Books: The Great Despiser

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American Candide. In A Cool Million, West burlesqued American optimism of the Horatio Alger type. The book tells of Lemuel Pitkin, who was born in a "humble dwelling much the worse for wear . . . owing to the straitened circumstances of the little family." Like Candide. Lemuel lives out the advice of a philosopher. His is the creed of Nathan "Shagpoke" Whipple, president of the Rat River National Bank and former President of the U.S. In the course of behaving well, e.g., rescuing girls with rich fathers from bolting horses, Lemuel goes to jail, loses a leg, all his teeth and an eye, is robbed of his savings, and is finally martyred by an assassin. On Pitkin's Birthday, a national holiday, the vile Whipple addresses a mob of American fascists wearing coonskin caps: "Jail is his first reward. Poverty his second. Violence is his third. Death is his last." Shagpoke's youthful followers roar: "Hail, Lemuel Pitkin! All hail, the American Boy!"

What distinguishes all this from other purposeful literary nightmares that professed to see the ghost of fascism on the American scene during the '30s is that West brought enough invention to one page for most novelists to spread thin over a book, and a style as lean and resourceful as a hungry wildcat. Above all, West was not parochial, did not advocate political or social systems. He was one of those men in whom pity must take the form of anger, but his anger was not anything as simple as anti-American or anti-Babbitt; it was anti-human nature.

Tomtomfoolery. From Horatio Alger, Satirist West moved on to Hollywood, where he had worked as a script writer. Apart from the usual film-colony grotesques, The Day of the Locust parades witless cowboys, actors, emotional cripples, dwarfs and a memorably mindless, chrome-pated sexpot. It ends in madness and violence, like the others—a mob at a Hollywood premiere tramples an artist, who is carried offstage screaming.

West's other work seems like mere tom-tomfoolery compared to the drumfire on the nerves in Miss Lonely hearts.

Its hero is a newspaperman—"Miss Lonelyhearts" is his only name known to the reader—who writes the lovelorn column for the New York Post-Dispatch. He is one of West's quasi-religious figures: "A beard would become him, would accent his Old Testament look." To the millions without emotional refuge, says one character sardonically, "the Miss Lonelyhearts are the priests of twentieth-century America." The mail brings the daily semiliterate confessions of horror. "Dear Miss Lonelyhearts," one letter begins: "I am sixteen years old now and I dont know what to do ... When I was a little girl it was not so bad because I got used to the kids on the block makeing fun of me, but now I would like to have boy friends like the other girls and go out Saturday nites. but no boy will take me because I was born without a nose—although I am a good dancer and have a nice shape and my father buys me pretty clothes."

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