Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut (1979)

The most embarrassing thing to me about this autobiography, surely, is its unbroken chain of proofs that I was never a serious man. I have been in a lot of trouble over the years, but that was all accidental. Never have I risked my life, or even my comfort, in the service of mankind. Shame on me. (p.178)

This is Vonnegut’s ninth novel, published 27 years after his first, Player Piano (1952).

A hell of a lot had happened in those years – most of the 1950s, the entire 1960s and most of the 1970s – sex and drugs and rock and roll, the swinging sixties, hippies, glam rock, prog rock, punk – the Vietnam War with all its student protests segueing into the Killing Fields in Cambodia, the assassination of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights Movement morphing into the Black Panthers and Black Power, the entire Space Age from Sputnik through the moon landings to the Space Shuttle, the oil crisis, Watergate and the discrediting of the American presidency.

Reading Vonnegut’s novels in sequence is like following him and his country on an enormous bender, and then waking up dazed and incredibly hungover the morning after.

A return to sobriety

That’s how reading Jailbird feels (at first, anyway). In comparison with the freaky experimentalism of Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) and of his most fragmented and experimental novel, Breakfast of Champions (1973) which comes complete with Vonnegut’s own illustrations – and unlike the knackered sci-fi of the dystopian novel Slapstick (1976), Jailbird seems like a return to sobriety and convention.

For example, unlike those three novels whose texts are split up into fragmented sections and paragraphs by asterisks or arrows, garnished with illustrations, packed with digressions, including the author’s speculations about his own characters – Jailbird is visually a return to convention, the prose arranged without gimmicks into consecutive paragraphs, themselves grouped into 23 normal-length chapters (unlike the page or half-page-long chapters of its predecessors). Jailbird looks like a normal book.

The long preface

And it does indeed turn out to be a much more conventional read, in tone, mood and style. This is signalled by the thirty-page preface.

Vonnegut hadn’t been shy of writing prefaces to his novels which, as the 60s turned into the 70s, had contained more and more personal, almost intimate, information (for example, about his mother’s suicide and his own depression).

In striking contrast to the ‘letting it all hang out’ approach of those introductions, the introduction to 1979’s Jailbird is strikingly serious and earnest. In tones close to that of a history book or journalistic feature, it recounts the story of the Cuyahoga Bridge Massacre, in which, in 1894, peaceful and mostly female protesters outside an iron works which had laid off their menfolk for rejecting a pay cut, were shot down by freelance ‘security men’ brought in from outside the state.

The link to the rest of the book is that one of the sons of the brutal Scottish immigrant who owned the iron works – Daniel McCone – who was, therefore, responsible for the massacre, is Alexander Hamilton McCone. Well-meaning and well educated Alexander had tried to intervene to break up the protest but is forced to watch the massacre take place, nonetheless.

This results in him withdrawing to live as a traumatised recluse cut off from society, from even his own wife and daughter, by an extreme stammer. His only company is a young boy, the son of the McCone family’s cook and chauffeur Walter F. Starbuck. In return for keeping him company, Alexander promises to send the lad to Harvard when he grows up.

And Jailbird turns out to be the story of Walter F. Starbuck’s life, as told by himself.

First person memoir

In this respect it is like the first-person memoirs which make up Mother Night, Cat’s Cradle and Slapstick. In all of these an ageing man (66 at the time of writing, p.47) looks back over his life from a current situation in which it is drawing to an end. Use of this retrospective point of view means the narrative can jump around from scene to scene, can set up expectations of the future, can signpost major incidents coming up numerous times before actually getting round to describing them.

And it leaves the narrator free to lard the text with his own comments, thoughts and interpretations, something Vonnegut was very inclined to do in those earlier books.

So this memoir or biography is being written by by Walter F. Starbuck.

Right on the first page he gives us the straightforward chronology of his life (just as he did the life of Billy Pilgrim on page one of Slaughterhouse-Five). He was born in 1913, went to Harvard in 1931, got his first government job in 1938. In 1945 he was sent to Germany ‘to oversee the feeding and housing of the American, British, French, and Russian delegations to the War Crimes Trials’ (p.51) and ends up spending four years in Germany.

In 1946 he married a Jewish translator he met in Germany and quickly had a son from whom he is estranged. In 1953 he was sacked from the federal government and ended up helping his wife with her interior decoration company throughout the 1960s. In 1970 he was offered a job in the Nixon White House, and in 1975 tried and convicted of involvement in the Watergate conspiracies, followed by early release from prison in 1977.

