How Thomas Pynchon Turned Seattle Into Nazi Germany
By Tim Appelo
January 30, 2017
Here’s big news for literature buffs: Gravity’s Rainbow, the masterpiece by Thomas Pynchon, Seattle’s most-honored and influential writer, turns out to be a savage act of vengeance against our town, inspired by our 1962 Century 21 Exhibition. “Seattle World’s Fair scenes have been exaggerated, parodied, remixed,” writes University of British Columbia scholar Jeffrey Severs in the latest issue of Twentieth Century Literature, “making Gravity’s Rainbow in part a Seattle history.” The book won the 1974 National Book Award and should’ve won the Pulitzer Prize, but the board overruled the judges and awarded no Pulitzer that year.
We’ve long known that Pynchon started his career at Boeing in 1960, writing articles on the Minuteman nuclear missile system. Weirdly secretive, Pynchon surrounded his Boeing desk with enormous, stiff sheets of engineer’s paper, providing privacy while he wrote articles like “The Mad Hatter and the Mercury Wetted Relays,” which warned nuclear launch officers that mercury tubes in their nuke switches could break and make them crazy. (Hat makers often went insane, poisoned by mercury in hat felt, and inspired Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter character).
Pynchon blended the Fair with Nazi Germany. Both Century 21 and the novel’s setting—a combination of Germany 1945 and a nuclear apocalypse—were billed as Cities of the Future. Jet City, as Seattle was known thanks to Boeing, became Pynchon’s Rocket City, an “oppressive realm of performance, spectacle and exhibitions,” Severs notes, with Monorail-like elevated trains and a mad photographer who is “a habitué of mercury fumes,” like Mad Hatters and switch-crazed nuke-launchers.
Rocket City has a flame-topped tower (like the Space Needle’s natural gas flame in ’62), with an observation deck looking out on Seattle weather “washed and darkening cloud sheets…a magnificent sky, marble carried to a wildness of white billow and candescence.” Its futuristically fast elevator combines the Needle with the Bubbleator, whose operators, like the novel’s, were all tall, striking females.
Elvis Presley shot a movie at the Fair, putting real fairgoers in a fantasy story; Rocket City has a filmmaker who calls the entire world a giant film set. The Fair’s burlesque shows boasted “Girls of the Galaxy,” posing in space-wear as tourists snapped naughty shots on rented cameras; their counterparts show up in Gravity’s Rainbow. The Fair’s X-rated puppet show, Les Poupées de Paris, created by the future creators of H.R. Pufnstuff and the Banana Splits, may have inspired some of Pynchon’s obscene cartoonish scenes, as did Walt Disney, who consulted on Seattle’s Fair.
But Pynchon’s central inspiration was the May 1962 visit by scientist Wernher von Braun, who told the wife of the Fair’s president, Joe Gandy, that Hitler had forced him to work on the V-2 rockets that hit London. Gravity’s Rainbow focuses on von Braun’s old job, building death rockets with Jewish slave labor in the underground German V2 base. After Boeing B17s bombed it, von Braun surrendered to US troops in 1945, then emigrated to run the US Saturn missile program (whose engineer, John Minasian, became engineer of the Needle, which looks like the gantry that holds up a rocket before launch).
Von Braun attended the Fair with astronaut John Glenn, who’d just become the first American to orbit Earth. Their talk about peaceful uses of space perhaps struck Minuteman missile worker Pynchon as ironic, and gave Gravity’s Rainbow its plot, about “a good Rocket to take us to the stars, an evil Rocket for the World’s suicide, the two perpetually in struggle.”
There was a deep spiritual side to the Century 21 space debate that made it into Pynchon’s fiction. A Russian astronaut who visited Seattle the week before Glenn and von Braun mocked American astronauts, whose thoughts often turned to God while in space. “I saw neither angels nor God,” said the piously atheist Communist. Glenn retorted, “The God I pray to is not small enough that I expected to see Him in outer space.” Von Braun took the side of America and the angels, saying that only “people who are guided by the Bible” could be trusted with nukes. The Teutonic rocket man also said, “Nature does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation. Everything science has taught me, and continues to teach me, strengthens my belief in the continuity of our spiritual existence after death.” Pynchon made those the first words of Gravity’s Rainbow—just before the words, “A screaming comes across the sky,” which refers to the sound of a rocket just before it lands and destroys all life.
The day the Fair ended, the world almost ended for real in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. JFK cancelled his planned Seattle visit, defied every one of his warlike advisors and saved mankind. But God smiled on Pynchon. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 became an unlikely success, making publishers willing to bet on Pynchon’s similarly oddball talent. He got $1,000 for his first novel, V, in which he skewered Boeing as the sinister Yoyodyne Corporation. He quit, swearing he’d never work for a corporation again, and he voiced hatred of Seattle. “It’s killing me…I’m losing my mind,” he wrote his best friend, Kirkpatrick Sale (brother of longtime UW prof Roger Sale and husband of Faith Sale, the famous editor of Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller). When he finally finished Gravity’s Rainbow more than a decade later, he sat on the floor of Kirkpatrick’s apartment rearranging the galleys of the book so that it would have the same number of pages as James Joyce’s Ulysses.
The only good thing in Seattle, Pynchon wrote Kirkpatrick in 1962, was a world premiere by composer Anton Webern, whom he made a character in Gravity’s Rainbow. The Webern concert “had nothing to do with the Seattle World’s Fair, thank God,” Pynchon told Sale. “I am boycotting the S.W.F.” Maybe he did. But the way Seattle drove him crazy with thoughts of the end of the world also gave us the greatest literary work he—or the city—ever produced.