Vonnegut | Delany | Sheldon on God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Rebekah Sheldon


God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is a book about economic inequality in America. It is a satirical examination of how class is lived and injustice justified, and so it is certainly timely. But I want to talk about pornography instead.

There is a single example of pornography in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. It is a dirty picture of two women and a Shetland pony. Fred Rosewater finds it among his young son’s bed linens in his small bedroom in his middle-class house in Pisquontuit, Rhode Island. Young Franklin Rosewater had bought the picture from an equally young girl named Lila Buntline, using money he earned from his paper route. The Buntlines have the kind of wealth that means that no one has to do much of anything. Lila’s mother Amanita spends much of her time showering gifts on Fred’s wife Caroline while the two drink together at Bunny Week’s faux-maritime restaurant, the Jolly Whaler. Amanita strives to acquire the class she believes befits her station from Bunny’s fine taste. He is, after all, the town’s only open homosexual. Bunny paws and insults Amanita while Amanita allows Caroline to trail awkwardly behind them.

While this scene repeats itself, Amanita’s daughter Lila has become the town’s foremost dealer in literary smut. Henry Miller, William Burroughs, D. H. Lawrence: she takes such thorough inventory of the town news store’s scandalous novels that it has won the Rhode Island Mothers to Save Children from Filth award. Fred Rosewater often finds her lying on her stomach on the floor of the store reading banned books from the paperback bookrack when he himself comes to the store to eye the girlie magazines. The most he can bring himself to do, however, is to read the back of “what looked like one hell of a sexy paperback novel, Venus on the Half-shell, by Kilgore Trout” (161). It is still on the shelf, of course, because Lila Buntline is a far more discriminating reader than Fred Rosewater. She knows, as he doesn’t, the difference between science fiction dressed up as pornography (a common publishing practice at the time) and the wonderfully weird eroticism of a Burroughs or a Delany.

Um, yes, okay, it’s true that the chronology doesn’t work out on that last one; gay, Black science fiction writer Samuel Delany’s own speculative pornography doesn’t begin in earnest until the late ’60s, a few years after this book went to press. And indeed most biographers point to Theodore Sturgeon as Vonnegut’s most influential science fiction writer as well as the basis for Vonnegut’s perennial avatar Kilgore Trout. Sturgeon’s novels are wonderfully weird in their own way and as driven by thought experiments as any of the plots Vonnegut attributes to Trout. What they aren’t—what Trout’s aren’t either—is pornographic. Of course it is also not the case that Vonnegut’s novels are either pornographic on their own terms or pursuing rich, critical, and sometimes utopian sexual imaginaries such as we find in Burroughs or Delany. Yet as we have seen already, and as we will see more frequently in Vonnegut’s ’70s novels, science fiction, pornography, and class analysis weave interesting patterns across Vonnegut’s fictions.

Here’s a little pattern, just for fun. Lila isn’t especially interested in pornography, but she does have a keen sense of market forces. Her blueblood parents, on the other hand, let the law firm of McAllister, Robjent, Reed, and McGee handle their investment portfolios of inherited wealth. As it happens, this is the same firm that represents Senator Rosewater, whose son Eliot has caused him so much consternation by moving to Indiana to give the Rosewater money to the people of Rosewater County. One of the people who received a share of the Rosewater fortune (in the form of a gramophone and German language records) is Lincoln Ewald, a Nazi sympathizer and failed spy who works at a stand that sells, among other items, a tabloid newspaper called the American Investigator. It is from its Classifieds section that Lila has ordered the dirty pictures, one of which she sells to young Franklin Rosewater in exchange for the money earned on his paper route. This pattern is vintage Vonnegut. It connects New England paper routes to Midwest tabloids; it renders visible the public secret of children’s erotic tastes; and it reminds us of the compatibility of those tastes with the morality crusades aimed at those same children. Most emphatically, it shows us the difference between Amanita’s apparently cross-class (but really always class stratified) friendship with Caroline and her daughter’s contact with Caroline’s son, facilitated by pornography.

