Nathanael West (October 17, 1903–December 22, 1940) may well have been the quintessential Depression-decade novelist. He published all four of his depressive short novels in the 1930s and then died, quickly and tragically. He was born Nathan Wallenstein Weinstein in New York City. A voracious reader, he was a surprisingly poor student and dropped out of high school. Using faked transcripts, he gained admission to two colleges, and, after some chicanery, managed to graduate from Brown University in Rhode Island. While at Brown, West wrote an early draft of his first novel, The Dream Life of Balso Snell. After graduation, he worked at a number of small Manhattan hotels as an assistant or night manager.
Working nights, he was able to spend his time reading and observing the seedier aspects of urban American life. He also spent time rewriting his earlier drafts of The Dream Life of Balso Snell. He told a friend that he considered this novel "a protest against the writing of books." He then follows, he explains, the meanderings of "an American Babbitt.... through the anus of the Trojan horse, and [describes] his encounters there with various forms of deception, pretense, and illusion." In 1931 West had five hundred copies of The Dream Life of Balso Snell privately printed by the avant-garde firm of Contact Editions. The author was listed as Nathanael West, marking Nathan Weinstein's official name change. The novel received only two reviews, both written by friends.
In 1929, the writer S. J. Perelman, who had been a close college friend and was to become his brother-in-law, showed West a group of letters written to the lovelorn columnist of a Brooklyn newspaper. West saw immediately that the letters were cries for help. Deeply moved, he started transmuting his reactions to the letters into fiction. He worked on this second novel for four years, completing the final draft of Miss Lonelyhearts only in November 1932. In it, a young newspaperman, known only by his byline, Miss Lonelyhearts, devises replies to "Desperate," "Brokenhearted," "Sick-of-it-all," and others of the lovelorn who write to him for advice. Despite a smattering of generally favorable reviews, Miss Lonelyhearts garnered few readers and was quickly remaindered. West spent a few months in Hollywood in 1933, working as a junior writer at Columbia Pictures. About this time he conceived the idea of writing a novel about the dream capital's "subterranean life." He soon returned to New York, bitter and disenchanted with Hollywood. Other favorable reviews to Miss Lonelyhearts continued to appear, and to cash in on these positive reactions to his second novel, West quickly wrote A Cool Million. It was a savage attack on the Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches myth of capitalist America's rugged individualism. But the manuscript was rejected by his previous publisher, Harcourt, Brace. Its editors considered it a disappointing fall from the level of Miss Lonelyhearts. Published instead by Covici-Friede in 1934, A Cool Million was savaged by most of the reviewers and, like its predecessor, was almost immediately remaindered.
West now found himself without viable options for making a living. So, despite his distaste for Hollywood, he returned there to be a scriptwriter at Republic Studios. Hollywood was now his real home, whether or not he wished to recognize it as such. But whereas novelists like F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and Aldous Huxley were working for studios such as MGM and Twentieth Century-Fox, West worked mostly at "Poverty Row" film factories like Republic. Only near the end of his life did he make it even to RKO and Universal. By then West had finally found his niche. In the end he derived more from his schlock Hollywood experiences than did those writers who were better situated. After all, he was researching and writing The Day of the Locust on a daily basis, so he was quite content and amused to grind "out the rather stupefying plots" his Republic, Universal, and RKO bosses demanded. Yet despite his professed negativism and his bitter disappointment over his new novel's poor sales, West continued to work steadily and live comfortably. In 1939 he published The Day of the Locust, which he had finished between studio assignments. In this novel West's Yale man observer-hero, Tod Hackett, finds himself involved with an array of the movie town's castoffs. West hoped the novel would prove successful enough for him to leave Hollywood. It was not; in fact, it sold only 1,480 copies. However, the reviews were generally positive, even enthusiastic at times.
The decade of the 1930s had not proved especially kind to West, despite his having published four novels that established his literary reputation. But the 1940s seemed to hold promise of both greater personal happiness and literary success, for in 1939 he had met and fallen in love with a young widow with a sunny disposition and a son from her previous marriage. She was Eileen McKenney, the heroine of Ruth McKenney's My Sister Eileen, widely popular as a book and a movie. They married in April 1940, and West adopted her son. The newlyweds spent three happy months in Oregon hunting and fishing, but this blissful period was to be short-lived. On December 22, he and his wife were returning from a hunting trip in Mexico, when West, a notoriously poor driver, ran a stop sign near El Centro, California, and crashed their station wagon into another automobile. Eileen died on the spot, and West died an hour later on the way to the hospital. He was 37. Very likely West would find dark humor in his posthumous fame.
See Also: LITERATURE.
Comerchero, Victor. Nathanael West: The Ironic Prophet. 1964.
Hyman, Stanley Edgar. Nathanael West. 1962.
Light, James F. Nathanael West: An Interpretive Study. 1961.
Madden, David, ed. Nathanael West: The Cheaters and theCheated. 1973.
Martin, Jay. Nathanael West: The Art of His Life. 1970.
Reid, Randall. The Fiction of Nathanael West: No Redeemer,No Promised Land. 1967.
Siegel, Ben, ed. Critical Essays on Nathanael West. 1994.
West, Nathanael. The Complete Works of Nathanael West. 1957.