Somewhere in the blurbs for the book it says that this is Vonnegut’s Watergate novel but that is wildly misleading. That makes you think you’re going to be taken into the labyrinthine complexities of the Watergate conspiracies, meet the various bad guys in the Nixon administration, maybe there will be some thriller-style suspense and uncovering of new evidence.

Imagine how thrilling and exciting a write like Robert Harris would make a thriller about Watergate.

But nothing could be further from the truth. Jailbird is neither thrilling nor exciting, it is weird and – the temptation is to say ‘surreal’, but really it is nonsensical in the Edward Lear sense of putting nonsensical, non-sequitur and bizarre ideas together to see what effect they give.

RAMJAC Corps

Thus throughout the book we keep hearing that almost any company you can think of is being bought up by the huge and anonymous RAMJAC Corporation. It is only at the end of the book that we realise RAMJAC is run by one of Starbuck’s old girlfriends, in fact one of the only four women he’s ever loved, Mary Kathleen O’Looney. She lives as a bag lady on the streets of New York, wearing enormous black trainers in which she keeps all her legal documentation, and carrying six stuffed filthy bags around. She stinks, her hair is falling out and she is physically disgusting as Starbuck discovers the day after he is released from prison and a friend hails him in the street.

O’Looney hears his name, grabs hold of his hand, refuses to let go, and takes him down into her secret hideaway in a disused train station beneath Manhattan (to be precise, an abandoned locomotive repair shop beneath Grand Central Station). She reveals that she is the CEO of RAMJAC Corp and sends instructions by mail to the lawyer who administers her wishes under the pseudonym of Mrs Jack Graham. These are verified by including fingerprints of all her fingers and thumbs. This means that criminals who have learned about this system, try to kidnap her and cut off her hands in order to use the fingerprints to steal her money. This is not as paranoid as it sounds: one time she was staying in a hotel suite in Nicaragua waited on only by Mormons, the only people she trusts. She met a woman whose husband had just died of amoebic dysentry and put her up in her rooms, while she (Mary) went to make arrangements to ship the body home.

When she came back the Mormon had been murdered – and both her hands cut off and stolen (p.217).

In the couple of days after being released from prison Starbuck receives kindly treatment from a number of people – a prison guard, the chauffeur who brings him into Manhattan, a waiter at a restaurant, the owner of a deep fat frying joint, and so on.

Chatting to the disgusting, half-bald, filthy O’Looney he mentions their names only to have her straightaway write a letter to her executive lawyer, Arpad Leen, instructing that these eight people (including Starbuck himself) be immediately made Vice Presidents of various divisions of RAMJAC Corps, and that’s how the book ends, with a party attended by this random selection of eight guys who now find themselves executives in a massive American corporation.

Starbuck himself ends up as Executive Vice-President of the Down Home Records Division of the RAMJAC Corporation, along with Clyde Carter the prison guard, Cleveland Lawes the limousine driver, Dr Israel Edel the night clerk at the Arapahoe Hotel, Frank Ubriaco owner of the Coffee Shop who once deep-fat-fried his own hand when his expensive watch fell off into the fryer and on impulse he reached in to get it – all Vice presidents of one bit or another of the multinational corporation.

Hopefully, this summary of the RAMJAC/O’Looney thread of the novel shows you that this is not a book about Watergate, nor a thriller, nor really a conventional novel at all.

Satire or ridicule?

And it’s not really a satire on corporate America. A satire usually aims to undermine its target by making accurate, insightful hits on it. Inventing the idea that the most powerful corporation in America is run by a baglady hiding out in a derelict station under Manhattan isn’t really satirising corporate America, it is ridiculing it. This book – maybe all Vonnegut’s books – are less satires than ridicules.

In his view the whole world is so absurd and nonsensical that ridiculing it is the only rational response – including ridiculing the very idea of being a writer and writing novels (which is why I think I like Breakfast of Champions best of the seven novels I’ve read). There is no subtlety or insight to it.

I will say further, as an officer of an enormous international conglomerate, that nobody who is doing well in this economy ever even wonders what is really going on.
We are chimpanzees. We are orangutans. (p.123)

This is not satire. It is the despairing ridicule of a man who has given up trying to understand.

Watergate

The Watergate theme, such as it is, is limited to the following. Starbuck tells us that back in the 1950s he was called on to testify about communists in government. Before the famous House Un-American Activities Committee Starbuck lists a number of colleagues who he knows were communists in the 1930s buthave changed their views and present no threat to the American people. Among these he mistakenly includes a colleague named Leland Clewes. Clewes in fact had never been a communist and tries to clear his name.

