How the moral dilemma in capitalism often takes precedence over its economic downfalls
On reading A Cool Million, or, The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin
by Nathanael West, I found that the text offered a seemingly complete, understandable idea on the topic of the American Dream, but I hated the execution. As I wondered why I did not care for the piece when I read the cruel demise of Lem, I surmised two answers. Firstly, the text's length simply kept beating a dead horse. I did not feel as though the text "took" me anywhere further after the first hundred "our hero's…" On that note, I did not care for the narrator, who presumed an air of all-knowingness, yet feigned feeling or faith as the text talked of amputations, death, and poverty. However, although these literary tactics make for an arduous read, they do help to serve the author's overall intention, so I digress...
Just to establish a foundation, I took the piece as a critique on the American Dream, where Lem acts as an allegorical figure. "Our hero," the dumbfounded idea behind America, gives us at least a sliver of hope until we better see the author's motives. West seems to suggest that Lem, or America, starts as an ever-so-quick to trust youth of whom one soon takes advantage, and as with the way capitalism, once it works for one, a bunch more get in line--as we see in numerous examples, such as the robberies of Lem's possessions on the train car to New York. As Lem grows more damaged, his keenness sharpens, but he always has too much heart for his own good. We see this when Lem finally goes, "'I am a clown…but there are times when even clowns must grow serious. This is a time. I…'" from which point "the fat fellow in the Chesterfield overcoat" shoots him with a bullet, killing him on the spot (93). We then note Mr. Whipple, Lem's mother, and Betty celebrating Lem's birthday as a national holiday for the National Revolutionary Party years later. America dies, and so lives a communist regime headed by the dictator, of all people, one-time, small bank owner Mr. Whipple.
The piece feels like a bad dream the entire time, where each second one either wants to awaken or learn that Lem has died. Seriously, I just wanted Lem to die. His actions could only look foolish in the narration of the speaker and I felt my eyes holding him from a string throughout the piece. Similar to the scene in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me
, I kept thinking of the line "Why won't you die?" America's foolishness kept it on its feet, but it lost its strength in the process.
Touching on Mr. Whipple for a moment, he has a line that resonated with the entire convoluted nature of the text as Lem asks, "'I thought you were against capitalists?'" and he goes, "'Not all…[t]he distinction must be made between bad capitalists and good capitalists, between the parasites and the creators. I am against the parasitical international bankers, but not the creative American capitalists, like Henry Ford for example.'" (85) This, I believe, outlines the American dilemma during the Depression.
As we examine America with a lens of hope, faith, and determination, we see the "Henry Ford" type, but the author hopes that we acknowledge capitalism's mosquito light-like quality, where other bloodsuckers want a portion of the pot. With this noted, how can Shagpoke honestly state a distinction between good and bad in the face of capitalism? In this paradox, we see capitalism as a moral dilemma, not an economic one. We then see Lem's blindly thin quest as a satirical Proletariat narrative that rests on the heartstrings of readers rather than the logistics of the era.