Nathanael West Biography

Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

ph_0111201290-West_N.jpgNathanael West. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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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Nathanael West Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

In his two major novels, West created a sardonic vision of a moral and spiritual American wasteland disguising its emptiness with romance and dreams. Sadly, the seekers after such dreams are doomed to frustration. West’s early existential vision foreshadowed the mood of the 1960’s as well as subsequent literary views of life.

Miss Lonelyhearts represents the best expression of West’s vision. Both of West’s major novels together constitute a distinctive and powerful body of work marking their author as an American writer ahead of his time.

Nathanael West Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Nathanael West was born Nathan Weinstein in New York City on October 17, 1903. His father’s and mother’s families had known one another before they emigrated to the United States from Russia. His father’s side used construction skills learned in the Old World to become successful contractors in the new country, taking advantage of the building boom of the turn of the century. His mother’s side was well educated, and Anna Wallenstein Weinstein wanted her son Nathan and her two daughters to have all the perquisites of an upwardly mobile, middle-class life.

Soon after settling in New York City, the Weinsteins learned to enjoy their comforts and to value them highly. They also assumed that their son would receive the finest possible education, pursue a professional career, or at least join the family business. West was an avid reader but a much less ambitious student. He attended a variety of grammar schools before his parents placed him in DeWitt Clinton High School. West, however, preferred exploring Central Park during the day and the theater district in the evenings. He was particularly attracted to the vaudeville shows, his first exposure to techniques such as slapstick and stereotypes, which he later used in his fiction.

West was not very disciplined, but his clever and adventurous nature helped to get him into Tufts University without a high school diploma. After one unsuccessful year there, he attended Brown University. West’s biographer attributes Brown’s acceptance of West to a complicated mismatching of transcripts with another student whose name also was Weinstein, though whether this was planned or accidental is not absolutely certain. Whatever the case, West graduated from Brown in 1924 with a degree in philosophy, which he earned in only two and a half years.

Neither West nor his parents had much nostalgia for their Jewish Lithuanian roots; instead, they concentrated on rapid assimilation. In 1926, he legally changed his name to Nathanael West. Even so, the subject of roots still appears in most of his work. The...

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Nathanael West Biography (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Nathanael West, born Nathan Weinstein to an urban, middle-class Jewish family, did not write specifically about the Jewish experience, in the manner of, for example, Bernard Malamud. Rather, West wrote about the disease of twentieth century alienation, particularly in America. An unimpressive high school student and a dropout from Tufts University, West nevertheless was an insatiable reader who was graduated from Brown University in June, 1924. West then went to Paris for two years, where he was exposed to Surrealism, which places importance on subconscious thought and feeling, and to Dadaism, which was a protest against accepted beliefs in the arts and philosophy.

West’s first work, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, shows the influence of Surrealism and Dadaism. The wooden Trojan horse, for example, the site of poet Balso Snell’s journey, alludes to Homer as well as to the wooden hobbyhorse, the English translation of dada. This novel is an angry indictment of illusions and false dreams offered in literature, religion, art, and culture. All of West’s novels, in fact, end with condemnation of a false dream.

The vision of literary success did not materialize for West himself. His most acclaimed work, Miss Lonelyhearts, received rave reviews but only a few hundred copies had been delivered to stores when the publisher went bankrupt. A Cool Million, a savage parody of the American rags-to-riches myth,...

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Nathanael West Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Nathanael West’s literary life has an irony that almost parodies his own novels. An original and very serious craftsman, he achieved in his short life little fame, except among a discerning few, and no popular success. Paperback editions of his novels have sold hundreds of thousands of copies in numerous editions, and West’s 1939 satire of Hollywood, The Day of the Locust, was made into a widely acclaimed motion picture in 1975.{$S[A]Weinstein, Nathan;West, Nathanael}

West was born Nathan Weinstein in New York City on October 17, 1903. He attended DeWitt Clinton High School but performed so poorly that he had to doctor his transcript to matriculate at Tufts University in 1921. There West’s grades...

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Nathanael West Biography (Novels for Students)

Nathanael West was born Nathan Weinstein in New York City on October 17, 1903. (He legally changed his name in 1926.) West was the son of Jewish immigrants Max Weinstein, a prosperous building contractor, and Anna Wallenstein Weinstein. Mr. Weinstein wanted his son to go into the family business and gave Nathan copies of the Horatio Alger books, a series of novels in which honest young men do well for themselves in business. West, whose friends gave him the nickname Pep because he was so lazy, was uninterested in the typical trappings of upper middle-class success and dropped out of high school. He lied his way into Tufts University, which expelled him for poor grades, and then got himself admitted to Brown University by using someone else's transcripts. West graduated from Brown in 1924, where he was better known for his sense of humor and interest in parties than any scholarly abilities.

After finishing college, West spent two years in Paris, courtesy of his father. He was called back to the United States in 1927, as the family's contracting business was experiencing the first economic shudders that would become more widespread in 1929. West's family found him a series of jobs managing residential hotels so that he could earn a living. Through these jobs, West was able to provide many impoverished writers with rent-free places to stay in New York City and to meet many writers who would soon become famous, including Dashiell Hammett, Erskine Caldwell Lillian Hellman and S. J. Perelman, West's brother-in-law. West found the desperate lives of some of his tenants fascinating, and he was known to steam open and read their letters. During this period, he finished his first book, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, and published it to almost no critical or commercial notice in 1931.

West published his second book, Miss Lonelyhearts, in 1933 to great admiration from the critics and others within his literary circle, but it received very little attention from the book-buying public. Concerned about his apparent inability to earn money from his books, West moved to California in 1933 to take a job as a screenwriter for Columbia Pictures. This job only lasted about a year, so West moved back to New York City to write his third book, A Cool Million: The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin. In 1935, a major movie studio bought the rights to the novel, so West went to California to try his hand at screenwriting again. Upon his return, West lived in cheap hotels much like the ones he had lived in and managed in New York City. West enjoyed learning about the lives of the people he met at these hotels, and soon his circle of friends included prostitutes, petty criminals, and stuntmen. West's struggle for screen-writing work lasted about a year, during which he was supported by money from his brother-in-law, Perelman, before he found a job with a minor studio that produced low-budget films.

Through his newfound income from screen-writing, West was able to afford a more comfortable lifestyle, one that allowed him to focus more artistically on his novels and plays. He published The Day of the Locust in 1939. Like Miss Lonelyhearts, it received some acclaim but little notice from the general public. Over the course of his lifetime, West earned only about $1,300 from his novels. He died in an automobile accident with his wife of only nine months, Eileen McKenney, on December 22, 1940, when he drove through a stop sign near El Centro, California.