Blog Post 7: Dismantling Bodies

Hi everyone,

Nathanael West’s A Cool Million, our text for Monday (following the flipped schedule for next week I mentioned today), offers us a different direction in which to take our thinking so far about fiction, narrative, and the monstrous — West’s novella takes place in a world that lacks the fantastical elements that have defined the texts we’ve read so far, but is perhaps no less monstrous in its own way.

I’m going to make this first post on this text open-ended — you’re welcome to engage our reading for Monday along whatever lines intrigue you, as long as you frame your response in a critical, analytical way and ground it in quotation and analysis of some specific material from the text. One way to approach it might be to think about where and how we might find monstrosity in this text, and what West is doing with monstrosity as a narrative and social tool. But there are lots of other issues to explore here as well — I’m intrigued to see what everyone makes of this material!

Reminder: your response should go in the comments section for this post — click the “Leave a Comment” link at the top of the post. It should be at least 250 words, and is due by midnight on Sunday, October 16th. After class on Monday, you should return to this thread and post a response to one classmate’s post by class time Wednesday the 19th. If you have any questions, let me know via email.

 

Advertisements

28 thoughts on “Blog Post 7: Dismantling Bodies

  1. West’s novel “A Cool Million” from the very beginning is dismantling and upsetting. The novel is incredibly difficult to read because of the disturbingly absurd depictions of rape, abuse, and racism, which West exaggerates to criticize American society in the 1920s-1930s. Minimizing the emphasis on rape, police brutality, and prostitution, the most detail of the narrative is about bank systems and capitalism, which seem fickle in comparison. West exaggerates social mobility in America both upwards and downwards to the point of being totally erratic and unpredictable, where “here a man is a millionaire one day and a pauper the next, but no one thinks the worse of him” (98). It critiques the idea of the ‘American dream’ and reverses it, where the wealthy characters have made their money by deceitful means and our “hero”, poster child American country boy Lem, is always weaseled out of his money. As easy as Lem makes money, through trade, loans, or other odd means, it is either taken, stolen, or confiscated almost immediately. As an amiable teenager, Lem infuriatingly never ceases to be optimistic and naive despite failing his goals to buy his house back, losing crucial body parts, being incarcerated, and suffering police brutality too many times to count. Lem is the foolish optimism that is the ‘American dream’, constantly beaten down and torn apart unjustly, an unfortunate failing postmodern “hero”. This extreme critique of American capitalism is really disheartening to read, though not inaccurate, not even to mention the extreme exaggerations of race and gender roles, the disgusting plotline of ‘heroine” Betty, and the awful depictions of minorities; Asians, blacks, and Native Americans. This is truly a terrible read and every page brought me anguish and disdain.

    Like

    • A truly terrible read indeed, yet West absolutely gets his point across. This novella is absurd, in its pacing of the plot, exaggerated character stereotypes, and its deliberate ignorance of rape and violence, but only to be utterly clear. Lem is a misguided young adult, who filled the shoes of many at the time looking to fulfill the American Dream in the 30’s. The pacing of this novel suggests how fast it takes for one to fail in America, and to lose track of what is truly important. Lem loses his goal on helping his mother, and turns to Mr. Whipple racist desires, and fabrication of the American Dream. To put it in simple terms, through these efforts, Lem gets screwed. He loses everything, including most of his body, and the people closest to him. The most tragic part is, the novella takes no time to reflect on these instances of peril and keeps trudging along to Lem’s next big downfall. The only focus here is on money and power, and a desire that has shown to be timeless in our country. This read struck a chord with me, especially in the extremely capitalism/consumerism driven world we live in and value today.

      Like

  2. Rebekah Clapham

    “A Cool Million”

