He Foresaw History
When Nathanael West died on Dec. 22, 1940, in an automobile accident in El Centro, it sent barely a ripple through the literary world.
Just 37, the author of four slim novels that between them had sold only a few thousand copies, he’d spent much of the previous seven years as a screenwriter, working on what he once called “grade-C scripts only--dog stories and such things for low pay.” Eighteen months before his death, in a letter to critic Edmund Wilson, West explained his situation:
“My books meet no needs except their own, their circulation is practically private and I’m lucky to be published. . . . The radical press, although I consider myself on their side, doesn’t like it, and thinks it even fascist sometimes, and the literature boys, whom I detest, detest me in turn. . . . The proof of all this is that I’ve never had the same publisher twice. . . . My stuff goes from the presses to the drugstores.”
Even at the end, West’s most significant achievements were overshadowed; although his novel “The Day of the Locust” is now considered a definitive piece of Hollywood fiction, a newspaper caption accompanying a photograph of the crash site identified him simply as a “Hollywood scenarist.” His first name was misspelled.
Fifty-six years later, West remains a figure of mystery, a wraith-like specter haunting the fringes of American literature. Inasmuch as he is remembered, it’s as a literary oddity, a marginal writer of the 1930s whose books alternate between the negligible and the profound. For all the enduring resonance of his masterpieces, “Miss Lonelyhearts” and “The Day of the Locust,” with their bleak, unrelenting portrayals of the tension between private and public imagination, West has become almost invisible, as if his work sprang full form out of its time.
“There’s a history to that,” explains Jay Martin, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and author of “Nathanael West: The Art of His Life” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970), the only full-scale biography of West. “Throughout the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, he was a kind of a cult figure; people were interested in him but little was known.” Adds novelist T. Coraghessan Boyle, who cites West as an influence, “He died young and had a small output, which makes him difficult to pin down.”
Boyle’s point is a good one, for in a product-oriented culture like this, we tend to overlook writers who don’t leave much work behind. With West, that’s been exaggerated by the vagaries of his estate; his wife, Eileen, died with him in the accident, and his brother-in-law and literary executor, S.J. Perelman, took a mercurial attitude toward promoting him.
Now, however, the time has come for a reassessment, for West, finally, to receive his due. The prestigious Library of America has just released a single volume called “Novels & Other Writings,” which features everything he ever published, as well as nearly 400 pages of previously unavailable work. Edited by Sacvan Bercovitch, a professor at Harvard, it is the first West omnibus to include the handful of occasional pieces to appear during his lifetime, as well as a sample of his writing for the screen. There is also a play, “Good Hunting,” co-written with Joseph Schrank, that ran for two performances on Broadway in 1938, and a revealing selection of letters.
Thus, “Novels & Other Writings” emerges as a kind of literary reclamation project, presenting the author’s career in a complex light. “West,” Bercovitch points out, “is a pivotal figure. He represents both the high point of the visionary tradition in American literature and a fantastic critique of it. His work relies on a mix of cynicism and compassion, which you can trace from the beginning.”
In such a context, West’s first novel, “The Dream Life of Balso Snell,” a modernist fable about a poet who gets lost in the intestines of the Trojan Horse, takes on a resonance it might not otherwise have. Says Jonathan Veitch, author of the forthcoming “American Superrealism: Nathanael West and the Politics of Representation in the 1930s,” it is “a breviary from which West takes his motifs: excessiveness, scatological humor, a preoccupation with violence.”
The novel also contains one of West’s most revealing comments on the writer’s life: “The wooden horse, Balso realized as he walked on, was inhabited solely by writers in search of an audience, and he was determined not to be tricked into listening to another story. If one had to be told, he would tell it.”
For West, the very substance of modern life exists in the place where the medium and the audience connect. His aesthetic was firmly rooted in the idea of mass communication, which by the 1930s, he recognized, had begun to change American culture in unpredictable ways. It’s one of the things that sets him apart from his contemporaries, and, as such, may have contributed to his marginal status.
