10. A Cool Million
For example, at my job, there are days when the café gets so busy that the entire staff is on its feet for several hours at a time. There is constant rushing around and sometimes dropping of plates and cups but if we are able to keep an upbeat attitude, it makes it all easier. I know that I prefer that everyone tries his or her best to remain polite during a rush. It makes it that much easier to get things done.
In A Cool Million, Pitkin is constantly looking on the bright sides of things and in his case, it is not always to his advantage. Sometimes optimism can stem from naivety rather than from a place of knowledge. Perhaps he was able to stay positive because he really didn’t understand what was going on at the time.
Pitkin parallels people of today who seem to think that our problem can just be fixed with a snap of a finger and Obama’s signature on a couple of things. Unfortunately, we are in much deeper than that and have a ways to go before we can be completely dug out. Then there are those people who are impatient and thought that Obama’s coming into the picture would be able to solve all of the country’s problems immediately. This, too, is a form of naïve optimism that quickly led to naïve anger. As I mentioned before, the problem is quite large and will (and already has) taken a while to get rid of.
We need to find a balance between optimism and naivety in order to have a better functioning country and happier people.
Throughout the book events are propelled by either chance, propaganda, or money. Speeches and plays cultivate ideas within people and rally up actions, money makes police cooperate with criminals and Mr. Whipple work for organizations he doesn’t believe in. These three sources of catalysts all seem to be constantly rubbing against each other in West’s story, however together they show how they are necessary in order for capitalism to function.
Mr. Whipple becomes a politician because he realizes that the power of politics and persuasion is an agent in making money. This is the very reason Shagpoke so admires successful creative capitalists. In order to make business you need to be smart in playing the game and most importantly you need to be creative to persuade people to do what you want them to do—to get them where you need them in order to make a profit. You need to “know how to use your strength” as West states in the very beginning of the novel when Lem uses his strengths to beat the large bully. Once again, belief itself propels the economy, as Shagpoke implies in the quote above. When Shagpoke is in jail with Lem early in the story he tells him, “My friends will have me out of here shortly. Then I will run for political office, and after I have shown the American people that Shagpoke is still Shagpoke, I will retire from politics and open another bank,” (97). His politics of empty rhetoric and pure propaganda is his creative way to manipulate ideas and beliefs in order to make money and bring him out of his economical crisis.
Shagpoke is therefore against government regulation, and labor unions, which all impose rudimentary uncreative guidelines. He advocates the creative game, of playing with people’s ideas and harnessing belief, heartless or not, to be successful in making capital.
Nathaniel West’s novel, a piece of propaganda itself, is showing the irony of Whipple’s capitalist belief. The novel ends in a victory for Shagpoke and his party. The triumphant closing lines of the book are “But he [Lem] did not die in vain. Through his martyrdom the National Revolution Party triumphed, and by that triumph this country was delivered from sophistication, Marxism and International Capitalism. Through the National Revolution its people were purged of alien diseases and America became again American,” (179). However this ending bellies the fact that the main character died after losing body parts and living a horrible love-less and family-less life. Through
Through the character of Lemuel Pitkin Nathanael West depicts the decomposition of the American dream. Using a series of narrative devices West constructs his novel in an unconventional manner that only adds to the confusion and sense of loss. First, West interjects the voice of the narrator into the beginning and end of each chapter. His omnipresence gives us the sense that the characters are immature and that their fate is destined. It causes a sense of helplessness for the reader. Throughout his journey Lemuel Pitkin’s physical body begins to decompose. He loses various appendages and is constantly being beaten down by others. Scenes of bloody attacks plague his journey. Thus the decomposition of the mental apparatus of the American dream manifests itself physically on Pitkin’s body bolstering the notion of its falseness.
What I found most interesting about the way that West explores American culture is that he interjects very symbolic summarizing symbols of American culture into the story. Each symbol explains a part of the way that we interact in society. Some of these symbols are big black limousines, West Point, the Alamo, the Democratic Party, small family farms, the train, small town bullies and other specific symbolic signifiers in America. These elements function together to bolster the notion of the myth of American Dream. By satirizing the importance of all of these specific parts of American culture, we are given an even more insightful parody of the American dream.
