April 13, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. ’44 Leaves Artistic Legacy

Print More

Stuck between news headlines of international and national interest last night was an obituary of one of America’s most talented writers, and one of Cornell’s most famous alumni.
Nightly news programs could not, in their few minutes of coverage, even begin to tell the tale of Kurt Vonnegut’s life — a life mired in personal tragedy and triumph, and one read by millions through dozens of books based in large part on his personal experiences.
Vonnegut came to the Hill during World War II, a war that would not end before he found himself enlisting, going to Europe and being held as a prisoner of war by German troops for several days. Vonnegut was one of only a handful of war prisoners to survive.
[img_assist|nid=22875|title=So it goes.|desc=Kurt Vonnegut Jr. ’44 stands up at The Sun’s 125th anniversary dinner in September 2005.|link=node|align=left|width=100|height=66]After returning from the war that would haunt him for the remainder of his life, Vonnegut studied at the University of Chicago, where Cat’s Cradle was accepted as his thesis. He was later awarded a degree for his work.
Vonnegut’s early works, such as the short story “Report on the Barnhouse Effect,” were primarily science fiction pieces. During the ’60s, however, his work changed and began to reflect events in his personal life. Slaughterhouse-Five, perhaps Vonnegut’s most famous work, chronicles the life of American soldier Billy Pilgrim, who undergoes severe mental trauma.
While Vonnegut uses time and space travel throughout the book to illustrate the consequences of war on people, much of the protagonist’s time on Earth is ironically spent in Ithaca.
After reaching celebrity status for the best-selling Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut became known for using detailed metaphors as a way of thrusting his own voice into his work in an indirect manner. A true humanist, many of Vonnegut’s works are characterized by dark cynical thoughts and were influenced by socialist leaders.
Although he did not write many groundbreaking novels in his later years, he continued writing columns for In These Times. Vonnegut’s columns were often very critical of the Bush Administration, and he spoke negatively about politicians who came from privileged backgrounds, such as the Bush family and John Kerry.
Upon Vonnegut’s death, several authors revealed the extent to which he had influenced them.
Novelist Jess Walter, a National Book Award finalist and author of The Zero, a satire of American culture, often turned to Vonnegut for inspiration.
“I became a writer because of him,” said Walter, 41. “It was his compassion, humanism and great humor in the face of 20th century horrors that made me realize all that a writer could do. He was deceptively simple and because readers discovered him when they were young, they sometimes made the mistake of dismissing him later, but what he was doing was so complex, so difficult,” he told the Associated Press.
Ken Kalfus, also a National Book Award Finalist for “A Disorder Peculiar to the Country,” agreed.
“Growing up when I did, at a time of widespread alienation and disgust, Vonnegut’s irreverence was very appealing and certainly influenced my own views of contemporary life. … His work opened up new space to think about politics and society and also to think about what literature was good for.”
Vonnegut’s influence, however, does not stop at the inspiration of his fellow novelists. To eager audiences across the globe, Vonnegut’s works have painted the world in unconventional, often extreme ways. There is no reason to assume his legacy will diminish with his death.
While his time spent at Cornell was short, it is difficult to comprehend its importance on Vonnegut’s contribution to American literature. Vonnegut often said his time as assistant managing editor and associate editor at The Sun were the only good times at Cornell. Times without which, Vonnegut may not have written any works at all.

In Memoriam: The Sun Honors Kurt Vonnegut Jr. ’44