“In the 1930s,” Veitch suggests, “American literature was dominated by icons of the left, like Ma Joad, but West wrote against that; he was a writer on the left who didn’t write about leftist themes. Instead, he wrote about consumerism. He wrote about the America that was emerging, the America of mass culture. At a time when the left had disdain for that, West homed in on it, using cliches, cartoons, comics, Tin Pan Alley songs. ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’ is a slap in the face to the left’s fascination with folk culture, as is ‘The Day of the Locust.’ ”
His take on popular culture emerges not just in the substance of his writing, but in its style. “Miss Lonelyhearts,” for instance, was conceived as a “novel in the form of a comic strip”; “I abandoned this idea,” West wrote in 1933, “but retained some of the comic strip technique: Each chapter, instead of going forward in time, also goes backward, forward, up and down in space like a picture. Violent images are used to illustrate commonplace events.”
Writing in a voice that is deliberately flat, West portrays a newspaper advice columnist, caught between the cynicism of his editor, Shrike, and the despair of his readers, who, in a society where God has been replaced by the manufactured images of mass imagination, have nowhere else to turn for meaning. As Shrike declares, “The Miss Lonelyhearts are the priests of 20th century America.” Miss Lonelyhearts becomes a counterpart for Christ, and his column a modern source of communion.
“The Day of the Locust” focuses the same perspective on the desperate dreams of Hollywood. And “A Cool Million"--a broad farce that, in tracing the disasters that befall a young man named Lemuel Pitkin when he sets out to seek his fortune, turns the Horatio Alger formula on its ear--touches on this issue. What these books have in common is a sense of mass illusion, of image somehow substituted for reality until there is little difference between the two.
“West’s subject,” says Library of America Publisher Max Rudin, “is the selling of mass fantasy, the American business of dreams.”
Elaborates Bercovitch: “There’s a sense in West of public life having a stage set quality, of the marketplace as a giant betrayal not just of America but of all human dreams. Yet while he understands this, he remains susceptible to the pathos of human need.”
West’s ambivalence about popular culture is a quintessentially modern attitude, and one of the reasons his work is still relevant. In his case, though, it seems as much the product of his own internal tensions as anything he witnessed in the world. Born Nathan Weinstein in 1903, he grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and, according to author Hope Hale Davis, who knew him in New York, “he was very discontented with himself. He had a certain self-hatred as a Jew.”
Martin sees West’s psychology somewhat differently. “If he was bitter,” he says flatly, “it was not about his Judaism. He wanted to be a man of American and European culture. He did not identify himself with traditions, but as a new man, a modernist, an experimentalist. He was not interested in religion, so he had very little in common with the Jews of the time.”
His work exhibits the contrasting influences of modernist European culture and what Bercovitch calls his “democratic aesthetic.” Davis recalls that when West and Perelman used to visit her, they would “talk elaborately about French culture and surrealism.” Veitch characterizes West as “one of the few American writers influenced by dada and surrealism, who did not just import it, but recast it in an American vernacular.” West hinted at such an interest in “The Impostor,” a story published now for the first time, whose narrator, a writer, stakes out his own creative territory not by “buying a strange outfit and trying to cultivate some new idiosyncrasies,” but “through the exaggeration of normality” instead.
If West was looking for “the exaggeration of normality,” he couldn’t have picked a better place to find it than Hollywood. His ambivalence toward the machinery of mass culture found a landscape that could encompass it, with the studios cranking out dozens of pictures a month, and the bus stations and bungalow courts filled with dreamers overwhelmed by the stuff of collective fantasy.
“I don’t think he could have picked a more appropriate setting for his vision,” says novelist Carol Muske Dukes, a poet and professor of English at USC. “It’s as if Los Angeles were created for him.”
