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Nathanael West (1903-1940) - original name Nathan Weinstein (until 1926)


American writer who died in a car crash at thirty-seven. Nathanael West published four novels. It was in France, posthumously after World War II, that he first attracted attention. In his works West examined the reverse side of liberty and freedom – dreams turned into nightmare, or what he called "the secret inner life of masses".

"At college, and perhaps for a year afterwards, they had believed in literature, had believed in Beauty and in personal expression as an absolute end. When they lost this belief, they lost everything. Money and fame meant nothing to them. They were not worldly men." (from Miss Lonelyhearts, 1933)

Nathanael West was born Nathan Weinstein in New York, N.Y., the son of immigrant German Jews from Lithuania. His mother was Anna (Wallenstein) Weinstein, and father, Max Weinstein, a construction contractor. As a young man West showed little ambition. Forging a false transcript, he entered Brown University, Providence, where he befriended the writer and humorist S.J. Perelman – he married West's sister. During these years he began to draw cartoons and write short surrealistic sketches, which he later collected as the novel The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931). West did not take his studies seriously – he borrowed his cousin's work and presented it as his own and failed a crucial course in modern drama.

West graduated in 1924 with a Ph.B. degree. At the age of twenty-three he changed his name legally to Nathanael West, later referring to Horace Greely who said, "Go West young man." He lived a couple of years in Paris, and wrote there The Dream Life of Balso Snell. The fantasy, some fifty pages, was set in the innards of the Trojan horse. After discovering the Saint-Denis red-light district, West spent much time in brothels, and boasted once that he could have compiled a glossary of the slang used by French prostitutes. The really hot prostitutes, he said, were Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, and Filipino.

Back in the United States, West managed small hotels, Kenmore Hall from 1927 to 1930 and the Sutton Club Hotel from 1930 to 1933. In these jobs West was able to assist other writers offering them free housing. Among his visitors were Dashiell Hammett, James T. Farrell, and Erskine Caldwell. "We all lived there half-free, sometimes all-free," recalled Lillian Hellman. "Dash wrote The Thin Man at the Sutton Hotel. Pep West's uncle or cousin owned it, I think... Dash had the Royal Suite – three very small rooms. And we had to eat there most of the time because we didn't have enough money to eat anyplace else. It was awful food, almost spoiled. I think Pep brought it extra cheap. But it was the depression and I couldn't get a job. I remember reading the manuscript of The Dream Life of Balso Snell in the hotel. And I think he was also writing Miss Lonelyhearts at that time." (Lillian Hellman in Playwrights at Work, ed. by George Plimpton, 2000)

While working at Kenmore Hall, a redbrick residence hotel, West used to eat at Siegel's, a deli under the Sixth Avenue tracks with his friends Quentin Reynolds and Sidney Perelman. At that time Reynolds was employed by the Brooklyn Daily Times, where he covered the sports but also for a period took care of an advice column, 'Susan Chester Heart-to-Heart Letters.' West became intrigued by the letter writers and began to write a story about a columnist named Thomas. Later in Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) he plagiarized real letters submitted to an advice columnist. In A Cool Million (1934) he plagiarized passages from Horatio Alger's prose.

Hotel life provided West with numerous anecdotes which he used in his works. In the early 1930s he worked as a journalist and was involved with a couple of literary magazines. These experiences gave him material for his masterful second novel, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933), an allegory of America as it struggled through the Depression. The tragic farce was published when West was just thirty. It depicts a male newspaper columnist, whose correspondence pen name is Miss Lonelyhearts. He writes his agony column in the New York Post-Dispatch daily newspaper. Shrike, the editor, is a kind of Satan and torments Miss Lonelyhearts, who has developed a Christ complex. Shrike says to him: "Explain that man cannot live by bread alone and give them stones." Miss Lonelyhearts is a therapist, priest and messiah to those alienated and in pain, such as a sixteen-year-old girl who was born without a nose: "I sit and look at myself all day and cry. I have a big hole in the middle of my face that scares people even myself so I can't blame the boys for not wanting to take me out. My mother loves me, but she cries terrible when she looks at me." Eventually Miss Lonelyhearts becomes involved with one of his correspondents, but he realises that he is himself unable to live by the help he offers others in this world of decay and emptiness. In the final section the crippled Peter Doyle, married to the ungratified Fay, arrives with a gun. "The gun inside the package exploded and Miss Lonelyhearts fell, dragging the cripple with him. They both rolled part of the way down the stairs." In the movie version of the book from 1958, directed by Vincent J. Donahue, Montgomery Clift played Miss Lonelyhearts, renamed Adam White. The screenplay was written by Dore Schary, who turns the protagonist into a decent boy-next door, who doesn't get killed by the cripple. The director Vincent Donahue explained: "Dore didn't believe the Christ figure needed to be crucified."