Starbuck explains that the young assistant to Senator Joe McCarthy, one Richard Milhous Nixon, then spends two years hounding and investigating Clewes and eventually getting him convicted and sent to jail. This drew Nixon into the public eye. In a roundabout way, then, Starbuck takes the blame for having made Nixon’s career. This is why, a long time later, Starbuck finds himself offered a job at the Nixon White House. Nixon one day remembered his name, asked his aides what Starbuck was doing, wondered if he’d accept a lowly job.

This nothing job is ‘President’s special advisor on youth affairs’ (p.46). Starbuck was given a windowless room in the basement of the White House (‘a sub-basement in the Executive Office Building’), from where he churned out some 200 reports over five years about youth activities, none of which were ever read by anyone. Salary: $36,000 pa.

Starbuck’s sole connection with any of the Watergate conspiracy was twofold. Throughout his time there he could hear people stomping about upstairs. One day he coughed loudly and immediately there was a rumpus down the stairs and a couple of senior staffers burst in demanding to know whether he’d been listening in on their conversations. They then tested the soundproofing, with one of them shouting and swearing upstairs, while another one stood in Starbuck’s office until he was satisfied that even shouting didn’t travel through the floorboards and he could never have heard anything.

And then, in 1975, when police came to search the White House, some of the guilty staffers came rushing downstairs with several crates packed with cash. These were illegal donations to Nixon’s re-election campaign, which they thought they could stash in Starbuck’s out-of-the-way office. But the cops searched even down here, found it, arrested Starbuck, and that was what he was tried and convicted and sent to gaol for, conspiracy to hide, defraud, illegal contributions etc.

So you see, the book offers little or no insight into Watergate or Nixon, or the intricacies of the conspiracy (there is one scene where Starbuck attends a meeting of the entire cabinet, seated far away, the lowest of the low, and chain smoking so much that Nixon makes a joke about him – that is Starbuck’s one and only encounter and anecdote about Nixon pp.61-62. He takes the opportunity to name a number of the men around the table who would end up in prison. But it isn’t an insight or exploration or explanation of the Nixon White House. It is one joke and a list of names).

It’s more as if Starbuck is an innocent bystander, an inoffensive drone right on the periphery of the administration who gets sent to prison because the bad guys stashed some hot money in his office and he was too dutiful to reveal their names. This could have been the basis of a comedy if the rest of the book wasn’t so weird and nonsensical, and about so much else.

Ruth

For example, there is much more about is wife Ruth, her history, how they met and their life together, than there is about politics. Jewish, Ruth had been hidden for the first part of the war, but then discovered and sent to a concentration camp which she survived to be liberated by the Americans and Starbuck met her only hours after they had been requisitioned by an American army unit which needed a translator at a checkpoint. Starbuck himself requisitioned her, took her to a good hotel, fed her up, and employed her as a translator for his work with the War Trials. He takes ten or so pages to describe their work in some detail, to paint a picture of her earnest pessimism, and the determination with which she sets up an interior design company once they return to American in 1949.

Kilgore Trout

Trout was, by this stage, a well known recurrent figure in Vonnegut’s fiction, maybe his most eminent creation, having appeared in Breakfast of Champions, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and Slaughterhouse-Five. In Champions he is one of the two major protagonists and we learn a lot about his life. He is definitely a ‘real person’. So it comes as a surprise in Jailbird to learn that Trout is in fact one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prison at the gaol where Starbuck serves his two year sentence, in fact the only ‘lifer’ in the Federal Minimum Security Adult Correctional Facility near Finletter Air Force Base, Georgia. His real name is Dr Robert Fender and he has a doctorate is in veterinary science. While in prison, Fender also writes science fiction novels under another pseudonym, Frank X. Barlow (p.67).

I have seen the way Trout’s character changes in different novels as an example of Vonnegut’s use of ‘unreliable narrators’, but I think it’s far bigger than that. If we agree that Vonnegut’s strategy goes far beyond ‘satire’ into the realm I’ve described as ‘ridicule’, then Jailbird‘s revealing that Kilgore Trout in fact doesn’t exist, is another example of Vonnegut’s full-spectrum ridiculing of all stable and sensible ideas about fiction. It is an example of his ‘nonsense’ approach to fiction.

One strategy Vonnegut retains from earlier books, especially Breakfast of Champions, is that the narrator summarises entire novels or stories by Trout. The result is that, instead of having to read an entire trout novel, you can simply read the narrator’s one or two-page summary which are much zippier, funnier or wackier.

