Remembering Nathanael West and George S. Schuyler’s Anti-Establishment Masterpieces
A number of works by American novelists such as Gass, Bellow, Pynchon, DeLillo, Morrison, and others after World War II can be loosely classified as satirical, but only if the broadest definition of the term is applied. Using only the strict definition of satire, very little written since the start of the Cold War qualifies as such. Among the reasons for satire’s current decline is our national discomfort with the writer’s superior moral stance, which is an indispensable component of the satirist’s arsenal. We prefer confession rooted in memoir, not satire flowing from fantasy. Satire’s typically misanthropic, pessimistic, cynical attitude doesn’t sit well with our avowed democratic, optimistic, humanist worldview. Yet to the extent that writers today overlook the unique possibilities of moral critique offered by satire, they encourage pessimism and cheerlessness among their readers, quite the contrary of their presumed objective. In the midst of the Great Depression, Nathanael West took on the myth of the American Dream, and George S. Schuyler addressed its perversions in America’s racial cauldron, both producing front-rank works that offer greater insight into the deficiencies of the American foundational dogma than any number of better-known works, of their period and ours, lacking the satirical punch. It is a sign of our times that West’s sharpest satire is now all but a forgotten work, and Schuyler, always a controversial figure among the Harlem Renaissance establishment, now barely merits a footnote in literary histories.
In the fifties and sixties, particularly at Yale, there was a revival of criticism associated with satire, from such brilliant critics as Maynard Mack, Robert C. Elliott, Northrop Frye, Alvin P. Kernan, Sheldon Sacks, Ronald Paulson, and Patricia Meyer Spacks. Kernan has defined the elements of satire to include the following: “The scene is always crowded, disorderly, grotesque; the satirist, in those satires where he appears, is always indignant, dedicated to truth, pessimistic, and caught in a series of unpleasant contradictions incumbent on practicing his trade; the plot always takes the pattern of purpose followed by passion, but fails to develop beyond this point” (273). Or as Gilbert Highet summarizes satire: “it is topical; it claims to be realistic (although it is usually exaggerated or distorted); it is shocking; it is informal; and (although often in a grotesque or painful manner) it is funny” (5). A Cool Million has been described as Candide superimposed on Horatio Alger’s standard story pattern, and its grotesque disorderliness fits Kernan’s definition well; unlike the cunning picaresque hero, who generally lands squarely on his feet after a series of difficult adventures, West’s hero is repeatedly humbled by circumstances beyond his control. Similarly, Black No More: Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free, A.D. 1933-1940, follows its hero from New York to the Deep South, painting a grotesque picture of both black and white political leaders and followers, which rings all the more true for its distortion. Speaking of the nature of the satirist, Kernan defines him as being a “Jekyll and Hyde,” having “both a public and a private personality” (260). The satirist’s public pose is of “a blunt, honest man with no nonsense about him,” someone who “calls attention to his simple style and his preference for plain terms which express plain truth” (260). In the curious disjuncture between West’s actual biography and his presentation of it (much as Horatio Alger’s own split), we see the satirist’s true nature taking over, and the same is true of Schuyler’s lifelong animus against black and white political double-speakers, evident in both his journalism for The Messengerand The Pittsburgh Courier, and also for Mencken’s The American Mercury, and above all his autobiography Black and Conservative. Ronald Paulson argues that “What we remember from a satire is neither character nor plot per se, but a fantastic image, or a series of them” (340). In A Cool Million, the hero Lemuel Pitkin’s physical dismemberment, one body part at a time, is that series of images, and in Black No More, it is the transformation of blacks into whites by a medical process discovered by Dr. Junius Crookman.
David Worcester, who even before the Yale scholars jump-started criticism of satire in his The Art of Satire (1940), offers necessary clarification, classifying as he does invective, burlesque, and irony, and also distinguishing between high and low burlesque: “Parody and mock-heroic belong to the family of high burlesque. Both use the grand manner for trifling themes, but parody adopts the manner of a specific work, while mock-heroic [Pope’s The Rape of the Lockbeing the greatest example] copies a whole class of writing” (47-48). The parody of A Cool Million, with entire passages adhering closely to Horatio Alger’s novels, employs what Worcester has called the hero of the “ingénu satire,” a “simple soul” set adrift in the violence of civilization (102-106). Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Johnson’s Rasselas, and Voltaire’s Candide are the models. The heroes of more recent ingénu satires are “gray, subdued observers in a world of startling events and startling people. Mild and passive, they are carried along by life’s current—sucked into whirlpoools, dizzied in rapids, dropped in backwaters. Things happen to them; in so unequal a contest what is the use of making an effort? Through their wondering eyes we have a kaleidoscopic vision of a violent, chaotic, and purposeless civilization” (106). Despite the sharper use of invective in Black No More, Schuyler’s hero is also a man of “simple good-nature” (103), as Worcester would have it. But whereas West’s hero is passive to the point of ultimate martyrdom, Schuyler’s hero is always the agent of his own destiny. The difference in attitudes is due to West’s and Schuyler’s utterly polarized attitudes toward the possibilities of the American Dream (in Schuyler’s view compromised not in its original nature, but by racial perversions; in West’s view, rotten at the foundation), yet both maintain the kind of ironic detachment which in Worcester’s paradigm allows them to “take an objective point of view toward subjects that are surrounded with sentiments in the minds of ordinary mortals” and to judge from “a point so infinitely remote from human affairs that every ‘law’ of sentiment, faith, and morality…[loses] its absolute sanction and…[appears] as a strictly human makeshift” (128). Today, such violent detachment on the part of a satirist wouldn’t be tolerated, as the presumption is that knowledge is already widely diffused, not the precinct of a chosen elite. As Worcester explains it, gentle skepticism, not violent collision of norms, is the ideal now.
