Nathanael West was born Nathan Weinstein in New York City on October 17, 1903, the only son of Russian Jewish immigrants. His father, Max Weinstein, was a prosperous building contractor, and his mother, née Anna Wallenstein, was from a cultivated family. West was devoted to his father and to the younger of his two sisters, Lorraine.
An ungainly boy, West attended public schools in Manhattan, where he showed no academic distinction. According to his sisters’ reports, he spent much of his time reading. He irregularly attended DeWitt Clinton High School, where he was a weak student and left without graduating. His summers were spent in a camp in the Adirondacks, where he liked baseball but proved more talented as arts editor of the camp newspaper, printing his own cartoons satirizing his fellow campers.
In 1921, West entered Tufts University on the strength of an apparently forged high school transcript and flunked out during his first term. The following year he was admitted to Brown University as a transfer student from Tufts, probably on the basis of someone else’s advanced grade record. There West became a serious student and graduated in two and a half years with a bachelor’s degree in English.
At Brown, West revealed a sociable nature. He dressed fashionably, engaged in campus social life despite nonacceptance by Gentiles-only fraternities, and enjoyed a circle of friends including S. J. Perelman (the future humorist and columnist for The New Yorker who later married West’s sister Lorraine). Having great college success as an aesthete, West studied medieval Catholicism and the lives of saints, and he avidly read the works of Irish writer James Joyce, the French Symbolist poets, and Euripides. As the editor of the Brown literary magazine, he designed its first cover and contributed a poem and an article.
After graduation, West legally changed his name to Nathanael West and intermittently worked for his father, who, then suffering setbacks in his business, eventually accepted his son’s rejection of a commercial career and was persuaded to secure funds to send West to Paris in 1925 for a short stay. Once there, he affected the look of the expatriate bohemian writer and became intrigued by dadaism, with its foundation of cynicism and despair, and surrealism, with its Freudian connections.
Returning to New York, West (through a family connection) secured a job as night manager at a hotel in 1927 and later moved...
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