Part of the insight that WEst provides makes us look closer at what we hold as stigmas in America. By identifying certain key elements of American culture West also questions their validity. At the end of the novel I found myself questioning the basis of the American dream as a whole. How does our generation view this cultural construction? After reading A Cool Million I can’t help but thinking that for our generation the total rejection of and completely cautious nature by which we question the American dream has become part of the idea as a whole. It is no longer a pure ideal. It has been tainted by years of disillusionment and disappointment. As children we were told we could achieve the object of our hearts desire. Everyone one of us has come across a series of difficulties in this process, in most cases causing us to lose this sense of faith in the idea of hard work always achieving success. Plays such as Death of A Salesman ecplore the consequences of this kind of dissillusionment. The failure to achieve the highly lauded and fabricated American dream causes strife, anxiety, and disapointment. Has this become part of modern American culture?
If West were a character in A Cool Million, he would have been Snograsse. Both writers feel rejected by the American people and decide to expose them by each putting on a show of sorts as revenge. “The Pageant of America or A Curse on Columbus,” tries to draw parallels between inanimate objects that are made to seem like something else and the poor and exploited minorities, widows, and children. Yet our “hero,” the dopey, all-American Lem Pitkin, suffers all the same (if not worse) injustices as the marginalized. I guess capitalism makes everyone equal in that way. Snograsse expressed this to Pitkin in the beginning of the novel, but Pitkin is unable to comment on the sentiment because of the terrible pain he is experiencing. Just as the all the rest of the poor suffering through the depression, Pitkin is too preoccupied with his own troubles to express his condition and so relies on a writer to do so- and just as the writers during the depression, Snograsse uses Pitkin to draw in a crowd so he could rob them of their money. Fortunately for Snograsse, Mr.Whipple is a stark foil, leading us to forgive the writer/poet’s mild indiscretion in favor of presenting us with astute commentary.
Besides who hasn’t hated America at one time or another? It’s practically a rite of passage that transforms the negative into constructive and perhaps even revolutionary (except more Occupy Wall St. than National Revolutionary Party).
“Shouldn’t we then try to dissuade Mr. Snodgrasse from continuing his show?” asked Lem innocently.”
‘“No,” replied Shagpoke. “If we try to he will merely get rid of us. Rather must we bide our time until a good opportunity presents itself, then denounce him for what he is, and his show likewise. Here, in Detroit, there are too many Jews, Catholics, and members of unions. Unless I am greatly mistaken, however, we will shortly turn south. When we get to some really American town, we will act.”’ (West,167)
The satire in West’s writing allows the reader to laugh periodically at the style in which he describes each situation. However, this also digresses the reader’s attention from the main, important issue, the widespread poverty throughout America. West mocks the Horatio Alger myth that states that if somebody wants to make it in America, they can and will. West’s satire definitely sparks a laugh or two within his readers. Yes, the more people who laugh, the more fans he will have, but at the same time, this satirical approach diminishes the significant and seriousness of the situation that Pitkin is in.
Many modern day issues are mocked in similar ways via internet, television, and print. When serious issues are relayed in a manner that delivers them as comedic, the seriousness of these national dilemmas is given an entirely new viewpoint. It can be good to laugh about it every once in a while in order to not let it drag someone down entirely, but West’s satire and Pitkin’s hope do not end, creating a mixed ongoing spiral that eventually ends in the death of an ambitious character. In A Cool Million Pitkin has a goal in mind, but instead of achieving it, he ends up losing his house, teeth, thumb, eye, leg, and life. Every bend in the road he encounters he justifies in some other way. He is going after “the American Dream” but can’t seem to get there. This is part of the comedic aspect of the piece. Should this be something that is seen only in a satirical way? Many television shows today portray our current economic crisis through jokes and comedic skits, but what we are actually experiencing is no laughing matter.