To understand satire’s contemporary decline better, W. H. Auden has argued that it “flourishes in a homogenous society with a common conception of the moral law, for satirist and audience must agree as to how normal people can be expected to behave, and in times of relative stability and contentment, for satire cannot deal with serious evil and suffering” (204). If one looks at the great ages of satire, Horace and Juvenal’s imperial Rome, and Pope and Swift’s Augustan England, one might agree with Auden that satire flourished when great political instability had given way to relative moral agreement among different segments of society. Just after the onset of the Great Depression, it was still possible, at least in America, to mock the depravities of capitalism, since it seemed a target conducive to alteration (from both extreme left and extreme right, as well as from the middle), and Hitler was still mostly a clownish figure in distant Europe worthy of a laugh; once the full scale of German atrocities was revealed to the general public at the end of the war, and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japanese civilians ushered in a new era of total evil, the satirist had a much harder time adopting a posture of moral superiority, since all were implicated. Orwell, himself rooted in the leftist ideals of the early Auden era, was the last great satirist of the twentieth century, summing up the bleak future ahead in his last two immortal books. Auden goes on to say, “In an age like our own it [satire] cannot flourish except in private circles as an expression of private feuds; in public life, the serious evils are so importunate that satire seems trivial and the only suitable kind of attack prophetic denunciation” (204). If one argues that conditions for both working-class Americans (the focus of West’s satire) and for black Americans (Schuyler’s satire) significantly improved during the political consensus of the fifties, to accord with Auden’s explanation one would have to assert that much of this improvement in the public sphere happened with the simultaneous erosion of a distanced private stance toward capitalism as a moral philosophy. West and Schuyler were successful satirists because their vision was complete, from top to bottom a contemptuous dismissal of hypocrisy and cant, unwilling to make compromises for immediate gains; there was nothing of the mild academic soul about them.
It was only in Black No More that Schuyler found perfect concordance between means and ends; other works of his are all flawed to some extent or other. Slaves Today: A Story of Liberia was the result of an assignment by publisher George Palmer Putnam of The New York Evening Post to Liberia, where Schuyler exposed the black slave traffic and top-to-bottom corruption in that vaunted state of the African American imagination. There is only minimal fictional creation in evidence in this account, Schuyler appearing to be overwhelmed by the need to present a convincing realism to his readers. Less satisfying is Black Empire (published in installments under a pseudonym), which mines a common Schuyler preoccupation of the time with the revenge fantasy: black people in America and in Africa unite to overthrow global white power under the auspices of enlightened scientists. It is Schuyler’s coolness to the Harlem Renaissance (or more specifically, the romanticization of the movement’s alleged unique aesthetic possibilities by its white patrons) that is the fount of Black No More’s relentless satire. Carl van Vechten, in Nigger Heaven, had articulated a primitivist reading of the Harlem Renaissance, an interpretation that many among the leading lights of the movement were willing to satisfy. As talented as Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and Rudolph Fisher were, they weren’t hesitant at times to indulge the white critical world’s stereotype of black Americans as instinctually in touch with a simpler way of life, the antidote to the excesses of twenties capitalism. Writers like Jessie Redmon Fauset, who wrote about ordinary middle-class black families, were dismissed for being too banal. The varieties of posturing with respect to white patronage were satirized by Wallace Thurman (a good friend of Schuyler’s) in Infants of the Spring, where writers of the Harlem Renaissance come in for good-natured ribbing; but critical opinion of the time almost universally held Black No Moreas the satiric novel of the Harlem Renaissance, far superior in execution to Thurman’s effort.
Schuyler, while getting his journalistic start with A. Philip Randolph’s socialist journal The Messenger, never bought into the idea of a separate black nature (or homeland, either in Africa, as the Garveyites would have it, or within America, as the Black Muslims, much to Schuyler’s chagrin, would advocate later), arguing in “The Negro-Art Hokum,” published after much hesitation by The Nation, that “the Aframerican is merely a lampblacked Anglo-Saxon,” who is “subject to the same economic and social forces that mold the actions and thoughts of the white Americans,” and that “when he responds to the same political, social, moral, and economic stimuli in precisely the same manner as his white neighbor, it is sheer nonsense to talk about ‘racial differences’ as between the American black man and the American white man.” African American art ought to be judged by the same standards as the rest, since it is written under the same stimuli with the same resources and means as those available to white Americans.
Schuyler’s noted essay was part of a famous dust-up with Langston Hughes, who responded a week later in The Nation with “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” presenting the other side of the argument as to whether the black artist is under compulsion to produce an art peculiar to his condition. For Schuyler, not only in the aesthetic realm, but more significantly in politics, the definition of the African American as a separate being deserving special consideration ironically has the effect of demeaning and neutralizing him. This is the essence of the (black) conservative position: that human nature is corruptible in equal degrees, regardless of race (and class), and ought to be treated with similar skepticism across the board, since utopian social engineering leads to perverse results. Schuyler’s writerly persona is consistently of the commonsense-wielding scourge, unafraid to attack his fellow African American intellectuals whenever they fall short of his own publicly declared Olympian standards of honesty. While making it clear in his autobiography that, despite coming from a middle-class Northeastern family without a background in slavery, he does understand the reality of pervasive racism in America (his consistent realism on this score, from beginning to end of his career, is what sets him apart from some of the strident neoconservative black voices of today), he is unforgiving toward black politicians making things worse by inculcating false hopes and dreams among their constituency.
As late as 1972, in an interview with Ishmael Reed (reproduced in Shrovetide in Old New Orleans), the writer some consider Schuyler’s inheritor, Schuyler is unrepentant about having exposed the intellectual underbelly of the Harlem Renaissance in his glory years: “Some of these people they put in the Harlem Renaissance didn’t even live in Harlem” (205). The debate about African American separation or assimilation recurs perennially; when the sixties Black Power movement (which Schuyler dismisses out of hand in his autobiography, and in his interview with Reed) came around, Schuyler was even more an iconoclastic voice from within the race than he was in the thirties. Jeffrey B. Leak’s recent collection of Schuyler’s essays and Oscar R. Williams’s recent biography both repeat previous critics’ assessment of Schuyler as having been more mainstream in his views until some rupturing point (either the late twenties, the late thirties, the early fifties, or the early sixties, depending on the critic’s perspective), after which he can be safely dismissed as a crank; but if one keeps Schuyler’s satirical nature in mind, it seems that he has been more consistent in his outlook than critics are willing to accept.
