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Foss: Let's celebrate Vonnegut's ties to Schenectady

Foss: Let's celebrate Vonnegut's ties to Schenectady

Foss: Let's celebrate Vonnegut's ties to Schenectady
American writer Kurt Vonnegut lived in Alplaus in the late 1940s while working for General Electric.
Photographer: MARC SCHULTZ

In 1947, a promising young writer named Kurt Vonnegut moved to a quiet house in the small Schenectady County hamlet of Alplaus. 

He wasn't yet a published author, though he would soon become one. 

He supported his family with a job in the public relations department at General Electric, writing press releases and pitching articles about the company's products and inventions to publications throughout the country.

The experience helped shape Vonnegut’s bleakly comic worldview and cynical wit, inspiring short stories and a first novel, “Player Piano,” that remains a riotous and eerily prescient work nearly 70 years after publication.

Vonnegut, who died in 2007, wouldn’t hit it big until long after he left Alplaus, but he’s now regarded as one of the most important American writers of the 20th century. His books are still loved and widely read. Mention his name, and you’ll probably get a reaction. 

But if you’re looking to learn more about his ties to Schenectady County, you’ll find that there isn’t a lot to see. There are no markers honoring his time here, or exhibits looking at his life in Alplaus or GE’s influence on his work. Here in the Capital Region, little has been done to celebrate the great author who briefly called this area home. 

We should do more to remember Vonnegut, and after discussing him with Alplaus historian Jessica Polmateer, I’m optimistic that we’ll see more interest in honoring his legacy.  

Polmateer will give a talk, titled “Kurt Vonnegut in Schenectady,” at 2 p.m. on March 21 at the Mabee Farm Historic Site in Rotterdam. The event is sponsored by the Schenectady County Historical Society. 

Like me, Polmateer believes Vonnegut’s Schenectady County connections deserve more attention than they’ve received locally. His time here was short - he moved to Cape Cod in 1951 - but significant. 

“He was not born here and he did not die here, but I think a lot of really important, formative work was done in this area,” Polmateer said.  

GE, in particular, was a big influence. 

Vonnegut wrote “Player Piano,” which was published in 1952, while living in Alplaus. 

The book takes place in Schenectady - called Ilium in the novel - and is inspired by General Electric. 

It’s set in a dystopian future where human workers have mostly been replaced by machines, and managers and engineers run the world. Vonnegut suggests that the rise of automation has a human cost, and the description of Schenectady that opens “Player Piano” is as prescient as it is disapproving. 

“In the northwest are the managers and engineers and civil servants and a few professional people; in the northeast are the machines; and in the south; across the Iroquois River, is the area known locally as Homestead, where almost all of the people live. 

If the bridge across the Iroquois were dynamited, few daily routines would be disturbed. Not many people on either side have reasons other than curiosity for crossing.” 

A 2015 New Republic article, titled “Kurt Vonnegut’s Electric Literature,” explains that Vonnegut had a love-hate relationship with GE. 

His older brother Bernard was a scientist at the company, and Vonnegut enjoyed spending time with GE scientists and picking up ideas for stories.

But he was also desperate to quit working there and become a full-time writer, which he did in 1950. In 1973, he told an interviewer who asked him why he started writing science-fiction that there was no avoiding it “since the General Electric Company was science-fiction.” 

GE didn’t like “Player Piano,” and Polmateer tells me that the company barred it from local bookstores. 

“Vonnegut was very subversive for his time,” she said. “In the 1950s, that was not OK. But he did not want to be a company man, and that’s why he left GE, even though he had a good job and a family to support.” 

Vonnegut’s subversiveness is a big part of what makes his writing so entertaining. 

But it might also explain any lingering resistance to celebrating his life and work. His novels satirize corporate culture, war and other mainstream, middle-class values; Polmateer noted that he was an atheist at a time when such beliefs were deeply unpopular. 

That said, there was another side to Vonnegut. 

He was also a family man and war veteran who volunteered with the Alplaus fire department - an experience that plays a role in his 1965 novel “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.” 

Polmateer writes, “The family became involved in the local community, and participated in volunteer activities. Kurt’s neighbors remember the author walking each day to the post office to check his mail, taking his wife, Jane, and their children with him. Other neighbors discussed with Kurt his time in the war, or served alongside him in the volunteer fire department.” 

As for the lack of a historic marker honoring Vonnegut in Alplaus, Polmateer hopes to correct that: She said she is trying to get a marker for Alplaus. 

“I just think he’s really important,” she said. 

Which is why we should do more to honor him as a community. 

Polmateer’s talk is a good start. 

But there’s plenty more that could be done. 

We could select a Vonnegut book for a Schenectady County’s “One County One Book” program, or set aside a day for a community-wide celebration of Vonnegut. The event would bring out fans of his work, but also introduce it to those who aren’t familiar with it. Lots of people have read Vonnegut's masterwork, "Slaughterhouse-Five." But how many have read "Player Piano," or are even aware that Vonnegut wrote a book about GE and Schenectady? 

Vonnegut was a great writer, and his time here should be a point of pride. 

Let's do what we can to make it one. 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.

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