By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Eric Michael Summerer
Kurt Vonnegut earns his anti-establishment credentials with “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater”. Published in 1965, Vonnegut reveals the guilt of wealth and the corruption of money in America. Ironically, 1965 is the year of Lyndon Johnson’s launch of the “Great Society”; a government sponsored program with the goal of eliminating American’ poverty.
The hero of Vonnegut’s novel is Eliot Rosewater. Eliot is an only son of a wealthy American family. Eliot grows to manhood, joins the Army, fights bravely in a war, and is mentally wounded in a mistaken military action for which he is the leader. Eliot never recovers from the war. He marries; he becomes an alcoholic; he divorces. The one ironic grace left to Eliot is wealth.
Eliot’s father is a conservative Republican, representing the state of Indiana. Eliot’s father is a firm believer in “trickle-down economics”; that money is the measure of one’s value to society, and pornography is one of the greatest evils of humanity. If one does not have money, Eliot’s father believes it is because of incompetence or laziness; even though his family’s wealth is from an earlier generation of Rosewaters.
The family’s fortune has been placed in a trust that is to be run by the most direct descendant of the founder of the trust. Eliot, having achieved adulthood, is the heir to that foundation and becomes its administrator. Eliot’s father is deeply unhappy about the course of his son’s life. He loves him but cannot understand why he is an alcoholic, why he divorced, or why he seems indiscriminate in the use of foundation’ money.
Eliot’s life, particularly his war experience and military command mistake, focuses his mind on the value of all human beings. One surmises, Eliot needs forgiveness for himself but also for all others who do not understand humanness; i.e. the truth of being human is that life, whether rich or poor, right or wrong, weak or strong, is riven with emotional irrationality.
Eliot becomes a lieutenant in the Rosewater County fire department while managing the Rosewater Foundation. Rosewater County’ residents and visitors contact Eliot at all hours of the night to respond to outreach fliers posted by the Rosewater Foundation. Eliot handles these calls personally. He responds with conversation and, sometimes, money from the foundation.
From one perspective, Eliot seems saintly; from another, Eliot seems an eccentric lunatic. Eliot is slovenly; he drinks constantly; his conscious mind clicks off and on. A junior attorney representing the foundation sees an opportunity to find Eliot insane. The foundation could be run by another; a less directly related heir who would be beholding to the junior attorney as a new executor. Eliot’s father discovers the junior attorney’s effort and appeals to his son to act more responsibly.
The heart of the novel is about money, inherited wealth, and the moral corruption that accompanies wealth unearned by its possessor. Vonnegut infers Eliot is insane in the investigation because he is clearly unable to reconcile his mistakes in life with his own humanity. His mind clicks off and on. Eliot forgets conversations. Eliot has no desire to return to Rosewater County.
Rosewater County residents hear about the “heir clause” in the foundation’ legal documents. Subsequently, a number of Rosewater County’ mothers claim their children are fathered by Eliot. This accusation is proven false. Eliot, in a clever maneuver, voids a distant heir’s access to foundation’ funds by saying that all claims of Eliot’s paternity of Rosewater County’ children are true. Eliot essentially bequests all Rosewater Foundation funds to Rosewater County progeny.