Voyage to Illium: Scenes from Kurt Vonnegut’s Schenectady and Troy

As part of George Cassidy Payne’s ongoing literary tour of New York — including Mark Twain in Elmira, Rod Sterling in Binghamton, Michael Herr in Delhi and John Burroughs in Roxbury — today George takes us to Kurt Vonnegut’s Schenectady and Troy.

First, a brief look at Vonnegut’s connections with Rochester.

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Jun 27, 1986.

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Jun 27, 1986.

Vonnegut made two public appearances in Rochester. In 1986, he addressed the Unitarian Universalist Association’s convention. In his speech, alluding to President Reagan, Vonnegut remarked:

 from Vonnegut’s speech before the Unitarian Universalist Church in Rochester, NY (1986) (http://www2.ivcc.edu/jbeyer/WebPages/Vonnegut.htm)

from Vonnegut’s speech before the Unitarian Universalist Church in Rochester, NY (1986) (http://www2.ivcc.edu/jbeyer/WebPages/Vonnegut.htm)

Democrat and Chronicle, Jun 27, 1986

D & C, Jun 27, 1986

Before his presentation at the convention, Vonnegut signed books at the then-beloved and now-gone Village Green Bookstore on Monroe Avenue.

In 1995, Vonnegut spoke at the Downtown United Presbyterian Church as part of the Rochester Arts & Letters Distinguished Lecture Series. The lecture was especially noteworthy because Vonnegut also made a private visit to Mt. Hope Cemetery.

Cemetery tour guide Dennis Carr spotted Kurt Vonnegut on a pilgrimage to honor fellow POW Edward Crone Jr., a graduate of Brighton High School and a role model for Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five.  In 1945, Vonnegut and Crone were captured and held prisoner in Dresden, Germany during its infamous firebombing — one of the settings for Slaughterhouse-Five.

(left) Democrat and Chronicle, 5/3/95 (right) 5/5/95

(left) Democrat and Chronicle, 5/3/95 (right) 5/5/95

During the 1995 interview with the D & C’s John Reinan, Vonnegut expounded on his recollections of his fellow prisoner who did not survive the war, revealing that Crone was, in fact, the inspiration for Pilgrim. In Vonnegut’s speech two days later at the Arts & Lectures series, he said of seeing Crone’s grave in Mt. Hope:

Democrat and Chronicle, 5/5/95

Democrat and Chronicle, 5/5/95

crone-page0001

(left) Edward Crone Jr., Brighton High School Crossroads yearbook, 1941. Held at and scanned courtesy of Brighton Memorial Library; (right) Crone’s gravesite in Mt. Hope Cemetery, 12/15/18 [Photo: David Kramer] From After Parkland, discovering fallen Brightonians from World War Two

According to Gifford Doxsee, Crone’s classmate at Hobart College who along with Vonnegut and Crone was interred in Dresden, every Memorial Day until his own death, Vonnegut sent flowers to be placed on Crone’s grave. (hws.edu)

Voyage to Illium: Scenes from Kurt Vonnegut’s Schenectady and Troy

George Cassidy Payne

When I read Breakfast of Champions as a senior in High School my expectation for literature was turned upside down. For the first time I realized that a writer can do anything they want with words as images. There were no boundaries anymore. The ceiling had collapsed and the possibilities were endless.

Breakfast of Champions may not rank as one of Vonnegut’s masterpieces — certainly nowhere near Slaughterhouse- Five, Mother Night, or Cat’s Cradle — but it was my first introduction to the imagination of Kurt Vonnegut. I have admired and shared his work with others ever since.

The scenes in this montage capture some of the buildings and natural landscapes familiar to Vonnegut while he lived in the Capital Region during the late 40s. Not only did Vonnegut work as a publicist for General Electric in Schenectady, he also served as a volunteer firefighter with the Alphaus Fire Department. He was such a beloved figure among his fellow firefighters, that when he passed away they honored him with a full firefighter memorial service.

