Penn State English professor remembers Kurt Vonnegut

Mont Alto, Pa. -- Penn State Mont Alto English professor Kevin Boon had the good fortune of knowing and collaborating with Kurt Vonnegut, a legend in the literary world. Vonnegut, 84, passed away on Wednesday, leaving behind a significant commentary on the human condition in his many published novels.

"I've known Kurt Vonnegut professionally for 17 years," said Boon upon learning of Vonnegut's death. "My first contact with him came when I was a graduate student and working on my first novel ('Absolute Zero,' Fort Schulyer Press, 1999). He was kind enough to comment on my work and we have since had a number of communications about a range of topics, from his efforts to increase awareness of the importance of protecting the planet to how my students were reacting to world events. Primarily, our contact was related to my scholarship on his body of work. My first published book was 'Chaos Theory and the Interpretation of Literary Texts: The Case of Kurt Vonnegut,' a book which (though poorly titled) attempts to illuminate key themes in Vonnegut's canon. My second book on Vonnegut was a collection of essays I edited called 'At Millennium's End' (SUNY Press, 2001), for which Vonnegut generously provided the cover art and wrote a preface."

Boon continued, "My most recent contact with Vonnegut was about a newly completed novel of mine called 'B.O.O.T.' (The Book of Obvious Truth). Vonnegut was kind enough to read the manuscript and referred to it as 'a clearly heroic and brilliant work' -- a truly humbling comment from such a key figure in American literature. In that letter, he mentioned that he did not have time to help with its publication because he would soon be 'pushing up daisies,' a comment that has now, sadly, become prophetic.

"If I had to sum Vonnegut the man in one word, I would say he was, in all matters, gracious. If I had to sum his work, I would say that, in the end, the message threading his oeuvre is that people, as a whole, are cruel, but people, on an individual basis, are precious. Team players who are blindly loyal to ideologies are the primary reason the world has experienced so many atrocities (Dresden, Hiroshima, Auschwitz, slavery, racism, sexual intolerance, sexism, greed and the contemporary horrors of Iraq, Katrina, Darfur and so on), while the best results of our presence on Earth -- a sonata by Mozart, a painting by Van Gogh, a poem by T.S. Eliot, a statue by Rodin, Gene Kelly dancing, Maria Callas singing -- are the result of brilliant individuals producing single, epiphanous moments of beauty in a world that is largely inhumane."

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Last Updated March 31, 2010