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How Kurt Vonnegut reinvented himself on Cape Cod

Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut

“You are what you pretend to be” was Kurt Vonnegut’s central warning in “Mother Night,” his tale of a Nazi radio propagandist double agent secretly feeding info to the Allies — only the gasoline of his words caused more horror than he meant to stop.

Classic Vonnegut. But here’s the intriguing, real-life twist:

Kurt Vonnegut moved to Cape Cod as soon as his first piece of short fiction published to become the man he pretended into being — Professor Arthur Barnhouse.

“Let me begin by saying that I don’t know any more about where Professor Arthur Barnhouse is hiding than anyone else does,” Vonnegut wrote as the opening sentence of “Report on the Barnhouse Effect.”

Those words appeared in Collier’s Magazine in February, 1950. Vonnegut was living in Schenectady, New York. He was writing p.r. (might that stand for propaganda as well as public relations?) for General Electric. His horrific World War Two experiences were behind him — chronologically. But he must have wondered what the hell he was doing writing ad copy for GE.

His story was the report of a research assistant to Barnhouse, chronicling a mental focusing called “dynamopsychism.” The professor discovered his gift as an army private, shooting craps:

He rolled lucky sevens 10 times in a row.

The more Barnhouse mentally exercised, the stronger the dynamic became. Soon he could make a tank’s gun barrel droop, jet fighters crash. He became a source of intense interest to the military establishment — at which point he vanished.

“Gentlemen,” he wrote, “as the first superweapon with a conscience, I am removing myself from your national defense stockpile.” Barnhouse set about destroying the world’s armaments.

There was much speculation about how soon Barnhouse would get captured by one of the many governments searching to neutralize or control him. That, presumably, would end this short era of world peace.

But the professor had sent his assistant a cryptic note:

“Last night,” the story ends, still in the voice of the assistant, “I tried once more to follow the oblique instructions on the scrap of paper. I took the professor’s dice, and then, with the last, nightmarish sentence flitting through my mind, I rolled 50 consecutive sevens.


The assistant also vanished.

To vanish, to hone mental powers that affect people at great distance, is exactly what real-life Kurt Vonnegut set out to do.

As soon as “Barnhouse” published, Vonnegut was gone from Schenectady and GE. He brought his family to Cape Cod in 1950, to begin writing brilliant work.

Vonnegut couldn’t disarm the world, but he could write disarming fiction. He couldn’t create the peaceful impact of Professor Barnhouse, but for millions of readers, he came closer than most.

Had he stayed in Schenectady, he might have become what he was pretending to be — a p.r. flak. Instead, he imagined a way out, through dynamopsychism, and split to Cape Cod.