Utopian Lanes: The Project Logic of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater | Comentale on God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Ed Comentale


As self-appointed dean of Salo University, an institution dedicated fully to training in the liberal arts, I have been tracking Vonnegut’s shifts in thinking about the human and his uneasy relationship with humanism as a system of thought and value. As I see it, his first few novels are marked by an increasing pessimism about human nature and human history, which in turn forces him to shift his thinking away from specific human qualities to human actions. By the time he gets to writing God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Vonnegut seems much less interested in defining and defending what the human is and more engaged with exploring what the human does. Specifically, in Rosewater, Vonnegut considers the human as a being capable of thinking in terms of “projects.” Late in the novel, the reader is treated to an account of a Kilgore Trout paperback titled Pan-Galactic Three-Day Pass, in which a single earthling survives the destruction of the Milky Way. The earthling is specifically valued as a language teacher; he is seemingly the last living user of language in a universe in which all other creatures use mental telepathy. Trout explains that the value of human language is that it allows people to be more active and get more done. More precisely, in its formal abstraction—its ability to grasp and order the particulars of life in a linear way—language allows people to think in terms of “projects.” As a tool unique to humans, language lifts humanity out of mere existence and gives it a chance, for better or worse, to shape life according to a plan. Most often, of course, for worse.

Rosewater is both a novel about such projects and a project in itself. It begins with an account of America as a human project that was botched on a grand scale. In Eliot Rosewater’s description of its founding, the nation appears less like a spiritual or moral entity or even a bounded territory than a set of elaborate constraints designed to produce utopia. Both the strengths and weaknesses of the project stem from the hopes and desires of its original planners, who, in their own innocent way, sought equality as well as riches for all. Indeed, with his innate generosity, Eliot goes a long way toward absolving the planners of any evil intent; the American tragedy lies in the disconnection between their vision and its execution as well as certain misconceptions about available materials. The planners could not have foreseen either the weaknesses of human character or the natural peculiarities and restrictions of the continental landscape, both of which derailed their project and created the circumstances for the emergence of the country’s vicious class system. “E pluribus unum is surely an ironic motto to write on the currency of this Utopia gone bust,” writes Eliot, “for every grotesquely rich American represents property, privileges, and pleasures that have been denied the many” (9–10). Here, though, we have a formula for the project logic of the novel as a whole. Utopian vision, programmed constraints, resistant materials—in this nexus of interests and influences, America-as-project provides both a model and a warning for project-based thinking in general.

The opening of the novel depicts the Rosewater Foundation as just such a project, an attempt to secure and maintain a family fortune with an eye toward utopia. It is surely no different than the more explicitly nefarious project run by junior executive Norman Mushari or the life insurance schemes peddled by Fred Rosewater or even the elementary school pornography racket run by Lila Buntline. Each of the projects is informed by some vision of utopia. In the fully commodified version of America that Vonnegut depicts, money itself figures as a form of “dehydrated utopia,” and it has become the main instrument of project-making by all sorts of dreamers and schemers (171). Most dramatically, both Lister and Eliot Rosewater dream of a healthy America, and they engage in competing projects for its revival. The senior Rosewater speaks of writing stern “morals into law,” but he is more than willing to let the carrot-and-stick logic of the free market system shake out the winners and losers (31). The junior Rosewater adopts a more or less socialist program that would distribute wealth evenly throughout the system; his bold experiment in Rosewater County is founded on love and compassion, but it is ultimately structured in similarly economic terms (38). The novel brilliantly maps out this generational divide and its political valences, but Vonnegut seems to have little faith in either Rosewater project. Neither seems sufficiently distinct from the system they are meant to replace, and they remain mired in the economic terms of the latter. Such plans seem as inherently American and as certainly doomed as those of the utopian community of New Ambrosia, which pinned all of its hopes in stocks and bonds for the Rosewater Inter-State Ship Canal: “They were Germans, communists and atheists,” the narrator explains, “who practiced group marriage, absolute truthfulness, absolute cleanliness, and absolute love. They were now scattered to the winds, like the worthless papers that represented their equity in the canal. No one was sorry to see them go. Their one contribution to the county that was still viable in Eliot’s time was their brewery, which had become the home of Rosewater Golden Lager Ambrosia Beer. On the label of each can of beer was a picture of the heaven on earth the New Ambrosians had meant to build” (45–6).

Vonnegut, however, extends this project logic to a consideration of art and literature in the novel, where his pessimism is troubled by other possibilities. Eliot, of course, wrestles deeply with the role of art and beauty in his plans for a better America. As president of the Rosewater Foundation, he can afford all forms of beauty and distribute them to the masses, but he seems to have little faith in the effect of such work. Initially, we’re told, “Eliot’s benefactions covered the full eleemosynary spectrum from a birth control clinic in Detroit to an El Greco for Tampa, Florida. Rosewater dollars fought cancer and mental illness and race prejudice and police brutality and countless other miseries, encouraged college professors to look for truth, bought beauty at any price” (17). Clearly, Eliot’s experiences in the war shook the foundations of his faith in art. As reported by the father of his estranged wife, Eliot was the “sanest American he had ever met,” because he has said that “art has failed him” and that “is a very fair thing for a man who has bayoneted a fourteen-year-old boy in the line of duty to say” (85). More to the point, in his postwar encounters with the working class and their miseries, and specifically his experiences with volunteer fire fighters across the country, Eliot comes to reject the efficacy of art, scuttling the latter in favor of more direct charity and outright cash payments for life over death. Indeed, his respect for art and literature rises and falls alongside his own social standing and sobriety, suggesting that they only serve to maintain the American status quo and its economic underpinnings. At his bitterest, “he advised his artist friends that the only people who paid any attention to what they did were rich horses’ asses with nothing more athletic to do. He asked his scholarly friends, ‘Who has time to read all the boring crap you write and listen to all the boring things you say?’” (32).