Lem enters the world confident that as a young American, he is entitled to a successful life. He knows he will have to work hard, but he has the encouragement of Betty and Mr. Whipple to remind him of the American motto: work hard and you will succeed. He expects to go to New York, work his way up the ladder, and come back rich at the end of it all. (Sounds like students coming to NYU.) West's novel shatters the Dream by taking back from Lem everything that he receives - every time he earns a few bucks, somebody steals it; every time he gets a new glass eye and set of dentures, somebody knocks them out. He loses his teeth, thumb, and scalp for being in the wrong places at the wrong times, and loses his eye and leg for trying to save a couple of damsels in distress.
Despite all of this, he keeps a positive outlook on his life ahead. He's only seventeen, after all, so how bad could it be? Lemuel's lowest point is when he confesses to Betty that he is "a failure," to which she scolds him for putting himself down. So he lost an eye and all his teeth… "To make an omelet you have to break eggs" (138). This coming from a girl who gets raped every time she appears in the story, but then becomes the new dictator's secretary (178). I admired the hoboes in Waiting for Nothing for being happy enough with three meals and a bed, but their resilience was nothing compared to Betty and Lem's.
I actually envied their optimism until the end, when I realized what Mr. Whipple was up to. At first he just seemed like a senile old man. His inventions and new political goals were ridiculous and I thought Lem was stupid for listening to them. I disregarded Mr. Whipple until all of a sudden he had followers and was taking over the United States. There's a thin line between the American Dream and American nationalism, and when the book was published in 1934 nationalism was a dangerous subject. Hitler had just seized control of Germany and the all too willing Germans. West's story is a warning against naivete, the delusional optimism that fueled Nazism and still supports the American Dream. After all the strange passages that we read in this book, I can’t stop thinking about the juxtaposition and similarity of Nazism and the American Dream.
Initially, the novella seems to be written in a typical third person omniscient. However, small hints begin popping up that this narrator serves a different role. When describing Mr. Whipple’s nightly routine of lowering the flag and giving a speech, the narrator tells his reader, “Shagpoke lowered the flag for which so many of our finest have bled and died” (72). This description does not necessarily stray completely from a third person omniscient point of view, but it stands out nevertheless. Typically, this type of narration is one without opinion, but this message is very obviously patriotic. Furthermore, it refers to “our finest,” which is certainly a first person voice. There we can assume the narrator is American, so we begin to wonder: is he a neighbor of Shagpoke’s? Why does West include this strong emotional description? Judging from the rest of the novella, it’s not a genuine pledge of patriotism; perhaps is a sarcastic comment on patriotism. In putting this part of the sentence in first person, it stands out, and maybe West used a different tone in order to call attention to the ridiculousness of the blind patriotism that some Americans have.
Another instance in which West’s narrator lapses briefly into first person is when the narrator describes the outfit that Betty must wear when she is sold into prostitution, something which he does, he says, “for the benefit of my feminine readers” (94). Once again, the small bit of first person sticks out. Is it, similar to the aforementioned instance, a bit of satire? Perhaps West is once again using a change in narrative voice to call attention to the ridiculousness of sexism; after all, he is reciting this in the context of a brothel in which every prostitute is dressed as a certain type of American—a ridiculous concept. It could be, too, that this is an innocent statement that in the 1930’s would not seem sexist in any way—I could not glean from my external readings whether or not West was particularly sexist or misogynist, as many writers of the period were. Either way, the first person catches the reader off-guard, calling attention to the bizarre situation following the statement (i.e. Betty’s grotesquely American attire), which once again comments on the excess and extreme patriotism of some Americans.
Chief Satinpenny is as hypocritical as Whipple when it comes to his take on capitalism. Before he lead the invasion on the coal mine which left Lem skinned, he gave a speech on the wastefulness of the white capitalists to rile his tribe. “In what way is the white man wiser than the red? The paleface came and in his wisdom filled the sky with smoke and the rivers with refuse. What, in his wisdom, was he doing?... He was making clever cigarette lighters... He was making paper bags, doorknobs, leatherette satchels” (156). Whipple later asks Lem where the chief obtained his weapons and whiskey and when Lem is unable to answer we know why Whipple’s smile arises: Satinpenny had to purchase and utilize the products of American capitalism in order to raid the ranch in his attempt to defeat it. His first name, Israel, also connects to Whipple’s own inspirational speech at the end of the book (where Lem is used as a hero for his National Revolutionary Party).
