Kurt Vonnegut Jr, was born on November 11, 1922, Armistice Day. Unlike Bernard and their sister, Alice, Kurt was the only one of the Vonnegut children to attend public school, due to his family losing the majority of their money during the Depression. Kurt long held the belief that attending public school gave him a civic education that neither of his siblings ever received. When Kurt graduated from eighth grade in June of 1936, a part of the ceremony included each graduate turning to the audience to announce his or her career plan. When it was Kurt Jr.’s turn, he claims that he said “I would cure cancer with chemicals while working for the Eli Lilly Company.” In other words, he would try to grow up to be just like Bernard, the MIT educated chemist. Kurt got into Harvard, MIT, and Cornell, but it was Bernard who insisted he go to Cornell because this was Bernard’s idea of his, sort of third rate. Even though he declared a science major, Kurt found his true calling by writing satirical pieces for the school newspaper. During his sophomore year, he failed out however and was forced to enlist in the military. It was during his capture in Germany and the subsequent experience of the fire-bombing of Dresden that would inspire the writing of Slaughter House Five. Upon returning to the States, in 1945, Kurt enrolled at the University of Chicago, working towards a master in anthropology (he had two separate theses rejected, the one which was ultimately accepted was Cat’s Cradle for his creation and discussion of the religion of Bokononism).
At the height of his work on “Project Cirrus,” Bernard got a job for Kurt in the public relations office at General Electric, so in 1947, Kurt and his first wife, Jane, moved to Schenectady, New York. His job entailed interviewing the scientists working in the research lab to write up press releases for the company, to promote the innovation of GE. Kurt believed that he had a job for life at GE, if he wanted it, womb to tomb, as the saying went in corporate life at the time, an extended family of professionals all engaged in furthering the company’s work. But he was very uneasy about his role as an organization man, which put him at odds with the changing economic landscape of the post war period. We see in this period an increase in a promotion of the idea of the organization man, men who work for a company to promote that company, climbing the corporate ladder. There is a shift in managers being portrayed in fiction, as well as movies, as ambivalent rather than corrupt, which was the trend in the Great Depression. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1952) by Sloan Wilson is a prime example of this sort of corporate fiction, as well as the Organization Man (1956) by William Whyte, which described man’s loss of autonomy in a corporate setting. Kurt was uncomfortable with that loss of autonomy.
According to Kurt, one of the most influential events of his tenure at GE was watching the computer-programmed lathe slide back and forth over the steel blades, honing them to within microns of perfection. It was a small event but symbolic of much more. Craftsmanship was a mature talent, learned and passed through generations. And here was a device operating tirelessly, doing what took a person a lifetime to learn. For Kurt, it was terrible for the human beings who took pride in their jobs. Two forces were vying, technology and humanity, and General Electric was at the center of the contest. The conflict between technology and humanity gave him an idea for what would become his first novel, one with overtones of science fiction. ‘There was no avoiding it,’ he said later, ‘since the General Electric Company was science fiction.’
Next week I will discuss the influence of General Electric on the writing of Player Piano.
 Tom McCartan. Kurt Vonnegut: The Last Interview and Other Conversations. (New York: Melville House, 2011): 26
 Robert Tally Jr. Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel: A Postmodern Iconography. (London: Continuum International, 2011, Kindle Edition): location 244
 Ibid., 103
Leave a Reply