    For this blog post I want to focus specifically on the scene on pages 106- 108. In this scene, “our hero” Lem Pitkin has just rescued two people from being trampled by Mr. Goldstein’s horses. A man whose “gestures, which were Latin” and “floated with the same graceful freedom as his hair” (106) saw Pitkin’s heroic actions and wanted to congratulate and honor him. Tying freedom to the character of the Latin man is interesting—it suggests there is some form of oppression in America so Pitkin sees people associated with other countries as more free. This contrasts to the idea that America is supposed to be the freest place on earth. However, the argument that America is actually more fake and oppressive than it is free appears multiple times throughout this scene. For example, in order to thank the man congratulating him, Pitkin has to put back in his false teeth—given to him by the prison ward. Having his real teeth taken from him for doing a good deed (pawning a thief’s ring for only the amount of money that was stolen from him) and now only being able to talk when he has these false, government provided teeth, suggests there are elements of censorship. Pitkin also seems to be punished for every good deed he does. For example, he is knocked out by a town bully for sticking up for a girl, he loses his teeth by trying to do a good deed, and he gravely injures his eye when trying to save other people from runaway horses. He is always seemingly punished for doing a good deed suggesting that in America, doing what is right will only hurt you. Instead, in order to get ahead, you must compromise morality and adapt a shady and selfish attitude. This is portrayed in this scene when the Latin “poet” and his accomplishes are successful in robbing everyone in the crowd, while preaching about how great America is, and how important American tradition and the American dream is. The poet also reminds Pitkin of Mr. Wellington Mape (106). This is significant because Wellington Mape used to be the president of America. Both Mape and the poet preach similar vague ideas about how America is a “great nation” and how the American dream allows anyone to get ahead if they work hard for it. The poet does this while simultaneously robbing the crowd, suggesting that not only do the people who argue for the American dream not believe in it, but they use the American dream to blind people in order to trick and use them to get what they want and to get ahead for themselves. Robbing is in direct contrast to the American dream. The American dream states that if you work hard you will earn what you deserve, but robbing involves getting what you want without having to work hard at all. This whole scene suggests the American dream is a sham and the authority figures supposedly fighting for the greatness of our country are not to be trusted. Distrust in authority figures representing our country is further shown when Lem, our American hero—the true representation of American morality and the American dream– has fainted and a policeman kicks him repeatedly while he’s down. This image suggests that if you blindly follow and believe in the American dream, the people in power will beat you down and take advantage of you. It also implies that there is no real hope for or substance to the American dream.

    Like

    • This is all really interesting! When reading the story, I just took in the overwhelming painful situations without processing their symbolic meaning. I completely agree with your interpretation that the false teeth given to Lem by the government symbolizes the fake facades people must put on in order to do well in life. I’m not sure if I agree that it represents censorship, because I am not sure what the government would be censoring. I would definitely agree that the false teeth and the motivational speeches that are only used to take advantage of people represent the fraudulence of the American dream. The dream itself is unattainable because the only people who can come close to attaining it are crooks and deceptive people, however they will never fully attain it because they are not working morally like a good hearted American. Plus, as you’ve mentioned, the people who are actually making money are non-Americans. In addition to Lem’s mutilation and the connection to the false American dream, Lem’s eye falls out, which can symbolize how he is blinded by the dream. Thank you for mentioning how each mutilation can be symbolic of something because I never thought about it before. There is a reason why each mutilation was chosen.
      I think that West has the “successful” people in the story be non-Americans because they are foreign. As we have discussed in other stories, the foreigner symbolizes our own distance from what we want or need. The non-Americans are succeeding and making money because they are not a part of the American dream. This shows that following the American dream will make you less successful than a non-American in America. The descriptions of the other races are not exoticized, however, like in the other novels we have read. This is the only thing that I am having a hard time understanding: what is the point of making them racist caricatures?

      Like

  3. The idea of monstrosity is very differently portrayed in this novella. There is no magnificent monster or bug out in the world trying to figure out it’s place. Instead we get our hero, Lemuel Pitkin, and his gullibility to the rest of the world and it’s monstrosity. There are many examples to this, and one that stood out to me is the scene in which Lem s on the train and his money is stolen by a man claiming to be a relative and the nephew to the Mayor of New York. Lem says at one point in the conversation, “I haven’t hidden it because a secret pocket is the first place a thief would look. I keep it loose in my trousers where nobody would think I carried so much money” (84). Lem is very straight forward with his intentions and doesn’t really hide anything, because the way he views the world is through a very good heart and trustworthy when it comes to other people. The diction used here, also intends on the ideas of dark humor, because Lem is so very trustworthy he tells the man who steals his money exactly where to steal it from. The dark humor aspect of this exchange and the gaining of trust from the stranger, shows the ideas of monstrosity of the real world which Lem seems to never fully comprehend as his journey continues. He is always getting taken advantage of. The narrative and the character of Lem shows the cruelties of the real world to a character that only wants to do good and save his family house from being sold off. The author purposely chooses this type of gullible character to show the true hardships that face people once they step out into the real world. Monstrosity is not just depicted by people that look like monsters, but is all around us in the world and cannot be stopped, so one must watch themselves.