In that speech Whipple denounces international capitalism and uses Lem as a martyr for being destroyed buy the enemies of American capitalism. Lem, who was comically dismantled throughout the book did not die in vain, says Whipple, but instead is an example of what every American citizen should be: hard-working and honest. “Of what is it that he speaks? Of the right of every American boy to go into the world and there receive fair play and a chance to make his fortune by industry and probity without being laughed at or conspired against by sophisticated aliens” (179).
One such notion is laid out at the beginning of the novel by Mr. Whipple, who seems to always appear in the novel to give Lem advice or pitch a new scheme to the ill fated hero: “‘America’, he said with great seriousness, ‘is the land of opportunity. She takes care of the honest and the industrious, and never fails them as long as they are both. This is not a matter of opinion, but a matter of faith. On the day that Americans stop believing it, on that day will America be lost’”(74). This idyllic view of the nation is clearly disproven throughout the narrative with Lem only being punished and maimed in return for his efforts. This also feels similar to the disillusionment our country is facing today.
One of the most drastic aspects of the plot is how the protagonist is literally broken down into pieces by the American system. Not until I had finished reading the novel did I realize the full title was A Cool Million: The Dismantling of Limuel Pitkin. When all is said and done Pitkin has his teeth, eye, thumb, scalp, and leg taken from him by America. Another example of the American spirit being corrupted can be seen in Betty Prail, the object of Lem’s affection and sadly victim of an equally nefarious fate. Betty’s female innocence corrupted countless times with her being raped by a father and son in her hometown, being abducted and forced to work as a prostitute, and finally raped again by a violent cowboy near the close of the novel. The author shows that while America is billed as a land of opportunity more often than not it has the power to steal a young girl’s innocence and take a strong boy’s body away from him. It seems that West clings to the cynical notion that America will not only rape and mutilate you – but they will put you up on stage and laugh at you for it.
The biggest and easiest target to blame for a lot of Lemuel’s misguided optimism is former president Shagpoke Wipple. While Whipple might motivate him by comparing him to John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford because “like them, by honesty and industry, you cannot fail to succeed,” the true damage comes when he tells him that “America is the land of opportunity. She takes care of the honest and industrious and never fails them as long as they are both. This is not a matter of opinion, it is one of faith. On that day that Americans stop believing it, on that day will America be lost” (74). If that’s the case, we’ve been lost for quite a long time.
Where I saw an interesting comparison to today’s times was when he’s told “that class war is civil war, and will destroy us” (167). That couldn’t be more pertinent to what’s going on on Wall Street right now. The question is will it destroy us?
Pitkin’s character really reminded me of Jurgis Rudkus, the protagonist from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Jurgis was an imigraent who was trying to make an honest living in America and was constantly schemed and walked all over just like Lemuel is. In the end, what does our “hero” get? Well, “Jail is his first reward. Poverty is his second. Violence is his third. Death is his last” (178). While Pitkin just set out to make a small living so he can afford to not have him and his mother’s house foreclosed, he ends up becoming a martyr for the fascist party and “through the Natinoal Revolution its people were purged of alien diseases and America became again American” (179). It’s frustrating seeing his dreams and image exploited once he dies.
On a side note, in the beginning of the book Mr. Wipple instructs Lemuel not to “teach your grandmother to suck eggs…the pleasures of the body are like grandmothers, once they begin to suck eggs they never stop until all the eggs are dry” (71). Am I missing something here? What the hell does this mean?!
Throughout “A Cool Million,” as well as much of our own personal lives today, everyday and orderly sequences are not always as they seem.