There are other echoes of earlier techniques as well. You know I said that Jailbird looks more conventional in the sense that the prose is arranged into consecutive paragraphs and the chapters are a sensible length (unlike all three of his previous novels). Yes, but he redeploys the catchphrase. In Slaughterhouse many paragraphs or anecdotes ended with the phrase ‘So it goes’. Here it is ‘And so on’. Similarly, it doesn’t happen often, but every now and then Vonnegut just inserts a one-word paragraph saying ‘Peace’. Just to remind us that the same wacky nonsensicalist of the earlier experimental books is still there, lurking.

And the spirit of the nonsensicalist emerges more and more as the book progresses. There is an extended description of the night in 1931 he took the ‘Yankee clock heiress’ Sarah Wyatt to dinner at the swanky Hotel Arapahoe in Manhattan. Partly because he remembers it all when, having just been released from prison in 1977, Starbuck returns to the same hotel to see it much reduced, shabby and dingy and half boarded up. In fact, the receptionist tells him, the entire area where the restaurant used to be has been converted into a porn movie cinema which specialises in gay porn, many of the movies climaxing with scenes of anal fisting, something which, unsurprisingly, shocks and horrifies the narrator (p.130).

When he expresses an opinion, Starbuck just sounds dazed at what his country has come to.

Mary Kathleen O’Looney wasn’t the only shopping-bag lady in the United States of America. There were tens of thousands of them in major cities throughout the country. Ragged regiments of them had been produced accidentally, and to imaginable purpose, by the great engine of the economy. Another part of the machine was spitting out unrepentant murderers ten years old, and dope fiends, and child batterers and many other bad things. People claimed to be investigating. Unspecified repairs were to be made at some future time. (p.151)

Sacco and Vanzetti

He’s obviously been thinking, or reading, about the celebrated case of the Italian-born American anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti who were controversially convicted of murdering a guard and a paymaster during the April 15, 1920 armed robbery of the Slater and Morrill Shoe Company in Braintree, Massachusetts. They were both executed in the electric chair just after midnight on August 23, 1927.

Vonnegut refers to them in the preface to the book, and the preface ends with a quote from Nicola Sacco writing to his 13-year-old son Dante, a quote which went on to be turned into a song, and rallying cry for the Socialist cause in America.

Help the weak ones that cry for help, help the prosecuted and the victim, because they are your better friends; they are the comrades that fight and fall as your father and Bartolo fought and fell yesterday for the conquest of the joy of freedom for all the poor workers. In this struggle of life you will find more love and you will be loved.

Towards the end of the book, the narrative stops altogether while Vonnegut gives an extended summary of the events surrounding the supposed crimes, trial and execution of the pair. This chimes with the fact that Starbuck, although a Harvard man, was himself a student activist, and an actual member of the communist party.

This is par for the course in Vonnegut’s novels all of which contain large chunks of random subject matter thrown in from all sides. It’s part of what makes them surprisingly chewy and dense.

But it’s difficult to reconcile this apparent earnestness about Sacco and Vanzetti and the anarchist / socialist cause – the totally straight description of the 1894 Cuyahoga Bridge Massacre (fictional, although based on similar worker killings which took place around that time), and descriptions of Starbuck’s own student activism (it was while editing a communist student paper at Harvard that he first met the beautiful and idealistic Mary Kathleen O’Toole) — with the helpless nonsensicality of the main plot i.e. the way a ruined baglady turns out to be running the largest corporation in America. It doesn’t cohere. It’a as if they’re from different worlds – the serious, and the utterly nonsensical.

The nonsense is entertaining and sometimes funny but the trouble is it makes all his ‘serious’ criticisms of America or war or capitalism tremendously easy to ignore, take with a pinch of salt, and dismiss.

Epilogue

In the epilogue Starbuck describes how, soon after being made Executive Vice-President of the Down Home Records Division of the RAMJAC Corporation, he goes to see Mary Kathleen O’Looney in her secret base under grand Central Station and discovers her in a very poor way. In fact she dies in his arms. The epilogue then describes how Starbuck disposes of her body secretly and doesn’t tell anyone. RAMJAC Corporation continues for another two years before the discovery of its CEO’s demise is finally made. At which point Starbuck is taken to court once again, and convicted of not reporting her death, fraud etc.

