The Making of America

In The Travel Habit, West (2) by Agne1 Comment

A Cool Million by Nathanael West is a story about what America does to people, but at the same time, it also depicts how this America is built. In a section of her essay called “America as a “Proper Receptacle”: Nathanael West’s A Cool Million: or, the Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin” Naomi Kubo explores Wu Fong’s brothel as a representative of America.

Wu Fong occupies himself with creating a “House of All Nations” depicting a woman from each country around the world in her “home.” Wu Fong concerns himself with making sure each aspect of the girls’ clothing and room are perfect all the while creating a false world. The brothel feels like Epcot at Disneyland, but instead of the fully clothed waitresses and staff, there are naked women around. Yet, the women don’t even seem to be the main attraction anyway. They are fully dressed in immaculate costumes making them just extras in the performance.

After Wu Fong acquires Betty, “The American Girl” he believes he will be able to make a significant profit off of her. Wu Fong’s clientele are apparently not of the “Aryan race” and thus like the company of “The American Girl.” While the brothel is still a “House of All Nations” Betty’s popularity can not be denied. I believe this is a comment on American’s popularity in general. I grew up in a country that had fought and won its independence from the USSR just six years before my birth, yet growing up I knew all about the American pop stars. My grandparents grew up craving jeans, and my mom was Madonna’s biggest fan on the wrong side of the Atlantic. American culture permeates everything, yet West makes me question if there is any truth to it.

Wu Fong’s masterful redecoration from the “House of All Nations” to “an hundred per centum American place” creates the idea that what we think of as being America is a fabrication. Men come to the brothel for the experience rather than the women, and the experience they are getting is the America they were, or still are, hoping exists. The America made up of, or disguised, by sign-value items was born “in the period between the 1920s and the 1960s” says Kubo. The American Dream is a farce just like all of the signs and objects we think of as representative of America have also been strategically placed in front of us.

The fact that Wu Fong did not need to change much for the decor and outfit of his “Mexican Girl” to make her into his girl from California is also a telling detail. As cliqued as it is America is made up of so many cultures from around the world, it is a melting pot like no other. There is no way to experience the different Americas because such divides don’t really exist. They have been fabricated for us by pop-culture, film, music, etc. America, just like the American Dream, does not exist in a clear and depictable way. America is nebulous and to believe anything other than that would mean succumbing to the farce presented for us by people like Wu Fong.

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  1. Yes I agree that the real, or say genuine, “America” is unclear, not depictable or maybe lost in A Cool Million. People including Wu Fong have tried hard through various methods to create an image and thus a notion of “America,” e.g. Wu Fong tries to replicate/recreate that American feeling in each of his girls’ rooms. He tries so hard that it even seems like he want himself to buy it as well, but a lot of West’s words suggest that the real America idea doesn’t exist.

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