Schuyler’s association with the John Birch Society and other conservative outlets that would let him have a voice (he was fired by the Courier in 1966), seems to get in the way of critics seeing his consistencies in outlook, which invariably have to do with exposure of hypocrisy and cant; there is much in common between early essays like “The Negro and Nordic Civilization” (1925), “Uncle Sam’s Black Step-Child” (a 1933 essay outlining the Liberian morass), “The Caucasian Problem” (1944), and later essays like “Do Negroes Want to Be White?” (1956), “The Rising Tide of Black Racism” (1967), and “The Future of the American Negro” (1967). Commentators seem distracted by Schuyler’s obsession with what he perceives as the domestic communist conspiracy, but this is almost a sidenote going back as early as his denouncement of communist involvement in the 1931 Scottsboro case. Schuyler’s no-holds-barred satire, which never spares his own race’s hypocrisies, makes critics today as nervous as it did decades ago.
A great deal of Harlem Renaissance fiction had to do with intraracial racism, with degrees of prejudice associated with various shades of black and yellow; the phenomenon of passing was a recurrent theme. Schuyler, in Juvenalian or Swiftian satirical fashion, seems to have moved to a transcendent position beyond these gradations of opinion, taking on the corruption of human nature itself. The uplifters of the black community are always speculating on moves to make America color-blind, desiring the races to merge as though they were one. Should this happen, would that be the end of the race problem? Would hatred of other people because of who they are then cease? Schuyler’s satirical breakthrough is to posit the realization of the extreme utopian vision, and then show that the old problems would merely assume new guise, that demagogues would not then confront a short supply of willing followers. The effect of Black No More’s satire, contrasted to many a well-meaning essay on behalf of improved race relations, or many a touching memoir or novel from the racially enlightened, is to inculcate greater sympathy for both races, white and black, as factors transcending minor adjustments in communal harmony are brought into sharp relief. True, Schuyler ruthlessly skewers the leading political figures of the era (in terms that are just as applicable to their successors today), above all W. E. B. Dubois and Marcus Garvey, but the curious effect is to let us view them with greater sympathy for their human foibles, than when their types are depicted as three-dimensional figures in the realist novel of liberal ambition.
The plot of Black No More hinges on African American scientist Dr. Junius Crookman’s discovery of a simple medical process to turn black skin into white. Max Disher, our hero, who at the beginning of the novel has a difficult time getting a date with a beautiful white girl at a Harlem club, becomes the first person to enthusiastically undergo the procedure. He immediately heads down South, in pursuit of the girl who has rejected him. Max, now Matthew Fisher, finds this girl when he offers his services as a New York-trained “anthropologist” to the failing Reverend Henry Givens, the Imperial Grand Wizard of the Knights of Nordica, a white supremacist church (resembling the Ku Klux Klan) in Atlanta. Helen, the girl Matthew has been pursuing, happens to be Reverend Givens’s daughter. As millions of African Americans take advantage of Dr. Crookman’s cheap operation to become white at clinics all over the country, businesses catering to blacks (such as Madame Sisseretta Blandish’s hair-straightening salon) start collapsing and black political leaders find their organizations becoming defunct due to lack of funds and supporters. Appointed the Grand Exalted Giraw, Matthew is a more effective proselytizer for the Knights of Nordica than Reverend Givens ever was, soon turning the organization into a force at the national level. Matthew’s most effective strategy to mobilize poor whites is to turn their anger against Black-No-More, Inc. When there are labor troubles in the South, the Knights of Nordica descend on the factories to expose the labor organizers as former blacks; the white workers always put aside their economic claims as soon as the racial element is injected. When two white supremacists plan to run against the Republican president (Harold Goosie, modeled on Herbert Hoover), Matthew turns these aristocrats into serious contenders. The black political leaders, Dr. Shakespeare Agamemnon Beard of the National Social Equality League (W. E. B. Dubois of the NAACP), Dr. Napoleon Wellington Jackson, also of the NSEL (James Weldon Johnson), Santop Licorice of the Back-to-Africa Society (Marcus Garvey of the Universal Negro Improvement Association), and others at various times help Matthew carry out his devious plots to make the Knights of Nordica the leading racial powerbroker in the country. Unfortunately, just before the election, a statistician, Dr. Samuel Buggerie, hired by Matthew’s presidential candidate Arthur Snobbcraft to expose the mixed blood of leading political figures, finds out that Snobbcraft himself (not to mention Henry Givens) has African blood. Afraid of the white mob in pursuit of them, Snobbcraft and Buggerie escape in a plane, which is forced to land in a Mississippi rural backwater; here, Reverend Alex McPhule of the True Faith Christ Lovers’ Church has been warning his followers of an impending sign in the sky from God. Snobbcraft and Buggerie are duly lynched for being the runaways whose pictures are all over the papers. Matthew himself has to abdicate the Knights of Nordica, and the United States, because his wife gives birth to a black baby (Black-No-More’s efficacy doesn’t translate into the next generation), and although she still accepts Matthew, he knows his followers might have a different opinion about his former blackness. They are happy enough to leave the country. In a final twist, Dr. Crookman finds out that blacks who have turned white are several shades lighter than the original whites; the real whites claim discrimination on the basis of color, and a trend starts for people to darken their skins, using various treatments. Madame Blandish’s beauty salon is back in business, and can there be any doubt that Dr. Shakespeare Agamemnon Beard and Santop Licorice will soon be as well?
