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The new Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library celebrates America’s great "humanist" writer.
By Tom Ashbrook
Humorist, novelist and moral critic Kurt Vonnegut came into his prime in the 1960s and ‘70s, in a nation where many were sick of war and thrilled to follow his vivid anti-authority imagination.
In his novels Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut caught and drove the tenor of the times. The author died in 2007, but his influence is still reverberating today for a new generation of fans and writers.
“You know I think there are writers who create a lot of readers, and there are writers who create a lot of writers, and Vonnegut was both, actually,” says novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, author of the bestselling books Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. “I know anecdotally of many, many people who first started enjoying books when they read Vonnegut, and I also know of many writers — I would include myself — who started to get glimpses of what was possible when they read Vonnegut…”
Born in Indianapolis in 1922, Vonnegut left college – Cornell – when he was 17. He famously went to war, was captured at the Battle of the Bulge, and saw the allied bombing of Dresden and its toll – the basis of “Slaughterhouse Five,” and much more.
Now, Indianapolis is paying homage to a native son and one of the 20th century’s most bracing writers and moral voices. The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library has just opened its doors for a preview; it is officially opening in January 2011.
“I think it’s a perfect place for it to be, and there’s no doubt that Indiana stuck with Vonnegut in the same way Ireland stuck with the great James Joyce,” says library board member Rodney Allen, a scholar who knew the author and whose books include Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut and Understanding Kurt Vonnegut. “[D]espite some of the more radical or controversial things he said, he said he was really a Midwesterner at heart.”
Vonnegut’s fans and literary acolytes alike say they appreciate that American quality in his writing.
“What seems really important to me now is that his style is completely coherent and very American," says novelist Rick Moody, author of Purple America, Garden State, and The Ice Storm. His new novel, The Four Fingers of Death, is dedicated to Vonnegut.
"To me he has this plain-spoken style that comes out of Twain and Swift and S. J. Perelman and Thurber and writers like that," Moody says. "He sounds like a person, and a very warm, interesting person, not like a literary voice. And I find that very admirable. Though I don’t ape that style at all, I do aspire to having the kind of warmth and complexity that he brought to what he did.”
More pictures from the new Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library (credit: Marc Leeds):
Guests in this audio segment:
Rodney Allen, author and professor of English at the Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts. He's a member of the Board for the new Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. He interviewed and exchanged correspondence with Vonnegut during the author’s lifetime. He's author of Understanding Kurt Vonnegut and editor of Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut.
Julia Whitehead, founder and president of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis. The library opened for a two-night "preview" in November and will officially open doors to the public in January 2011.
Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. He's a professor at New York University’s Graduate Creative Writing program. His new book Tree of Codes will be published this month. Listen back to his On Point interview about his book Eating Animals, and to his interview for Everything is Illuminated.
Rick Moody, author of Purple America, Garden State, and The Ice Storm. He's also professor at New York University’s Graduate Creative Writing program. His new book The Four Fingers of Death is dedicated to Kurt Vonnegut.
This program aired on December 2, 2010.
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