Nathanael West

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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 on to a fancier hotel. During his stint as a night clerk from 1927 to 1930, he put up indigent writers at reduced rates, including Dashiell Hammett, who finished The Maltese Falcon (1930) as West’s bootleg guest. West wrote not-to-be published short stories and revised his first novella, begun in college.

The latter, a surrealist fantasy about a young man’s abortive search for life’s meaning, was published in 1931 as The Dream Life of Balso Snell in a limited edition by a small press. The short novel, drawing only one journal review, caused no stir. In that same year, West became co-editor of a little magazine called Contact and published articles and chapters of the then-unpublished but completed Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) in it. He also became associate editor of the magazine Americana, which published a West short story about Hollywood titled “Business Deal.”

Miss Lonelyhearts was published in 1933 and received largely positive reviews, but only two hundred copies of the edition appeared, because the publisher went bankrupt. By the time West got the work republished, the reviews were forgotten; fewer than eight hundred copies were sold. Shortly after, however, the novel was purchased by a Hollywood studio, and...

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an offer to write an original screenplay followed from Columbia Pictures. West accepted and worked in Hollywood for $350 a week on two projects, which did not materialize into films, before his contract was terminated.

After seeing Miss Lonelyhearts twisted into a murder thriller film titled Advice to the Lovelorn (1933) starring Lee Tracy, a disillusioned West returned to New York, impressed with the idea that both Hollywood and life generated the lie of false dreams. He enlarged this notion in two still unpublished short stories: “Mr. Potts of Pottstown” and “The Sun, the Lady, and the Gas Station.” In 1934, West published his third short novel, A Cool Million: The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin, a black comedy satirizing the Horatio Alger myth and the American Dream. The book was unfavorably reviewed and sold poorly.

Returning to Hollywood in 1936, West was first hired as a writer for Republic Productions and later worked until 1940 for other studios, turning out a number of undistinguished screenplays, alone or in collaboration. Because of his facile script-writing ability, West was able to make a securely comfortable living for the first time since 1929. With many of his fellow artists of the 1930’s, West assumed a leftist outlook, becoming active in social causes and joining the embryonic Screen Writers Guild, then considered leftist by Hollywood executives. As early as 1935, West had espoused liberal views by signing the manifesto of the 1935 American Writers Congress, which had advocated a proletarian revolution.

Continuing to be well paid as a screenwriter, West completed his fourth novel, The Day of the Locust (1939), based on West’s perceptions of Hollywood. Despite some good reviews, it was a commercial failure, selling fewer than fifteen hundred copies. The author’s disappointment was forgotten when, in 1940, he fell in love with and married Eileen McKenney, celebrated as the protagonist of Ruth McKenney’s My Sister Eileen (1938). This happy period in West’s life was brief. On December 22, 1940, the Wests, returning from a hunting trip in Mexico, were both killed in an automobile crash in El Centro, California. West was thirty-seven. He was buried in a Jewish cemetery in New York City.

West’s posthumous reputation has expanded considerably. His two major novels, when reprinted, sold thousands of copies. Scholarly articles about West multiplied. The Day of the Locust was made into a successful film in 1974. In 1957, the collected four novels were published to favorable reviews and critical recognition of West as an important 1930’s writer. The black-comedy tone of his work had a demonstrable influence on many writers who succeeded him.


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