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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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 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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