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Nathanael West was a prominent American novelist whose works portray the despair and alienation that many writers and artists have found to be defining characteristics of twentieth-century existence. When he died at the age of thirty-seven, he had produced four books, at least two of which, Miss Lonelynhearts (1933) and The Day of the Locust (1939), are regarded as American classics.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An Unpromising Student, A New Start
The writer who was to become known as Nathanael West was born Nathan Weinstein on October 17, 1903, in New York City to fairly well-to-do Lithuanian-Jewish immigrants. He was an undistinguished student who failed to graduate from high school and was later dismissed from Tufts College because of poor attendance. However, the illegally obtained transcript of an older student with a similar name and better grades enabled West to transfer to Brown University, from which he graduated in 1924. By this time he had already written and drawn illustrations for his college and summer camp magazines and was bent upon becoming a writer.
Soon after he graduated, West set out to persuade his family to send him to Paris to work on a novel. Before applying for a passport he decided to change his name, and in August 1926 he took the name Nathanael West. in October 1926 he sailed for Paris, where he remained for three months, fully on his own for the first time. West’s experience in Paris had a permanent influence on his understanding of the writer’s lifestyle and solidified his preferences in fiction. He began work on his first book, The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931), during this period. This short surrealist novella concerns the adventures of a young skeptic on a dreamlike journey in which he meets and satirizes a number of self-styled artists. West uses the conceit of Snell’s travels to parody the work of Jonathan Swift, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Sigmund Freud, Ernest Hemingway, and many others.
During his brief stay in Paris, West was also influenced by the theories and practice of modern art, especially those of surrealism, the artistic movement that sought to capture the bizarre world of dreams and the subconscious, best remembered today in the work of the painters Salvador Dalf and Rene Magritte. The influence that surrealism had upon West in Paris is attested to by ”The Impostor,” a short story that some critics regard as his best but that was not published in West’s lifetime. ”The Impostor” concerns the doings of expatriate American artists in Paris; in this tale, a painter tells of his meeting with an insane bohemian sculptor named Beano Walsh. In the same spirit as that of The Dream Life of Balso Snell, West brings art, deception, and fantasy into violent confrontation.
Perhaps most important of all for West, Paris remained a symbol of liberation, personally and artistically. For years he told stories—mostly fantasies—about his adventures there, and continued to be influenced by French writing and surrealist art for many years.
In the Hotel Business
After dwindling finances compelled him to return to New York, West worked as manager of Kenmore Hall and later the Sutton Club, two hotels owned by his uncles. West allowed writers who found themselves short of funds to lodge at the Sutton for a nominal rent—or for free—and writers James T. Farrell, Erskine Caldwell, Lillian Hellman, and Dashiell Hammett were among those who availed themselves of West’s generosity.
While working at the Sutton, West finished The Dream Life of Balso Snell. This work was published in a limited edition of five hundred copies and received little critical or popular attention. In 1932 West ventured into magazine publishing, joining poet William Carlos Williams in coediting the journal Contact, of which only three issues appeared. The next year West, with the German artist George Grosz, launched a similarly short-lived publication, Americana.
On the Farm
After the humorist S. J. Perelman married West’s sister Laura, the three of them bought a farm in Pennsylvania, where West wrote his second novel, Miss Lonelyhearts. Although favorably reviewed, Miss Lonely-hearts was one of the last books brought out by Liveright before that publisher declared bankruptcy. As a result, few copies were distributed under the Liveright imprint, and a second printing of the novel sold poorly.
Miss Lonelyhearts is generally considered West’s most artistically accomplished work. It is the story of a male newspaper advice columnist who becomes obsessed with the suffering of his correspondents and his inability to help them. West has said that the inspiration for this novel came from actual letters shown to him by an advice columnist and from the lives of the transients he observed as a hotel manager. The novel deals with the loneliness, alienation, despair, and violence that arose from the Great Depression of the 1930s. In 1929 the stock market had collapsed, the first event in a long series of economic disasters that continued until the end of the 1930s. Through much of West’s adult life, poverty was the normal condition of life. West’s decision to identify his protagonist only as Miss Lonelyhearts also serves to underscore the dehumanizing character of the times by equating the person with his public function.
West found that he required a more regular income than that provided by the sale of his novels and, encouraged by Perelman, who in the early 1930s was a successful Hollywood screenwriter, he began work in the film industry. He was quickly disillusioned by what he had imagined would be a glamorous job; though well paid, he felt he was rudely treated and he resented the fact that his work was subjected to revision without his knowledge.