As in life, Vonnegut still riles intense emotions. After I posted on social media a picture of the GE building as a tribute to Vonnegut, a University of Rochester librarian sent me the following response:

George, I’m inclined to consider Kurt Vonnegut something of a mixed bag.  The literary merits of his books like Slaughterhouse-Five stand on their own, but I took a dim view of his thoroughly intemperate attack on physicist and human rights champion Andrei Sakharov after Sakharov’s commencement address to the College of Staten Island in 1987.  The Sakharov address was reported in The New York Times in June of that year, and Vonnegut’s comments (which were in part erroneous) were published in his book Timequake (Putnam, 1997).  I know something about Andrei Sakharov — subject of my graduate thesis at the University of Illinois. He lived out thoroughly humanitarian principles and suffered mightily at the hands of the Kremlin for having done so.  There was no cause to attack a man like him.  Shame on Vonnegut for having had the temerity to do so.

Well said. Vonnegut was a complex man. He was a survivor of Dresden and he never forgot how depraved humankind can be. Vonnegut was also an outspoken critic of almost every system under the sun. No one or no organization escaped his merciless wit. But more than anything, Vonnegut was a great writer, perhaps the greatest American writer of his generation.

Self portrait in Breakfast of Champions

The General Electric plant in Schenectady, NY. Before Kurt Vonnegut Jr. wrote the bestsellers Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle, he lived near Schenectady, New York, and worked as a GE publicist. According to Vonnegut’s biographer Charles J. Shields, he was hired in 1947 as part of GE’s drive “to get some real journalists on board to hunt for stories at the Schenectady Works and keep a steady drumbeat of good news issuing from the plant.” Shields writes:“Thus it happened that Kurt received a call in late August from George W. Griffin Jr., a General Electric public relations executive. Griffin explained that [Vonnegut’s brother] Bernard had recommended his younger brother as the kind of man they might be looking for: someone with a science background who was also a reporter. Would he be interested in interviewing for a job in Schenectady?” (https://www.ge.com/reports/post/78009878650/kurts-cradle-kurt-vonnegut-was-ges-pr-man/

Viewshed of Troy, NY. Photo taken from the top of the historic Oakwood Cemetery.Ilium is a fictitious town in eastern New York State. The name refers to Troy, New York (“Ilium” was the name the Romans gave to ancient Troy), although Troy is mentioned as a separate city in Vonnegut’s novel Player Piano.

Graphic from Vonnegut’s Man Without a Country

True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country. – Kurt Vonnegut

“In Vonnegut’s Galápagos, Mary Hepburn was a high school teacher in Ilium, and in Cat’s Cradle, it is the former home of Dr. Felix Hoenikker—one of the fathers of the atomic bomb—thus, it is the town that John visits to interview Dr. Asa Breed, Hoenikker’s former supervisor. In Player Piano, it is where most of the action takes place. In Slaughterhouse-Five, it is also the home town of the book’s primary protagonist, Billy Pilgrim. Ilium is also where the events of the short story “Ed Luby’s Key Club” (from “Look at the Birdie”) take place. (Taken from Wikipedia)

Vonnegut, who stayed at GE until 1950, died in 2007.

Cover of Man Without a Country

Schenectady City Hall

Vonnegut’s trademark cartoon drawings from Breakfast of Champions

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. Kurt Vonnegut

The Hudson meets the Mohawk. This photo was taken outside of Herman Melville’s home in Troy, NY. Vonnegut called Melville America’s greatest writer. In Player Piano, Cat’s Cradle, and Slaughterhouse Five, the Mohawk River is referred to as the Iroquois River.

 

The time spent working at GE was extremely fruitful for Vonnegut. It was there where he cultivated a unique appreciation for the process of scientific methodology and the potential for technology to be a focal point in literature. His most memorable characters and successful stories were birthed while he was employed at GE.

 

Facebook Comments

Comments are closed.