    Like

    • Hey Jeremy!
      I think you make a very interesting point about monstrosity that I had not thought about yet. One of the evidences of monstrosity in the novel definitely derives from the notion of the destruction of Lems body. However, you seem to show evidence that the world that surrounds his is also monstrous, and the decay of his body can in many ways be seen as the result of a monstrous world. I had not thought about that point yet, because the whole time I was just thinking of monstrosity in its very clear monster or bug like way, like we see in Frankenstein and in The Metamorphosis. However, the world in A Cool Million is so vile and degrading, that it makes sense to analyze monstrosity from that lens. For instance, the manner in which the heroine is beaten and mistreated for no reason other than the fact that she is beautiful and the people around her become jealous is proof of this monstrosity. In addition, the vile acts committed by the father and the son toward the heroine is also further proof of a generational monstrosity that seems to transcend in many character in the novella, like the man in the train station that you pointed out in your response. I was convinced by your points that the monstrosity in this novel can be seen both through the degradation of our hero’s body, and through the world that causes this decay.

      Like

  4. Jessica Pavia
    Blog Post 7

    It was quite difficult reading “A Cool Million or The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin,” by Nathanael West. Not because of the content or language, but because of the events and violence that are so immense in this work. There are many monstrous forces in Lem’s life, from Asa Goldstein, the man who took Lem and his mother’s house to make a window display, to Mr. Whipple himself, the man seemingly supporting Lem. What I find so monstrous about Mr. Whipple is his relentless pushing of Lem. Whipple creates this false idea that the only way Lem can fail is if he wasn’t “American,” he says “[Lem was] born poor and on a farm…by honesty and industry, [he] cannot fail to succeed” (74). He is the reason Lem even went into the city in the first place, where his dismantling took place. This undying American spirit is toxic in this novella, and leads to so much violence and absurd measures to get fortune.
    This false optimism also leads to Lem being too trusting of the American people. Amazed by the idea of fame from Whipple, Lem becomes in awe of the people around him. Whether on the train or when getting a job, he doesn’t understand how people would want to take advantage of him. The kid is so innocent, he had “…never been undermined by the use of either tobacco or alcohol” and showed all traits of someone who would be beaten by the city (95). And that’s what happens. Everything around Lem becomes monstrous besides himself. However, he begins to be dismantled. His teeth are removed at the prison after being jailed for something he did not knowingly do, his eye is injured beyond repair after saving a banker and his daughter, and his leg is lost after trying to rescue Betty. The world is so monstrous around him, and eventually turns him into one as well.
    When Lem is being used as a tool, that is when his transition into “monstrosity” is most clearly seen. Being given a job, Lem is already excited about the offer and does not understand the true nature of the “…evident satisfaction he gave his employers” (172). As part of the comedy show, the comedians would “…beat [Lem] violently over the head and body with their rolled-up newspapers. Their object was to knock off his toupee or to knock out his teeth and eye” (173). In this skit, Lem is made into a monster for entertainment, someone without humanity. This is how Lem remains–beaten and taken advantage of–until he is shot at the end while trying to make a speech. In the end of “A Cool Million,” Lem is being put on a pedestal for being different, his monstrosity makes him something to gawk at. The world around him is what ultimately dismantled him, thus their monstrosities are tied together.

    Like

    • Rebekah Clapham

      I agree that this was a difficult reading because of the various monstrous forces throughout the story. What I find extremely disturbing is the way the character’s can experience horrific events in their lives and seem unaffected by it. For example, Betty is raped multiple times and Lem is repeatedly attacked and abused, but the characters do not seem to internally suffer as a result. This dehumanizes the characters and also makes what happens to them seem insignificant, which is troubling to read. I agree that the way the characters are treated rids them of their humanity and makes them seem monstrous. Specifically, your point that “Lem is made into a monster for entertainment, someone without humanity” and “his monstrosity makes him something to gawk at” is what troubled me about the ending. What does it mean to have the poster child for the “American boy” and a martyr be someone who is dehumanized and represented as monstrous? Also, if Lem was the perfect representation of the American dream, what does it mean that he suffered as a result of the opportunities given to him and ultimately died because his efforts? Lem is also a very naïve character. I agree that Lem has a “false optimism” that leads Lem to “being too trusting of the American people.” This argues that if you believe in the American dream you are naïve and too trusting, as well as ignorant of the monstrosity and criminal, violent behavior required to achieve success in America. Along with your point that “the world is so monstrous around [Lem], and eventually turns him into one as well,” Lem comes to physically represent monstrosity but his personality and behaviors don’t. That monstrosity is represented by the corruption and criminal activity demonstrated by various characters that end up with fates much less devastating than Lem’s.