The book ends with a party given for him by all the other vice-presidents, which has the effect of tying up any loose strands of the ‘plot’, before he is scheduled to be sent back to the slammer. And that is the story of this inveterate jailbird.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

Bauhaus by Frank Whitford (1984)

It is perhaps details of the more trivial aspects of life which help us more clearly to imagine the atmosphere of the Bauhaus. (p.162)

This is a wonderful book. I’ve read plenty of accounts of the Bauhaus which emphasise its seismic importance to later design and architecture, but this is the only one which really brings it alive and makes it human. It is almost as gripping, and certainly filled with as many vivid characters and funny anecdotes, as a good novel.

Whitford’s book really emphasises that the Bauhaus was not some mythical source of everything wonderful in 20th century design, but a college of art and design, in essence like many others of the day, staffed by a pretty eccentric bunch of teachers and the usual scruffy, lazy and sometimes brilliant students. During its very chequered fifteen year history it faced all the usual, mundane problems of funding, staffing, organisation and morale with often chaotic and sometimes comic results.

Part of the Bauhaus building at Dessau, Germany

Part of the Bauhaus building at Dessau, Germany

Two things really stand out from this account:

One is Whitford’s attitude, which is refreshingly honest and accessible. He tells jokes. Usually the names of Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky (who both taught the college’s innovative Introductory course) are mentioned with reverend awe. It is extremely refreshing, then, to read accounts left by students who didn’t understand their teachings at all, and even more so for Whitford himself to admit that, even to their most devoted fans, the writings of both Klee and Kandinsky are often incomprehensible.

The practical problems of resources and staffing loom large in Whitford’s down-to-earth account. While Klee and Kandinsky were trying to teach their esoteric theories of line and picture construction to uncomprehending neophytes, the director Walter Gropius was doing deals with local grocers and merchants to get enough food for the students to eat, and wangling supplies of coal to keep the draughty old buildings heated.

Walter Gropius, founding director of the Staatliches Bauhaus

Walter Gropius, founding director of the Staatliches Bauhaus

The second key element is that the book is very rich in quotes, memories, diaries, letters, memoirs, later accounts from the successive directors, the teaching staff and – crucially – from the students. Kandinsky is an enormous Legend in art history: it makes him come alive to learn that although he dressed impeccably, in a sober suit with a wing collar and bow tie, he also loved cycling round the campus on a racing bike.

Whitford quotes a student, Lothar Schreyer, who decided to take the mickey out of the Great Man. Believing that abstract painting was nonsense he solemnly presented Kandinsky with a canvas painted white. Kandinsky went along with the plan by taking it intensely seriously and discussing his motivation, his choice of white, the symbolism of white and so on. But then he went on to say that God himself created the universe out of nothing, so ‘let us create a little world ourselves’, and he proceeded to carefully paint in a red, a yellow and a blue spot, with a shadow of green down the side. To the surprise of Schreyer and the students watching, the result was astonishingly powerful and ‘right’, in the way of the best abstract art. He was converted on the spot.

God, to have such teachers today!

Composition VIII by Wassily Kandinsky (1923)

Composition VIII by Wassily Kandinsky (1923)

The power of Whitford’s account is that he doesn’t stop at generalisations about teaching methods or philosophies; he gives vivid examples. Here’s an actual homework Kandinsky set:

For next Friday please do the following: take a piece of black paper and place squares of different colours on it. Then place these squares of the same colours on a white sheet of paper. Then take the coloured squares and place on them in turn a white and then a black square. This is your task for next class. (quoted page 100)

The aim wasn’t to produce works of art or learn to paint. It was to conduct really thorough systematic experiments with the impacts of countless combinations of colours and shapes. After a year of doing this (plus other things) in the introductory course, students would then move on in the second year to specialise in metalwork, ceramics, glasswork, industrial design, household products and so on – but with a year’s worth of experimenting with lines and shapes and colour combinations behind them.

The equally legendary Hungarian polymath László Moholy-Nagy arrived at the Bauhaus in 1923, taking over from the eccentric spiritualist Johannes Itten as teacher of the Bauhaus preliminary course, also replacing Itten as Head of the Metal Workshop.

Moholy-Nagy wore worker’s overalls to emphasise his communist Constructivist views, sweeping away the soft arts and crafts approach which had dominated the school for its first four years and implementing an entirely new approach, focused on designing and producing goods which could be mass produced for the working classes.

László Moholy-Nagy, the stern constructivist man of the people

László Moholy-Nagy, the stern constructivist man of the people

So far, so legendary. But it’s typical of Whitford’s account that he tells us that about the only thing Moholy-Nagy didn’t do well was speak German, with the result that the students took the mickey out of his appalling accent and nicknamed him ‘Holy Mahogany’. Now that sounds like a proper art school.

