This Day In Literary History
On October 17th, 1903, the famous American writer Nathanael West was born. He was born Nathan Weinstein in New York City. His parents were German-speaking Russian Jews who had emigrated from Lithuania.
Although his lifelong passions for reading and writing began in childhood, West had little interest in school. He dropped out of high school, then gained admission into Tufts College by forging his high school transcripts.
Expelled by Tufts, West got himself into Brown University by submitting the transcripts of another Tufts College student with the same name. He spent more time at the library than in the classroom, and read extensively.
Uninterested in contemporary American fiction, West became enamored with the French surrealists and English and Irish writers. The legendary Irish playwright, poet, and novelist Oscar Wilde was a huge influence.
West determined to become a writer himself, and began working on his first novel while studying at Brown. After barely graduating and obtaining his degree, he went to Paris and stayed there for a few months.
Disturbed by the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe (and America) in the mid 1920s, he changed his name to Nathanael West. After returning home to New York City, West completed the first draft of his novel.
The Dream Life of Balso Snell was published in 1931. An experimental, surrealist allegorical novel, it told the story of the title character, who happens upon the fabled Trojan Horse sitting in the grass around the city of Troy.
After he finds a way to get inside the giant wooden horse, Balso Snell enters the structure. Inside, he encounters a series of strange characters whom he realizes are "writers in search of an audience."
The characters also represent various religious, political, and artistic ideals. Snell listens to each of their stories and rejects them one by one in a nihilistic fashion. The novel is filled with juvenile and often scatological humor.
The Dream Life of Balso Snell received mostly negative reviews at the time of its publication and was commercially unsuccessful. Today, it's recognized as an important first work by a major talent. The best, however, was yet to come.
Unfazed by the reaction to his first novel, West began work on his second. He had taken a job as night manager of the Hotel Kenmore Hall in Manhattan, which provided him lots of downtime he could use for writing.
West's second novel would make his name as a writer. Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) is a surreal, expressionist black comedy. The main character is an unnamed male newspaper columnist known only as Miss Lonelyhearts because he writes the paper's advice column under that name.
Miss Lonelyhearts loathes his job. His co-workers consider him and his column a joke. Though he writes the column because he needs the money, he can't help feeling for his fellow New Yorkers who besiege him with their desperate and often disturbing letters.
Driven to drink and despair, Miss Lonelyhearts tries various means to cope with his miserable life. He takes up religion, takes his fiancee Betty out on trips to the countryside, and engages in affairs with unhappily married women. Nothing helps.
After Miss Lonelyhearts has an affair with Mrs. Doyle, he meets her poor, crippled husband. The Doyles invite him to dinner, where Mrs. Doyle grotesquely tries to seduce him again. He snaps and beats her, and she falsely accuses him of trying to rape her.
The novel ends with Mr. Doyle going to Miss Lonelyhearts' apartment to take revenge on him. He hides a gun inside a newspaper. After spending three days in bed sick, Miss Lonelyhearts recovers and awakens to have a religious epiphany.
When he sees Mr. Doyle, he runs over to embrace him. Doyle's gun goes off and both men tumble down a flight of stairs. Miss Lonelyhearts would be adapted as a feature film, a TV movie, a Broadway play, and an opera.
Nathanael West published his third novel, A Cool Million, in 1934. He bought a farm in Pennsylvania, then gave it up and moved to California when he got a job as a contract screenwriter for Columbia Pictures.
West would write or co-write over a dozen screenplays. The pay was good and he needed the money, as he had been barely scraping by on his novel royalties. By the time his fourth and final novel was published, he had been writing B movies for RKO Radio Pictures.
The Day of the Locust (1939) is considered by many to be West's masterpiece. This surreal black comedy about the dark side of 1930s Hollywood was inspired by the author's time spent working as a Hollywood screenwriter.
The characters include Tod Hackett, a talented young artist who has come to Hollywood to work as a set painter. He does this to support himself until he becomes a famous artist. Faye Greener is a beautiful young aspiring actress.
Faye's father, Harry Greener, is an aging, failed actor and former vaudeville comic who earns a meager living as a door to door salesman. Despite all the doors slammed in his face, Harry, the ultimate huckster, pushes on, oblivious to the effects of his job on his frail health.
Homer Simpson (yes, that's really his name) is a good natured oaf who's not very bright. Also a neurotic depressive, he has come to California for reasons of health. The poor, pathetic Simpson will become the most tragic character in this dark and grotesque story.
Other memorable characters include Abe Kusich, a conceited midget actor with a huge chip on his little shoulder, and Adore Loomis, an obnoxious aspiring child star with a talent for blues singing and a stage mother so ambitious (and demented) that she passes him off as a girl, hoping he'll become the next Shirley Temple.
The price of stardom - the depths one would sink to in Hollywood in order to reach the height of success - is one of the main themes of the novel. Another theme is the garishness of excess.
One film producer keeps a lifelike, life sized dead horse made of rubber at the bottom of his swimming pool. Mrs. Jenning, a retired silent film star, runs a brothel, where she also screens pornographic films for her guests.
Faye Greener is the catalyst for the tragic undercurrent of the story that drives it to a shocking and brutal conclusion. She's a thoroughly amoral young woman, a manipulative sociopath willing to do anything and use anyone to get what she wants.
Of course, Tod ends up falling in love with her, but grudgingly settles for friendship, recognizing her amoral nature. He fantasizes about raping Faye or physically harming her in other ways as both a subconscious attack on her immorality and an attempt to suppress his secret desire to be just like her.
Homer Simpson also falls in love with Faye, but unlike the more realistic Tod, the poor, deluded Homer actually dreams of marrying Faye, settling down, and starting a family with her. When he accidentally discovers Faye having casual sex with a would-be actor called Miguel the Mexican, his delusion is suddenly shattered.
Homer decides to return to his Iowa hometown, but in the novel's violent, surreal ending, he wanders the streets in a state of shock and happens upon a crowd gathering outside a theater for a major movie premiere. While he stares blankly at the crowd, Adore Loomis appears and teases him yet again.
Homer's mind finally snaps, and in the novel's most shocking scene, he literally stomps the child to death. When the crowd sees Homer attack Adore, they riot and descend on him like a plague of locusts, killing him. Tod tries to save Homer, but gets lost in the milling throng.
The Day of the Locust was adapted as an acclaimed feature film in 1975. Directed by John Schlesinger from a screenplay by Waldo Salt, the film starred William Atherton as Tod Hackett, Donald Sutherland as Homer Simpson, and Karen Black as Faye Greener.
In 1940, Nathanael West married Eileen McKenney, sister of writer Ruth McKenney and the inspiration for Ruth's classic short story collection My Sister Eileen, which would be adapted as a Broadway play and a TV series.
Sadly, in December of 1940, while West and Eileen were driving home to Los Angeles from a hunting trip in Mexico, they ran a stop sign and collided with another car. They were both killed. West was 37 years old, his wife Eileen only 26.
Never a huge critical or commercial success as a writer during his short life, after his death Nathanael West would be rightfully recognized as one of the best American writers of the 1930s.
Quote Of The Day
"I have spent my life in books; literature has deeply dyed my brain its own color. This literary coloring is a protective one - like the brown of the rabbit or the checks of the quail - making it impossible for me to tell where literature ends and I begin.” - Nathanael West
Today's video features a photo essay on Nathanael West. Enjoy!