I Can Think of No More Stirring Symbol of Man’s Humanity to Man than a Fire Engine

Kurt Vonnegut? Winston Niles Rumfoord? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A good friend of mine is a volunteer firefighter, and he asked me about a quote credited to Kurt Vonnegut:

I can think of no more stirring symbol of man’s humanity to man than a fire engine

This statement can be found on many websites and it is almost always attached to Vonnegut, but I have not found any citation identifying when it was written or spoken. Past experience has made me very skeptical about unsupported attributions to Vonnegut.

I still remember a humorous speech titled “Wear Sunscreen” that was distributed widely on the internet under Vonnegut’s name [IFVN]. But the real author was a Chicago Tribune columnist named Mary Schmich [MSWS].

Did Vonnegut really praise fire engines?

Quote Investigator: The quotation above was spoken by a character named Winston Niles Rumfoord in Kurt Vonnegut’s early science fiction novel “The Sirens of Titan” published in 1959. In the story the primary protagonist Malachi Constant was returning to Earth after a series of ordeals, and he was greeted by Rumfoord as follows [KVST]:

“Welcome, Space Wanderer,” blatted Rumfoord’s oleomargarine tenor from the Gabriel horns on the wall. “How meet it is that you should come to us on the bright red pumper of a volunteer fire department. I can think of no more stirring symbol of man’s humanity to man than a fire engine. Tell me, Space Wanderer, do you see anything here—anything that makes you think you may have been here before?”

Rumfoord was a complex and sometimes cruel figure with extraordinary powers in the political and quasi-religious realms who was partially based on Franklin D. Roosevelt. Of course, the pronouncements of a character in a novel do not always reflect the beliefs of the author. Indeed, sometimes the pronouncements do not even accurately represent the attitudes of the character. But there is evidence that Vonnegut was appreciative of fire engines and firefighters.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

One of the plot points in Vonnegut’s 1965 novel “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” involved fire fighters. During World War II the protagonist Eliot Rosewater accidentally killed members of a volunteer fire department. When Rosewater later became the head of a wealthy foundation he dedicated considerable funds to support volunteer firefighters [OXGR].

In the days after the destruction of the World Trade Center Towers in 2001 the New York Post newspaper reached out to Vonnegut for a comment. He made a statement that was very similar to the one given in his 1959 novel. The term “fire truck” was used in the place of “fire engine” [KVNY]:

One of America’s greatest living writers is expressing his respect and esteem for the brave men and women who risk their lives toiling in the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center. When PAGE SIX asked “Breakfast of Champions” author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. to comment on the tragedy, he reflected, “The most stirring symbol of man’s humanity toward man that I can think of is a fire truck.”

In conclusion, Vonnegut did write this quotation in a novel in 1959, and he spoke a version in 2001. The words reflected his positive view of firefighters and their purpose.

(Thanks to Alexander C. Heckman whose query led to the construction of this question by QI and the initiation of this trace.)

[IFVN] 1997 August 6, What Vonnegut Never Said: It’s All the Talk of the Internet’s Gossip Underground by Ian Fisher, Page B1, New York. (ProQuest; Also Online New York Times Archive) link

[MSWS] 1997 June 1, Chicago Tribune, “Advice, Like Youth, Probably Just Wasted on the Young” by Mary Schmich, Page 4C, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest; Also Online Chicago Tribune Archive) link

[KVST] 2012, The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, [Originally published in 1959], Quote Page 242 of 319, Electronic Edition RosettaBooks. (Google Books Preview; Also verified on paper in Easton Press (1990) edition: Page 238 of 315) link

[OXGR] 1995, The Oxford Companion to American Literature by James D. Hart with revisions and additions by Phillip W. Leininger, “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; or Pearls before Swine”, Oxford University Press, Oxford Reference Online. (Accessed June 18, 2012)

[KVNY]: 2001 September 17, New York Post, Section: Page Six Anchors Helped Calm the Storm, Page 52, New York. (NewsBank Access World News)

3 replies on “I Can Think of No More Stirring Symbol of Man’s Humanity to Man than a Fire Engine”

  1. The fire engine quote is correctly attributed to Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan in the voice of Winston Niles Rumfoord. KV’s sentiments about the nobility of firemen can be found in many of his texts, perhaps most notably in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. KV was a volunteer fireman in Alplaus, New York, just outside Schenectady while employed by G.E. (FWD 123). 

    Marc Leeds, Ph.D. (author of The Kurt Vonnegut Encyclopedia. Random House will publish my second edition of the work in 2013. It will be roughly 1200 pages.)

  2. It is also documented that he spoke those exact words in an interview after the September 11th attacks.

  3. Many thanks to Mark Leeds and Doug for their valuable comments. I have updated the post with a remark about “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” and with a 2001 citation from the New York Post.

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