Nathanael West's Secret
He knew there was something worse than selling out.
Serious people have been apologizing for Nathanael West since he began to write. His first novel, the story of a man who crawls into the anus of the Trojan horse and wanders its intestines, was described by Harold Bloom as "an auspicious technical essay, marred by grandiose overreaching." Miss Lonelyhearts, his second, lacks "psychologically rounded" characters by design, Jonathan Lethem tells us. Elizabeth Hardwick called West's third book"wasteful brilliance." His fourth, some believe, is the best Hollywood novel ever. "[O]nce we understand that The Day of the Locust is intended as high comedy," Norman Podhoretz wrote, "this apparently weird, disjointed book begins to assume a meaningful shape."
Behind this advocacy looms the sense that West's pursuits are less than what a novelist's should be—that writing slim and peculiar books, then moving to L.A. to churn out B movies and shoot animals for fun (and not wild beasts, like Hemingway, but small birds, mostly doves), is not enough to vindicate an inconsistent oeuvre. West's "failure to get the best out of [his] best years," said Edmund Wilson, who was his friend, "may certainly be laid partly to Hollywood, with its already appalling record of talent depraved and wasted." Readers, in other words, should blame the neighborhood.
Marion Meade's new joint biography of West and his wife, Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney, makes much of that creative neighborhood, though the book shares little of Wilson's disdain for it. In Meade's telling, West's curious art and curtailed life (he died at 37) are a window onto the world of shiftless second-tier writers, glamour hounds, and alcoholics who traced a path from New York to Europe and Hollywood through the '20s and '30s. McKenney joined this circle through her sister, whose droll stories dressed up the two women's adventures coming from Ohio to the big city. West, though, fits the template less comfortably. He spent his working life caught between two concepts of success: one that valued proficiency in the literary marketplace and another that championed aesthetic independence. It was his disenchantment with both—pushing him outside the "screwball world," not toward its center—that, in the end, shaped his peculiar genius on the page.
Although West and McKenney met as cosmopolitans on the New York-L.A. corridor, both had come to that lifestyle from outside. West was born Nathan Weinstein to a real estate family in upper Manhattan and, from his early years, flouted most expectations set for him. He dropped out of high school, flunked out of Tufts, and enrolled at Brown by stealing the identity of another, less derelict student. In Providence, he managed to get gonorrhea two separate times while eking by in the classroom. By the time he graduated in 1924, though, he'd claimed "lit-rachoor" as his vocation.
This playful perversion of the L-word tells us what we probably knew already, which was that by 1924, writing fiction was both an artificially vaunted high-art pursuit and an endeavor that came with its own lifestyle expectations. F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise had appeared in 1920 and sold 40 times as many copies as expected. Since then, the literary map had been redrawn to include the favorite haunts of wistful, well-heeled children of the Jazz Age—Midtown New York, mostly, and Paris, where the new and intimate American style brushed against the Modernism of the Old World.
Nathan Weinstein heard the call of both these camps. His goal in the next years, and until his death, became to reconcile an ambitious Modernist-style aesthetic with the steep lifestyle and commercial demands of a literary celebrity market. Taking the WASP-exotica name Nathanael West, he spent four months as a fake flâneur in Paris—dressing foppishly, hanging out, and trying to write his reader-unfriendly first novel. Back in New York, he consecrated two years to R & D on a cactus-juice candy bar he hoped would set him up with a playboy's income. The project never crystallized.
His debut novel, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, appeared in 1931 to little of the attention or scandal a Modernist-aspiring book might hope for. West was at that point managing the Sutton Club Hotel and giving free or reduced rooms to writers he liked—Dashiell Hammett, Edmund Wilson, and Robert Coates among them. "The Sutton had inadvertently become a literary hotel," as Meade puts it, "not the Algonquin with its Round Table sophisticates but a refuge that provided writers with basic needs like a roof over their heads." By the time he finished up Miss Lonelyhearts in 1932, West knew the bottom of the literary mountain better than he knew the top.
For Eileen and her sister, Ruth, the route up that mountain was both easier and more unabashedly commercial. Eileen grew up as "the pretty one," popular in school; she worked a string of service and secretarial jobs after her high-school graduation. Ruth—heavyset, homely, and (Meade thinks) bipolar—started out as a reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal after a productive college career. Within a couple of years, she'd become a Communist, moved to Manhattan with Eileen, and started writing for The New Yorker.
Nathan Heller is Slate's "Assessment" columnist. You can follow him on Twitter.