of World War II in 1943.

Of his time on the Hill, Vonnegut once wrote, “I never got close to getting a degree, and would have quit or been thrown out, if it weren’t for the war.”

As a soldier, the author was captured during the Battle of the Bulge. After then spending time as a prisoner of war in Germany, an experience that would later serve as the basis for “Slaughterhouse Five,” Vonnegut eventually returned to New York in 1947, when he took a job with General Electric in Schenectady and also worked as a volunteer firefighter in the village of Alplaus.

“G.E. was the inspiration for my first novel, ‘Player Piano,’ and Alplaus for my fifth, ‘God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,” Vonnegut said.

Literary critics have consistently lavished Vonnegut with praise in recent years. Jay MacInerny once described Vonnegut as “a satirist with a heart, a moralist with a whoopee cushion, a cynic who wants to believe. His fiercest social criticism is usually disguised in parable.” Author John Updike called the author an “imaginer, as distinguished from a reporter or a self-dramatizer.”

Gov. George E. Pataki will officially present Vonnegut with the award, which is given out every two years, at a January ceremony.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Prof. Molly Hite, English, said. “He’s a wonderful writer.”

Archived article by Aron Goetzl