      Like

    • I totally agree with your assessment of the monstrous power of toxic American spirit. Instead of just being a motivational tool to get people to go out and make a fortune for them self it also sort of blinds them to reality. The idea of what America should be is so important to people like Mr. Whipple that they can’t see what America really is, and so they end up forcing innocent people into bad situations in an attempt to fulfill what they want America to be. This disconnect with reality seems to be the most dangerous force in the book because it stops our characters from thinking critically, which hypothetically could have saved them. It seems that this book proposes the idea that there are monsters out there in the world that are truly evil and then there are those that are more passively monstrous, and one must question what the motives of those people. Perhaps those that are more passively evil (like Mr. Whipple) are the most dangerous ones.

      Like

  5. In “A Cool Million”, Lem lives with a struggling mother who ends up disappearing when Lem was incarcerated for 5 weeks. Once he gets out of prison, he goes to New York City to make something of himself. While he is in the city, he sees that a man and a young child almost get hit by a horse carriage and pulls them back before any devastation would happen. When a bystander witnessed what happened, he reacted by saying, “That lad just saved your lives” (104). This is the reaction that everyone should give to Lem. On the contrary, the man and child’s whose lives he saved gave opposite reactions. The man turned to Lem and said, “I’ve a mind to give you in charge, young man” (105) while the young girl said, “Don’t have him arrested. He was probably paying court to some pretty nursemaid and forgot about his houses” (105). This shows the snotty and unreasonable nature thst some people have even though they should be grateful for what Lem did for them. This reflects Lem’s personal life because he appreciates what he is given and what he has at the moment unlike the individuals whose lives he saved. There are people out in the world who are able to survive with so little and still be happy. There are also people who want everything in the world who mentally think they are better than anybody.Lem, so far in the story, is an introspective person but also looks out for others which other people don’t understand

    Like

  6. We can all agree that A Cool Million is not a lighthearted read. We are bombarded with depressing topics that unfortunately affect each character’s lives; sex trafficking, robbery, death of a parent, rape, and greed. These instances occur so frequently that it is almost humorous when they escalate. The readers are barraged with endlessly painful scenarios to the point where the readers feel numb. When the scenarios start to feel numb, West then addresses the readers. It is a way for us to be constantly thrown into the story and taken out again, like having one’s face dunked over and over again in cold water.
    There are three times when West does this. The first time West addresses the readers is on the second page of the story after already hitting them with a harsh situation. The antique collector says, “‘I am sorry, Mrs. Pitkin, sincerely sorry, but he has decided not to renew. He wants either his money or the property,’” to which Mrs. Pitkin cries and he leaves. Immediately after this scenario, West addresses the reader and says, “It might interest the reader to know that I was right in my surmise” (69). He addresses the reader to make them feel closer to him immediately after being drawn into a sad story. Addressing the readers at a depressing moment of the story is like pulling someone out of cold water to let them breathe, but then immediately throwing them back in.
    This happens a second time after Betty is sold to a brothel and is a prostitute representing America. For all the readers, this is absolutely disturbing, however West undermines it and tells the readers about her outfit. He writes, “The costume that she was made to wear had been especially designed to go with her surroundings. While not exactly in period, it was very striking and I will describe it as best I can for the benefit of my feminine readers” (94). The fact that West addresses his female readers to describe what a sex slave is wearing is completely sarcastic and cold. West purposefully chooses this time to address his readers to make them disturbed. When reading this and having West address me as a female reader, telling me about Betty’s outfit as if I’m concerned, I am furious.
    Most authors address the readers to bring comfort and closure, however when West addresses readers, it becomes all the more disturbing. It is as if the author himself is as insane as the narrator and all the characters in the story. There is no sane person to keep the story weighted. There is only darkness, which comes even closer whenever the West speaks to us. I am not particularly sure why West uses this technique, but it is, as I have already explained, as if the readers are being thrown in and out of cold water. A moment to breathe before realizing that they will face a painful slap again.

    Like

    • West definitely uses his role as the story’s narrative to add further terror to the world he has created in “A Cool Million.” It’s seemingly as if established his place as a both cowardice bystander and a cruel creator. West is aware of his position to the stop all the horrible events in Lem’s life, but simply chooses to let them continue. Weat only furthers the omnipresent downward spiral of Lem’s life – things change, but they only get worse. West is playing outrightedlty playing God.