Even details like exactly how many people were on the teaching staff (12) and how many students there were (initially about 100, rising to 150) gives you a sense of the scale of the operation. Tiny, by modern standards.

I laughed out loud when Whitford tells us that Gropius very optimistically held an exhibition of students work in 1919 that was so disastrous – the exhibits were so poor and the reaction of the press was so scathing – that he swore never to hold another one (p.136).

For it was a college like any other and had to justify its costs to the local authorities. The government of Weimar (one of Germany’s many Länder, or mini-states) funded it for six years before withdrawing their funding. The director, Walter Gropius, had to advertise to the other states in Germany, asking if any others would be willing to fund the school. From the first it aimed to become self-supporting by selling its products (ceramics, rugs, fixtures and fittings, metal work, the occasional full-scale architectural commission) but it never did.

Herbert Bayer's cover for the 1923 book Staatliches Bauhaus

Herbert Bayer’s cover for the 1923 book Staatliches Bauhaus

So the school’s reliance on state funding put it at the mercy of the extremely volatile politics and even more unstable economics of Germany during the 20s. László Moholy-Nagy didn’t just join the Bauhaus, he joined a school of art and design which was struggling to survive, whose teaching staff were in disarray, which had failed to deliver on many of its initial aims and promises, and at the time of Germany’s ridiculous hyper-inflation which looked as if it might see the overthrow not only of the government but of the entire economic system.

Thus the sweeping changes to the syllabus he and his colleague Albers introduced weren’t just a personal whim, they were absolutely vital of the school was to stand a hope of breaking even and surviving. For the first four years Johannes Itten had included meditation, breathing exercises and the cultivation of the inner spirit in the Induction Course. Moholy-Nagy scrapped all of it.

Typically, Whitford finds a humorous way of conveying this through the words of a student eye witness. According to this student, they had previously been encouraged to make ‘spiritual samovars and intellectual doorknobs’; Moholy-Nagy instructed them to start experimenting with a wide range of modern materials in order to design practical household objects, tea sets, light fittings. Using glass and metal, they made what are probably the first globe lamps made anywhere.

It’s Whitford’s ability to combine a full understanding of the historical background, with the local government politics of Weimar or Dessau, with the fluctuating morale at the school and the characters of individual teachers, and his eye for the telling anecdote, which contribute to a deeply satisfying narrative.

Even if you’re not remotely interested in art, it would still be an interesting book to read purely as social history. Again Whitford made me laugh out loud when he pointed out that, although Germany’s hyperinflation of 1923 was catastrophic for most people, it was, of course, boom times for the printers of bank notes! Verily, every cloud has a silver lining.

Bauhaus student Herbert Bayer was commissioned to design 1 million, two million and one billion Mark banknotes. They were issued on 1 September 1923, by which time much higher denominations were needed.

Emergency bank notes designed by Herbert Bayer (1923)

Emergency bank notes designed by Herbert Bayer (1923)

Against his better judgement Gropius was persuaded to hold another exhibition, in 1923. This one, to everyone’s pleasant surprise, was a commercial and critical success. It ran from 15 August to 30 September. When it opened one dollar was worth two million Marks; by the time it ended a dollar bought 160 million Marks (p.147). What a catastrophe.

Brief timeline

The Bauhaus school of art, architecture and design lived precisely as long as the Weimar Republic. It was founded in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius, who was invited by the government of Weimar to take over a merger of the Grand Ducal School of Arts and Crafts and the Weimar Academy of Fine Art. Gropius wanted to integrate art and design with traditions of craft and hand manufacture, following the beliefs of the English critic John Ruskin and artist-entrepreneur and activist William Morris and the atmosphere of the early school was intensely spiritual and arty. The teachers were divided into ‘Masters of Form’ – responsible for theory of design – and ‘Workshop Masters’ – experts at rug-making, ceramics, metalwork and so on. The idea was that the two would work in tandem though in practice the relationship was often problematic.

Johannes Itten, follower of the fire cult Mazdaznan, deeply spiritual and the main influence on the first period of the Bauhaus to 1923

Johannes Itten, follower of the fire cult Mazdaznan, deeply spiritual and the main influence on the first period of the Bauhaus to 1923

As mentioned above, the hyper-inflation and the political crisis of 1923 helped to change the culture. Gropius managed to sack the spiritual Ittens and bring in the no-nonsense Moholy-Nagy and Albers. This inaugurated the Second Phase, from 1923 to 1925, when Romantic ideas of self-expression were replaced by rational, quasi-scientific ideas. Whitford points out that this shift was part of a wider cultural shift across Germany. The tradition of Expressionism which lingered on from before the Great War was decisively dropped in a whole range of arts to be replaced by a harder, more practical approach which soon came to be called the New Objectivity.

