Nathanael West (October 17, 1903 – December 22, 1940) was the pen name of U.S. author, screenwriter, and satirist Nathan Wallenstein Weinstein. West's novels, in particular Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust, were influenced by the Depression. In the wake of the stock market crash in October 1929, West's satirical novels with their garish landscapes were in stark contrast to the drab poverty at the time.
West saw the American dream as having been betrayed, both spiritually and materially, in the years of this economic depression. His novels were a comic means of drawing attention to that betrayal.
Nathanael West was born in New York City, the first child of German-speaking Russian Jewish parents from Lithuania who maintained an upper-middle class household in a Jewish neighborhood on Manhattan's Upper West Side. West displayed little ambition in academics, dropping out of high school and only gaining admission into Tufts University by forging his high school transcript. After being expelled from Tufts, West got into Brown University by appropriating the transcript of a fellow Tufts student who was also named Nathan Weinstein. Although West did little schoolwork at Brown, he read extensively. He ignored the realist fiction of his American contemporaries in favor of French surrealists and British and Irish poets of the 1890s, in particular Oscar Wilde. West was interested in unusual literary style as well as unusual content. He also grew interested in Christianity and mysticism in literature and art. West's classmates at Brown nicknamed him "Pep": it is not known whether this indicated a great deal of physical energy on West's part or (in the sarcastic tradition of many nicknames) the exact opposite. Since Jewish students were not pledged to join a fraternity at the time, his main friend was his future brother-in-law, S.J. Perelman, who was to become one of America's most erudite comic writers.
West barely finished college with a degree. He then went to Paris for three months, changing his name to Nathanael West. West's family, who had supported him thus far, ran into financial difficulties in the late 1920s. West returned home and worked sporadically in construction for his father, eventually finding a job as the night manager of the Kenmore Hotel on East 23rd Street in Manhattan. One of West's real-life experiences at the hotel inspired the incident between Romola Martin and Homer Simpson that would later appear in The Day of the Locust.
Although West had been working on his writing since college, it was not until his quiet night job at the hotel that he found the time to put his novel together. It was at this time that West wrote what would eventually become Miss Lonelyhearts (1933). In 1931, however, two years before he completed Miss Lonelyhearts, West published The Dream Life of Balso Snell, a novel he had conceived of in college. By this time, West was working within a group of writers working in and around New York that included William Carlos Williams and Dashiell Hammett.
In 1933, West bought a farm in eastern Pennsylvania but soon got a job as a contract scriptwriter for Columbia Pictures and moved to Hollywood. He published a third novel, A Cool Million, in 1934. None of West's three works were selling well, however, so he spent the mid-1930s in financial difficulty, sporadically collaborating on screenplays. Many of the films he worked on were "B-movies," such as 1939's Five Came Back. It was at this time that West wrote The Day of the Locust, which would be published in 1939. West took many of the settings and minor characters of his novel directly from his experience living in a hotel on Hollywood Boulevard.
West and his new wife, Eileen McKenney, died in a car accident the day after his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald had died of a heart attack. West had always been an extremely bad driver, and many friends (including Perelman) who otherwise enjoyed his company had always refused to accept rides when West was driving. It is rumored that the car accident that killed West and his wife was caused when the author, grief-stricken over the death of his friend, ran a stop sign. McKenney had been the subject of the book, My Sister Eileen, written in 1938 by her older sister, Ruth McKenney. Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney are buried in Mount Zion Cemetery in Queens, New York City.
Although West was still a relative unknown at the time, his reputation grew after his death, especially with the publication of his collected novels in 1957. Miss Lonelyhearts is widely regarded as West's masterpiece, and The Day of the Locust still stands as one of the best novels written about the early years of Hollywood. It is often compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, written at about the same time and also set in Hollywood. If one were to draw a family tree of authors who employed "black humor" in their works of fiction, West could be seen as the offspring of Nikolai Gogol and Edgar Allen Poe, and the progenitor of Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov and Martin Amis (whose use of movingly inarticulate e-mails in Yellow Dog are a twenty-first-century echo of the letters to Miss Lonelyhearts).
Most of West's fiction is, in one way or another, a response to the Depression that hit America with the stock market crash in October 1929 and continued throughout the 1930s. The obscene, garish landscapes of The Day of the Locust gain added force in light of the fact that the remainder of the country was living in drab poverty at the time. West saw the American dream as having been betrayed, both spiritually and materially, in the years of this economic depression. This idea of the corrupt American dream West pioneered has endured long after his death: Indeed, the poet W.H. Auden coined the term "West's disease" to refer to poverty that exists in both a spiritual and economic sense.
Miss Lonelyhearts, published in 1933, was West's second novel.
In the story, Miss Lonelyhearts is an un-named male newspaper columnist writing an advice column which is viewed by the newspaper as a joke. As Miss Lonelyhearts reads the letters from the desperate writers, he feels terribly burdened and falls into a cycle of deep depression, marked by irrational violence. He also suffers from the pranks and cynical advice of his editor at the newspaper, named "Shrike," which is also a type of predatory bird.
Miss Lonelyhearts tries several approaches as a way out of this depression (including religion, escaping to the countryside, and sex) but only comes out of this more confused. Miss Lonelyhearts has an affair with one of his readers and ends up beating her in a rage. In the last scene, the woman's husband comes to kill Miss Lonelyhearts, and Miss Lonelyhearts, in the grip of a kind of religious mania, fails to understand this. The man shoots Miss Lonelyhearts, and the two men roll down a flight of stairs together.
The general theme of the novel is one of extreme disillusionment with post-depression American society, a consistent theme throughout West's novels. However, the novel is essentially a black comedy and is characterized by an extremely dark but clever sense of humor.
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