Despite critical success the book sold poorly. West continued with a similar theme of good aims gone wrong in his next novel, A Cool Million, an attack on the optimistic rags-to riches ideal. His hero is robbed, his life is full of trials, he loses parts of his body, and eventually he is shot. The story reflected West's childhood memories, when his father gave him several popular Horatio Alger novels to read – hoping that he would enter the family business.

West moved for the first time to Hollywood in 1933, to work on a film version of Miss Lonelyhearts. He returned in 1935, and lived in a cheap hotel called the Pa-Va-Sed, on North Ivar Street, near Hollywood Boulevard. A director at Republic told him to think of the audience, to produce new ideas in his scripts: "It isn't funny enough to make them piss in their seats – it isn't sad enough to make them snuffle." In the years before he found employment, West spent time among the outcasts of Los Angeles. He remained in Hollywood for the rest of his life, working as a scriptwriter for smaller studios like Monogram. With Jerry Cody and Dalton Trumbo he wrote Five Came Back (1939), directed by John Farrow and starring Chester Morris, Lucille Ball, C. Aubrey Smith. The story, an original of Richard Carroll, concerned a planeload of twelve passengers forced down in head-hunter infested Amazon jungle. In this threatening situation the varied characters of the passengers come to the surface. When the plane is repaired, it is found that it can carry back only five survivors, and head-hunters are coming closer... The script was assigned from Jerry Cady, former radio writer, to Dalton Trumbo, who retained most of West's work while discarding Cady's and adding touches of his own, notably building the character of an anarchist, played by Carradine, into a sympathetic one, in contrast to West's conception. Five Came Back established John Farrow as a director. The film was acclaimed a critical success and achieved gradually a cult status. Later the story was remade as Back to Eternity (1956) and became a starting point for many variations, among them The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), directed by Robert Aldrich and based on Elleston Trevor's novel.

During his years in Hollywood West wrote The Day of the Locust (1939), a study of the fragility of illusion. Many critics consider it with F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished masterpiece The Last Tycoon (1941) among the best novels written about Hollywood. The narrator, Tod Hackett, comes to California in the hope of a career as a scenic artist but soon joins the disenchanted second-rate actors, technicians, laborers and other characters living on the fringes of the movie industry. Tod tries to seduce Faye Greener; she is seventeen. Her protector is an old man named Homer Simpson. Tod finds work on a film called prophetically 'The Burning of Los Angeles', and the dark comic tale ends in an apocalyptic mob riot outside a Hollywood première, as the system runs out of control. Paradoxically West himself, for the first time, had in Hollywood high hopes for the future and a stable financial situation.

By a bizarre coincidence, Fitzgerald and West died on the same weekend in December 1940. West was killed in an automobile accident on December 22, near El Centro, California, with his wife Eileen McKenney. He was recently married, with better-paid script work coming in, and returning from a hunting trip in Mexico. Distraught over hearing of his friend's Fitzgerald's death, he crashed his car after ignoring a stop sign. Eileen McKenney become the subject of a book, My Sister Eileen (1938), written by Ruth McKenney, her sister.

For further reading: Nathanael West by S.E. Hyman (1962); The Fiction of Nathanael West by R. Reid (1967); Nathanael West by J. Martin (1970); Nathanael West: A Collection of Critical Essays by J.F. Light (1971, rev. ed.); Nathanael West's Novels by I Malin (1972); Nathanael West, ed. by D. Madden (1973); Nathanael West by K. Widmer (1982); Nathanael West by R.E. Long (1985); Nathanael West, ed. by H. Bloom (1986); Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts, ed. by H. Bloom (1987); The Writings of Nathanael West by A. Wisker (1990); Critical Essays on Nathanael West, ed. by Ben Siegel (1994); The Great Depression and the Culture of Abundance by Rita Barnard (1995); American Superrealism: Nathanael West and the Politics of Representation in the 1930s by Jonathan Veitch (1997) - American writers in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s: James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, John Fante, Daniel Fuchs, Horace McCoy, Clifford Odets, Maxwell Anderson, Dorothy Parker, John Don Passos, Theodore Dreiser, Dashiell Hammett, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Selected bibliography:

