In his novel “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,” author Kurt Vonnegut, through protagonist Eliot Rosewater, sings the praises of volunteer firefighters: “They rush to the rescue of any human being, and count not the cost. The most contemptible man in town, should his contemptible house catch fire, will see his enemies put the fire out. There we have people treasuring people as people.”
Vonnegut’s elevation of firefighters, a recurring theme in his work and speeches, comes from personal, and local, experience: Vonnegut volunteered with the Alplaus Fire Department when he lived across the street in an apartment above a grocery store and worked in public relations for General Electric in Schenectady.
The author’s local ties, which permeate his novels and short stories, were the subject of a talk Saturday afternoon by K.A. Laity at Mabee Farm Historic Site in Rotterdam, hosted by the Schenectady County Historical Society. Laity teaches medieval literature, film, gender studies, new media and popular culture at The College of Saint Rose and is the author of several books, including “White Rabbit” and “A Cut-Throat Business.”
Saturday’s talk brought out writers, engineers and fans of Vonnegut, including Craig Cantello, president of the Edison Tech Center in Schenectady, who said he “followed in Vonnegut’s path.” Like Vonnegut, Cantello was born in Indiana, then came to Schenectady to work for GE. At the time, the only place he’d heard the name “Schenectady” was in Vonnegut’s first novel, “Player Piano.”
“His early sci-fi work, I think, is some of the best sci-fi out there,” Cantello said before the talk. “I just want to learn more. I’m not an expert; I’m just a fan.”
Kaity focused on “Player Piano,” the Vonnegut novel most directly influenced by his time at GE, where he began working in 1947, writing “accessible stories about the good news at GE,” said Kaity.
The novel is set in Ilium, a fictional stand-in for Schenectady that pops up throughout his work — Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist in “Slaughterhouse Five,” is from there — and the fictional city has areas that correspond to Scotia and Niskayuna, as well.
Vonnegut’s brother, Bernard, was a research scientist at GE who used sodium iodide to induce rain or snow in clouds. The protagonist in “Player Piano,” Kaity noted, holds a position very similar to Bernard Vonnegut’s at a monolithic technology corporation, though his personality might be a bit closer to Kurt Vonnegut’s. Another character in the novel is based on Bernard Vonnegut’s boss.
“After [Kurt] Vonnegut submitted the first draft, he asked his editor a favor, to refrain from touting the book — which deals with a dystopian world run by machines — as a ‘satire of one of the world’s largest corporations’ because he was worried that Bernard’s career might suffer from guilt by association,” Kaity said. “It’s one thing to use your former workplace as an inspiration for ‘good news’ and quite another to show a world where inequality is rife and attempts to address it turn out to be even more disastrous.”
Vonnegut’s experiences at GE, said Kaity, no doubt contributed to his anxiety that unchecked technological development may threaten some of our most essential human qualities.
“He’s excited by the sheer thrill of gadgetry, but concerned about the people whose lives are robbed of purpose,” she said.
Vonnegut’s fear of the destructive powers of technology also stems from his survival of the devastating fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, during World War II, which formed the basis for the novel “Slaughterhouse Five” and was an event he returned to often as an example of humanity gone terribly wrong. Vonnegut was a prisoner of war during the fire-bombing.
In light of that event, his reverence for volunteer firefighters, and his desire to serve as one himself, takes on another dimension.
“Vonnegut gained the respect of his fellow firefighters [in Alplaus] such that upon his death in 2007, the department gave him a firefighter’s memorial service,” said Kaity, “lowering the flag to half-mast, hanging the funeral shroud and ringing the 5-5-5 alarm traditionally used to honor fallen brothers.”
In his personal life, Vonnegut made no secret of his struggles with depression, but his legacy has turned out to be a sense of humanity as simple as his prose.
“He couldn’t quite give up on the human race,” said Kaity.