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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