The notion that West’s novels focused on a character who so desperately wanted to be part of an “ideal” society, or achieve the “ideal” life, but was forced to remain in the life he was born into rings especially true for Lem in A Cool Million. I have not read any of West’s other works, so I cannot say with certainty whether this assertion, mentioned in the biography about him written by Daniel Walden, is completely true.
However, it seems to me that Lem represents a younger, slightly different version of Nathaniel West. He is poor, is about to lose his home, and wants to set out to make a fortune and be part of the society who has money and achieved the American Dream rather than stay in the place where he is struggling, along with his neighbors. If one takes into account West’s own aversion to the society he was born in to—the Jewish society—then I can understand A Cool Million to be a twisted, hyperbolic autobiography. It could be said, though this may be wildly inaccurate, that West is not criticizing everyone who believes in the American Dream (or everyone who believes that working long and hard will make you wealthy) as I had originally believed, but is admonishing himself for trying to be part of a society that is not his own. He is a Jewish man, does not want to be, but there is nothing he can do about it because he was born into it.
It is strange, in my opinion, that West “hated being Jewish, and suffered from the fact that he could not escape being Jewish,” as the biography mentions. It’s awfully sad, too, to put the novel in that context. Especially when one takes into account Lem’s optimism and perseverance at trying to make his fortune in the big city. West, himself, told his roommate at Brown that he was of “noble birth,” choosing to forgo the truth. He was, as the text puts it, “evolving a new persona, shaping a legend,” and creating a new version of himself. However, I think that this reinvention did not put an end to his loathing of the Jewish man inside of him. In fact, I think that the rejection of West by a fraternity for not having a “distinguished ancestry” only reminded him that he was just Nathaniel Weinstein, son of Jewish immigrants.
As I mentioned before, it could be a stretch to think of Lem as a replica of West, with a different society to escape in the context of the Depression, but I still believe the inspiration from his own life and experiences is there. I think West knew what it was like to be an outsider searching for something he could never get, and because A Cool Million was a satire of Horatio Alger’s novels, he simply adapted his own story to match the many stories of failed attempts to reach the American Dream.
I can picture him, fingers stretched, grasping for an intangible idea that lays just out of reach.