Nathanael West, although he died at an early age, has had a tremendous influence on future writers and writing, as I will discuss later. Having published only 4 books, The Day Of The Locust, Miss Lonelyhearts, A Cool Million, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, West, described by one biographer as a “homicidal driver”, was killed in a car crash on December 22, 1944 in California as he was returning from a hunting trip in Mexico with his wife. As he often did, he was most likely extemporizing on one topic or another, not paying one bit of attention to the road, added to the fact that this time he was distracted as his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald (who wrote The Last Tycoon after being inspired by West’s The Day Of The Locust), had died the day before, failed to stop at an intersection in California and drove into an oncoming car. It is the consensus of most critics that The Day Of The Locust is perhaps the most famous of his four novels; I’m not sure what they are basing this on and I beg to differ (it sold only 22 copies during his lifetime), as I believe Miss Lonelyhearts undoubtedly is.
West was born Nathan Weinstein in 1903 in New York City. West, being Jewish, was excluded from fraternities during his matriculation at Brown University and thus it was commonly thought that this was the reason he dropped the name Weinstein, but his brother-in-law S.J. Perelman (the famous humorist) always maintained that this was not case, but dropped the name because he simply wanted a short, recognizable name. An indifferent student, West spent his early life managing Manhattan hotels and writing in his spare time. As the manager of Sutton Club Hotel, Sutton Club Hotel West made many literary contacts, among them Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy Parker, Ring Lardner, Jr., and James T. Farrell. He was known for letting other authors stay for free in empty rooms simply because he enjoyed their company. Although West had been working on his writing since college, it was not until his quiet night job at the hotel that he found the time to put his novel together. It was at this time that West wrote what would eventually become Miss Lonelyhearts, having published two years earlier The Dream Life of Balso Snell, a novel he had conceived of in college.
Several of his ex-Easterner writer friends financed their writing by working on motion pictures, and, tired of living in poverty, when he got a job as a contract scriptwriter for Columbia Pictures, he left for Hollywood in 1933. Once beyond Pasadena, however, the thought never left him that he was prostituting himself, which several friends predicted might happen. At the time of his death, though, West was making money at last. He had just earned $35,000 – around $500,000 in today’s money – for writing screenplays, including for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Suspicion”.
One friend thought him “the most thoroughly pessimistic person I have ever known” yet good company and witty. Fitzgerald once told a mutual friend that he and West were much alike, for they were moralists, wanting “to preach at people in some acceptable form, rather than to entertain them.”
The idea for the novel Miss Lonelyhearts came from an actual “agony” column being published in the Brooklyn Eagle, “Susan Chester Heart-to-Heart Letters,” the letters from which he would later copy, almost verbatim, into his novel. In West’s novel, the eponymously named (although a male) Miss Lonelyhearts, gets letters from readers seeking guidance and wisdom, but to Miss Lonelyhearts they all asking the same thing he is struggling with, the “big question”: the meaning of life. He takes his column seriously and despairs because he cannot help them, or himself.
West examines all the usual bromides: hedonistic pleasure, art, getting back to nature, exotic travel, and drugs, rejecting them all after revealing them to be foolish fantasies. Even suicide is deemed absurd. West reserves the greatest disdain, however, for the consolations of religion. “If he could only believe in Christ,” he writes, “then everything would be simple and the letters extremely easy to answer.” Elsewhere he writes: “Christ was the answer, but, if he did not want to get sick, he had to stay away from the Christ business.”
In an already bleak era (The Depression,the book being published in the year (1933) the national unemployment rate was at its highest), Miss Lonelyhearts went farther than any American novel ever had in its contemplation of despair. Its structure is a tantalizing juxtaposition of the real and unreal, dream and exposition, and often difficult to tell which is which, where West obfuscates the boundaries between Miss Lonelyhearts’ fevered dreaming and his day-to-day life, as is also the case in Day of the Locust. Miss Lonelyhearts, as West himself intimated was his answer to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which makes it ultimately a refutation, where there is no answer for our cry of help. There are parallels of structure (some critics going as far as stating he took his structure, and the psychology which underlies the structure, intact from Crime and Punishment; themes of guilt, superstition, depiction of a hallucinatory world where characters exist in an almost somnambulant state, muttering to themselves; pointing out that both use three narrative devices: the set speech, the confession, and the dream. His boss Shrike (one of the all-time great character names) is presented throughout as the antichrist, and readers have often wondered at the ending (Spoiler alert), where seemingly having rejected Christ, Miss Lonelyhearts becomes a Christlike martyr. Although there are many Christ-like figures throughout literature, the closest to Miss Lonelyheart was Melville’s outsider, Bartleby the Scrivener.
His influence? Indeed, Flannery O’Connor critic Sarah Gordon has pointed out that the closest literary ‘kin’ of her novel Wise Blood in American letters arguably is Miss Lonelyhearts. Another critic believed Flannery O’Connor found a literary model in Miss Lonelyhearts during the long gestation of Wise Blood. In addition, his use of black comedy heavily influenced later writers such as John Hawkes, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., William Burroughs, Robert Coover, James Purdy, and Thomas Pyncheon, among others.
I find it so ironic that Nathanael Weinstein became Nathanael West, went west to survive, and, consumed by it, ultimately died there. Perhaps Dorothy Parker (as she often did) said it best: “Wildly funny, desperately sad, brutal and kind, furious and patient, there was no other like Nathanael West.”