      Like

  7. The characters in A Cool Million by Nathanael west are beset upon by innumerous tiny injustices that add up to one great monstrosity, which is life. In this book Pitkin suffers a series of small individual injustices that when placed next to each other are made into a miserable life. It starts at the very beginning of the novel with Mr. Whipple’s comments about what America is, in Mr. Whipple’s attempt to motivate Pitkin he convinces Pitkin to not worry about the consequences of borrowing against his family’s cow. He claims that it is the American way for a man to succeed in the world as long as he is good and honest, obviously the progression of the book contradicts this idea, but even if it were true the notion that one should not worry about the consequences of failure sets Pitkin off on a terrible path.
    It is in the small innocuous behaviors of the book that we truly see the evil of the way the world is presented to a young innocent Pitkin. There seem to be many allusions to old Germanic fairytales, such as jack and bean stock and Cinderella, that when juxtaposed with the events of this book tell a Grimm fairy tale (pause for laughter). The jovial tune of the narrator also adds to this sense of disillusionment between what we are promised of the world, and the way the author really sees the world. The commentary that seems to follow for me is, although fairy tales and stories of great success (for example Rockefeller) tell us that the world has a way of cause and effect, the reality of life is randomness and unjust treatment is almost inexplicably doled out at random.

    Like

    • I think that your concept of equating the monstrosity in the novella to be life, is really interesting— I never thought about it that way. It is almost as if specifically, the American dream, is the monster running throughout the narrative. This could be why West chooses to correlate all of the unfair, unjust, as well as utterly random situations as a means to make income.Your idea of this being a way of cause and effect is interesting, as well. It proves that the American dream is just a monster that eventually consumes us, causing us as humans to do anything (morally right or wrong) in order to achieve success.

      Like

  8. Nathaniel West’s, “A Cool Million” shows the true nature of raw human terror in an unfazed light. West writes in a straightforward manner, harshly revealing flaws within American society.
    Lem is found guilty for a crime that he was framed for, and then when imprisoned he still tries to convince the warden, of his innocence. In response, Mr. Purdy tells him, “The sick are never guilty. You are merely sick, as are all criminals,” (West 90). West’s contradiction here is both extremely confusing and entirely straightforward in regards to the country’s criminal justice system. Because Lem is “sick,” he is innocent but because he is sick, he is a criminal. Which one is he? Mr. Purdy presents an odd type of Mobius strip, where everything falls back to assuming guilty rather than innocence, both going against America’s judicial system and contrasting Lem’s oblivious optimism. This quote embodies the entire framework of “A Cool Million.” No matter the truth, Lem can never escape his place, “born poor and on a farm,” (West 97) in society. Though his status presents his opportunity to become a classic American success story, this stereotype is truly unrealistic. Lem is just a joke, an unfortunate, living satire. Lem is too innocent and gullible for both West’s world and the real world– the system works against him, punishing his purity by literally taking away pieces of his body. Despite changing factors and circumstances, like Mr. Purdy infers, once Lem’s status is decided it cannot change. As Lem ventures further away from home and his old life, he is further entrapped in corrupt society that only continues to tear him apart.

    Like

    • I thought your interpretation of Mr. Purdy’s quote was really interesting. Is Lem just guilty of being sick? Is his sickness his never-ending optimism and gullibility? They definitely lead to a lot of trouble for Lem down the line, including the loss of many body parts. Maybe West suggests that the optimism of the American Dream is a deadly sickness. The hopeful quest to honestly earn capital in warped American society is ill-intentioned and ill-fated, and Lem is the manifestation of that. Because of the importance of the body parts Lem loses due to his hopeful sickness, it’s probably important what order he loses them in. The dream for capitalism is a sickness manifesting first in the mouth, the ability to talk, then in the eye, the ability to see, then causing him to lose a thumb, for humans’ opposable thumbs are one of our most important evolutionary facets, his scalp, because how does one live without a scalp, and a leg. West is presenting Lem’s failures to earn money in an honest way (unlike Wu Fong and the multiple characters that steal from Lem) as the corruption of American society and that (figuratively) it takes more than an arm and a leg to make a decent living in society.

      Like

    • Hi Nina,
      I like how you brought up how Lem is projected to be a failure since he was, “poor and on a farm”(West 97). This is important because he comes along streaks of bad luck as the story progresses even tho he constantly tries to step outside of himself to help or look out for others. However he is determined to become successful in New York City and achieve the American dream. Even though the world works against Lem, he had to find a way to overcome these challenges with opportunities that arose. His life could have ended better if he wasn’t gullible to everything that came across to him.

