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.
This last endeavor was a matter of business, not ambition. Compared with the Daily Worker or the New Masses, publications Ruth admired, Harold Ross' 11-year-old humor magazine read like a weekly paean to patrician ennui and metropolitan consumption. Katharine S. White, her editor, led her from the hard-nosed, engagé reporting she considered her vocation toward the light, lucid, and artful casuals the magazine perfected. It was a 180-degree change from Ruth's native sensibility, one she resented—but, unlike West, she sublimated her taste to the glossy sensibility of the market and hung on as she could. The New Yorker brought her what a labor rag would not: money and—as her "Sister Eileen" stories caught on—success. The pieces became best-selling books, a Broadway blockbuster, and, years after Eileen's death, Wonderful Town.
Meade reminds her readers frequently that West "didn't want to be like anybody else" and was "ahead of his time"—in other words, a literary iconoclast. But she's vague on what, exactly, that iconoclasm was. Like Fitzgerald, West was keen to give the lie to the American dream. Unlike Fitzgerald, though, he seldom featured characters sitting pretty on the mountain. Miss Lonelyhearts, which had a strong critical response but poor sales, is the story of an unnamed writer who bangs out an advice column in lieu of the loftier society journalism he wants to do—and then finds himself unable to go on, obsessed with his near-religious role in solving strangers' problems. The more he reaches out, the more ill-fated he becomes, until he dies, tragicomically, by the weapon of somebody whom he tried to help.
Miss Lonelyhearts is a novel about something worse than selling out: The columnist loses his compass because he starts to confuse commercial hack work with a real, high-stakes vocation; the job he once found asinine becomes his crucial measure of fulfillment. This is the dirty secret of the American dream—that fulfillment requires a kind of compromise and self-delusion—and West reported it unflinchingly. Few writers, then or since, would dare to suggest, as he did in The Day of the Locust, that Los Angeles was filled with a mix of social performers and the kind of young person "who comes to California to die."
West and McKenney themselves became those people. Following the disappointing release of his third novel, West headed to the Coast, trading hopes of a literary market coup for a chance to hone his art while living well on studio paychecks. He met Eileen McKenney at a 1939 party in L.A., where she'd come to escape from her high-life success. They married—and died—within months. Speeding back from a hunting trip with his new wife less than a year later, West ran a boulevard stop and crashed into a Pontiac. His death was overshadowed by Fitzgerald's fatal heart attack the day before. By that point, though, West would hardly have cared: Having abandoned the commercial aspect of his literary ambitions to focus on the art, he came, eventually, to lose faith even in that pursuit.
That loss of faith is a theme of West's masterpiece, The Day of the Locust (1939). The novel is based on a triangle: An aspiring artist (Tod), an aspiring celebrity (Faye), and a Midwestern rube (Homer Simpson—no relation) chase their long-term ambitions amid a wilting social scene and teeming creative market. West was a master poet of desire, and his portraits of lust and pathos flickering through a three-way conversation—as Homer and Tod pine for Faye, who's in turn pining for a glamorous beau and klieg lights—are achingly vivid even today. The novel's trick is to depict this desire at every scale, from fleeting concupiscence to life ambition, and to show characters fleeing from one scale to another as they fall short of their goals. The book ends with Tod's vision of his unpainted masterpiece merging surreally with a real street mob in L.A., the imagined art ennobling the chaos as Tod himself is borne off, broken and deluded, in a cop car.
Art is redemptive, West suggests, but it does not redeem its creator. This is a deeply unsettling idea, whether one's standard of success is the young Fitzgerald or the aged Joyce. For West, Locust's portrait of the artist as a self-deceiving loser was a final blow against a culture that pushed some writers to commercial success while idealizing pure art born of worldly compromise for others. He'd tried each role, the market pleaser and the unsung artist attempting to stay afloat through hack work. By the time he died, he'd pulled away from both, and from fiction itself, deferring work on a fifth novel to write scripts for more cash than he had use for—the ultimate refusal of artistic self-delusion. Meade calls West's circle a "screwball world." But the author's real preoccupations, in his life and writing, were the terrors of becoming a creative artist in America.
Nathan Heller is Slate's "Assessment" columnist. You can follow him on Twitter.