As the Civil War was ending, a Massachusetts author by the name of Horatio Alger was making a name for himself with a series of books about young boys who by the will of their efforts and work ethic were able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps into the middle class. Ragged Dick, the most popular of these tales, tells the story of a vagabond boy who finds himself transformed by a series of fortunate events into the respectable Richard Hunter, Esq. The fact that his name is Dick Hunter aside, the story entrenched the idea in the American psyche that it was the Protestant ethics of hard work and prudence that thrust him upward in society, not chance or privilege. It has become so ingrained in American lore that hard work leads to middle class respectability that we call it the American Dream. But as the Depression followed the rapid rise of industry that led to so much prosperity for some, Nathanael West decided that it was high time to tell a different side of the American Dream in his biting satire A Cool Million, a work that is as important now, if not more, in taking down the Horatio Alger myth.
The two authors differ on the very outset of their novels. Alger’s characters are often set out on their way to respectability via a choice to become so – the titular character Ragged Dick decides to leave his vagabond ways and is, by sheer luck, able to make that so. In Nathanael West’s world, our hero Lemuel Pitkin must leave his Vermont home to save his mother’s house from foreclosure. His first stop has him approach the local banker and former United States President, Shagpoke Whipple, for a loan of fifteen hundred dollars. Refusing this loan on the basis of his age, Shagpoke agrees to lend him thirty-five dollars on the collateral of the family cow and offers this advice: “Do as I did, when I was your age. Go out into the world and win your way.” With this disastrous advice, Lemuel Pitkin finds himself robbed, set up for a crime he didn’t commit, and has all of his teeth removed by a crazed warden on the belief that “an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure.” All before Lem even made it out of New England.
West turns banal platitudes like those that cost Lem his teeth on their face throughout the novel, and by the end of the novel, he loses an eye helping a stranger, a portion of his leg and his scalp attempting to save poor orphan Betty Prail from her not-first rape, and a thumb trying to escape the limousine of an agent of the Third International. Not everyone loses as many body parts in pursuit of middle class happiness as does Lem, but West emphasizes the plight of those who have found blind chance working against them. The American Dream can just as easily turn into a nightmare with one stroke of bad luck: according to the Federal Reserve, nearly half of Americans couldn’t come up with $400, a third of the money that Lem needed in 1934 dollars (nearly $27,000 after inflation).
Along Lem’s journey, he doesn’t meet rich uncles or friendly benefactors to gently float him into middle class respectability; the people he meets are of a different sort completely. In West’s world, people are racists, sexists, liars and cheats, rapists and murderers, policemen who threaten violence if their authority is threatened; if they aren’t, then they are surely the victims of them. Nobody is a winner here with the exception of Shagpoke Whipple. When he, a businessman of some influence, finds himself in prison, he gets out. One business fails and he just plans another. When that fails, he plans his ascent by once again running for office. He stokes anti-immigration sentiment in the people, kowtows to Southern racists, and calls for a literal takeover of the United States by the grunts of his National Revolutionary Party, called the Leather Shirts. And he succeeds, demanding dictatorship.
Though West’s Great Depression-era novel seems so distant, how many of these details feel utterly familiar? Nathanael West tapped into the heart of everything wrong with the persistent belief in the American Dream. While unemployment might be down, many are in what social anthropologist David Graeber decries as Bullshit Jobs. How often have you gone to work and felt like clowns are beating you over the head with rolled up newspaper like Lem does in the final pages of A Cool Million? How many Americans have dealt with some sort of investment scam, pyramid scheme, or foreclosure because some banker thought they could make a quick buck? It’s hard not to draw the comparison between Donald Trump and Shagpoke Whipple with all of his anti-immigrant rhetoric. This is precisely why satire like A Cool Million is so important: if more people read this book, maybe the real-life version of Shagpoke Whipple wouldn’t be the Republican nominee for president. Or maybe he tapped into something inescapably true about the American people that’s too sad to think about for long.
George Carlin, one of the most important voices of the last fifty years, delivered one of the greatest takedowns of the Horatio Alger myth: “Do you know why they call it the American Dream? They call it that because you have to be asleep to believe it.” Over eighty years later, many Americans still dream that all they need is a good work ethic to achieve what Alger would call middle class respectability. They believe it, yet American women still don’t earn equal pay, and study after study shows that hiring managers won’t give out jobs to people with foreign sounding names. They send their kids off to colleges with skyrocketing tuitions that are nearly impossible to pay back without landing the kind of job you need connections to get. Nathanael West’s A Cool Million is necessary because it’s easy to laugh at Lem losing his teeth or a thumb, to laugh at how he gets ripped off and swindled, and how Shagpoke strings him along by a false sense of Nationalism. But it’s also not easy to laugh reading A Cool Million because between debt and poverty struggles, the racists and the rapists, an economy taking too long to recover with only Bullshit Jobs for people to live on, and a dumpster fire running for president, you get to thinking how sad it is that it’s still relevant today. Like all satire, that West will leave you nervously laughing instead of crying is a testament to his wit. It is that laughter that makes it all the easier to awake from the American Dream.