The difference is one that Delany in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue describes as networking versus contacts.1 Networking takes hierarchies for granted because climbing the ladder of class or position is the point of formal networking opportunities. No one shows up as themselves but as the class positions they hope to attain or to solidify. Like Amanita’s friendship with Caroline, networks can be formally cross class, but the movement is all oriented one way. Contacts on the other hand are defined by their informality and their organization around a shared interest or experience. Contacts can happen anywhere, but they tend to happen in places of public good. These are often, though not necessarily, urban. The streets, buses and subways, the post office, the public park, the public library, health clinics, the YMCA, hostels and shelters, food banks, the laundromat: these are spaces that foster encounters between people from different classes because they are not segregated by class before anyone shows up, though they may very well be segregated by zip code. Indeed, Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue is in many ways a lament for the loss of red-light Times Square in favor of corporate investment because of its purposeful entrenchment of geographic segregation. Networks are supposed to lead to the achievement of narrowly construed goals; contacts forge momentary but deep connection between strangers.

Image of 42nd Street marquees (www.pbs.org/wnet/broadway/essays/ressurection-of-42nd-street)

You’ve probably already surmised where this is going. Among the other public things, public sex is the premiere site for Delany’s notion of contact. On the West Side piers of Manhattan, the porn theaters of Times Square, the public restrooms at Port Authority, or the clubs of the Meatpacking district, Delany’s New York is a geography of intimacy. Much of it is of the oral variety. Delany loves to listen to people’s stories, people from many places and stations, and he recounts them with a tenderness and wonder and dignity and delight that I have honestly never seen in any other writer. In his pornographic novels and essays, dirty nails, unwashed bellies and butts, harelips, fat, and big feet feature prominently in his erotic encounters and bring with them whole universes of ways of living, each cultivated and given succor. Desire makes these into stories and not case studies. There is no mission here, either to edify or to be edified. Delany’s longtime partner had himself experienced homelessness for many years, a love story that Delany tells in his graphic novel Bread and Wine. Delany’s answer to the problem of class stratification isn’t love, though, which tends to stabilize class through marriage protections, tax benefits, and shared income. If we want a less phobic relation to poverty and a less phony relation to wealth, Delany suggests we all have more sex with strangers. Or whatever way you take your contact.

Vonnegut is not Delany. Yet I think there’s something distinctly Delanyian about how Vonnegut plots pornography into his prose. Networks, like that of the Rhode Island Mothers, always sit astride the contacts they seek to constrain. Contacts are danger zones where impure sympathies might breed other modes of life. Contacts militate against disgust and the hygienic protocols it demands. Contacts are viscous things and they might stick.

Admittedly, not everyone prefers contact. Senator Rosewater, for example:

You’re the man who stands on a street corner with a roll of toilet paper, and written on each square are the words, “I love you.” And each passer-by, no matter who, gets a square all his or her own. I don’t want my square of toilet paper. (125)

Or Sylvia, Eliot Rosewater’s estranged wife, who is divorcing him “for medical reasons” (127). Five years after they moved to Rosewater county so that Eliot could make an art of loving the unloved, Sylvia suffered a nervous breakdown diagnosed as “Samaritrophia,” or “hysterical indifference to the troubles of those less fortunate than oneself” (51). Sylvia’s troubles underscore a less appealing aspect of contact. It requires distance. Contact may be intimate and it may ultimately result in the kind of advantages that networking is supposed to bring, but it always begins as if for the first time. If “contact is the conversation that starts in line at the grocery” (123) as Delany puts it, then it is important to maintain that casual and very cosmopolitan beneficence we accord to strangers—that they were fine before the conversation began and will be equally fine thereafter. That, in other words, there is no debt between you, even if one time your neighbor in line helps you out with a spare five dollar bill to cover your shortfall. Eliot’s forgetfulness is contact’s version of a prophylactic.

Of course, much of Senator Rosewater’s consternation comes from anxiety of property and not of propriety, still less of the squandering of love. The Rosewaters need an heir or they will lose control over the family fortune. Eliot and Sylvia love each other. The problem is that Eliot loves everyone. His solution to the problem of inheritance is as brilliant an example of redistributive justice as it is as an acknowledgment of the real source of his father’s anxiety. Since the Rhode Island Rosewaters may win their lawsuit against Eliot, a lawsuit that would be trumped by rights of primogeniture, Eliot decides instead to acknowledge the fifty-seven women across Rosewater county who claim Eliot fathered their children. Viola! The Rosewater clan lives on!

So maybe this is a post about class after all.


1. Samuel R. Delany, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. New York: New York University Press, 1999.