      Like

  9. “A Cool Million” written by Nathanael West is a novel targeting the political class and political establishment for being corrupt, racist, bullies, and crude, but its strangeness left the political movement largely perplexed. West tells the story in mock heroic style of a young man, Lemuel Pitkin, who enters the world, as a hardworking man full of optimism wanting to claim his piece of the American Dream. Lemuel is a naive seventeen-year-old mock hero who tries repeatedly to make money, originally to pay off his mother’s mortgage, but is forever circumvented by an increasingly bizarre series of events. Within the first few pages, he and his significant other Betty Prail are beaten, raped, imprisoned, sold into slavery, robbed, cheated, and injured. Throughout the reading, events are driven by propaganda or money. Speeches and plays cultivate ideas within people and rally up actions, police are paid off by the political elite to cooperate with criminals, and Mr. Whipple, the man supporting Lemuel, works for organizations he doesn’t believe in.  Shagpoke admires Mr. Whipple for becoming a politician because he realizes that if you want to make money this is the best way to do it. When Shagpoke is in jail, he tells Lem “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). Shagpoke demonstrates that his politics are of empty rhetoric and pure propaganda in order to make money which will extinguish the economic hardship that he is enduring while not caring about other people’s problems. This demonstrates how corrupt the politicians in our country are.

    Like

  10. Nathaniel west comments on how greed and capitalism have corrupted the American Dream into something monstrously non genuine and unstable. The way in which West frames his narrative seems almost satirical, referring to Lemuel as “our hero”, as if narrating an old radio serial. All I could think of reading this was the 60’s children’s serial The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, although well after the publication of this novella parallels the nature of A Cool Million in its rapid plot momentum, and animated approach to the monomyth story arc, in which, essentially a hero leaves his home in search for a treasure. Of course, West’s a Cool Million, takes a very dark approach in its subject matter.

    Focusing on the character Shagpoke Whipple, at the beginning of the novel we see a former president of the United States advocating Lem to follow in the footsteps of John D. Rockefeller, and Henry Ford, and start trying to accumulate wealth. He states, “America is the land of Opportunity. She takes care of the honest and industrious and never fails them as long as they are both”(74). As the plot progresses we see this is quite the opposite. Lem is robbed multiple times, sent to jail for crimes he didn’t commit, and while remaining honest, finding that the society entirely focused on the accumulation of wealth, doesn’t earn its wealth fairly. Whipple too loses his bank, and finds himself on the streets with Lem. His mindset however remains unchanged. He tells Lem, “Rank socialism is rampant, How could I…ever bring myself to accept a program to take from the American citizens their alienable birthright; the right to sell their labor and their children’s labor without restrictions to either price or hours?”(110). He stands up for the very system that corrupted both him and Lem. The monster in this novel stems from greed, and the means to obtain money. It cuts moral corners, and cheats it’s participants.

    Like

  11. In life, monsters do not look like monsters— they can be hidden, in any person that we meet. In Nathaniel West’s “A Cool Million” we encounter a type of monster we have not discussed in class yet. In my opinion, this makes monsters all the more terrifying and it made this piece of writing the hardest work we have read by far. Through his characterization, West captures the essence of what it means to be a monster in everyday life. For example, Bill Baxter, the town bully, is described as having beastly mannerisms while attacking Betty as West states “His little pig-like eyes shone with bestiality” (West 78). Instantly, with this awful act, Baxter is dehumanized; we no longer hold him to the same worth and value that we do of the other characters. It appears that West seems to be linking monstrosity with a human’s character and nobility. Those who have character are looked at as humans, and those lacking it are not, nor are they treated that way. I feel that West is also commenting on the ways capitalism can be seen as being a monster in our society. This idea is metaphorically captured as the narrator says: “Lawyer Slemp, although he was exceedingly penurious, always gave her a quarter when he had finished beating her” (81). This visual of earning a reward (money) in exchange for physical abuse captures the extent to which we as Americans are enslaved to money and our capitalistic society.

    Like

    • I agree with all that you are saying and I think another idea that is very prevalent in “A Cool Million”, is the idea of the American Dream and the hardships that comes with it. This novella has big ideas of all the absurdity that comes along with the American Dream and capitalism. It pits the debt and the exchanging of money versus the bodies of the characters and ethics in society. This is seen through the exchange you brought up when the narrator says, “Lawyer Slemp, although he was exceedingly penurious, always gave her a quarter when he had finished beating her” (81). Here we see the body of a person being harmed and at the same time, exchange of money is taking place to make it seem like a positive. What the author is trying to get at here is that the capitalist way of doing things and the American Dream can only be reached by this absurdity. This also happens with Lem with the idea that he keeps getting chances of work, even after all the bad things have happened to him, and his gullibility, drives him to think things will always be better on the other side. The author I think is pushing everything to the craziest pursuit of all the business ventures to show the ridiculousness of all of the capitalist ways.There is this weird connection, like mentioned in class, between the idea of absurdity and opportunity in the world at this time.