What, more precisely, are Schuyler’s targets of satire, and what are his means? Schuyler uses, to borrow from Addison’s explanation (in Spectator No. 249), burlesque of the second kind: “Burlesque is…of two kinds: the first represents mean persons in the accoutrements of heroes, the other describes great persons acting and speaking like the basest among the people. Don Quixote is an instance of the first, and Lucian’s gods of the second.” Certainly, Dubois and Garvey were heroes at least to their black constituencies, while the same was true of Southern white supremacists being followed by poor white workers. All these public figures are revealed to be rank opportunists, with only venality running in their blood. Hypocrisy is the prevalent attitude, as leaders are quick to switch sides, if they can preserve their power. Race relations mean nothing in and of themselves; their management is only a means to authority over others. Black leaders have a fondness for white women (or at least for light-skinned black women), and they often despise poor American blacks, and blacks in Africa, despite their rhetoric. By exaggerating the hypocrisy of thinly disguised politicians, Schuyler in effect achieves a leveling phenomenon: removed from the aura of sanctity surrounding revered figures, we are forced to question anew the very principles of leadership and followership. One might consider this part of the inoculating spirit the conservative writer wishes to inject in the reading public against demagogic manipulation. After all, there was a real chance, in the early thirties, that America might well follow Europe down the fascist path. In Black No More, Schuyler is able to gather together the various strands of his imagination to expose the invariant modes of American public discourse, warning against fascism of the spirit prevalent at the most mundane level.
The moral instruction Schuyler offers in Black No More is as valid today as it was in the turbulent thirties. Thomas B. Frank has cogently explained how the white working class is compelled time and again to vote against its real economic interests by being distracted with the culture wars. As xenophobia rages across America in each recent election, Black No More’s satire remains as current as today’s news. Schuyler may have lampooned the actual political leaders of his time, but he reached a very high level of universality. This is because the discourse of American success he parodies is a constant, regardless of shifts in the political winds. On the one hand is the gospel of American exceptionalism, holding, as Matthew admonishes striking workers, that “they were free, white and twenty-one;…that America was their country as well as Rockefeller’s…that they must stand firm in the defense of their rights as working people;…that the worker was worthy of his hire; that nothing should be dearer to them than the maintenance of white supremacy” (124), which exhortation leads to the result that the “erstwhile class conscious workers became terror-stricken by the specter of black blood” (127). As Matthew tells his sidekick Bunny, “These people have been raised on the Negro problem, they’re used to it, they’re trained to react to it. Why should I rack my brain to hunt up something else when I can use a dodge that’s always delivered the goods?” (137) The irony is that the Negro problem remains as resonant as ever, despite there being no more black people in America—this being the ultimate wedge issue, in modern parlance.
The rhetoric of American exceptionalism is sweeping enough to paper over the rising immiseration of divided workers. The local Baptist preacher exploits the Gospel to preach the capitalist philosophy: “Be thankful for the little things…This is America and not Russia. Patrick Henry said ‘Give me liberty or give me death’ and the true, red-blooded, 100 per cent American citizen says the same thing today. But there are right ways and wrong ways to get liberty. Your employers have gone about it the right way…So you must be patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day” (129-130). Reverend Henry Givens addresses his radio audience of millions discussing “the foundations of the Republic, anthropology, psychology, miscegenation, cooperation with Christ, getting right with god, curbing Bolshevism, the bane of birth control, the menace of the Modernists, science versus religion, and many other subjects of which he was totally ignorant” (149). The President concludes his acceptance speech with the exhortation “that we shall continue in the path of rugged individualism, free from the influence of sinister interests, upholding the finest ideals of honesty, independence and integrity, so that, to quote Abraham Lincoln, ‘This nation of the people, for the people, and by the people shall not perish from the earth.’” (165) Dr. Crookman’s operation, because it donates generously, is financially profitable for the President’s administration, so calls to suppress Black-No-More, Inc. are ineffective. Schuyler’s satire serves to clarify the utterly mythic status of the race problem, which is an approach any number of nuanced, realistic, character-driven novels cannot attempt, since they presume as accepted reality much of what they morally reject. Schuyler’s depictions of black leaders driven to frenzy when they face bankruptcy after blacks become whites might also be over the top, but this is precisely what ought to prompt the reader to look beyond the politicians’ solution of the moment, then or now. In the violent collision between the myth of American exceptionalism and the reality of the Great Depression, Schuyler struck it rich with his satirical goldmine. It is interesting to note that Dubois was large-hearted enough, despite coming in for some of the harshest lampooning in the novel, to recommended Black No More as a significant work of fiction, while recognizing that it would be “abundantly misunderstood” because “the writer of satire…is always misunderstood by the simple” (Peplow, 81).
The outlines of the American Dream, in the version prevalent since the Gilded Age, are nowhere clearer than in the writings of Horatio Alger—or more accurately, in our collective imagination of the fiction of Horatio Alger. It is not incidental that Alger, who never was the bestselling author of household fame that revisionist history later imagined him, enjoyed his greatest revival precisely in the twenties, when rapid industrialization was again shredding stable social norms and identities as in the Gilded Age, and in the thirties, when a gospel of individualist success was desperately needed to shore up the wobbly foundations of American capitalism. The continuing resonance of the Horatio Alger myth is the target of West’s satire in A Cool Million, where West is even more unforgiving than in the better-known The Day of the Locust and Miss Lonelyhearts. In A Cool Million, West parodies the Alger myth as it was being reimagined during the Great Depression, to make similar points as Schuyler did about the way in which ideology is expertly manipulated by politicians and the wealthy to keep the poor from rebelling. As the depression raged on, West, like Schuyler, was offering a counternarrative against the platitudes of the American creed, and pointing to something very dark and cynical about American capitalism that only the sharpened tool of satire could have revealed. The components of the American myth have recently been defined by Richard T. Hughes as Chosenness, Nature’s Nation, Christian Nation, and Millennial Nation, which came together in the nineteenth century in the form of Manifest Destiny (contradicting laissez-faire capitalism), and to this mix was added the myth of the Innocent Nation in the twentieth century. In each case, West identifies the opposites of these myths as determining the actual shape of the nation.
