Tag Archives: Nathanael West

The People from Heaven / John Sanford

I read about John Sanford probably 40 years ago, remembering that he had been highly praised, and had it in the back of my mind to explore it further, but when I went to to do so, could find very little on him, not surprising as this was well before the Internet came into being. Not helping my quest any was the fact that a guy named John Sandford had written a boatload of very popular books, and, when the Internet did arrive, his was the only name that came up in searches. Still having it on my mind as time went on, I gradually gave up, but must have retained it because, a few weeks ago, having come across a book I hadn’t known existed by Marion Meade called Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney. I immediately took it home and while reading it, was perusing a glossary of people mentioned and the name “John Sanford” immediately caught my eye. The rest is history, but I never cease to be amazed at how things can connect years apart if you just keep reading.

The People from Heaven was published in 1943, and, although this is said of many works, it was truly ahead of its time, the principal reason it never gained traction with the critics, much less the public. As with most original works of art, the book was doomed to failure by critics who couldn’t categorize it, failing to recognize something truly path breaking had been produced.

At the time, the poet Carl Sandburg lauded the book, and poet William Carlos Williams, an early champion, publishing several of Sanford’s stories in Contact, said it’s “the most important book of fiction published here in the last 20 years.”

The title was taken from the  cry of celebration purported uttered by the indigenous peoples hailing the arrival of Columbus and the Europeans to their shores, “Come, come to see the people from Heaven!” And how’d that work out for them?

The plot, without spoiling it, centers around Eli Bishop, a propertied white man and chief racist, an American Indian father and son, an independent-minded prostitute, a Jewish refugee from czarist pogroms, and the hero, an itinerant Black woman locally referred to as “America Smith,” who strikes a blow for freedom in her own way.

It stridently portrays and condemns in no uncertain terms racism toward the Negro long before the Civil Rights movement, the Jew a decade before the holocaust, and the Native American which had really never been addressed until the sixties. While containing all the elements of modernism and radicalism, it didn’t fit any of the stereotypes of previous works labeled as such, works like Tobacco Road, Bottom Dogs, Uncle Tom’s Children, Freedom Road, U.S.A.: a trilogy.

Speaking of William Carlos Williams, he is a possible influence based on his use of historical documents in his book In the American Grain, except that Sanford employs it as verse and interwoven with the narrative, consisting of nine poetic commentaries depicting episodes of persecution and oppression ranging from the 15th through the 19th centuries. Another direct inspiration is Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology (see my earlier entry regarding that book) for the brief but candid brief biographies of the characters Sanford employs.

Other works it brings to mind would be Our TownWinesburg, Ohio, even some elements  of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” especially as its setting is in the same general area of New York, and for it’s portrait of small town life in that same time period. It captures the immediacy of the time period more than anything I’ve ever read.

Born Julian Shapiro,  in Harlem, Sanford was a childhood friend of Nathanael West (born Weinstein), to whom the book was dedicated, and who suggested his friend also change his name,  and he became John Sanford from then on. Ironically, the Communist Party, of which Sanford was a member of the Communist Party, condemned his book as too far- left. He and his wife, both screenwriters, were blacklisted in the 50s witch hunts, setbacks from which they (as many) never fully recovered. Sanford lived until he was 98, authored 24 books, including a 5-volume autobiography, half of which were written after the age of 80, he wrote right up until the month before he died.

A noteworthy feature of the book is his employment of colloquialisms, obsolete words, poetic descriptions, and some just laugh-out expressions , so impressive I felt it necessary to list a few so you could get a better feel for the book:

“I’m like a bear-steak…the more you chew me, the bigger I get”

“I’m a three-cornered liar if she wasn’t prettier dead than a live woman sleeping”

“He don’t eat enough to keep a snow-bird alive.”

“He brought the [dollar] bill out of his pocket as if it were a strip of adhesive-tape plastered to his thigh.’

“…you couldn’t drive a prune into me with a mallet.”

“faunching,”

“feeling kind of loppy,” ”

snuzzling”

“meeching”

“extravasate”

“the breeze made fingers in my hair”

“Leaves were flippant in an infrequent wind…”

“…and fireflies were moving stop-lights in the accumulating gloom.”

“Now there’s a prayer that weighs a pound and a half!…”

“sweat like a stone crock”

“…a spiral of fly-paper drilled the smoke-marbled air.”

“I don’t get any more sunshine than a clam.”

“…so bow-legged he couldn’t stop a hog in a hallway.”