“The Day of the Locust” begins with a scene evoking both West’s ironic sensibility and Hollywood’s illusion, as an army of German, French, English and Scottish soldiers passes in retreat. Before we can question this conflation of history, West lets us in on the joke: “A little fat man, wearing a cork sun-helmet, polo shirt and knickers darted around the corner of the building . . . ‘Stage Nine--you bastards--Stage Nine!’ ”
Later, West makes his point explicit, describing the studio back lot as “the final dumping ground. He thought of Janvier’s ‘Sargasso Sea.’ Just as that imaginary body of water was a history of civilization in the form of a marine junkyard, the studio lot was one in the form of a dream dump. A Sargasso of the imagination! And the dump grew continually, for there wasn’t a dream afloat somewhere that wouldn’t sooner or later turn up on it, having first been made photographic by plaster, canvas, lath and paint. Many boats sink and never reach the Sargasso, but no dream ever entirely disappears.”
Given the cynicism that runs through the novel, it’s been assumed that West’s career as a screenwriter was a matter of bitter necessity. But “Novels & Other Writings” undermines that notion by connecting West’s Hollywood work to his other writing. And, while the primary purpose of screenwriting was to subsidize his fiction, West seems to have seen it as less of a burden than an opportunity.
As he wrote to critic Wilson, “I am grateful rather than angry at the nice deep mud-lined rut in which I find myself at the moment. The world outside doesn’t make it possible for me to even hope to earn a living writing, while here the pay is large (it isn’t as large as people think, however) enough for me to have at least three or four months off every year.”
Although, as Veitch points out, the 30 or so projects on which he worked were “almost exclusively forgettable,” “Novels & Other Writings” makes clear the attention he paid to the screenwriter’s craft. Among the volume’s most important discoveries is West’s 1939 adaptation, with Boris Ingster, of Frances Iles’ novel “Before the Fact"--later filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as “Suspicion,” from a different script. Elaborately structured, detailed with a novelist’s precision, “Before the Fact” is a beautiful example of screenplay format, and provides a vivid sense of the seriousness with which West approached this kind of work.
“A Cool Million,” also includedin the new volume, is the one novel of his own that West ever sought to adapt. But lest we make too much of his intentions, he apparently suggested using the title because he believed a studio would pay more for a story based on a book.
Despite his cynicism, however, it’s hard not to find a certain Hollywood influence on his later work. “The Day of the Locust,” for instance, is his most naturalistic effort, with characters more fully developed than the archetypal figures of his earlier books, and the “Untitled Outline” for his never-written fifth novel reads almost like a screen treatment, merging elements of “Miss Lonelyhearts"--the setting is a newspaper office and the main character a reporter--with a traditional adventure story of murder and love.
In the end, it’s a fitting irony that West should have been transformed by the very dream industry he spent his life interpreting, for there’s no escape from the influence of mass culture. For this reason, his work, though of its time, is also startlingly prescient about the way we live our lives.
The riot that closes “The Day of the Locust” may arise from the desperation and emptiness of the Depression, but it could be part of our recent history. And his image of “The Burning of Los Angeles” remains a potent mirror of the city’s personality--"almost,” Dukes says, “as if he saw that Los Angeles was going to self combust.”
The newspaper readers of “Miss Lonelyhearts” are nothing if not the Oprah and Jerry Springer viewers of their era, and the satire of “A Cool Million” shows, in the words of Yale literary scholar Harold Bloom, “a deeper understanding of the country’s political ethos than any other American 20th century novel. It is a parable of how American nostalgia leads to militias.”
If anything, Bloom suggests, West may have done his work too well, condemning himself to curiosity status by predicting the history of America so accurately it can no longer be expressed in fictional terms.
“The problem,” he says, “is that West is essentially a satirist, and in the United States, satire is no longer possible. America has turned into a satire of itself.”
Yet even here, West eludes categorization, forcing us to take him on his own terms. As he writes of Euripedes in a 1923 essay for the Brown University literary magazine, “We find ourselves ready to classify him at moments as a satirist and at other moments as a man of feeling. Of course he was both.”