Little is known of Alger’s life—yet this hasn’t stopped biographers from spinning tales of Alger-like rise from rags to riches for their subject. In the twenties, Herbert R. Mayes fabricated an entire biography from a few scraps of information, he and his publisher keeping the inauthenticity of the biography a secret. For decades afterwards—one might say, even until today, when the real Alger seems impossible to extricate from the multiple fantasies that have been spun about him—the Alger of literary historians was a man severely oppressed by a tyrannical father who forced him to give up the love of his life, a man tormented by homosexual repression who was kicked out of his parish for abusing boys and who then spent his middle and old age imagining tales of poor young boys on city streets being rescued by benevolent patrons, a man who nonetheless rose to the very heights of literary fame and prestige, making the most of limited talent. The reality is considerably more prosaic. Alger was the son of a shabby genteel priest prone to making bad financial decisions, had to leave a childhood home under threat of foreclosure, managed to fit in well at Harvard, and after being made to quit his ministerial profession due to allegations of sexual abuse (this much seems to be true), wrote moderately successful books following a common narrative pattern, with only a handful of books achieving widespread renown during his own lifetime. He came nowhere near the universal popularity later myth endowed him with. His heroes, in novels like Ragged Dick, Mark the Match Boy, Fame and Fortune, and Rough and Ready, are typically young orphans who scrounge a living on the streets, until through sheer dint of persistence, and more than a bit of fortune, they come under the influence of a wealthy patron, who offers the young urchin a chance to make good. When the boy comes through, he is usually rewarded with a secure job—ten dollars a week as a counting clerk, as in Ragged Dick, and often a gold watch, a powerful symbol for Alger of respectability—not the millions in fortune contemporary myth ascribes to Alger heroes. Neither is the preceding poverty and brutalization as severe as one unacquainted with Alger novels might presume, nor is the later success as extreme. The case has been made again and again that Alger, while pretty firmly in the Tory camp, was deeply skeptical of the immoderate effects of Gilded Age industrialism on morals and virtues, and more than a little suspicious of the Robber Barons of the era. Great fortunes were never of appeal to him, in his fiction and in his philosophy, as Carol Nackenoff has convincingly demonstrated; but it is the myth of the man and his fiction that is West’s target, not his reality. Mayes’s hold seems inescapable: John Tebbel, in the sixties, replicated Mayes’s myth in large part, while Gary Scharnhorst, setting out with the explicit aim of sifting fact from fiction, comes up with a biography so spare we are more inclined to believe Mayes’s thrilling account anyway.
West’s own biography illustrates the ability of an enterprising American—at least until the middle years of the twentieth century, before bureaucratization limited such possibilities—to reinvent himself at will. His best biographer, Jay Martin, has explained that he was born Nathaniel Weinstein, and was always at odds with his middle-class Jewish family, who were at a loss to understand his literary inclinations; he would explain his later change of name as motivated, in one version, by Horace Greeley’s advice, “Go West, young man!” He fabricated a high school transcript to gain admission to Tufts University, where he was a miserable academic failure. At Tufts, it so happened that another student named Nathan Weinstein died, and West was able to use his credentials to gain admission to Brown, with enough credits not to have to take courses where he encountered trouble. West shone among Brown’s literary elite, already beginning to compose his surrealistic novel, The Dream Life of Balso Snell (much appreciated by critics in later years), and trying to emulate S. J. Perelman (later his brother-in-law, and successful New Yorker humorist). He did meet with considerable success when he published Miss Lonelyhearts at a young age, although A Cool Million, dashed off in a few weeks, encountered more resistance, as it does to this day from critics unable to accept its bleak vision of America. These same critics are usually unreservedly enthusiastic about The Day of the Locust, which ends in an apocalyptic scene, because the satire here is couched in a realistic enough narrative to implicate the reader in American collective crimes to a lesser extent. Always keen to reimagine himself as an American Adam, West moved to a rural Pennsylvania retreat, although (like Alger’s father, and like the hero of A Cool Million) he was compelled to leave it for financial reasons. He found financial security in Hollywood during the depression, as did many other literary writers. It was on his return from a hunting trip in Mexico that he died in a car crash in California’s Imperial Valley—overcome by grief about the death of F. Scott Fitzgerald, it is said—before the age of forty, newly married to Eileen McKenney, his promise still before him. If Alger was haunted by his homosexual urges, as he does seem to have been, then West was always at odds with his fellow literati, with his uncompromisingly pessimistic vision of America’s past, present, and future. He was the bleakest among the American writers of his generation; and his fantastic satire strikes us today with more meaning than do the works of the great liberal, realistic writers of his time. West seems desperately to want to counter the Alger myth, despite having himself attained some share of it, and we appreciate the gigantic distance he manages to attain between his own success story (such as it was) and the countless husks of depression-era failure littering the landscape around him.
