Wednesday, July 01, 2009
Yet another great Vonnegut passage:
From God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965), in which Kurt Vonnegut writes about the Death of the American Dream.
Dear Cousin, or whoever you may be --
Congratulations on your great good fortune. Have fun. It may increase your perspective to know what sorts of manipulators and custodians your unbelievable wealth has had up to now.
Like so many great American fortunes, the Rosewater pile was accumulated in the beginning by a humorless, constipated Christian farm boy turned speculator and briber during and after the Civil War. The farm boy was Noah Rosewater, my great-grandfather, who was born in Rosewater County, Indiana.
Noah and his brother George inherited from their pioneer father six hundred acres of farmland, land as dark and rich as chocolate cake, and a small saw factory that was nearly bankrupt. War came.
George raised a rifle company, marched away at its head.
Noah hired a village idiot to fight in his place, converted the saw factory to the manufacture of swords and bayonets, converted the farm to the raising of hogs. Abraham Lincoln declared that no amount of money was too much to pay for the restoration of the Union, so Noah priced his merchandise in scale with the national tragedy. And he made this discovery: Government objections to the price or quality of his wares could be vaporized with bribes that were pitifully small.
He married Cleota Herrick, the ugliest woman in Indiana, because she had four hundred thousand dollars. With her money he expanded the factory and bought more farms, all in Rosewater County. He became the largest individual hog farmer in the North. And, in order not to be victimized by meat packers, he bought controlling interest in an Indianapolis slaughterhouse. In order not to be victimized by steel suppliers, he bought controlling interest in a steel company in Pittsburgh. In order not to be victimized by coal suppliers, he bought controlling interest in several mines. In order not to be victimized by money lenders, he founded a bank.
And his paranoid reluctance to be a victim caused him to deal more and more in valuable papers, in stocks and bonds, and less and less in swords and pork. Small experiments with worthless papers convinced him that such papers could be sold effortlessly. While he continued to bribe persons in government to hand over treasuries and national resources, his first enthusiasm became the peddling of watered stock.
When the United States of America, which was meant to be a Utopia for all, was less than a century old, Noah Rosewater and a few men like him demonstrated the folly of the Founding Fathers in one respect: those sadly recent ancestors had not made it the law of the Utopia that the wealth of each citizen should be limited. This oversight was engendered by a weak-kneed sympathy for those who loved expensive things, and by the feeling that the continent was so vast and valuable, and the population so thin and enterprising, that no thief, no matter how fast he stole, could more than mildly inconvenience anyone.
Noah and a few like him perceived that the continent was in fact finite, and that venal office-holders, legislators in particular, could be persuaded to toss up great hunks of it for grabs, and to toss them in such a way as to have them land where Noah and his kind were standing.
Thus did a handful of rapacious citizens come to control all that was worth controlling in America. Thus was the savage and stupid and entirely inappropriate and unnecessary and humorless American class system created. Honest, industrious, peaceful citizens were classed as bloodsuckers, if they asked to be paid a living wage. And they saw that praise was reserved henceforth for those who devised means of getting paid enormously for committing crimes against which no laws had been passed. Thus the American dream turned belly up, turned green, bobbed to the scummy surface of cupidity unlimited, filled with gas, went _bang_ in the noonday sun.
_E pluribus unum_ is surely an ironic motto to inscribe on the currency of this Utopia gone bust, for every grotesquely rich American represents property, privileges, and pleasures that have been denied the many. An even more instructive motto, in the light of history made by the Noah Rosewaters, might be: _Grab much too much, or you'll get nothing at all_.
And Noah begat Samuel, who married Geraldine Ames Rockefeller. Samuel became even more interested in politics than his father had been, served the Republican Party tirelessly as a king-maker, caused that party to nominate men who would whirl like dervishes, bawl fluent Babylonian, and order the militia to fire into crowds whenever a poor man seemed on the point of suggesting that he and a Rosewater were equal in the eyes of the law.
And Samuel bought newspapers, and preachers, too. He gave them this simple lesson to teach, and they taught it well: _Anybody who thought that the United States of America was supposed to be a Utopia was a piggy, lazy, God-damned fool_. Samuel thundered that no American factory hand was worth more than eighty cents a day. And yet he could be thankful for the opportunity to pay a hundred thousand dollars or more for a painting by an Italian three centuries dead. And he capped this insult by giving paintings to museums for the spiritual elevation of the poor. The museums were closed on Sundays.
And Samuel begat Lister Ames Rosewater, who married Eunice Eliot Morgan. There was something to be said for Lister and Eunice: unlike Noah and Cleota and Samuel and Geraldine, they could laugh as though they meant it. As a curious footnote to history, Eunice became Woman's Chess Champion of the United States in 1927, and again in 1933.
Eunice also wrote an historical novel about a female gladiator, _Ramba of Macedon_, which was a best-seller in 1936. Eunice died in 1937, in a sailing accident in Cotuit, Massachusetts. She was a wise and amusing person, with very sincere anxieties about the condition of the poor. She was my mother.
Her husband, Lister, never was in business. From the moment of his birth to the time I am writing this, he has left the manipulation of his assets to lawyers and banks. He has spent nearly the whole of his adult life in the Congress of the United States, teaching morals, first as a Representative from the district whose heart is Rosewater County, and then as Senator from Indiana. That he is or ever was an Indiana person is a tenuous political fiction. And Lister begat Eliot.
Lister has thought about the effects and implications of his inherited wealth about as much as most men think about their left big toes. The fortune has never amused, worried, or tempted him. Giving ninety-five per cent of it to the Foundation you now control didn't cause him a twinge.
And Eliot married Sylvia DuVrais Zetterling, a Parisienne beauty who came to hate him. Her mother was a patroness of painters. Her father was the greatest living cellist. Her maternal grandparents were a Rothschild and a DuPont.
And Eliot became a drunkard, a Utopian dreamer, a tinhorn saint, an aimless fool.
Begat he not a soul.
_Bon voyage_, dear Cousin or whoever you are. Be generous. Be kind. You can safely ignore the arts and sciences. They never helped anybody. Be a sincere, attentive friend of the poor.
The letter was signed,
The late Eliot Rosewater.