The Dream Life of Balso Snell, 1931
Miss Lonelyhearts, 1933
A Cool Million: The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin, 1934
The Day of the Locust, 1939
Follow Your Heart, 1936 (with Lester Cole and Samuel Ornitz)
The President’s Mystery, 1936 (with Cole)
Ticket to Paradise, 1936 (with Jack Natteford)
It Could Happen to You, 1937 (with Ornitz)
Born to Be Wild, 1938
I Stole a Million, 1939
Five Came Back, 1939 (with Jerry Cady and Dalton Trumbo)
Men Against the Sky, 1940
Novels and Other Writings, 1997 (includes long fiction, letters, and unpublished writings)
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.
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 plummeted so rapidly (he did not attend classes) that school administrators asked for his withdrawal after only one term. By another ruse he was admitted to Brown University with the high grades and cumulative credits of a different Nathan Weinstein, but even then West performed so poorly that he barely received his baccalaureate degree in 1924. At Brown he was nicknamed “Pep” for the opposite characteristics the word suggests. Literary friends included I. J. Kapstein, Quentin Reynolds, and S. J. Perelman, who later married his sister Laura. He wrote few pieces for undergraduate publications. In Paris during 1925-1926 he came under Surrealist influences and began work on his first novel, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, a fantasy on his hero’s wanderings inside the Trojan horse, where he meets a naked man in a derby writing about Saint Puce (a flea who lived in Christ’s armpit) and a twelve-year-old boy wooing his schoolmistress with Russian journals. This work was ignored following its publication in 1931.
Back in New York, West managed one of his father’s hotels, which he populated with largely freeloading writers and friends. He also began using his pen name–because, as he once claimed, “Horace Greeley said, ‘Go West young man!’ so I did.” A widening circle of literary friendships brought work as editor of Contact with William Carlos Williams in 1932 and as associate on Americana with George Grosz in 1933. Contact and a third little magazine, Contempo, contained early drafts of Miss Lonelyhearts, the story of an advice-to-the-lovelorn columnist who is destroyed when he takes too seriously the problems and miseries of his correspondents. This minor classic was issued in 1933 by a publisher who shortly afterward went bankrupt. By the time copies and plates were rescued from the unpaid printer by another publishing house, demand for the book had ceased.
West’s third and weakest novel, A Cool Million, is a broad satire on the Horatio Alger myth, in which Lemuel Pitkin loses his teeth, eye, scalp, money, and eventually his life after being victimized by capitalists, communists, and neo-fascists. It was quickly remaindered.
Unsuccessful as an editor and writer, West moved to California in 1935 and took up residence in a seedy Hollywood apartment, where he was surrounded by movie stuntmen and bit players. In time he was able to pick up regular script work on a string of B-movies with titles such as I Stole a Million and Bachelor Girl. It was dreary work but provided West with crucial material for his most mature work, The Day of the Locust, published in 1939. In 1940 he married Eileen McKenney, of My Sister Eileen fame. Seven months later, on December 22, they were killed together in an auto crash at El Centro, California.
Although The Day of the Locust has Hollywood as its locale and minor actors and hangers-on from the periphery of the studios as its characters, the novel is no more about motion pictures than Miss Lonelyhearts is about newspapers. Fantastic and exaggerated in theme and treatment, West’s two chief novels convey, more clearly than most twentieth century fiction, a sense of horror and revulsion at the universe in which humankind lives and the world people make for themselves.