I wrote in my first post on Lemuel Pitkin that his optimism is meant to be parodied in West’s novel, but that I was not entirely convinced—that I still found it somewhat inspiring to witness such a character be so optimistic throughout such trials and tribulations.
However, it is worth noting that aspect of Nathanael West’s writing which intended to parody the rags-to-riches tale so notably propounded by Horatio Alger. This factoid is not just salient, it is the very context out of which this book means anything at all. Though one might find Pitkin’s optimism still somewhat encouraging, it cannot be denied that that optimism is admittedly linked to an unfortunate mindset fairly specific to the “American Dream,” that there is always a way to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps.
But observe this part of the story, as told by Maria Almanza in “Dismantling the American Boy: Nathanael West’s A Cool Million”:
“West’s protagonist leaves his rural roots intending to pay off a debt owed on his mother’s home; however, what he finds in the big city is not his fortune, but a series of misfortunes. Lemuel appears to have all the defining characteristics of Alger’s country-bred hero: socially accepted values, honesty, a simple upbringing, and an undying belief in hard work. But unlike Alger’s self-made man, Lemuel is violated, commoditized, brutalized, and eventually totally dismantled by the powers that be.”
So Pitkin is an interesting character, as one who apparently has the finest qualities worldwide—good values, honesty—and who has other qualities specifically celebrated by the United States—a simple upbringing, a belief in hard work—and these are values that are certainly expounded by others in the book, such as Whipple, who tells Lem on p.74 that “The story of Rockefeller and Ford is the story of every great American and you should strive to make it your story. Like them you were born poor and on a farm. Like them, by honesty and industry, you can not fail to succeed.” And yet it is Lem, that honest, industrious young man, whose every attempt at pulling himself out of the rut of poverty seems to drag him deeper into debt, deformity, and general deconstruction of his life.
Yet perhaps, unfortunately, this is far more likely a tale than anything Alger ever wrote. Alger’s stories are more like the exception that proves the rule, though their ubiquitous popularity falsely makes such rags-to-riches success seem more possible than it probably is.
Essentially, West writes of perhaps a more true personification of the American Dream. Where Alger writes of the American Dream as a reality, West writes of it as it truly is: a dream. Poverty, we know today, is more difficult to escape than one would hope, particularly in such a developed country; and yet, it is the poor that we celebrate in our speeches and our statues and our stories across all kinds of media.
This propensity, too, is parodied in an extreme version of that romanticizing of the poor unfortunate at the end of the book, when Pitkin’s assassination turns him into a martyr for the cause of making “America” truly “American.” Americanness, it seems, is the right to go out into the world and be shot and tortured and maimed—this, Whipple refers to as “fair play and a chance to make his fortune by industry and probity without being laughed at or conspired against by sophisticated aliens” (95). Perhaps we can learn from this, that we should do our best to refrain from romanticizing the poor when the poor are only poor because trying to be otherwise loses them a body part or three or more.