"Cancer" in Vonnegut's "Mr. Rosewater"
The Tropic of Cancer reference happen on pages 111 + 112 of the 1965 Dell paperback edition (and pages 156 + 158 of the Dell 1991 edition). This is Chapter 9, which focuses on Eliot’s second cousin Fred Rosewater, in Rhode Island, to whom the lawyer is trying to have the Rosewater fortune transferred.
While leafing through tabloid papers in the Pisquontuit news shop, Fred Rosewater notices that the daughter of his wife’s friend is sitting on the cold, concrete floor of the shop, reading Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. “At thirteen,” writes Vonnegut, “she was Pisquontuit’s leading dealer in smut. She was a dealer in fireworks, too, for the same reason she was a dealer in smut, which was: Profit.” The girl, named Lila Buntline, had taken Tropic of Cancer from the store’s Lazy Susan rack, along with Naked Lunch by William Burroughs. On an average day, Lila would sell a 75-cent copy of these or Lady Chatterly’s Lover for 10-dollars to one of her rich and foolish schoolmates. She knew more about which book titles were “red hot” than the employees of the news shop, which is how she managed to buy them as a minor. Ironically, a sign hung in the store window, which assured customers that the wares inside had been approved by the Rhode Island Mothers to Save Children from Filth organization, which never happened to find scandalous titles like Tropic Of Cancer because Lila would snatch them up so quickly.
When Fred Rosewater wanders by Lila, she “did not conceal her red-hot books. She went on reading, as though The Tropic of Cancer were Heidi.” Vonnegut then provides a quote from Cancer: “The trunk is open and her things are lying around everywhere just as before. She lies down on the bed with her clothes on. Once, twice, three times, four times … I’m afraid she’ll go mad … in bed, under the blankets, how good to feel her body again! But for how long? Will it last this time? Already I have a presentiment that it won’t.” The Miller references in the novel end here.
The quote comes from page 20 of Tropic of Cancer [1990s Grove Weidenfeld edition]. The woman Henry is writing about is “Mona,” or June Mansfield, who had returned to Paris. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater was published in 1965, just one year after the U.S. Supreme Court declared that Tropic of Cancer was not obscene, and contains both the words “fuck” and “shit” in other chapters. So, it’s interesting that Vonnegut used a sexually suggestive passage that did not contain an expletive. As juxtaposition to a 13-year old reader, that would have worked more potently; perhaps Vonnegut didn’t want to draw that kind of reactionary attention to Tropic of Cancer when it was so recently let off the hook. I thought perhaps that Vonnegut had simply selected the first sexual reference he found in the book. This is certainly wrong, as page 7 contains a paragraph about Irene who has a “valise instead of a cunt.”
I can’t find much interaction in the lives or work of Miller and Vonnegut. In 1973, Henry’s son Tony convinced him to read a Vonnegut book (title unmentioned). Henry “enjoyed it” enough to send a copy of Lawrence Durrell in France, although he expected Durrell would “simply chuck it in the can” upon receiving it. [The Durrell-Miller Letters, 1935-80; p. 461].
Kurt Vonnegut was born in 1922, and died on April 11th last year.