Schenectady: a source of inspiration for author Kurt Vonnegut

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Kurt Vonnegut was a prophet of the pen and a personal source of both inspiration and relief, of imagination and hope, and of doubt and confirmed suspicions of doom for our country and species.

His career spanned over 50 years and covered all manner of subjects with wit and unbridled creativity. Many of Vonnegut’s stories, directly or indirectly, involved the city of Schenectady, formerly known as Illium.

This city is lucky enough to be the raw material for imagined worlds from the restless mind of the 20th century and 21st century bellman.

Through all those years of writing, the Electric City has commonly been regarded as an industrially dull place with nothing of note.

I wanted to get the truth about the late great writer’s views on our town to see what such a creative and insightful mind had to think about Schenectady.

On Schenectady, Vonnegut once wrote: “My first book, Player Piano, was about Schenectady. There are huge factories in Schenectady and nothing else.” He has used other descriptions, calling the setting, “… the ugly factory city of Schenectady NY.”

After growing up in Indianapolis, and following his time in the military in which he was present for the destruction of Dresden in WWII, Vonnegut was hired by General Electric as a publicist.

For a few years in the late 40’s he worked in Schenectady, and from this hallowed place beyond the pines, his career as a writer began. Vonnegut was a volunteer fireman in Alplaus NY, and his former place of residence is still inhabited.

The house is a short drive from Union on a rural side street. Some elderly neighbors claimed to remember him and were generally kind upon interrupting their yard work. I asked if I had the right place, and they pointed out an old red house next to a stream.

The house’s porch overlooked some quiet woods, and looked like a fine place to brew ideas about the automation of jobs and social interactions by machines. Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano was written in and around Schenectady. It was set in Schenectady, and centered around GE, called Ilium and the Ilium works in the story.

In it, a world is described in which only a few engineers have jobs because all factory work has been automated by machines.

Everyone feels quite worthless and aimless because they have no craft or worthy pursuits or hopes for change, and a blanket of neurosis is the result of the easy and automated lives. In the story, a scenario for Union College plays out where the liberal arts were thrown away in place of more science education.

Vonnegut describes a fictional Union professor and his fate: “Professor Ludwig von Neumann, a slight, disorderly old man, who taught political science at Union College until the Social Sciences Building was torn down to make space for the new Heat and Power Laboratory.”

When writing the story in the early 1950s, Vonnegut worked for a thriving company which employed about 29,000 workers in the city, and he was weary of the effects of technology on society, seeing craftsmen and women become obsolete.

He ended up being somewhat of an oracle in his ‘science fiction’ story Player Piano. GE, instead of eliminating jobs through automation and alienating the city, shipped the jobs elsewhere.

There are now less than 4,000 people employed by GE in Schenectady. Many friends and students of Union College would be like to strongly disagree with the opinion that there is nothing else in Schenectady other than factories.

After all, Union is not a huge factory, and it is certainly something rather than nothing, as most of our philosophy department would probably argue.

Many of us consider the college to be of note: after all, our history is rich- we are home to the original fraternity, fostered the first successful American drug induced writer in Fitz Hugh Ludlow, and had alumni go on to create such beautiful works of art as the movie Dodgeball. The list goes on.

Contrary to Vonnegut’s view, most students would say that there is nothing else in Schenectady other than Union. In other stories, Schenectady is a setting often involving industrial Doom, and Union is only alluded to briefly.

About upstate, tradition laden New York liberal arts colleges, Vonnegut once wrote a story about “Tarkington College”, an elite private school founded by a rich dyslexic entrepreneur.

Over the years, the college became the haven for illiterate heirs to fortunes, as no other institution of higher learning would take them in. Tarkington College eventually folded and became a prison.

If truly prophetic, what can we expect from the writings of Kurt Vonnegut about the town of Schenectady and Union College? Will we become slaves to our own machine creations? Will Union become an illiterate college, eventually overrun by an overflowing prisoner population?

This much is uncertain, but it is certainly interesting to read stories set and inspired in Schenectady which still hold remarkable insight.

After leaving the old Vonnegut house in Alplaus and returning to the city with its run down dwellings and empty factories, I knew exactly what Vonnegut would say about his opinions, or my opinions, or anyone’s opinions.

He would likely say something like, “Have more of them! Don’t be afraid of being wrong! Just don’t ever be too sure about being right.” He always took into account in his writing the “shortness of life, and the longness of eternity.”

One of the few to sense the Doom in modern society, his words hold an ominous truth which we could use more of in our time. So here’s to you, Kurt:

“Tiger got to hunt.

Bird got to fly.

Man got to sit and wonder

“Why, why, why?”

Tiger got to sleep

Bird got to land

Man got to tell himself

He understand”

-Bokonon

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