In this particular novel, Nathanael West creates façades and veneers to develop his plot, and then quickly disrupts the aforementioned orderly sequence of the protagonist’s (Lem’s) life to reveal tragedy and misfortune. For example, upon learning that his house was to be foreclosed, Lem immediately sought out Mr. “Shagpoke” Whipple, the town’s most prominent citizen and the country’s former president. After first glance, this meeting between the two gentlemen seems to have gone smoothly: an older, shrewd man instructed a young, lost boy on how to find his fortune: “Go out into the world and win your way” (73). Lem buys into this “fact” of Mr. Whipple’s and decides to travel to New York City to earn $1500 earnestly and honestly in order to save his home. But what at once seemed a great option and opportunity in conversation turned into a literal nightmare once put into application. By the end of what seems like months, Lem shamefully admits to “[leaving] Ottsville to make [his] fortune and so far [he’s] been to jail twice and lost all [his] teeth and one eye” (138). By now, the mask has been taken off of the story, and everything has collapsed. All because things were not as they seemed. Fortune, indeed, turned out to be a slippery thing to ascertain.
This theme of life seeming to wear a mask is prevalent today, especially in politics. I believe the movie “The Ides of March” captures this concept almost perfectly. I do not want to spoil the film due to its recent release date, but in most basic, non-giveaway form, Ryan Gosling’s character puts on his angel wings and is Mike Morris’, the democratic candidate for the presidential election, right hand man. Steven (Gosling’s character) is all about loyalty…until the plot unfolds. Becoming mixed up in some dirty business, he finds himself in a position so fragile and tempest-like that earlier on in the film he could not have dreamt of such business. This parallels Lem’s story, as his initial commencement to his saga is one of fortune, family, and dreams coming true (rainbows and butterflies, basically). But, as his “fortune” unfolds, he comes to realize at one point in the story that New York City may appear as the land of opportunity, but it is just as corrupt as politics (no pun intended).
As seen by the struggles of Lemuel Pitkin in Nathaniel West’s A Cool Million, everyone is at war with everyone else. West tells us that in order to make a life for yourself during the Great Depression in America, and arguably in the present time as well, you need to look out solely for yourself. You need to lie, cheat, steal, hurt, and even murder to get what you need to survive, and you cannot trust anyone in the process.
Lemuel Pitkin receives false hope from the ex-president Mr. Whipple who tells him that it is the honest in America who succeed. Pitkin tries to be a young Ford or Rockefeller throughout the book based on this advice, trying to make fair deals and help others to get by. This ultimately gets him greatly taken advantage of by everyone he encounters, which results in the continuous loss of all his money, losing an eye, going to jail and losing all his teeth, getting his leg removed, and ultimately being murdered at the end. We hoped throughout the book that his honesty and moral superiority would pay off at the end somehow, but in fact it is what caused his death.
We hope throughout the book that all Pitkin’s selfless actions to help and save Betty Prail will bring them both happiness at the end. His actions do, although indirectly, save Betty from the foreign prostitution ring, but they don’t do anything to save himself. This is not to say that West is telling us that helping other people is bad, he is just noting that in these financial times of crisis, those actions will do nothing to help the person who does them and will most likely end up harming them individually as that action was taken place instead of a selfish one to help themselves succeed.
We are living in a time where greed, selfishness, and cheating pay off, according to the Huffington Post article Greed in the Economy. Surviving is about putting your own individual interests far above those of society, according to The Daily Beast article The Human History of Greed. People want to change this nature of society, as seen by the Occupy Wall Street protests, but they don’t know exactly how or what to do to change it. I wonder though, that if everyone hypothetically had the opportunity to be a top Wall Street executive, would they take actions to help society or themselves? I do not know the answer to this question. To be honest, I don’t even know what I would do.
In the first few pages of A Cool Million, West wastes no time in providing plenty of evidence against Alger’s reliance on optimism and the so-called American Dream. After setting out on the road to New York City to raise money to prevent he and his mother from losing their house, Pitkin is duped by con artists and other scheming villains time and time again. The supposed blinding effect of optimism is always the blame, leading to Pitkin’s boundless credulity that never dies in spite of the tragedies Pitkin continues to face.