In his third novel, A Cool Million; or, The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin (1934), West returned to burlesque comedy, but with an underlying concern with the deceptions fostered by the American myth of success. After the indifferent critical reception and meager sales of A Cool Million, West decided to continue screenwriting. Over a period of several years he planned and wrote a novel reflecting his life in Hollywood, The Day of the Locust. This novel emphasizes the frustrations of the modern men whose lives are so empty they can find satisfaction only in monstrous fantasies. The Day of the Locust has often been called the finest novel about Holly-wood to come out of Hollywood, and subsequent books about the film industry are often compared with it. West found in Hollywood a representative sampling of everything he believed was wrong with American culture. Within the microcosm of the film capital, West further narrowed his focus to encompass the lives of those whom critic Edmund Wilson called ”nondescript characters on the edges of the Hollywood studios.” The Day of the Locust differed from other Hollywood novels of the same era, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon (1941),
in that it is not about the rich and famous—the powerful and influential movie stars and studio executives—but about common people whose dreams are manufactured and manipulated by the movies, and who, West believed, harbored a fierce hatred behind their ostensible adoration of movie stars.
Shortly after The Day of the Locust was published, West met and married Eileen McKenney, who had served as the subject of Ruth McKenney’s popular New Yorker magazine sketches that were adapted as the play My Sister Eileen (1940). Eight months after their marriage, both were killed in an automobile accident.
Works in Literary Context
Regarded as a stylistic innovator whose works fit no standard literary classification, West combined elements of both traditional literary naturalism and the new technique of surrealism in the two novels for which he is best remembered, Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust. West is known for a distorted, grotesque kind of humor that has led critics to call his novels the forerunners in modern American literature of black humor. West’s profoundly negative worldview also acutely reflects the era in which he wrote, the Great Depression.
Surrealism is the practice of producing fantastic or incongruous imagery in art or literature by means of unnatural juxtapositions and combinations. A movement in visual art and literature based on these principles flourished in Europe between World Wars I and II. The movement represented a reaction against what its members saw as the destruction wrought by the “rationalism” that had guided European culture and politics in the past and that had culminated in the horrors of World War I. According to the major spokesman of the movement, poet and critic Andre Breton, who published ”The Surrealist Manifesto” in 1924, surrealism was a means of reuniting conscious and unconscious realms of experience so completely that the world of dream and fantasy would be joined to the everyday rational world in ”an absolute reality, a surreality.” West himself identified the influence of surrealism on the novel he planned while living in Paris, The Dream Life of Balso Snell. The title itself suggests that the novel is not conventionally ”realistic,” and the story quickly delivers on this promise. The plot is disjointed. The protagonist encounters the Trojan Horse, enters it through its anus, and wanders through its bowels in a bizarre journey filled with symbolic encounters.
The term black humor describes writing marked by the use of morbid, ironic, or grotesquely comic episodes that ridicule human folly. Although Andre Breton published his Anthology of Black Humor in 1940, the term did not come into common use until the 1960s. It has often been used to describe the work of novelists Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, and Thomas Pynchon; outstanding examples of black humor being Heller’s novel Catch 22 (1961) and Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). West thus comes toward the beginning of the black humor tradition. Because he was fairly obscure for a long time, and only more recently reevaluated, the extent of West’s influence on later writers is not easy to ascertain. Although not generally considered a direct literary influence on subsequent writers, West is noted as one of the progenitors— perhaps the earliest—of black humor in modern American fiction. West’s two masterpieces, Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust, suggest his connection to black humor strongly. Both are characterized by fantastic and bizarre situations, and both deal with the alienation typical of the impoverished era in which West wrote.
Works in Critical Context
Until the renewal of interest in West in the late 1950s, most critics considered him a minor novelist. Many still insist upon such a classification because of the narrow range of his themes and subjects. However, Randall Reid has demonstrated that, within the limits allowed by his bleak and pessimistic vision, West is a ”complex, wide-ranging, and subtle” author. His experimental style also caused his works to be overlooked during his lifetime by critics and readers who favored literary naturalism. West was neither realistic enough to be classified as a naturalist nor concerned enough with character to have found favor with the proponents of naturalism’s successor, the psychological novel. Because his works are innovative and unclassifiable, West has been a difficult author to place within a literary tradition.