At the same time, though, Eliot’s whole charitable project is depicted in artistic terms. Rosewater County is the “canvas Eliot proposed to paint with love and understanding” (45). “I am going to love these discarded Americans,” he declares, “even though they’re useless and unattractive. That is going to be my work of art” (44). His project is not simply economic, for it involves a formal and ultimately aesthetic arrangement of materials—people, money, art, medicine, love, land, architecture—an arrangement that will ultimately be judged in terms of its “beauty” (68). In a poem written for his wife, Eliot’s aesthetic bent is revealed in explicitly project-based terms:

I’m a painter in my dreams, you know,
Or maybe you didn’t know. And a sculptor.
Long time no see.
And a kick to me
Is the interplay of materials
And these hands of mine. (224)

In this, the abstract nature of the “project” and its unique values come into focus. In addition to its aesthetic qualities, sensual pleasures, and playful indeterminacy, Eliot’s work is defined as innately excessive, by a certain looseness and wastefulness. As a form of charity, it involves a surplus of value and a nearly useless expenditure of energy, and this purposelessness—its very lack of efficiency—frees it from more mundane and material judgments. Kilgore Trout hits on this logic—or, perhaps illogic—in his final defense of Eliot’s work in Rosewater County. The damning logic of use and uselessness of the marketplace must be countered by a greater uselessness:

It was quite possibly the most important social experiment of our time, for it dealt on a very small scale with a problem whose queasy horrors will eventually be made world-wide by the sophistication of machines. The problem is this: How to love people who have no use? . . . In time, almost all men and women will become worthless as producers of goods, food, services, and more machines, as sources of practical ideas in the areas of economics, engineering, and probably medicine, too. So—if we can’t find reasons and methods for treasuring human beings because they are human beings, then we might as well, as has so often been suggested, rub them out. (264–5)

Treasuring is the key word here, as it calls into question a purely economic mode of evaluation and locates something richer in Eliot’s apparently wasteful work.

More generally, Trout’s role in the novel works to extend this project logic to the actual domain of literature and, in turn, Vonnegut’s own work as a writer. “Literature” appears in many forms and serves many purposes in Rosewater. There’s the literature-as-truth mode praised by the fictional writer Arthur Garvey Ulm, the avant-garde provocations of Henry Miller and William Burroughs, the cheap titillations of the American Investigator, and even the obscene outbursts of graffiti scrawled across the public spaces of the nation. Vonnegut comes to knock each of these modes one by one, so that Trout’s project-based science fiction stands as perhaps the only valuable form left. Indeed, Vonnegut declares his allegiance early, in the form of Eliot’s drunken speech to the writers at a science fiction convention:

You’re the only ones with guts enough to really care about the future, who really notice what machines do to us, what wars do to us, what cities do to us, what big, simple ideas do to us, what tremendous misunderstandings, mistakes, accidents and catastrophes do to us. You’re the only ones zany enough to agonize over time and distances without limit, over mysteries that will never die, over the fact that we are right now determining whether the space voyage for the next billion years or so is going to be Heaven or Hell. (18)

In this, its “agonizing” over possibilities, science fiction seems decisively project-based in terms outlined by scholar Jonathan Eburne as writing that “exercises a creative function following explicit conditions of constraint, whether formal, aesthetic, historical, moral, or economic.”1 Vonnegut, however, seems less interested in the way project-based literature uses its constraints to counteract its own exhaustion than the ways in which such constraints inform decisive experiments pertaining to certain practical and moral issues. Trout’s novels each begin with a series of seemingly realizable and even familiar propositions and then tracks and studies their effects within a seemingly distinct and well-bounded world. One of his novels, for instance, concerns a country devoted singularly to fighting odors and thus tracks the populace’s increasingly irrational and violent efforts to erase all smells, an effort that culminates in the elimination of noses (222–3).

In this, Trout is experimenting with social engineering no less than the Founding Fathers or Eliot himself. Most famously, Rosewater asserts a certain similarity between science fiction and pornography as genre fictions dedicated to “fantasies of an impossibly hospitable world” (21). In this, Vonnegut establishes a deeper connection between project-based literature and project-based nation-building, as both establish “legal” constraints with an eye toward producing utopia (21). But there’s a finer point being made here about the relative value and effects of science fiction, or perhaps all genre fiction, which is sold cheaply alongside pornography on cheap bookracks across the nation. Trout’s writing experiments in a wholly abstract way, in the realm of fantasy, and its status as useless fantasy is precisely what makes it useful, or at least not harmful. In this, in its cheapness and abstract uselessness, the very human activity of “thinking in projects,” of using language to delineate a plan, both defines the human and frees the human to become other than itself. Funnily enough, as project-based literature, literature ceases to become interesting as an experience. Vonnegut feels little need to actually compose Trout’s novels; he can simply “tell” instead of “show” what they’re all about, outline their constraints, and bluntly state their conclusions as if they were lab reports. Similarly, Vonnegut’s own novels often lose steam, drop threads, start over, and seem generally bored with their own premises. Rosewater itself consists mostly of descriptions about its characters’ projects; its narrative hardly moves it all, consisting of little more than Eliot’s walk across the city of Rosewater and subsequent bus ride to Indianapolis. In this, though, Vonnegut’s novels seem more deeply committed to their own status as project novels—cheap, revisable, sloppy, wholly human—and thus perhaps guarantee a much more radical version of project-making.


1. Jonathan Eburne, “Zombie Arts and Letters,” The Year’s Work at the Zombie Research Center, ed. Edward P. Comentale and Aaron Jaffe (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014), 389.