In the mid-1990s, I heard Kurt Vonnegut speak at Cornell University where he briefly majored in chemistry before leaving in 1944 without earning a degree. He told the assemblage at Bailey Hall, filled with fawning professors of English and Comparative Literature, along with their students, that the last place on campus anyone would find a good writer was in the academic departments. Vonnegut said the place to look for the important writer would be in the "boiler room" maintaining the college's furnace, or in the janitorial service, or serving burgers to students in the cafeteria, toiling without recognition.
Whenever Vonnegut communicated his creativity to the world he was always provocative, edgy, and perceptive. He was a unique writer who packed a devastating punch when aiming his sharp and imaginative mind on the social injustices of the United States and the world. His deep understanding of the dangers, cruelties, and absurdities of homo sapiens were forged while cowering in a bunker as a prisoner of war under the firestorm of Dresden at the end of World War Two. He seemed to never accept a "civilization" that was capable of unleashing such barbarism in the name of a set of hypocritically constructed "high ideals."
Vonnegut was one of those irreplaceable public intellectuals who we could always count on to cut to the moral and ethical core of any number of humanity's current follies. Most recently he had been a consistent and acerbic critic of the Bush Administration's "war on terror" with its attendant evils, most notably the war in Iraq. Reading the headline that Kurt Vonnegut has died at the age of 84 hit me in the gut this morning because it felt like losing an old friend and teacher.
The baby boom generation has its stars writers, but Vonnegut had something far more bold and authentic to say than any novelist born after World War II. The world has lost one its best, most imaginative writers ever to crawl out of the muck. We need Vonnegut's voice more than ever today with all of the misguided policies and authoritarian politics spewing forth from Washington.
With luck, Vonnegut's ideas and words may live on to influence a new generation of young people who can follow his example of the artist who encapsulated the feeling of pessimism of the intellect with an optimism of the will. Vonnegut's love for the human species, while hating the violence humans inflict upon each other, sets a high standard for all of us to follow.