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Nathanael West: A Cool Million

The novel was subtitled The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin and that it was it is about. Pitkin is a sort of Horatio Alger, rags to riches character. The book opens with a lawyer, Mr. Slemp, visiting the humble home of Mrs. Pitkin, to tell her that the owner is foreclosing. Her son, Lemuel, visits Mr. Nathan Whipple, former President of the United States, who lives in the village but he cannot help, leaving Lemuel to go and make his fortune, to pay the mortgage. But it doesn’t work for Lemuel, as he is robbed, arrested, scalped, has his teeth pulled out, an eye removed, a leg amputated and is finally killed. Just to make matters worse, the woman he falls in love with, Betty Prail, is raped and sold to prostitution. After Pitkin dies, Whipple becomes head of the Fascist party and makes Pitkin a martyr of his cause. Just to rub the point home, Lemuel joins up with a travelling show called the Chamber of American Horrors, Animate and Inanimate Hideosities, which features a segment called The Pageant of America or A Curse on Columbus, consisting of a series of short sketches in which Quakers are shown being branded, Indians brutalised and cheated, negroes sold, children sweated to death. The novel is an anti-American dream story and West lays it on, so that we will have no doubt about his intentions. It may be a bit excessive but it certainly makes its point.

Publishing history

First published 1934 by Covici Friede