Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

A Fading Old Left Vision: Gospel-Inspired Socialism in Vonnegut's "Rosewater"

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

A Fading Old Left Vision: Gospel-Inspired Socialism in Vonnegut's "Rosewater"

Article excerpt

Kurt Vonnegut was relegated to the fringes of the literary establishment during his last decade, having lived to see himself marginalized by the culture that popularized him. But why? Vonnegut's contemporary voice, most notably in his 2005 collection A Man Without a Country, was not radically different from many liberals who denounce the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. Yet one glaring difference, I would argue, set Vonnegut apart from the mass of these dissenters. Vonnegut's politics continued to carry a distinctly Old Left socialist flavor in an era when even the 1960s New Left appears an idealistic novelty, making Vonnegut a true cultural relic--an endangered species of sorts--in a society that has all but forgotten about the ideals he championed. With his true Old Left colors showing, Vonnegut proclaims in A Man Without a Country that "'Socialism' is no more an evil word than 'Christianity'" (11), an assertion from which present-day liberals would probably shy away.

With this in mind, it is informative to glance back at Vonnegut's 1965 novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, largely ignored by critics, as an Old Left novel which explores the possibilities of private-sphere socialism in depth, written in the midst of the New Left emergence, and now rendered nearly irrelevant (though unjustly so) by twenty-first century politics. Rosewater represents Vonnegut's most direct engagement with the class-conscious politics of the Old Left, in which he experiments with "what happens when you give poor people money" (Clancy, 55), and decides that it is not money the poor need, but love. Vonnegut concludes in Rosewater--and continued to maintain until his death in April of 2007--that by observing socialist principles and, more specifically, acting upon the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount and of socialist reformers like Eugene Debs and Powers Hapgood, American society has its best chance at what one could term a secular salvation. The key to this salvation is an emphasis on the individual, private sphere aspects of social humanitarianism rather than mass, public sphere manifestations. In order to prove that Vonnegut uses God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater as a vehicle for voicing his belief in the feasibility of solving America's social inequalities, at least in part, through socialist practices.

The basis of Vonnegut's socialism is a concern for the poor and criticism of those who participate in the system of their exploitation. This type of socialism focuses on the humanity and basic equality of each and every person, and therefore is more closely related to Marxist Humanism (a school of thought that emphasizes human agency) than any strictly traditional or institutional interpretation of Marxist or socialist doctrine. Although the unequal distribution of wealth is prominent in Vonnegut's conception of socialism, the main concern is that every human being is viewed as being equal. Although important and obviously present, the Old Left political aspects of this socialism take a backseat to a more personal philosophy rooted in New Testament teachings. The net effect here is that this brand of socialism places the utmost emphasis on the private sphere and individual human equality and kindness rather than on the public sphere's political and institutional iterations of socialism. Vonnegut's conception of this type of socialism derives largely from early Christian teachings of loving one's fellow man found in the New Testament (especially from the Sermon on the Mount, which is the generally accepted phrase to identify Matthew 5:3-7:27 in the Bible; it is widely taken to be "the quintessence of the teaching of Jesus" [Betz, 3]) and from the awareness of Indiana socialists Powers Hapgood and Eugene V. Debs he had from an early age. Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926) was a Terre Haute, Indiana, native and "was the most well known and highly regarded leader of the American Socialist party" (Radosh, 1) and Powers Hapgood (1900-1949) was an Indianapolis, Indiana, native who was involved in American labor strikes and "protests about the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti" (Jailbird, x)--both obviously prominent political figures. …

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