Lemuel Pitkin, the hero of A Cool Million, is evicted from the rural idyll of Ottsville, Vermont, when a greedy lawyer, Mr. Slemp, forecloses on his mother’s home, and the local celebrity, former U.S. President Nathan “Shagpoke” Whipple advises our hero to seek his fortune in the wider world, having taken Lemuel’s mother’s only cow as security for the thirty dollars he lends him. Leaving Shagpoke’s home, Lemuel unsuccessfully tries to save an abused orphan, Betty Prail, from a rapist, and is only beaten up in the process, and left for dead. Able to get on the train to New York, Lemuel is quickly relieved of his money by a shyster, Wellington Mape, but finds himself charged with theft for the very crime committed against him, and ends up sentenced to serve in a New York prison. Here, his teeth are extracted, as protection against “infection,” despite Lemuel’s protests that he is perfectly healthy. Shagpoke Whipple has also been put in prison, where he lectures Lemuel thus:
America is still a young country…and like all young countries, it is rough and unsettled. Here a man is a millionaire one day and a pauper the next, but no one thinks the worse of him. The wheel will turn, for that is the nature of wheels. Don’t believe the fools who tell you that the poor man hasn’t got a chance to get rich any more because the country is full of chain stores. Office boys still marry their employers’ daughters. Shipping clerks are still becoming presidents of railroads. Why, only the other day, I read where an elevator operator won a hundred thousand dollars in a sweepstake and was made a partner in a brokerage house. Despite the Communists and their vile propaganda against individualism, this is still the golden land of opportunity. Oil wells are still found in people’s back yards. There are still gold mines hidden away in our mountain fastnesses. (174)
When the real thief on the train is caught and Lemuel’s pardon at last comes through, he is released by the prison warden, Mr. Purdy, with these words:
Suppose you had obtained a job in New York City that paid fifteen dollars a week. You were here with us in all twenty weeks, so you lost the use of three hundred dollars. However, you paid no board while you were here, which was a saving for you of about seven dollars a week or one hundred and forty dollars. This leaves you the loser by one hundred and sixty dollars. But it would have cost you at least two hundred dollars to have all your teeth extracted, so you’re really ahead of the game forty dollars. Also, the set of false teeth I gave you cost twenty dollars new and is worth at least fifteen dollars in its present condition. This makes your profit about fifty-five dollars. Not at all a bad sum for a lad of your age to save in twenty weeks. (175)
This is only the first of the gross injustices rendered against his body—his literal dismemberment as he attempts to find a source of livelihood, even as the pietistic discourse of the American creed escalates in inverse ratio to his physical disintegration. In the typical Alger story, the hero happens to save someone in distress, and is rewarded by a patron for his sacrifice. When Lemuel tries to save a girl from the pathway of a horse carriage—conveying Asa Goldstein, the man whose showroom on Fifth Avenue displays Lemuel’s mother’s home, carted off in toto after foreclosure—he is instead falsely comforted by a young man named Sylvanus Snodgrasse (he will reappear throughout the tale as Lemuel’s nemesis), who steals his thirty dollars, while his compatriots relieve the assembled crowd, to which Snodgrasse sings exaggeratedly of Lemuel’s heroism, of their belongings. In the ensuing scuffle, Lemuel loses his right eye, and has to get a glass replacement. Meanwhile, Shagpoke Whipple has started the National Revolutionary Party, whose members wear coonskin hats and brown leather shirts, and whose philosophy is to get jobs for all Americans, fighting the Bolshevik and Jewish conspiracies against the American man who only wants to work. Lemuel is hired by one Elmer Hainey to unwittingly play a key role in a repeated scam, by showing up at an expensive store and pretending to lose his rare, European-made glass eye, then offering a large reward; the next day one of the players in the scheme shows up at the store and claims to have found the eye on the floor, and insists on delivering it to the rightful owner, upon which the storeowner, seeing the substantial (nonexistent) reward disappear before his eyes, offers to share a part of it with the discoverer of the eye. Walking around lower Manhattan one day, Lemuel has a glass bottle containing a rescue message thrown at him by none other than Betty Prail, who has been forced to serve as a prostitute in Wu Fong’s white slavery establishment, which began as “The House of All Nations.” About Wu Fong’s enterprising nature, we are told: “Wu Fong was a very shrewd man and a student of fashions. He saw that the trend was in the direction of home industry and home talent, and when the Hearst papers began their ‘Buy American’ campaign he decided to get rid of all the foreigners in his employ and turn his establishment into an hundred percentum American place” (202). The aforementioned Asa Goldstein has been hired by Wu Fong to redecorate the house into these series of interiors for the comfort of his patrons: “Pennsylvania Dutch, Old South, Log Cabin Pioneer, Victorian New York, Western Cattle Days, California Monterey, Indian, and Modern Girl” (202). Betty represents New England. One of Wu Fong’s goons discovers Betty’s transgression, and Lemuel is captured to serve as a male prostitute for an Indian prince, the Maharajah of Kanurani. Lemuel makes his escape, however, when the prince is repelled by his glass eye and false teeth.
Lemuel is able to depart New York for the broader expanses of America, when he is asked by Shagpoke, along with Betty and the Indian Chief Jake Raven, to join him on a gold-digging expedition to the West. En route, in Chicago, Lemuel is captured by his pursuer Snodgrasse, now posing as an agent of the Third International, and after a car smashup is relieved by doctors of his mangled left thumb. Lemuel manages to rejoin Shagpoke’s group, who find themselves at last in the high Sierra Nevadas. Here, a rough-speaking Missourian from Pike County seeks their company, helping himself to food, and when Shagpoke goes into town to replenish supplies, raping Betty. Anticipating a rescue attempt by Lemuel, the Missourian has set a bear trap, which mangles Lemuel’s leg. Jake Raven, although bloodied by the Missourian, crawls his way to the nearby Indian reservation, and sets off Chief Israel Satinpenny toward the site of the bloody camp. Satinpenny “had been to Harvard and hated the white man with undying venom” (231). His chance to rouse the soft Indian people has finally come:
In our father’s memory this was a fair, sweet land, where a man could hear his heart beat without wondering if what he heard wasn’t an alarm clock…. Need I speak of springs that had never known the tyranny of iron pipes?… wild ducks that had never been branded by the U.S. Department of Conservation?
In return for the loss of these things, we accepted the white man’s civilization, syphilis and the radio, tuberculosis, and the cinema. We accepted his civilization because he himself believed in it. But now that he has begun to doubt, why should we continue to accept? His final gift to us is doubt, a soul-corroding doubt….
In what way is the white man wiser than the red? We lived here from time immemorial and everything was sweet and fresh. The paleface came and in his wisdom filled the sky with smoke and the rivers with refuse….
When the paleface controlled the things he manufactured, we red men could only wonder at and praise his ability to hide his vomit. But now all the secret places of the earth are full. Now even the Grand Canyon will no longer hold razor blades….
He has loused the continent up good. But is he trying to de-louse it? No, all his efforts go to keep on lousing up the joint….
Don’t mistake me, Indians. I’m no Rousseauistic philosopher. I know that you can’t put the clock back. But there is one thing you can do. You can stop that clock. You can smash that clock….