In 1925 a nationalist government took power in Weimar and withdrew funding from the school, which they portrayed (not inaccurately) as a hotbed of communists and subversives. The Bauhaus quit Weimar and moved to purpose-built buildings in Dessau. 1925-28 are probably its glory years, the new building inspiring a wave of innovations as well as – as Whitford emphasises – the themed parties which soon became legendary.

A new younger cohort of teachers, the so-called Young Masters, most of whom had actually been students at the school, were now given teaching places and generated a wave of innovations. Herbert Bayer pioneered the use of simple elegant typefaces without serif or even capital letters. Marcel Breuer designed the first ever chair made from tubular steel with leather pads stretched across it, a design which was still going strong when I started work in media land in the late 1980s, 60 years later. Breuer named it the Wassily chair in honour of his older colleague.

The Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer (1925)

The Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer (1925)

In 1928 Gropius quit and handed over the directorship to Hannes Meyer, an avowed Marxist who saw art and architecture solely in terms of social benefit. The merit of Whitford’s account is that for 150 pages or so, he has made us share Gropius’s triumphs and disasters, made us feel for him as he fought the local governments for funding, tried to stage exhibitions to raise the school’s profile and to sell things, battled against critics and enemies of both the right and the left.

Whitford quotes from the letters which Gropius sent out to his colleagues in which he explained that, after ten years of fighting, he is exhausted. More than that, Gropius realised that it was make or break time for him as a professional architect: either he was going to spend the rest of his life as a higher education administrator or get back to the profession he loved.

Similarly, Whitford deals sympathetically with the directorship of Meyer, which lasted for two short years from 1928 to 1930. Usually this seen as a period of retrenchment when the last dregs of the school’s utopianism were squeezed out of it. But Whitford is sympathetic to Meyer’s efforts to keep it afloat in darkening times. Students complained that all the other specialities were now subjugated to Meyer’s focus on architecture, for example explorations of how to use prefabricated components to quickly build well-designed but cheap housing for the masses.

But it was during Meyer’s time that the school had its biggest-ever commercial success. Whitford tells the story of how the school received a commission to design wallpaper, a challenge which was handed over to the mural-painting department. Staff and students developed a range of ‘textured and quietly patterned’ designs which were unlike anything else then on the market. To everyone’s surprise they turned out to be wildly popular and became the most profitable items the school ever produced. In fact they are still available today from the firm which commissioned them, Emil Rasche of Bramsche.

Meyer really was a devoted communist. He instituted classes in political theory and helped set up a Communist Party cell among the students. Opposition from powerful factions in the government of Thuringia (of which the city of Dessau was capital) lobbied continuously for Meyer to be replaced or the entire school closed down. The older generation of teachers were just as disgruntled as the last dregs of Expressionist feeling were squashed beneath revolutionary rhetoric.

The mayor of Dessau fired Meyer on 1 August 1930. Meyer promptly went to Russia to work for the Soviet government, taking several Bauhaus students with him.

Radical Bauhaus designs for household appliances

Radical Bauhaus designs for household appliances

Meyer was replaced by the internationally renowned architect Mies van der Rohe, who Gropius had sounded out about replacing him back in 1928.

Mies was more open to ideas of beauty and design than the functionalist Meyer, but he was forced by the Thuringian authorities (who, after all, owned and funded the school) to cut down severely on political activity at the college. This backfired as the politicised students demanded to know by what right Mies was implementing his policies and organised meetings, several of which descended into near riots.

The police were called and the school was closed. Not for the last time, ‘radical’ students were playing into the hands of their political enemies. Mies re-opened the school and insisted on a one-to-one interview with all the returning students, each of which had to make a personal promise, and sign a contract, to avoid political activity and trouble-making.

Of all the teachers who’d been at the college when it opened, only Kandinsky and Klee remained and Klee resigned soon after Mies’s arrival.

Of course, looming behind all this was the Great Depression, which had begun with the Wall Street Crash of October 1929. America had been the main backer of the German economy via the Dawes Plan of 1924 (which is what had brought the hyper-inflation under control). Now American banks, under extreme pressure, demanded all their loans back, and there was no-one to replace them.

