Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 December 2012
At the heart of Kurt Vonnegut’s (1922–2007) career as a novelist rests an idealism dressed up in the playful trappings of a rebellious teenager who thumbs his nose at the establishment for supremely moral reasons. A countercultural figure who gained literary celebrity in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Vonnegut is best characterized as an American trickster whose values are an ad hoc mixture of the public school education he received in the Midwest during the Great Depression, his own family’s religious skepticism, and his experiences as a prisoner of war who survived the firebombing of Dresden, Germany.
His ascendancy as a novelist parallels the rise of postmodern fiction in America as practiced by such luminaries as Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme, Richard Brautigan, and John Barth. But Vonnegut’s own work, while highlighting its constructed nature through a range of metafictional techniques and its adamant assertion that there is no essential center of reference, nonetheless argues for a consistent morality that might best be called postmodern humanism. Vonnegut’s fiction should be seen as an antecedent for the work of such contemporary novelists as David Foster Wallace, Sherman Alexie, and Dave Eggers, and his legacy continues to influence both public and literary spheres.