Monday, December 5, 2011

Kurt Vonnegut, Corporate Historian?!

Kurt Vonnegut hated greed but liked business. Learning that factoid was one of the many pleasures of reading And So It Goes—Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, the excellent new biography by Charles J. Shields. The author of Slaughterhouse-Five was nothing if not a contradictory man.

Son of an architect, Vonnegut grew up in a family of prosperous Indianapolis merchants. It’s common knowledge that he was a public relations man for General Electric’s Schenectady Works for years. What’s less well known is that he was ready to quit until GE put him in charge of being the liaison to Columbia University’s then-new oral history program. As part of it, Columbia wanted to preserve the memories of GE engineers and scientists who had helped launch radio.

Like any good corporate history author, Vonnegut started by compiling interviewee biographies and timelines. Shields reports that Vonnegut “was awed … he genuinely liked these men … Their success was deserved. They didn’t grouse about the company; they were grateful.” Vonnegut went so far as to describe them as “extremely interesting, admirable Americans.” He still quit the PR job—he’d always felt like the company’s “captive screwball”—but he happily drew on his GE experiences for his science fiction writing.

Years later, he used his business savvy to dig up the lowdown on Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. In an article for Esquire magazine, later collected in his book Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons, he noted that the Maharishi spoke to the American people “like a General Electric engineer.” Vonnegut nailed him as a benign salesman who, as Shields paraphrases, “was just pumping the handle of free enterprise as vigorously as the system allowed.”

The biography also reveals that antiwar Vonnegut consciously owned stock in a company that made napalm for bombs, and that he was hardly liberated where women were concerned…but I’ll leave you to discover the whole story for yourself. Just a quick P.S., though: If you worked in publishing during Vonnegut's heyday--I was lucky enough to work for his then-publisher, Dell/Delacorte, and to write promo copy for his books--you'll enjoy the biography even more.