      Like

  12. A Cool Million gives us an interesting demonstration of how humor can be used to pass on a message to the reader, without actually voicing it. As readers we are left to draw our own understanding of this text, thus either stopping at the humorous explanation or getting us to think further than that. What struck me from the very beginning is the similarity with the traditional depiction of the gothic heroine, who’s pure, innocent and naive, leading such narratives to often turn out into what feminist literary critics have referred to as ‘narratives of victimization’. Here both the hero and heroine of the novella, deliberately labelled as such by the narrator, are turned into victims by the whole world surrounding them. Lem Pitkin and Betty Prail each demonstrate personal qualities that reveal themselves to work against them as flaw. For instance, Lem is too trusting for his own good, which is often used against him : « Lem gave him his hand in return without fear that there might be craft in the bully’s offer of friendship. The former was a fair-dealing lad himself and he thought that everyone was the same. » (78). And for Betty, it is because of her physic and beauty that she is considered as prey and treated so : « Betty, although only twelve years old at the time, was a well-formed little girl with the soft, voluptuous lines of a beautiful woman. Dressed only in a cotton nightgown […] when Bill Baxter noticed her budding form and enticed her into the woodshed. » (78). In my opinion those similarities between the hero and heroine are also emphasized by how close in text itself they are depicted as victims, which sets the tone of the novella. Here both trust and handsomeness can be read as weaknesses that others will indeed take advantage of. And I think that this very idea of taking advantage of people in any way weaker than you, circles back to our class discussion on monstrosity, as in objectifying others and using them as such.

    Like

  13. In reading A Cool Million by Nathanael West, I was immediately taken aback by the tremendous sadness of the story. For me, moving along the text was an extremely difficult task and the different miseries that the the hero and the heroine face during this first half of the novel surprised me every time. For me, one of the most interesting elements of the story was the idea of hope, and how the author used the character of Shagpoke Whipple as the provider of false hope for the protagonist. Mr. Whipple, in what becomes an ironic situation, continually talks up America for Lem, who in turns believes him repeteadly and ends up being thrown into a cycle of mysery once more. The first time we see this is when Mr. Whipple suggests that Lem should “go out into the world and win your way” (West 73). He explains to Lem that the USA is “the land of opportunity and the world is an oyster” (West 73). Lem believes him and tells Mr. Whipple that he is correct and that he will “go off to seek [his] fortune” (West 73). I believe the message the author is trying to send here is a strong critique to the idea that the United States is a place of freedom and success and that although many people make it seem like achieving triumph is an easy task, it is actually extremely difficult and hard work and hope are not enough to achieve happiness. We see Mr. Whipple presenting a similar behavior again when he runs into Lem in prison. Despite the fact that they have both been victimized by a corrupt system, Mr. Whipple still tells Lem that “America is still a young country” and that “there are still gold mines hidden away in our mountain fastness” (West 98). Again, we see our protagonist being told that there is still hope to succeed in America, despite him having failed the first time. He believes Mr. Whipple once more and sets out in a journey to succeed in New York City. In my opinion, I believe there are two larger messages that West is trying to expose by the relationships between Mr. Whipple and Lem. The first, is that Americans are constantly told lies about the means to achieve success within the capitalist system, and the second, is that many times, Americans are too gullible and will become trapped within such corrupt system.

    Like

    • Hi! I was also struck by how ridiculous Mr. Whipple and his relentless push of American-ness onto Lem was. These ideas of hope end up being incredibly toxic to Lem, and truly to everyone affected by the American Dream. I think this play is satiric to show how truly corrupt and destined-to-fail America was at this time. These ideas of success based on purity and hard work just don’t succeed anymore, and I’m not sure they ever truly did. I think what West is saying about the American Dream is that it was too pure an idea to work, and almost created by society to hide the true corruptness of American business and politics. This relentless hope and toxic belief system is to hide the fact that only a select few can and will succeed. With this idea, you can also tie in all the racism in this text, as well as the idea that the fortunate get more fortunate (@Trump).

