Of Ghost Shirts and Gizmos | Phillips on Player Piano

Anthropology in Vonnegut’s Player Piano

Sarah D. Phillips


It is widely known that after the war Kurt Vonnegut studied on the GI Bill for a master’s degree in cultural anthropology at the University of Chicago. He struggled in the program and never wrote an accepted thesis, though the department awarded him the MA degree a full 25 years later, accepting Cat’s Cradle in lieu of a thesis.

It might be tempting to consider Vonnegut a “failed anthropologist,” but really he was an anthropologist ahead of his time. Vonnegut was not content to dither over the cultures of the past, or even of the present, and he could not content himself with studies of “the Other”—the non-Western, non-white, non-“modern” peoples, studies of whom preoccupied so much of American anthropology in the mid-twentieth century. Vonnegut did anthropology at home, practicing “native anthropology” (studying one’s “own people,” one’s “own culture”) decades before native anthropology became a thing. Further, he practiced this native anthropology—and engaged in an innovative type of ironic contemporary cultural critique—by practicing a form of imaginative time travel into dystopian futures. In describing the messed-up societies of the future, Vonnegut reflected critically on the messed-up societies of his country’s present.

We see this very clearly in his first novel, Player Piano. Vonnegut described a potential (probable?) future in which the automation of industry had left workers—working people—redundant. Machines had replaced most of the human workforce. Managers and engineers now ran the economy and the country; all the “muscle work” and “routine work” previously performed by workers had been taken over by machines. This left workers consigned to the ranks of either the army or the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps, the latter colloquially known as the “Reeks and Wrecks.” Next, big computers such as EPICAC—now in its fourteenth iteration (today we would say “generation”) —were poised to take over “the real brainwork.” EPICAC XIV was already masterminding industry and the country’s economy, and wielded much more power than the figurehead president of the US. (How hilarious that if we shift a couple of vowels around, this mega-computer, humming and clicking away deep down in the bowels of Carlsbad Caverns, becomes IPECAC, an emetic syrup used to induce vomiting! Thank you, Kurt.)

Back to Vonnegut’s particular (peculiar?) practice of anthropology. Vonnegut recognized, rather ahead of his time, the socially constructed and malleable nature of “culture.” He understood cultural anthropology as an opportunity to critically examine “every object and idea which has been shaped by men and women and children.”1 Indeed, Vonnegut’s biographer Charles J. Shields notes that Vonnegut’s “ironic distance as a novelist, sounding as detached as an entomologist observing insects, can be traced to his days as an anthropology student.”2

Vonnegut’s initial proposal for his MA thesis at Chicago was to examine macro-connections between separate cultures—e.g., similarities between the Cubist painters in Paris in 1907 and the leaders of late nineteenth-century Native American uprisings. Not surprisingly, this initial proposal was deemed too ambitious and the anthropology department turned it down. Vonnegut subsequently submitted a four-page proposal for a thesis on “Mythologies of North American Nativistic Movements” that would “undertake a comparison of the new mythologies that have come into being among North American Indian groups in the face of the culture crisis of white conquest.” His mentors received this proposal relatively positively (Sol Tax said it looked “promising”; Fred Eggan rated it “O.K.”), and Vonnegut delved into the relevant existing literatures during summer 1947.3

A self-addressed postcard Vonnegut mailed to Prof. Fred Eggan so he could comment on Vonnegut’s thesis proposal. On the reverse Eggan wrote: “Dear Mr. Vonnegut, Your M.A. thesis topic looks O.K. but I think you might make it more useful by dealing with the relation between mythology and action—ritual or otherwise.”


Vonnegut’s bibliographies, reading notes, and ideas for the proposed thesis (as well as accompanying doodles) are at the Lilly Library. The greats of American anthropology (especially those who specialized in Native American cultures, of course) are all quoted and cited extensively in his notes—Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, Alfred Kroeber, Leslie Spier, James Mooney, Ralph Linton. Vonnegut reproduced block quotes from these scholars’ writings in his notes, but his papers show little synthesis or analysis of the existing work on “North American Nativistic Movements.” Vonnegut stopped attending classes at Chicago in August 1947 and never finished the thesis.

