Rappaccini’s Planet: The Legacy of Hawthorne in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and DeLillo’s White Noise

Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 2010


Although definitive credit for inventing the mad scientist genre of modern fiction rightly belongs to Mary Shelley, Nathaniel Hawthorne is unarguably its pioneering American practitioner. The theme of mad science is uniquely appropriate to the American imagination. Not only has the rhetoric of American exceptionalism frequently been framed in terms of techno-scientific mastery of the world, but the United States itself is a kind of Frankenstein polity, built from scratch out of the spirit of the Enlightenment. The legacy of the American tinkerer can be traced back in time from Silicon Valley to Los Alamos to Menlo Park to Constitution Hall in Philadelphia. The American experiment begins as an attempt to engineer a new kind of world for man to live in and, correspondingly, a new kind of citizen to inhabit it. In the language of the founding documents of the United States, the framers convinced themselves and their contemporaries that the elaborately wrought apparatus of governance that they invented and instituted returns citizens to their “natural” condition as free individuals. Such a claim, however, obviously plays fast and loose with the definition of nature. The ostensibly natural world of American constitutional democracy is a mental and semantic environment as finely wrought as the mechanical butterfly in Hawthorne’s story, “The Artist of the Beautiful.” The condition of United States citizens has always been one of participation in an elaborate experiment in the fusion of the world of nature with the world of mind; an experiment concocted by a previous generation of illustrious forefathers.