      Like

    • Hey Barbara,

      I agree with your argument. Lem, as any person would during the time this novel was written, was easily swayed into conquering the American Dream or acquiring wealth as much as “John D. Rockefeller”. In A Cool Million, West launches this whole story to ridicule those who are easily tricked by the corrupt system. The notion behind the American Dream was portrayed through the journey Lem and Betty took, West is letting the reader know this is a classic case where people move from a small town to a big city or from other countries to America because “America is the land of opportunity “(74). West reminds us this notion is not easily achievable with all the troubles the protagonist Lem had to go through. West slowly dismantles the American Dream by prompting the reader even the dignity of a former American president relies on simple luck, there is no such a thing as inherent power. Social mobility is extremely hard because travel is not safe: pick pocketing, imprisonment, and enslavement are some of the things people lack to consider as they venture on these expiations. Throughout the novel, Lem trusts the insight of his elders, but they fail him over and over, which is interesting because the lack of consciousness and awareness the greed and cruelty these people explicit on Lem makes this story. Lem tend to loose his money and parts of his body throughout the novel, but he doesn’t seem to lose his hope for obtaining a fortune. Maybe this is a message that people are so convinced they failed to see what’s going on.

      Like

  14. A Cool Million is one of the more hysterically darker texts that we have read so far. Each of the characters so far have fallen harder than perhaps they would like to admit and many of them seem so immersed in their own individual mindsets they fail to see the bigger picture of their misfortunes. Our original victim of circumstance Lemuel Pitkin has lost ( twice right out of the gate) the opportunity to earn back his house i.e. the diamond ring and the original 30 dollars loaned to him from the banker. On top of that he lost his teeth, a clean record and the ability to save his female companion from sex slavery. I will give his character the credit that he wised up after he was robbed blind and now has fake teeth but it seems now he has lost his mother and is now miles from home with no hope of being anywhere near his goal of getting his house back(I am unclear as to how they moved the entire house into the museum; was it taken apart and put back together?). Just off of his character alone, one can tell that there are no monsters in this novel created from scraps of body parts or graveyards but the monster here could be identified as ” Innocent Ignorance”. This is not just for the young Mr. Pitkin but for Ms. Prail as well, who makes no attempt to escape from her captors and takes Mr.Wu Fong’s food and overly generous supplies with no questions asked( I was not expecting this text to be so stereotypically racist,sexist,ignorant etc. to the point where it is hilariously sad). Our characters, at least the ones we have met so far, are either breathtakingly gullible and hopeful until they learn the hard way what life really is or so hardcore manipulative and vindictive they could con the teeth from the tooth fairy. There is no middle ground until after they hit the rough patch but its almost as if they are living a dream life until then. The narrator seems to be from a more realistic time period which is a comfort because he/she knows how to move the story along after uncomfortable points. There also seems there is more than just a power struggle between characters but also a power struggle between the narrator and the reader. While reading the text I had to force myself not to jump ahead to find out what happens to our main characters and stay with the narrator who clearly has the insight to get me where I wanted to be as a reader and even gives me some as well. Throughout this text I find myself asking, ” Is this a metaphor for how we interact with events and our mindsets as we grow up?”

    Like

  15. Nathanael West’s A Cool Million, targets the United States’ political establishment and financial institutions as a corrupt and a world structured based on dishonest notions. The common belief towards the American dream is falsely painted in poor American minds and West’s novel depicts this issue well through the character Lemuel. Lemuel, a young and ambitious hero, finds himself dismantled as he wonders through New England to make money so that he could save his moms house from foreclosure. Shagpoke Whipple, a former president, encourages Lemuel to partake on pursuing the American dream when he said, “America is the land of opportunity. She takes care of the honest and industrious and never fails them as long as they are both” (74) Whipple goes on further to make Lemuel more hungry for the quest, “Do as I did, when I was your age. Go out into the world and win your way” (78). This is a disastrous advice, once Lemuel Pitkin ventures, he goes through a serious of misfortunes. Every time he does a good deed, it back fires and cases him to lose a certain part of his body or all of his fortune. Many Americans believe in the American dream that all they need is a good work ethic to achieve success, but this story shows this dream is a misconception because in Lemuel’s world people are racists, sexists, liars and cheats, rapist and murderers and policemen use violence as their answer to preserve their authority.

    Like

    • It is interesting that Shagpoke would suggest to Lem that he should pursue whatever he wants to do since he lives in the land of opportunity but then everything Lem seems to due ends up hurting him in the long run demonstrating that he lives in a corrupt world. I don’t feel that it is too far fetched that politics in the United States is corrupt. If you look at this years presidential election, both candidates have a long history of being corrupt and is a pretty good reflection of what is read about in A Cool Million.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s