Pitkin’s lack of common sense seems completely ludicrous and his repeated failures are very frustrating to read, time and time again. Just when you think Pitkin might be experiencing a stroke of luck, it’s exposed that he is once again being deceived and robbed of whatever money and dignity he has left. Ex-President Mr. Whipple, the character who’s most responsible for Pitkin’s pathetic dismantling throughout the book, narrates the “rewards” of Pitkin’s search for success: “Jail is his first reward. Poverty his second. Violence is his third. Death is his last” (178). Mr. Whipple, who represents the notion of optimism in the book, kept telling Pitkin that he would eventually “make it” despite his trials and tribulations, but it is shown that this is false when Pitkin is finally killed at the conclusion of the book. Optimism is thus associated with destruction and downfall.
However, I disagree with West’s denouncement of optimism for the most part. Sure, solely relying on a positive attitude to get ahead without anything else to back you up will typically not yield fame and fortune. But without any optimism, there is no drive to succeed at all. Optimism should not be wholly mistaken for the sheer stupidity shown on Pitkin’s part throughout the novel.
West repeatedly aligns being hopeful with blatant examples of unintelligence and gullibility. Optimism can sometimes preclude you from seeing the full calamity of a situation, but it is not always foolish—sometimes it’s the only thing that people can believe in during trying times. Without any optimism, people are just as likely to fall victim to the same tragedies that were endured by Pitkin. Only in this case it is due to their lack of will to overcome the pitfalls of pessimism and depression rather than a purported overzealous, delusional pursuit of happiness.
Yet despite all this Lemuel never turns to go home. He in fact cannot because his home is no longer intact. Despite the fact that there was no hope in New York Lemuel stays because traveling offers hope. Eventually he goes to California once again at the urging of Mr. Whipple despite the fact that experience has taught him he should avoid advice from Mr. Whipple and go home. If you are on the road and in trouble you at least have the hope that one day you will make it back home, that you will eventually reach the “holy land” and redemption. This is a theme Steinbeck touched upon as well, as the Joads continued to travel towards California despite the fact that the other migrant workers had told them that California is not the dream land they had been led to believe.
While using his satire to inspire sympathy in the situation of the migrant workers, West also uses his satire to criticize the way the other writers are blaming outside sources. Interestingly, Shagpoke blames the Communists and Wall Street, two opposing forces that represented opposite sides of the spectrum. If the communists are evil and Wall Street which represents capitalism and democracy are evil what it is good?
Shagpoke tries to answer this question with the National Revolutionary Party, also known as the Leather Shirts. It is fitting that he becomes the leader of this group, being that throughout the story he has been making empty promises to Lemuel. Like he did for Lemuel in the beginning of the story and in jail Shagpoke makes empty promises of a better world and finds scapegoats for the problems befelling himself and others but provides no concrete plan to improve matters. He comes to represent many of the writers and the revolutionaries of the time who demanded change but provided no rational recourse for what kind of change should be implemented. Ultimately Shagpoke’s revolution leads to a dictatorship built on a false martyr in Lemuel who really didn’t seem to believe in any of Shagpoke’s political ideaology.
It’s interesting to compare these books side by side since each one has an agenda they are trying to push, but how effective is West’s satire in the end? I personally found the book to be outrageous and annoying at times when Lem finds himself right back in the same situation he had just got himself out of. This related heavily to the same theme found in Waiting for Nothing when the main character finds himself falling back to the bottom no matter what had happened the day before. This definitely seems like a reoccurring theme throughout Depression based novels. The difference is that Kromer’s writing evokes emotions and guilt while West’s style does neither.
Instead, the satire style makes the situation occurring during the 1930’s seem unrealistic. The character of Lem becomes more and more outrageous that by the end he is completely not relatable to any character we have seen throughout the readings this semester. The whole point of many of these authors was to go out and experience life in the way so many homeless Americans were. West seems to undermine this by writing a “spoof” of these other stories. In the end, I think that the purpose behind this book was lost throughout the satire because of just how extreme the situations were.