Of West’s lesser-known novels, A Cool Million has received the more thorough critical reexamination. It is most often interpreted as a parody of the classic American success story popularized in the late nineteenth-century novels of Horatio Alger. In the typical Alger story, a young man armed only with complete honesty, a total lack ofguile, and an earnest desire to do good, sets out to make his fortune, attaining wealth, love, and happiness through a series of unlikely adventures. In West’s reversal of this ”luck and pluck” formula, his ingenuous hero is unequal to the obstacles he faces and gradually undergoes his ”dismantling”—the loss of an eye, his teeth, a thumb, a leg, his scalp, and eventually his life. A Cool Million is written in a pastiche of Alger’s style; in fact, one critic has shown that dozens of passages from A Cool Million are almost word-for-word re-creations of sections from several of Alger’s works. Indeed, some critics have found this novel’s greatest fault to be the absence of West’s own style.
Beyond the confusion over West’s place in literary history, his skill as an artist stems from his treatment of the basic human condition. Writing in New Criterion on Miss Lonelyhearts, Theodore Dalrymple focuses on this side of West. Dalrymple describes the basic plot of Miss Lonelyhearts, then notes the universal themes of the book. The central character of the novel
receives letters from uneducated people asking for advice on how to cure suffering that he soon realizes is incurable—at least in the absence of a religious faith that human existence, including or especially its suffering, has a transcendent meaning and purpose. Modern man can neither believe in such a meaning and purpose, nor yet dispense with the need for that belief: this is his tragedy and his predicament, and it is a truth revealed to Miss Lonelyhearts by the letters that he receives daily. He tries nonetheless to resolve the contradiction between the impossibility of and the need for belief by involving himself, Christ-like in his own fevered imagination, in the lives of his correspondents, and is shot dead for his efforts (the title of the chapter in which he dies is ”Miss Lonelyhearts Has a Religious Experience”). We live in a world in which no good deed—or compassion and good feeling—goes unpunished.
The Day of the Locust
West’s final novel is the product of a writer who had been working in Hollywood for some time but not enjoying it much. Writing in Literature/Lilm Quarterly, Robin Blyn notes the influence of cinema on the novel:
The Day of the Locust foregrounds the dilemma of the artist as he confronts the emergent culture industry of the 1930s, an industry which, in the form of the Hollywood studio system, is characterized by its capacity to absorb all that enters its domain…. For even as Locust enacts a scathing critique of the Hollywood dream factory, much of its aesthetic remains indebted to the techniques of the Hollywood industry it ostensibly attacks
The novel is filled with dramatic scenes like the scenes from a movie and with what one could call ”special effects.” To what extent was West attacking the language of movies, and to what extent was he exploiting their power to his own ends? Critics still debate this point.
- Barnard, Rita. The Great Depression and the Culture of Abundance: Kenneth Fearing, Nathanael West, and Mass Culture in the 1930s. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
- Siegel, Ben, ed. Critical Essays on Nathanael West. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994.
- Veitch, Jonathan. American Superrealism: Nathanael West and the Politics of Representation in the 1930s. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.
- Edmunds, Susan. ”Modern Taste and the Body Beautiful in Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust.” MLS: Modern Fiction Studies44 (Summer 1998): 306-330.
- Greenberg, Jonathan. ”Nathanael West and the Mystery of Feeling.” MLS: Modern Fiction Studies 52 (Fall 2006) : 588-612.
- Haynes, Doug. ”’Laughing at the Laugh’: Unhappy Consciousness in Nathaniel West’s The Dream Life of Balso Snell.” Modern Language Review 102 (April 2007) : 341-362.
- Meyers, Jeffrey. ”The Battle of Waterloo in West’s The Day of the Locust.” Notes on Contemporary Literature 33 (September 2003): 2-4.
- Nieland, Justus. ”West’s Deadpan: Affect, Slapstick, and Publicity in Miss Lonelyhearts.” Novel: A Lorum on Fiction 38 (Fall 2004): 57-83.
- Rozelle, Lee. ”Ecocritical City: Modernist Reactions to Urban Environments in Miss Lonelyhearts and Paterson.” Twentieth Century Literature 48 (Spring 2002): 100-15.
- Lewis, Kevin. Nathanael West and American Apocalyptic. Retrieved November 12, 2008, from http:// people.cas.sc.edu/lewiske/west.html. Last updated on March 30, 2006.
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