Nesting tables designed by Josef Albers (1927)

Nesting tables designed by Josef Albers (1927)

Companies throughout Germany went bankrupt and millions of workers were laid off. In September 1928 Germany had 650,000 unemployed, By September 1931 there were 4,350,000 unemployed (and the number continued to rise, reaching a staggering 6,100,000 unemployed by January 1933, the year Hitler came to power promising jobs and work for all Germans.)

In 1931 the growing Nazi Party achieved control of the Dessau city council. After a campaign of criticism of its foreign-influenced and un-German designs, the school was closed on 30 September 1932. Nazi officials moved in, smashing windows and throwing paperwork and equipment out into the street.

It stuttered on. Heroically, Mies rented space in a disused telephone factory in Berlin and turned the school into a private institution, requiring private fees. They set about constructing workshops and teaching areas. Amazingly, Kandinsky was still on the faculty, though whether he was still cycling round on his racing bike isn’t recorded. Even this private incarnation was targeted by the Nazis and Whitford quotes a student’s vivid eye-witness account of truckloads of Nazi police rolling up outside the building on 11 April 1933.

Whitford reports the fascinating coda when, for a few months, letters were exchanged and discussion had with the new authorities about whether a school of modern design could find a place in the new Reich – after all the Nazi leadership had a keen sense of the arts and had utopian plans of their own to rebuild Berlin as the capital of Europe. But the discussions petered out and on 10 August 1933 Mies sent a leaflet to the remaining students telling them the school had been wound up.

Bauhaus chess set designed by Josef Hartwig in 1923

Bauhaus chess set designed by Josef Hartwig in 1923 (the shape of the pieces indicates the moves they can take)

Impact

After being closed down by the Nazis many of the teaching staff went abroad to found similar schools, colleges and institutes in other countries. In particular Germany’s loss was America’s gain. Moholy-Nagy founded the ‘New Bauhaus’ in Chicago in 1937. Gropius taught at Harvard. Albers taught at the hugely influential Black Mountain College. After the war a Hochschule für Gestaltung was set up in Ulm, which continued the school’s investigations into industrial design.

As to the Bauhaus’s general influence, Whitford opened the book with a summary. The Bauhaus influenced the practice and curriculums of post-war art schools around the world:

  • Every student who does a ‘foundation course’ at art school has the Bauhaus to thank for this idea.
  • Every art school which offers studies of materials, colour theory and three dimensional design is indebted to the experiments Bauhaus carried out.
  • Everyone sitting in a chair made with a tubular steel frame, or using an adjustable reading lamp, or is in a building made from pre-fabricated elements is benefiting from Bauhaus inventions.

I was particularly struck by the section about the model house, the Haus am Horn designed by Georg Muche, which Bauhaus architects and designers built as a showcase for the 1923 exhibition. It was the first building constructed based on Bauhaus designs, and its simplicity and pure lines were to prove very influential in international modern architecture.

Whitford, as ever, goes into fascinating detail, quoting a student who remarked of the interior designs by Marcel Breuer (then still himself a student) that it included: the first kitchen in Germany with separated lower cupboards, suspended upper cupboards attached to the walls, a continuous work surface running round the wall, and a main workspace in front of the kitchen window. (p.144)

The revolutionary kitchen of the Haus am Horn (1923)

The revolutionary kitchen of the Haus am Horn (1923)

Whitworth also points out that the Bauhaus legacy isn’t as straightforward as is often portrayed. From the mid-20s journalists began to associate the name with everything modern and streamlined in contemporary design, everything functional and in modern materials. But this was misleading; it certainly hadn’t been Gropius’s intention. He never wanted there to be a ‘Bauhaus style’; the whole idea was to encourage new thinking, questioning and variety.

The Bauhaus style which sneaked its way into the design of women’s underwear, the Bauhaus style as ‘modern decor’, as rejection of yesterday’s styles, as determination to be ‘up-to-the-minute’ at all costs – this style can be found everywhere but at the Bauhaus. (Oskar Schlemmer, quoted page 198)

Summary

By treating each period of the school’s evolution so thoroughly, beginning with a fascinating account of the pre-war sources of much of its thinking in the arts and crafts of Morris or the Expressionism of Kandinsky and Marc, Whitworth restores to the story its complexity, its twists and turns, showing that at different moments, and to different teachers and students, Bauhaus meant completely different things. The full fifteen year story has to be taken and understood as a whole to give a proper sense of the exciting experimentalism, diversity, challenges and achievements of this extraordinary institution.

This is a really good book, authoritative, sensible, funny – deeply enjoyable on multiple levels.


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