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.
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:
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.
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: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
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.