“Heads turned like electric fans…”

“…but he stuck around like a fly at a butchering-bee…”

“…either we just run down a pole-cat, or else somebody in this car needs a bath.”

“She pays her rent as regular as you change your drawers, and that’s once a month.”

‘…he ain’t got no more to say about where he’s going than a dish of ice-cream at the Poor Home.”

Be warned the book contains several harrowing passages, one describing Jewish girls being shot from trees; America Smith’s account of her birth and rape; and one of the verse inserts describing the Jesuit Brébeuf’s torture and death at the hands of the Iroquois.

It is a magnificent book, one for which at least two reads are necessary to get the full import, which I suspect will be even more pleasurable the second time around. I’ll let you know.

 

Miss Lonelyhearts / Nathanael West

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.”

Myra Breckinridge

“I believe in justice, I want redress for all wrongs done, I want the good life – if such a thing exists – accessible to all. Yet, emotionally, I would be only too happy to become world dictator, if only to fulfill my mission: the destruction of the last vestigial traces of traditional manhood in the race in order to realign the sexes, thus reducing population while increasing human happiness and preparing humanity for its next stage.” Gore Vidal, Myra Breckinridge (1968, Little, Brown and Company) p. 41  (italics in original.)

In wondering where to begin writing about this book I decided to let Myra say in her own words what she is about, after all she says it best and certainly wouldn’t have it any other way. I have long known about the book’s existence, that it was controversial, that one of the worst movies ever made was based on it, but never had any interest in reading it. Indeed I had never read anything of his before, although I remember thoroughly enjoying the encounters he had with Norman Mailer on The Dick Cavett Show, and the televised political debates he had with William F. Buckley. He was suave, irascible, brilliant, and possibly the most well-read writer of his generation; I knew of him mainly for having uttered one of the greatest self-observations I’ve ever heard,  one I  repeated any time I could work it into a conversation:  “Every time a friend succeeds I die a little.” How honest and self-effacing, or was it tongue in cheek? Only Gore Vidal will ever know.

As is all the rage now, I  have been interested in anything pertaining to the topic of transgenderism for quite a while and recently the book was mentioned in that context and I knew I had to read it. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I was enjoying it; while I had no preconceived notions about it I hadn’t expected it to have the feel of an early 60s book, especially when juxtaposed with the big historical/political novels he was known for, and with the subject matter. There is an interesting paradox involved in discussing the book in that you can’t give too much away without revealing the huge plot twists (they literally made me gasp out loud on my commute home) in it, and it is these sensational aspects of the book that would impel most potential readers to take the plunge, yet most of them wouldn’t even read it if they did know ahead of time as that is the major pleasure in reading it for the neophyte. In fact, to ensure the book’s secret was kept, Vidal insisted that his publisher not send advance review copies to the nation’s book critics, something completely unheard of then or since. In spite of this it quickly soared to Number 1 on many bestseller lists.

The best strategy, then, in discussing the book is to approximate what it is like not about through comparisons with other books published at the time, because it is so much a product of its times I would venture to say it couldn’t have been written in any other period. Yet it doesn’t feel in any way dated, as so much bric a brac from that era unfortunately is, even though it was the ultimate in high camp in its day. To begin with it was written in the space of a month and has an inspirational feel to it throughout although perhaps only a writer might sense this. It was written during a time when Vidal was exploring “The New Novel” movement in France, and many critics say it is his response to that, especially the notion that the novel was dead. In addition, it was a major contribution to the cultural assault on the assumed norms of gender and sexuality which swept the western world at the time. That being said, it has the overall feel of West’s Day of the Locust or Miss Lonelyhearts, Yates’s “Eleven Kinds of Loneliness,” even a faint whiff of Sunset Boulevard. Myra herself’s persona can seem like a character straight out of an Ayn Rand creation in its cold aloofness;  Vidal later hinted that the voice of Myra may have been inspired by the “megalomania” of Anais Nin’s diaries. An endearing plot device, never overdone, is his use of all things pertaining to the Hollywood film industry (many obscure references) as backdrops to scenes, character description (both physical and mental) and plot explication. One of the more famous examples is Myra describing herself in this way: “my beauty blinding them, as it does all men, unmanning them in the way that King Kong was reduced to mere simian whimper by beauteous Fay Wray whom I resemble left three-quarter profile if the key light is no more than five feet high during the close shot.” cf. Myra Breckinridge, p. 3.

That’s all I  will say for now; if you want to know more you’ll have to read it yourself, which I hope this piece inspires you to do. Ahead of its time in 1968, we’re still not sure what to make of Myra, and perhaps never will be.