Nathanael West - book author
Born Nathanael von Wallenstein Weinstein to prosperous Jewish parents, from the first West set about creating his own legend, and anglicising his name was part of that process. At Brown University in Rhode Island, he befriended writer and humourist S. J. Perelman (who later married his sister), and started writing and drawing cartoons. As his cousin Nathan Wallenstein also attended Brown, West took to borrowing his work and presenting it as his own. He almost didn't graduate at all, on account of failing a crucial course in modern drama. West indulged in a little dramatics of his own and, in tearful contrition, convinced a gullible professor to upgrade his marks.
After spending a couple of years in Paris, where he wrote his first novel, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, he returned to New York, where he managed (badly by all accounts) a small hotel, the Sutton, owned by his family. As well as providing free board for struggling friends like Dashiell Hammett, the job also gave West ample opportunity to observe the strange collection of misfits and drifters who congregated in the hotel's drugstore. Some of these would appear in West's novel Miss Lonelyhearts.
West spent the rest of his days in Hollywood, writing B-movie screenplays for small studios and immersing himself in the unglamorous underworld of Tinseltown, with its dope dealers, extras, gangsters, whores and has-beens. All would end up in West's final masterpiece, The Day of the Locust.
West's life ultimately ended as tragically as his fictions. Recently married, and with better-paid script work coming in, West was happy and successful. Then, returning from a trip to Mexico with his wife Eileen, he crashed his car after ignoring a stop sign and killed them both. This was just one day after the death of his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Nathanael West is the author of books: The Day of the Locust, Miss Lonelyhearts / The Day of the Locust, Miss Lonelyhearts, Miss Lonelyhearts and A Cool Million, A Cool Million, A Cool Million and The Dream Life of Balso Snell: Two Novels, Novels and Other Writings : The Dream Life of Balso Snell / Miss Lonelyhearts / A Cool Million / The Day of the Locust / Letters, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, The Day of the Locust and The Dream Life of Balso Snell, The Collected Works of Nathanael West
Miss Lonelyhearts was a newspaper reporter, so named because he had been assigned to write the agony column, to answer the letters from Desperate, Sick-of-It-All, Disillusioned. A joke at first; but then he was caught up, terrifyingly, in a vision of suffering, and he sought a way out, turning first here, then there—Art, Sex, Religion. Shrike, the cynical editor, the friend and enemy, compulsively destroyed each of his friend’s gestures toward idealism. Together, in the city’s dim underworld, Shrike and Miss Lonelyhearts turn round and round in a loathsome dance, unresolvable, hating until death…
The Day of the Locust
To Hollywood comes Tod Hackett, hoping for a career in scene designing, but he finds the way hard and falls in with others—extras, technicians, old vaudeville hands—who are also in difficulty. Around him he sees the great mass of inland Americans who have retired to California in expectation of health and ease. But boredom consumes them, their own emptiness maddens them; they search out any abnormality in their lust for excitement—drugs, perversion, crime. In the end only blood will serve; unreasoned, undirected violence. The day of the locust is at hand…
When West died in a California highway accident in 1940 at the age of thirty-seven, his originality and brilliance were little known outside an intensely admiring circle of fellow writers: William Carlos Williams, Edmund Wilson, S. J. Perelman, and others. Not until West’s four novels were reissued in the late 1950s was he acknowledged as one of the most gifted writers of his generation. His masterpieces Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust, with their blending of manic farce and despairing compassion, and their vision of an America awash in its own mass-produced fantasies, read like a prophecy of much that was to come in American literature and life.
Each of West’s novels is distinct in style and theme. In the Dada-inspired The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931), he freely mixes high-flown literary and religious allusions with erotic and scatological humor. Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) presents, in a series of grotesque, starkly etched episodes, the spiritual breakdown of a newspaper columnist overwhelmed by his readers’ suffering. By contrast, A Cool Million (1934) reduces the eternal optimism of Horatio Alger’s novels to a brutal, cartoonish farce. In his last work, The Day of the Locust (1939), West renders with hallucinatory precision the reverse side of the Hollywood dream, as he choreographs a cast of failures, has-beens, and deluded glamour-seekers in what becomes an apocalyptic dance of death.
Also included is a generous sampling of West’s other surviving work, ranging from freewheeling improvisations and grotesque comic tales to more mainstream work written with Hollywood or Broadway in mind, and including his anti-war satire Good Hunting and his adaptation of Francis Ile’s famous crime novel Before the Fact. The uncollected West shows him as a writer who embodied the contradictions and crazy-quilt exuberance of American culture—and raises the question of how he might have developed had his career not been cut short. Selected correspondence with William Carlos Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Malcolm Cowley, Bennett Cerf, and others rounds out the volume and sets West’s literary life in fuller context.