Nathanael West Notes
West became an artist and satirist in compensation for his inability to conform and succeed along conventional paths.--Jay Martin, Nathanael West: The Art of His Life
Nathanael West completed four novels before his untimely death in a car accident. In order of publication the novels are:
- The Dream Life of Balso Snell, 1931
- Miss Lonelyhearts, 1933
- A Cool Million, 1934
- The Day of the Locust, 1939
West's novels represent his response to the appearance of the values of consumerism in the United States of the 1930s.
With the rise of consumerism and commodity fetishism the distinction between image and reality is critically blurred. West was one of the first writers to see this situation developing. And his novel, The Day of the Locust is about Hollywood, the capital of the American business of image manufacturing. In that novel West depicts the consequences of the blurring of the line between substance and image.
But his political views, clearly left-of-center, and influenced by, among other sources, the Spenglerian analysis of cultural decline, are themselves surface details. The deeper details about West concern themselves with his attempts to come to terms with the function of the creative artist in a culture that has begun devaluating the individual. What does it mean to be a writer in this new "modern" age?
The wooden horse, Balso realized as he walked on, was inhabited solely by writers in search of an audience, and he was determined not to be tricked into listening to another story. If one had to be told, he would tell it.--from The Dream Life of Balso Snell
He was born Nathan Weinstein in New York City at the beginning of the 20th century. His parents were Russian Jewish immigrants. His father, Max, was a builder and his mother Anna, described as attractive and interesting, was a dedicated housewife and mother.
West was not a particularly good student. He spent a considerable amount of time skipping school, despite the fact that he was enrolled in P.S. 81 a modern progressive "model school" run by the city of New York. In 1917 he entered De Witt Clinton High School. He never graduated. Nevertheless, by falsifying his academic transcripts he was admitted to Tufts University outside of Boston. He then found a way to transfer to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island from which he graduated in 1924.
While inattentive to his formal education, West read voraciously. He read contemporary writers like Joyce, Pound and Eliot. French literature interested him and he read Flaubert, Proust, Rabelais. He also read works by James Branch Cabell, Max Beerbohm, Arthur Machen, Aldous Huxley, Norman Douglas and Wyndham Lewis. The Dada and Surrealist movements captured his imagination.
The outcome of all this "unofficial" self-education was the development of a creative man who relied on his imagination as a source of identity. Eschewing the conformist route to a successful existence, West took a more "modern" approach: he became an artist.
In 1926 as he began to vigorously assume an artist's identity he legally changed his name from Nathan Weinstein to Nathanael West. He also spent three months in Paris living the life described by Ernest Hemingway in the novel The Sun Also Rises. While in Paris, West met several expatriates including Henry Miller. Apparently Miller and West did not get along well.
After returning to New York in January 1927, West, through family connections, took a job as a night manager at a hotel. His life as a writer officially began. He also confronted the tensions inherent in the modern artist's existence in society-- a society homogenized on the surface, by a mass culture addicted to conformity, but distinctly and unalterably heterogeneous underneath. West stood between these two worlds and wrote about it. He completed his first novel, The Dream Life of Balso Snell while working at the hotel. But the hotel experience, despite West's complaints, was the melting pot from which Miss Lonelyhearts his second novel was forged.
After the publication of Miss Lonelyhearts in 1933, West went West to Hollywood to work as a screenwriter. He worked on over 30 screenplays, including a script based on his 1934 novel A Cool Million. Five years later, The Day of the Locust was published. Hollywood, always mirroring itself, produced a film version of West's novel in 1975. It's not a bad film, directed by John Schlesinger, and has an excellent cast. The book, of course, is better.
West died tragically, with his wife Eileen, when the station wagon he was driving collided on a Sunday afternoon with another vehicle at the intersection of Highway 80 and the Central Valley Highway near El Centro, California. They were returning from a weekend of hunting in Mexico.
Nathanael West & Baseball
In one part of his fantasy life, West's dream of success was to be a baseball hero--Jay Martin, Nathanael West: The Art of His Life
Like all great American writers, West was inspired by the game of baseball. West played baseball as a boy at summer camp. A teammate of West has described his unique batting stance:
When the ball was thrown [West] placed all of his weight on his right foot, leaning backwards at the same time, and thus had terrific leverage when he swung at the ball. It was not that he was an unusually good hitter but, when he did hit the ball, it was likely to go out of the park. (See Martin, page 30)
West's insecurity about his baseball prowess was reinforced by the fact that his cousins, who attended the same camp, were excellent athletes and they frequently won all the major athletic awards. West would later write a short story about a man named F. Winslow, a right fielder, who flubbed a routine fly ball:
The sun was very hot in right field as it always is. What with the heat and the tobacco, F felt like going home. So far he had been lucky; he had gotten to the fifth inning without having a ball hit to him. But in the fifth, with a man on second and third, a pop fly was hit to right field. F didn't move except to swallow the plug of tobacco. The ball hit him in the chest. He fell to his [knees] and fumbled for it in the grass, but his eyes were closed and he couldn't find it. The first baseman had to come out and field it for him. When he opened his eyes, he saw his cousin running towards him with a bat in his hand.
from "Western Union Boy"
It reminds one of the story of Casey at the Bat, another tale of American failure.
Jay Martin, Nathanael West: The Art of His Life. Farrar, Straus & Giroux: New York. 1970|
John Sanford, "Remembering West", Los Angeles Times. August 3, 1997
David L. Ulin, "He Foresaw History", Los Angeles Times. July 30, 1997
Despite the fact that in real life West and [Pisces Field Manager] Henry Miller bored each other, and despite the fact that in reality West was an outfielder when he played baseball as a boy, the Pisces believe West will be one of their super star starting pitchers for the 1998 season. If his one season with the Eden Bohemians is any indication, Miller and the Pisces might be right.
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