Follow the Money | Sandweiss on God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Eric Sandweiss


“A sum of money,” Vonnegut’s narrator alerts us, will be “a leading character” in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, the novelist’s 1965 tale of the hazard of old fortunes (1). Like his creator, Eliot Rosewater—the holy fool who fills that lead role in a more conventional sense—is also struck by money’s personal charisma. Mr. Rosewater, a science fiction devotee, early on suggests to a roomful of fantasy writers that money’s adventures would make the subject of “a good science fiction book” (23). “Churned and hybridized and transmogrified in the hydroponic money farm” (164) of investors and bankers, as Vonnnegut later writes, cash motivates undeserving heroes and improbable villains, buys unexpected happiness, or sells off anticipated opportunity. But the author himself, wavering as usual between his boyish attraction to interstellar flights of fancy and his more stolid grounding in the realism of Howells, Dreiser, or Twain, finally elects to show us money’s wonder-working power without resorting to the deus ex machina of a conveniently sited spaceship or alien. Setting down along a path that continues from those writers through his own early novels and finally up to the county line of a fictional but plausible Rosewater, Indiana, Vonnegut finds in American history—and specifically in his home state’s past—material enough for a plausible tale of money’s powers of “transmogrification,” as this ubiquitous American character turns poor people into rich ones and hardy pioneers into a generation of “discarded Americans” who “have no use” in the world (43-4).

It is the Rosewater family fortune—built first upon the butchered carcasses of pigs raised in the thin soil of southern Indiana hillsides, then on saws forged beside the old canal, still later from swords foisted on government buyers at monopoly prices and, finally, from pieces of paper slid across polished countertops in New York and Chicago—whose coming of age motivates the events of this tale. Like his near-contemporary Ross Lockridge, Jr., Vonnegut has returned to his Hoosier home in search of a family’s lost history, but unlike the Raintree County author, he finds cash, not forbidden love, hiding in the closet. Indeed, Lockridge’s novel (and, less directly, that writer’s suicide, just weeks after the novel’s 1948 release) often peeks out from behind the edges of this account of fictional “Rosewater County,” Indiana. Vonnegut, by far the sparer writer but perhaps no less ambitious, seems on a mission to rescue the earlier saga both from its tangled prose and from its effort to trace America’s rise and fall to anything more complicated than basic greed. Don’t go shaking mythical raintrees, he tells us. If you would understand the secrets of Rosewater County, just follow the money.

The echoes seem more than coincidental. They remind us that Vonnegut himself—like Mr. Rosewater’s characters, and like Lockridge—was situated in his time and place. Eight years apart in age, both writers hailed from well-known and literate Indiana families. Both grew up steeped in the family lore of Hoosier ancestors: Vonnegut’s prominent Indianapolis German clan, and Lockridge’s more modest but still successful family that included, on his paternal side, a popular historical author and re-enactor in the 1920s and ’30s (Ross Lockridge, Sr.) and, on his maternal, an early Indiana University History PhD (Uncle Ernest Shockley) Lockridge, Sr., who, along with Vonnegut’s uncle Theodore—three years apart in age—share space on the “Indiana” page of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity’s 1914 alumni notes. The next generation, too, would travel along overlapping paths. Lockridge, Jr., returned to the Midwest from the East (Massachusetts) on the eve of the appearance of his celebrated first novel. At roughly the same moment, Kurt Vonnegut left the Midwest for the East (New York), and shortly thereafter he published his first stories and moved to Massachusetts. Lockridge died, a suicide, in Bloomington in 1948. Vonnegut’s mother, Edith, had taken her own life four years earlier.

The echoes resound, as well, in the stories themselves. Suicide shadows both. The Civil War functions similarly, in each, as a pivot redirecting the fates of families once settled on the land but now caught up in the gears of industry and finance. Both authors represent the winning end of that turn in the person of a reactionary senator: Lockridge’s Garwood Jones, Vonnegut’s Lister Rainwater. The two men’s visits home, like other details of the two stories, occur within overlapping real-world places. Lockridge’s eponymous county derives its name from the Chinese tree that settlers had planted, in the 1820s, along the streets of New Harmony, Indiana, the utopian site whose historical pageant Lockridge, Sr. and Jr., had penned together in the 1930s. That town, now rechristened “New Ambrosia,” reappears in Vonnegut’s novel. Vonnegut’s Rosewater County, as we know from his geographic clues, approximates the state’s actual Orange County, which lies not far east of the real New Harmony. And although historically and geographically distinct from Lockridge’s Raintree (a stand-in for Henry County, in the state’s flat east-central portion, where the Shockley family had lived), Vonnegut pointedly notes, in Rosewater, the same gridlines of sections, townships, and ranges that Lockridge had decried, in Raintree, as “boxes within boxes,” confining their residents’ lives while constraining their own lives.

