Saturday, March 08, 2008

"Cancer" in Vonnegut's "Mr. Rosewater"

There is a brief reference to Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in Kurt Vonnegut Jr’s novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine, published in 1965. The novel was Vonnegut’s fifth, and predecessor to his classic Slaughterhouse Five (1969). The title character, Eliot Rosewater, is an eccentric, alcoholic heir to an old money family, living off the annual pension that the charitable Rosewater Foundation generates for him as a member of that clan. Instead of sitting in luxury behind his unearned riches, Eliot Rosewater offers his volunteer services and interacts personally with the common folk of a town called Rosewater, Indiana. A lawyer, meanwhile, schemes to have Eliot’s yearly fortune diverted through him (and therefore making a large commission through the transfer to distant family member) by proving that the odd Mr. Rosewater is insane and unworthy of the income.

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a coincidence! I have taught "God Bless You Mr. Rosewater" a number of times in my "American Dream" class. It mainly deals with the problem of money and what to do when you have too much of it. Eliot Rosewater, the 'insane' and filthy rich protagonist, decides to distribute it amongst many people, even though they are certainly unworthy of it. Crazy guy...except that this particular solution comes straight from The Bible. However, it could have just as easily come from "Money and How It Gets That Way."

For anyone interested, here's a link to an essay I wrote after seeing Vonnegut in action a year before he died:

9:42 pm  
Blogger Zzzz said...

As long as we're talking about (slight) Miller references in other novels, I cite from Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, pp 33-4, published 2007 by Riverhead books:

"In October, after all his college applications were in (Fairleigh Dickinson, Montclair, Rutgers, Drew, Glassboro State, William Paterson; he also sent an app to NYU, a one-in-a-million shot, and they rejected him so fast he was amazed the shit hadn't come back Pony Express) and winter was settling its pale miserable ass across northern New Jersey, Oscar fell in love with a girl in his SAT prep class. The class was being conducted in one of those "Learning Centers" not far from where he lived, less than a mile, so he'd been walking, a healthy way to lose weight, he thought. He hadn't been expecting to meet anyone, but then he'd seen the beauty in the back row, and felt his senses fly out of him. Her name was Ana Obregón, a pretty, loudmouthed goridta who read Henry Miller while she should have been learning to wrestle logic problems. On about their fifth class he noticed her reading Sexus and she noticed him noticing, and, leaning over, she showed him a passage and he got an erection like a motherfucker.
You must think I'm weird, right? she said during the break.
You ain't weird, he said. Believe me--I'm the top expert in the state."

This scene takes place during the first quarter of a chapter subheaded as "1974-1987."

10:18 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not sure exactly but I think I remember correctly that in Atomised (a.k.a. The Elementary Particles) by Michel Houellebecq, the main guys' therapist is reading Sexus. I am not sure if this is a symbol that the terapist is "falsely freespirited" so to speak. Or if this is indeed a sort of homage to Miller. Probably both...

Tony, London

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