Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Vonnegut's Proteus

     I have not read Vonnegut in a long time but I should. I liked most of his novels. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be a toss up between Player Piano and Cat's Cradle but some of his short stories were really good too. I was doing some research into industry and industrialists and I came across the name of Charles Proteus Steinmetz a Jewish Polish man, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1889 because he had been involved in Socialist meetings and needed to flee.
      He was a brilliant mathematician and an engineer, who eventually was hired on by General Electric in Schenectady, New York and who became a bit of a star in the company. He was not given the middle name Proteus by his parents, rather he chose the name from Homer's Odyssey because he identified with the character from Homer. The article on Steinmetz in Wikipedia states that Proteus was a hunchbacked god and that is partly why Steinmetz identified with him. Steinmetz suffered from dwarfism and has some spinal or hips problems (judging by the photos of him). However, as much as I have looked through Homer and considered other Greek or Roman tales of Proteus, he does not have a fixed appearance, except maybe as the Old Man of the Sea. He is a shapeshifter and can transform into just about anything.
      In the 1950's, Kurt Vonnegut went to work for General Electric in Schenectady. I find it hard to believe he would not have known about Steinmetz since he was such a towering figure in the company's past and had only passed away in 1923. Dr. Irving Langmuir was said to be the model for Dr. Felix Hoenikker, the inventor of ice-nine in Cat's Cradle, but his son 'Newt' is a little person which seems a curious choice for a character. So many 'cheat notes' online for Player Piano state that Dr. Paul Proteus was named for the god because he undergoes a transformation but I do not see how that can be.
     He is unhappy in his life and unsure how to make life better for people at the beginning of the novel and he is no wiser by the end. In fact, the last vision of people trying to repair the machines, that they smashed in the riots, that had rendered them obsolete as workers shows Proteus that he was unable to change anything. One fact that links Steinmetz to Proteus as a character is that he was a Socialist and Dr. Proteus was trying to achieve a more equitable society. A fact that links Steinmetz to Newt is that he, like Newt, lost his mother when he was a year old.
      The Smithsonian Magazine has an article on the Wizard of Schenectady, read it and see if you don't think that Vonnegut had Steinmetz in mind when he was writing both novels.


and this one from the Edison Tech Center:



Anachronist said...

Cat's Cradle - I am going to read that one soon!

The article on Steinmetz in Wikipedia states that was a hunchbacked god and that is partly why Steinmetz identified with him..

Steinmetz or Proteus was a hunchbacked god?

The Red Witch said...

LOL Proteus was the hunchbacked god. I don't know what happened there except I will say in my defence - I do get interrupted a lot when I am writing my blogs.
I think you will like Cat's Cradle. Have you ever read anything by Vonnegut?