The day of vengeance is here. The star of the paleface is sinking and he knows it. Spengler has said so; Valèry has said so…. (232-233)
Satinpenny and his men rush to Shagpoke’s camp, and end up mistaking Lemuel for the perpetrator and scalping him. After a long period of recovery, Shagpoke comes up with the idea of taking Lemuel on the road as an exhibit, “the last man to have been scalped by the Indians and the sole survivor of the Yuba River massacre” (235). Business lagging, they merge forces with our old friend Snodgrasse’s (he of the pickpocket, Operative 6384XM, and Comrade Z now) “Chamber of American Horrors,” containing “Animate and Inanimate Hideosities,” and “also Chief Jake Raven,” who is selling “certain medicaments secret to the squaws of his tribe” (236-237), which had healed his wounds inflicted by the man from Pike County. Snodgrasse’s show includes a pageant highlighting a vulnerable grandmother deprived of her savings by a sleazy bond salesman, and left to die on the streets. Shagpoke objects to this agitprop, arguing that “Capital and Labor must be taught to work together for the general good of the country….Both must be made to realize that the only struggle worthy of Americans is the idealistic one of their country against its enemies, England, Japan, Russia, Rome and Jerusalem….Class war is civil war, and will destroy us” (242-243). Shagpoke bides his time to expose Snodgrasse, but when he does so in a Southern town, Snodgrasse is forewarned, and the angry mob ends up lynching Jake Raven.
Back in New York, Lemuel finds employment as part of “Fifteen Minutes of Furious Fun with Belly Laffs Galore,” in which the team of Riley and Robbins put on a sketch where Lemuel gets his eye, teeth, toupee, and leg knocked out, to the infinite amusement of the crowd. During a show in Chicago, Lemuel is approached by Storm Trooper Zachary Coates representing Shagpoke’s National Revolutionary Party, which has now spread throughout the country, New York being one of the rare holdouts. Lemuel is supposed to stir the crowd by giving a speech, but he gets no further than saying “I am a clown…but there are times when even clowns must grow serious. This is such a time. I…” (253) when he is gunned down. In later years, Lemuel Pitkin does indeed become the celebrated martyr of the revolutionary cause Coates had predicted, as Pitkin’s Birthday is a national holiday, and on “every boy’s head is a coonskin hat complete with jaunty tail, and on every shoulder rests a squirrel rifle” (253), the symbols of the National Revolutionary Party, as he sings the Lemuel Pitkin Song. We witness Shagpoke, escorted by Betty, address the assembled hundred thousand on Fifth Avenue about Lemuel’s importance:
Jail is his first reward. Poverty his second. Violence is his third. Death is his last.
Of what is it that he speaks? Of the right of every American boy to go into the world and there receive fair play and a chance to make his fortune by industry and probity without being laughed at or conspired against by sophisticated aliens…
Alas, Lemuel Pitkin himself did not have this chance, but instead was dismantled by the enemy. His teeth were pulled out. His eye was gouged from his head. His thumb was removed. His scalp was torn away. His leg was cut off. And, finally, he was shot through the heart.
But he did not live or die in vain. Through his martyrdom the National Revolutionary Party triumphed, and by that triumph this country was delivered from sophistication, Marxism and International Capitalism. Through the National Revolution its people were purged of alien diseases and America became again American. (254-255)
From this summary of A Cool Million, it will be obvious that like Schuyler, West does not have to look far to expose the hypocritical platitudes that constitute the American Dream. Reverend Henry Givens of the Knights of Nordica in Black No More articulates similar exhortations to sacrifice and duty (all the more effective because these injunctions have invariably worked in America) as does Shagpoke Whipple; they draw on the same reservoir of national mythology. It is as near as the daily newspaper and the closest assemblage of drinking men. If anything, the regime of punitive bodily aggression is more operative now than it was in the thirties. The true criminal, like Wu Fong, is as protected as ever (today, the white-collar criminal, rather than the mafiosi, garner the protection), while small-time violators, driven to desperation, choke the criminal justice system. Demagogues rise and fall and rise again on the unfailing appeal of race and class division, even as the appeals are invariably couched against division per se. The group targeted for hatred might change from time to time (blacks once, then Jews or Communists, now immigrants), and the vocabulary undergo periodic modernization, but the source of the rage—the small man’s impotence at being harassed by a world that seems to be accelerating too fast for him—remains perennially the same.
Lemuel’s dismemberment itself becomes the ultimate paean to the workability of the American individualist system, contrasted to the forever demonized collective systems that presumably do not offer similar opportunities for martyrdom. Lemuel never seriously questions the substance of the American Dream, and is instantly buoyed by the next opportunity that comes along. This is similar to Max Disher’s fundamental acceptance of the American creed; the difference is that Max seems to live out the American Dream to the hilt, unlike the misfortunes that befall Lemuel. But at root, these are both prototypical American ideal types, not feeling discomfort at their marginal roles in the evolving national saga. The city slicker Disher and the country bumpkin Lemuel derive sustenance from the same myth. The open disingenuousness of some basic American character types—Lawyer Slemp, Wellington Mape, Mr. Purdy, Asa Goldstein, Elmer Hainey, and Wu Fong—is what distinguishes our system from more tortuous regimes of exploitation, where populations are more cynical and methods more hidden. Just as Schuyler has little truck with the demagoguery of black (and white) political leaders, West exposes political propaganda of all stripes, from mainstream self-help discourse to homegrown fascism, from left-wing revolutionary talk to native ecological primitivism. The underlying structure for Schuyler is science fiction fantasy, and for West the Alger plot, but the resemblance of both to the various utopian stripes in American foundational discourse is strikingly amenable to satire. Both techno-utopia and self-improvement loomed large as possibilities for national salvation during the depression, just as they do again in the resource-challenged early twenty-first century.