The work of the American novelist Nathanael West (1903-1940) is strikingly original. It is characterized by its use of Mythic themes in contemporary settings, terrifying symbolism, profound pessimism, and grisly humor.
Nathanael West was born Nathan Weinstein in New York City of affluent Russian-Jewish immigrants. After graduating from Brown University in 1924 with a bachelor of philosophy degree, he held a number of nonwriting jobs. In 1927 he became manager of the Kenmore Hotel in New York City and in 1928 of the Sutton Hotel; he frequently gave rooms rent-free to indigent friends. West's acquaintance with poverty grew more directly personal in 1929, when his family suffered complete financial ruin.
The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931), West's first novel, was written at college and is generally regarded as the weakest of his four novels. It is based on a Quest motif, but settles into a misanthropic, scatological attack on Christianity and Judaism.
West's next novel should have marked an upturn in his writing fortunes, but he was the victim of freakishly bad luck. His masterpiece, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933), was enthusiastically reviewed, but the publisher went bankrupt, the printer refused to deliver most of the edition, and the book sold fewer than 800 copies. (It has sold over 300, 000 copies since West's death.) A variation on the Scapegoat theme, Miss Lonelyhearts explores attitudes toward the problem of suffering. Its hero, who is never named but is identified by his role as a newspaper columnist, is an idealist; he refuses to accept the other newsmen's cynical view of his lonely hearts newspaper column as a joke. Moved by his correspondents' grotesque but genuine pleas for help, he becomes caught up in their lives and is ultimately killed by one of them. A contemporary projection of a Christ figure, the novel is a masterpiece of economy. Critic Stanley Edgar Hyman called it "one of the three finest American novels of our century."
Ironically, although Miss Lonelyhearts sold badly, it led West to a job in Hollywood as adviser on the film adaptation. The movie, an artistic disaster, reduced his morally centered theme to a simple murder melodrama. (A remake 25 years later was somewhat better.)
West's third novel, A Cool Million (1934), utilizing the myth of the Holy Fool, is a bitterly satiric treatment of American politics. Lemuel Pitkin, who is in the Candide—Horatio Alger mold, sets forth with naive good will, only to be consistently victimized, often violently.
West spent his last five years in Hollywood as a scenarist. His final novel, The Day of the Locust (1939), is based on the Mythic Dance of Death. A group of characters on the fringe of Hollywood are used as a quintessential symbol of American violence and emptiness. Especially jarring is its final scene, a grotesque, surrealistic treatment of a film premiere which deteriorates into mob frenzy. The book received favorable reviews but sold fewer than 1500 copies. (It, too, has sold over 300, 000 copies since West's death.) On Dec. 22, 1940, West and his wife, Eileen McKenney, were killed in an automobile accident near El Centro, Calif., just a few days before the opening of My Sister Eileen, the hit play immortalizing Mrs. West, written by her older sister, Ruth McKenney.
Since publication of The Complete Works of Nathanael West (1957), critical treatments have proliferated. Probably the best study of his life and work is Stanley Edgar Hyman, Nathanael West (1962). Other good accounts are the critical biography by Victor Comerchero, Nathanael West: The Ironic Prophet (1964), and the more comprehensive biography by Jay Martin, Nathanael West: The Art of His Life (1970). A recent useful critical study is Randall Reid, The Fiction of Nathanael West: No Redeemer, No Promised Land (1968). □
WEST, NATHANAEL (pseudonym of Nathan Wallenstein Weinstein ; 1903–1940), U.S. novelist. Widely regarded as one of the most distinguished American novelists of the 1930s, West was the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants who had settled in New York City, and a brother-in-law of the writer S.J. *Perelman. He began his first novel during his student days at Brown University. Later published as The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931), this was a surrealistic fantasy dwelling on human corruption. It shows the influence of western European symbolists such as James Joyce and other modern experimental writers, particularly those of France. For six years, beginning in 1927, he was a hotel manager in New York. During that time he worked at developing a prose style marked by economy of diction, poetic richness, and psychological depth, and published his second novel, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933). Though it was his masterpiece, it was not a popular success. It depicted a once-cynical newspaper columnist dispensing compassion, love, and help to victims of personal or social failure. A Cool Million (1934) satirized American fascists veiling themselves in democratic values, myths, and history. From 1935 he worked in Hollywood, remaining there as a scriptwriter until his death in an automobile accident. His fourth novel, The Day of the Locust (1938), was a grim satire of American life set in Hollywood. West's achievement rested primarily upon his ability to portray the sordidness, violence, humor, and tragedy of American life. Self-rejection was epitomized in his change of name from Nathan Weinstein and was perhaps the cause of his virtually antisemitic ridicule of Jews and Jewishness in his novels. West was active in movements against Nazism, economic exploitation, and abridgment of democratic rights.
V. Comerchero, Nathanael West: The Ironic Prophet (1964); J.F. Light, Nathanael West (1961); S.E. Hyman, Nathanael West (1962), University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers, no. 21; J. Martin, Nathanael West: The Art of His Life (1970); J. Herbst, in: Kenyon Review, 23 (1961), 611–30; R.H. Smith, in: Saturday Review, 40 (1957), 13–14.