Of course, elements of the “nativistic movements” that interested Vonnegut feature prominently in Player Piano. The “Ghost Shirt Society,” a group of “saboteurs” plotting to overthrow the highly mechanized and hierarchical socio-economic structure of the post-war USA, is a nod to the Ghost Dance of 1890, a Native American religious and political movement that Vonnegut had read about extensively. The most popularly known version of the Ghost Dance was that introduced to the Paiute Indians by the prophet Jack Wilson, who said the dance was given to him in a vision by God to take back to his people.4 Wilson believed that proper and prolific performance of the dance would bring good fortune, health, and well-being, and would hasten the joyful reunification of the living with the dead. As detailed by Vonnegut in his thesis notes, the Ghost Dance was very similar to the Prophet Dance of 1870,5 and it was investigating similarities, divergences, derivatives, and “residues” between/of the Prophet Dance and the Ghost Dance that provided the rationale for Vonnegut’s thesis proposal.

Some ghost dancers wore vestments (“ghost shirts”) they thought had spiritual powers; in Vonnegut’s words (spoken by the renegade preacher and anthropologist with a master’s degree [!]Reverend James J. Lasher): the ghost dancers “were going to ride into battle one last time . . . in magic shirts that the white men’s bullets couldn’t go through” (289). Like the rebellious Ghost Shirt Society, whose members abhorred “the way the machines are changing the world” (290), the ghost dancers of the late 1800s wished to “make one last fight for the old values” (288). After receiving a lecture on the historical importance of the Ghost Dance and the ghost shirt, Paul Proteus, the novel’s wayward protagonist, concluded that “the Ghost Shirt Society . . . was simply a convenient and dramatic title for a businesslike group” (293–94) ill-prepared for a rebellion. In Player Piano the modern-day Ghost Shirt rebellion fizzled in a big puddle of stale, sticky Orange-O. In trotting out the whole “Ghost Dance/ghost shirt” motif, was Vonnegut poking fun at the late nineteenth-century Native American religious movements, the idealism/tedium dyad of organized rebellion (with its lofty rhetoric, endless meetings, and petty personal squabbles), of “playing Indian” and the eternal appropriation by white people of cultural trappings of “native Others,” or the powerful gaze and even more powerful pen of the all-knowing “expert” cultural anthropologist? Yes.

If Vonnegut was a “native anthropologist” studying his own people, he also created a farcical character in Player Piano who upended the traditional anthropological practice of the mid-twentieth century (read: Western white man studies the [Oriental, ethnic, traditional . . . insert colonialistic adjective here] Other). The phlegmatic and “wizened and wise and dark as cocoa” Shah of Bratpuhr, “spiritual leader of 6,000,000 members of the Kolhouri sect” (19) is the outsider “anthropologist” in Player Piano. The Shah came to the United States, “the most powerful nation on earth,” to see what he could learn “for the good of his people” (19–20). The Shah’s frank observations of American society unfold in seven discrete chapters peppered throughout Player Piano. The gem-and-gold-brocade-encrusted Shah, with his equally sheltered and wonderfully named nephew-interpreter Khashdrahr Miasma, asked naïve questions and interacted with a range of “citizens.” These encounters allowed Vonnegut to fill in societal details (taxes and benefits, the evolution of professions, standardization’s effects on artistry). The Shah and Miasma were mouthpieces for Vonnegut’s most biting and cynical critiques of the seemingly unstoppable mechanization, standardization, and hierarchicalization of US society. An insider (e.g., Paul Proteus) couldn’t say such things. The Shah of Bratpuhr and his nephew Master Miasma—complete outsiders to the culture—could.

Here are just a few of the Shah’s evaluations:

  • Former workers—(e.g., “any man who cannot support himself by doing a job better than a machine,” and is thus [under-]employed by the government)—are slaves (21).
  • Soldiers are slaves (65–68).
  • “It would be easier to move the Himalayas than to change the Army” (68).
  • The president of the United States has no function; he isn’t even the spiritual leader of the American people (119–23).
  • The mega-computer EPICAC XIV is a false god (123).
  • Former workers’ (slaves’) lives are mostly about watching television (164–65).
  • “Some of the greatest prophets were crazy as bedbugs” (245).

Ekh, Kurt. Takes one to know one!

1. Charles J. Shields, And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, a Life (New York: Henry Holt, 2011), 86–87.
2. Ibid., 87–88.
3. It appears that Vonnegut mailed (or otherwise delivered) Tax and Eggan his proposal and enclosed a self-addressed postcard so they could send a response to him at 3972½ Ellis Ave., Chicago 15. I guess it has always been hard to get feedback from one’s anthropology professors.
4. The Ghost Dance was studied most prominently by anthropologist James Mooney; see his 1892–1893 annual report for the US Bureau of American Ethnology, “The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890” (1897).
5. Vonnegut’s go-to source on the Prophet Dance of 1870 was anthropologist Leslie Spier; see Spier’s The Ghost Dance of 1870 among the Klamath of Oregon (Seattle: University of Washington Press), 1927.