West and Schuyler’s satire reminds us not to get too carried away by our presumption of historical uniqueness; for the acute satirist there is nothing new under the sun. Success, when it comes, is fatally tainted by the pervasive manipulation of human beings by structures of ideology; the vast new reach of communications and bureaucracy made the early twentieth century a milestone in the corruption of ideas of success, like another similar historical turning point in the Western world, the early eighteenth century. David Worcester explains the power of satire thus: “Detachment is the quality that lets a writer wield the grotesque with satiric force. Like a visitor from another planet, he can take an objective point of view toward subjects that are surrounded with sentiments in the minds of ordinary mortals. He can probe the open sores of society with the same unholy joy that a doctor feels over an unusually ‘interesting’ case. Where common souls react to a situation with moral feeling, he sees only aesthetic values. Thus he can deal lovingly with loathsome hags or unpleasant functions of the human body” (69). It is a mistake to ascribe satiric force to today’s generally mild-mannered participation of the writer in society’s foibles; the typical attitude is to take the demotic impulse (what we call identification with empathetic characters) to such an extreme that the peculiar power of satire’s moral judgment bleeds away. True satire seems difficult to write today because nonjudgmentalism has been elevated to the point where mediocrity and excellence have blurred into indistinguishability; it all depends, we are told, on one’s perspective, where one stands, and besides, if there is unmitigated mediocrity and grotesquerie, surely it can be explained away by the subject’s unfortunate circumstance of origin. Schuyler and West, in contrast, take the most fluid dynamic possible, a society in which Americans of different classes move back and forth, up and down, to settle on probabilistic ending points; it is as though they are uncapping the lid on the American Dream to ask, What would happen if our most feverish fantasies (Schuyler) and worst nightmares (West) came true? Today’s fiction generally deals with the most immobile characters (made dysfunctional from grief and pain) known to American literary history, and in such conditions satire is a near impossibility.
Along these lines, Worcester also tells us that “irony is the shoe-horn of new ideas,” and that “satire has always been a powerful agent in the secularization of thought, for it directs men’s attention to their own conduct and teaches them that their faults lie in themselves, not in their stars” (128). Irony has become today merely another item in the self-justifying pathetic character’s agenda of isolation. We are at a stage of desecularization, or mystification, of the foundations of Western culture, writers like Schuyler and West coming at the early stages of this process, when it was still possible for the moralist to maintain, in Highet’s terms, “satirical scorn for the small, and the mean, and the prejudiced, and the conventional” (210). Operating somewhere between fantasy and reality—and this seems the most forbidden sphere for the fiction writer these days, since the intermingling is excluded by the rules of the game—satirists like Schuyler and West are able to shock us into questioning what we take for truth. Highet explains that “the great satirists are those who have been best able to convey a disgusting or ghastly message, and make it palatable by making it ridiculous” (22). A comprehensive discursus is needed to understand the transformation in the quality of American humor in the generations since the interwar years: it apparently operates at a much lower gradient on the dream-fantasy scale now, and is mired somewhere in the slump of naturalist reality, constraining the shockingness of the humor that results. Again in Highet’s terms, we have stabilized the distinctions between history and biography too firmly, to the detriment of satirical production. The misanthropic satirist—both Schuyler and West qualify as such, with Schuyler being closer to the comedian, and West to the tragedian—is sustained by the kind of contempt for humanity that the false optimism of our postwar culture doesn’t permit in polite academic and literary circles. In this sense, both Schuyler and West may be said to have anticipated the end of their respective lines of attack within their satires. Our degree of tolerance for the kinds of racial demagogues Schuyler caricatures has since risen by orders of magnitude, to the point that much of this nonsense has been instituted as part of vulgarized multicultural curriculum in higher education, where mostly the white elites consume it with appropriate feelings of shame and guilt. Similarly, the postmodern economy—West’s Chamber of American Horrors, the very spectacle of the body’s soulless disintegration, commodified for the immeasurably gullible audience’s entertainment—feeds off the various categories of physical, mental, and spiritual humiliation, to make degraded art forms of them in advertising and media. Satire demands the writer, as Matthew Hodgart has pointed out, to adopt a rigid stance, which might be all but impossible in imaginative literature in the face of an overwhelmingly complex society: for Hodgart, the satirist “is committed to militant action, while the modern world increasingly asks for peace, negotiation and the often tedious examination of problems” (167). The difficulty, Hodgart explains, is exacerbated in the face of the increasing deritualization of the world, the greater official informality depriving the satirist of many of his old targets.
Highet remarks that the “optimist writes in order to heal, the pessimist in order to punish,” the first “being a physician, the other an executioner” (237). Only the healing tendency is officially permitted today, and this too at a level barely classifiable as literature. Schuyler, as is evident from his essays, became increasingly preoccupied by his fears of Communist penetration and was therefore celebrated by conservatives, and West, had his life not been cut short, would probably have become thoroughly disillusioned by the liberal pieties of the fifties; this kind of conservative pessimism is simply not the bread and butter of the morally conscious writer today, as he gives in to the pressure to satisfactorily bridge the gaps between his (unconscious) motives and his (visible) fiction, resulting in reams of memoirs that explain away, to the curious reader’s satisfaction, all that is truly worthwhile about the sources of motivation for great writers. To the degree that Cold War era bureaucracy rose to manage our assorted griefs, idealism of the prewar kind became an anomaly so distinct as to qualify one as eccentric beyond repair. While Schuyler was at many removes from the reigning temperament of the Harlem Renaissance, he could still be accepted by the socialist A. Philip Randolph early in his career. Such eclecticism seems inconceivable in these times of alleged unprecedented pluralism. Today’s literary critic is likely to describe Schuyler and West as incurable cynics, so pessimistic as to be beyond the pale of the ordinary literary production of the time (meaning Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway); in fact, they were among the last of our romantics. Opportunity itself, with or without racial and class barriers, has been bureaucratized and commodified in postmodern culture, including its literary branch; how can the satirist distance himself for the necessary misanthropic blast?
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This essay appeared originally in The Texas Review.