Whether Vonnegut had read Lockridge’s novel (and while it topped the Times bestseller list, certainly far more Americans bought Raintree than read its more than one thousand pages), knew the older author, or felt the impact of his suicide, I don’t know. No one could accuse him of taking his stylistic cues from Lockridge; the earlier book sinks down (to its detriment, as far as contemporary critics were concerned) into the psychological modernist density of Joyce and Wolfe, while the later skates alongside the cool surface perspectives of a Coover or a Barth. But both books reflect the perspectives of men coming of age in the grips of the logical contradictions of their upbringing.

Raised in a state that revered its “pioneer” roots and fetishized its plain-spoken country folk, both writers grew up, like all Hoosier schoolchildren, reading the faux-dialect poetry of James Whitcomb Riley (“When the Frost is on the Punkin”), William Herschell (“Ain’t God Good to Indiana?”), and Kin Hubbard (the Brown County humorist quoted in Vonnegut’s book—“It ain’t no disgrace to be poor . . . but it might as well be”). Each saw nourished, upon that same ground, a revitalized Ku Klux Klan, fierce reactionaries like the McCarthyite Republican Senator William Jenner (the Orange County lawyer whose home turf and obstreperous political statements make him a likely model for Vonnegut’s Sen. Rosewater—Arizona Republican Barry Goldwater being an obvious other), and, in the case of the longer-lived Vonnegut, the John Birch Society, birthed in a west-side Indianapolis home in 1958. In addition to witnessing the Depression, the Second World War, and the atomic age—transformative events for any artist, anywhere—these men shared the particular experience of coming-of-age in a once-dynamic state—one shaped by others of their own kin—whose response to change and danger seemed, increasingly, to consist of curling up in a ball of nostalgia and fear. Neither writer could hope to gain full acceptance in such a state, but neither was willing to foreswear its place in his heart.

Of the two Hoosier writers, it is Lockridge whom we might have expected to lead his dramatis personae with a sum of money. Vonnegut, a child of comfortable circumstance, came from a clan that seems to have used its money—transferred from the family hardware business to a generation of professionals and thence to the author and his peers—wisely and modestly. But money—first a sudden torrent and then its alarmingly quick evaporation—was a big factor in the final roiling months of Ross Lockridge’s life. Awarded a fat publisher’s advance, additional cash from Book of the Month Club rights, and a $150,000 prize from MGM when it optioned the movie rights, the young writer had more of it than any novelist would dare to imagine in 1947; by the following year, mounting family expenses and the good offices of the Internal Revenue Service were quickly returning him to the meager means he had known as an assistant professor of English. Too, while Vonnegut’s earlier works, especially Player Piano, had sliced clinically into the American class system, Lockridge’s previous extensive writing project suggested much rawer resentments: his epic poem, “The Dream of the Flesh of Iron”—written during the Depression and left unpublished—brims with unrestrained jabs against “the fat bosses and the capitalists” whose greed brought working people to their knees.

But while Lockridge continued to make clear his opinion of Gilded-Age capitalism, Raintree County keeps striking for something deeper, more fundamental—something represented in the figure of that unfound raintree said to grow on an island in the untamed thicket that endured at the heart of Raintree County’s boxes within boxes. Hero Johnny Shawnessy longs to “hear the words before the words became history,” that is, to return to an intuitive, nonverbal understanding of the connection of people to one another and to a place. Eliot Rosewater, prompted by his psychoanalyst to make a similar move, can only talk about American history—Thorsten Veblen, Samuel Gompers, Alexander Hamilton—anyone connected to the “oppression [or defense] of oddballs or the poor” (33, 96). His personal epiphany is simple: give away the family fortune, and in the process learn “to love people who have no use” (264) as his idol—and eventually, biggest fan—the science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, puts it at the story’s end.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that it’s a fantasy writer, after all, who articulates Rosewater’s mission vis à vis that “sum of money” that vies to be the story’s “leading character.” After all, the historical record—in Indiana or elsewhere in this nation—furnishes scant evidence to reassure anyone yearning to believe that such a mission might succeed, here in the real world.