The Brothers Vonnegut, by Ginger Strand, is a fascinating study of Kurt Vonnegut’s career in public relations for General Electric (GE) in the late 1940’s. Yet equally important is the story of Bernard Vonnegut, Kurt’s older brother, an accomplished scientist specializing in weather phenomenon.
Ginger Strand shared her thoughts with The Daily Vonnegut.
Q: What inspired you to write this book?
A: Surprisingly, while I liked what I had read, I wasn’t a lifelong Kurt Vonnegut fan. I came to this story via Bernie. I was reading about New York City’s 1950 drought, in which the city cloud seeded the Catskill Mountains in an attempt to fill their reservoirs. That story was fascinating enough, but when I learned that the person who invented the method New York City used was Bernard Vonnegut, brother to Kurt, I got interested. I remembered how Kurt had been caught in the firebombing of Dresden during World War II, and had only survived because he was in a slaughterhouse basement. This lyrical pair of images—one brother hiding underground to avoid fire and death from the sky, the other brother in the air trying to coax water and life from the sky—stuck with me. I went back to Kurt’s early fiction, written while Kurt and Bernie were both working at GE, and I thought “Hey, there’s really a connection here.”
Q: The Brothers Vonnegut gives equal attention to Kurt and Bernie. While Kurt was a well-known figure, Bernie’s life was less publicized. What were some of the challenges in writing about Bernie?
A: Well, at first I wasn’t sure I could find enough information to do it. But by mucking around in Google I found that Bernie’s papers had been collected at SUNY Albany, in their science library. I went there, and the archive was a treasure trove. His scientific notebooks from GE were all there, so I could literally look over his shoulder as he was working. Ditto his colleague Vincent Schaeffer. And his boss, Irving Langmuir, also has an archive, at the Library of Congress. Combining their diaries, lab notebooks, and scientific papers gave me a day by day account of their work. But there’s also the person himself. The more intimate side of Bernie would not have been accessible to me without the help of his surviving sons, his assistant, a former colleague and others who knew him. They generously spent hours talking to me about a man they all loved and respected.
Q: What kind of work did Kurt do at General Electric (GE)?
A: Kurt came to GE to work in what they called the “News Bureau.” It was essentially their publicity department, but it was organized like a newsroom. Kurt’s job was to write stories about GE scientists and GE products and GE inventions. They were written like news stories—mocked up with photos and quotes. He would then send them out to editors at newspapers and magazines, who would often run them essentially unchanged. It was a groundbreaking approach to p.r. for the time, but it was essentially p.r. His job was to make GE look good.
Q: Readers of Vonnegut’s fiction know that Bernard discovered that silver iodide could make it rain, but not much else is known by general readers. How would you evaluate Bernard’s contributions as a scientist?
A: Bernie was a born scientist, and he has a long list of patents and publications that testify to a highly successful career. Although he was trained as a chemist, in the end weather became his passion. He spent much of his career trying to learn more about how weather phenomena—in particular thunderstorms—work. He had a special gift for designing equipment to help investigate things, such as a device to count cloud droplets. But he also had a talent for designing simple experiments that tackled really big questions. This allowed him to make significant contributions not just to cloud seeding but to climatology, pollution studies, and atmospheric physics.
Q: The C.I.A. used cloud seeding as a weapon of war in Vietnam and Laos. What was Bernie’s reaction? While at GE did he have concerns about how his work might be used?
A: Bernie, like all the Vonneguts, was a pacifist. He was deeply unhappy when he heard that his invention had been used as a weapon of war. Throughout his life he took the opportunity to testify against the weaponizing of weather control. He took comfort in the fact that all it did was make it rain. On his deathbed, he told Kurt “If the superpowers decide to duke it out with silver iodide, I guess I can live with that.”
Bernie came to GE right after the United States had dropped the first (and so far, only) atomic bombs ever dropped. Scientists everywhere were asking hard questions about their ethical responsibilities. Should they go out of their way to make sure their inventions were not used to wage war? Bernie was not inclined to be political, especially at the start of his career. But his years at GE—and, I think, his brother’s work—made him grow much more aware of the dangers of science conducted with no concern for ethics. After the militarization of his project at GE—which began while he was there—he grew much more focused on thinking through the implications of what he was working on.
Q: Jane Marie Cox, Kurt’s first wife, plays a key role in the story. How did she influence Kurt’s life and work?
A: Kurt and Jane were a “nation of two.” They were both talented, creative individuals who wanted to make a meaningful life together—one that would make the world a better place. Jane felt that Kurt was a gifted writer, and she told him so from the very beginning. For himself, Kurt wasn’t quite so confident, and thought he should probably get some more traditional job, maybe do a little writing on the side. But Jane was adamant. She gave him to courage to try to be a writer, and she kept encouraging him throughout his long and grueling apprenticeship. Her faith in him was unwavering, and it kept him afloat. Without Jane Cox Vonnegut, we would never have had the Kurt Vonnegut we all know and love.
Q: Kurt felt “trapped” at GE, particularly toward the end of his tenure. Why?
A: At GE, Kurt was “the man in the gray flannel suit”—literally. He went to work in a suit and a tie and a fedora and he answered to bosses and filled out forms in triplicate and acted the part of the good company man. It was no life for someone with Kurt’s anti-authoritarian, irreverent, activist temperament. But he might have gotten through it if it weren’t for the fact that GE wanted even more from its employees. It wanted them to love their company. It told them how to think and act and feel. Kurt couldn’t help but revolt against that.
Q: Kurt’s story, “Deer in the Works,” my favorite of his shorter works, was inspired by a real-life incident at GE. What were some other examples of events at GE leading to works of fiction?
A: As I grubbed around in the GE archive, I found all kinds of story kernels he had picked up there. There was the young executive obsessed with his model train (“With His Hand on the Throttle”); the memory classes employees were encouraged to take (“Mnemonics”); the walking, talking refrigerator that was used as a sales gimmick (“Jenny”) and the visit to GE of Liaquat Ali Khan, the prime minister of the new state of Pakistan, who gets turned into the Shah of Bratpuhr in Player Piano. And of course, my whole book outlines how Bernard’s work on weather control shapes much of Kurt’s early work, including “Report on the Barnhouse Effect” and “Thanasphere.” It becomes the core of Cat’s Cradle, where the scientist Felix Hoenikker is largely based on Bernie’s boss, Irving Langmuir, and where scientists’ ethical obligations are the book’s theme.
Q: How familiar were you with Kurt’s work before you started writing The Brothers Vonnegut?
A: I was a big fan of Slaughterhouse-Five and had read a few of the short stories, but that was pretty much it. One of the great joys of working on the book was that I got to spend a couple of months reading everything Kurt Vonnegut ever wrote. Then I read as much material as I could find about him. It was a blast.
Q: Did anything surprise you while you were researching the book?
A: What surprised me most was how hopeful and great-hearted the years after World War II were. The world had just been through the most brutal war, and seen evidence of the darkest side of human nature. Yet the Vonnegut brothers were part of an international movement that hoped to turn that knowledge into a better world for everyone: a world government, an end to war, a meaningful life for everyone, greater respect for the planet. It all seemed possible, oddly, because of the bomb. The world had changed that much. War was going to have to be unthinkable, squabbling, selfish nation-states replaced by something better. People were going to have to shape up. That wasn’t something a few far-out idealists believed in during the late 1940s—that was a mainstream position. And if you read his work, you realize Kurt Vonnegut never stopped believing in it. He was a far-out idealist who wanted far-out idealism to be mainstream.
For more, and to order a copy of The Brothers Vonnegut, visit www.gingerstrand.com.