  • The Dream Life of Balso Snell, 1931
    - Balso Snellin unielämä (suom. Asmo Koste, 2003)
  • Miss Lonelyhearts, 1933
    - Vastaathan kirjeeseeni, Miss Lonelyhearts (suom. Antero Tiusanen, 1966)
    - films: Advice to the Lovelorn (1933), dir. Alfred L. Werker, starring Lee Tracy, Sally Blane and Paul Harvey; I'll Tell the World (1945), dir. Leslie Goodwins, starring Lee Tracy, Brenda Joyce and Raymond Walburn; Lonelyhearts (1958), dir. by Vincent J. Donahue, starring Montgomery Clift, Robert Ryan, Myrna Loy, Maureen Stapleton. "Throughout filming of Lonelyhearts at the Sam Goldwyn studio, anecdotes proliferated about Monty's bizarre behavior. How he climbed around the set in big boots when he wasn't being used "to attract attention," how he would jump on Dore Schary's lap when they were watching rushes, how he occasionally ran nude from his bungalow at the Bel Air." (from Montgomery Clift by Patricia Bosworth , 1978);  Miss Lonelyhearts (TV film 1983), dir. Michael Dinner, starring Eric Roberts, Arthur Hill and Conchata Ferrell
  • A Cool Million: The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin, 1934
    - Iisi miljoona eli Lemuel Pitkinin monet menetykset (suom. Paavo Lehtonen, 1980)
  • Even Stephen, 1934 (play, with S. J. Perelman)
  • Ticket to Paradise, 1936 (screenplay, with J. Nattleford and Ray Harris, dir. Aubrey Scotto, starring Roger Pryor, Wendy Barrie and Claude Gillingwater)
  • Follow Your Heart, 1936 (screenplay, with Lester Cole and Samuel Ornitz, dir. Aubrey Scotto, starring Marion Talley, Michael Bartlett and Nigel Bruce)
  • The Preseident's Mystery, 1936 (screenplay, with others, dir. Phil Rosen, starring Henry Wilcoxon, Betty Furness and Sidney Blackmer)
  • Rhythm in the Clouds, 1937 (screenplay, with Olive Cooper, dir. John H. Auer, starring Patricia Ellis, Warren Hull and William Newell)
  • It Could Happen to You, 1937 (screenplay, with Samuel Ornitz, dir. Phil Rosen, starring Alan Baxter, Andrea Leeds and Owen Davis Jr.)
  • Good Hunting, 1938 (play, with J. Schrank)
  • Born to Be Wild, 1938 (screenplay, dir. Joseph Kane, starring Ralph Byrd, Doris Weston and Ward Bond)
  • Five Came Back, 1939 (screenplay, with J. Cady and Dalton Trumbo, dir. John Farrow, starring Chester Morris, Lucille Ball and Wendy Barrie)
  • I Stole A Million, 1939 (screenplay, dir. Frank Tuttle, starring George Raft, Claire Trevor and Dick Foran)
  • The Spirit of Culver, 1939 (screenplay, with Whitney Bolton, dir. Joseph Santley, starring Jackie Cooper, Freddie Bartholomew and Andy Devine)
  • Men Against the Sky, 1940 (screenplay, dir. Leslie Goodwins,  starring Richard Dix, Kent Taylor and Edmund Lowe)
  • Let's Make Music, 1941 (screenplay, dir. Leslie Goodwins, starring Bob Crosby, Jean Rogers and Elisabeth Risdon)
  • The Day of the Locust, 1939
    - Heinäsirkan aika (suom. Paavo Lehtonen, 1979)
    - film: The Day of the Locust (1974), dir. by John Schlesinger, screenplay by Waldo Salt, starrirng Donald Sutherland, William Atherton, Karen Black, Geraldine Page, Burgess Meredith  
  • Complete Works of Nathanel West, 1957
  • The Complete Works of Nathanael West, 1968 (introduction by Alan Ross)
  • Nathanael West: Novels and Other Writings, 1997
  • Miss Lonelyhearts  & The Day of the Locust, 2009 (introduction by Jonathan Lethem; afterword by John Sanford)

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