I.
Failure-haunted in his life-time, Nathanael West could hardly have dreamt that his scattered works would one day be gathered together and preserved for posterity by the Library of America, or that sixty years after his death he would receive the imprimatur of the classic. We can imagine his shock, and his delight, and also his derisory laughter. Though steeped in literature, an aesthete to the bone, he loved to jeer at the official institutions of culture. He once told an interviewer that his first novel was written "as a protest against writing books." He described his early work as "vicious, mean, ugly, obscene and insane." Even though he eventually found a way to turn ridicule into a vehicle for compassion, his books still bristle with rage.

    "I have often thought of burning the library down," says the narrator of "The Adventurer," one of the unpublished short stories that Sacvan Bercovitch has plucked from obscurity and included in this comprehensive collection. As a child, the library "was a continuous delight," a gateway for the untrammeled imagination. But now "the library is a monstrous place," filled with "monomanias, these reflections of myself." The books stink of "death and decay." He ponders "a hundred million words, one after another, put down at great expense, at the cost of much suffering, gathered in ten thousand deliriums. The apocalypse of the Second-Hand!"
American literature might be described as one long battle against libraries. So much of our national energy and optimism derives from the perpetual quest to conquer the undiscovered territory--to break through the crust of tradition. But the time comes when the wilderness has been exhausted. How do you sustain a civilization on the promise of novelty? "Forget the epic, the master work," West advised the American novelist. "You only have time to explode." For West, America is pure anarchy: liberating and destructive at once. His own work, by this definition, is a thoroughly American product, charged with savage negations and brimming over with aesthetic vitality.

    West was not the first observer of the American grotesque, but he envisioned the extravagant weirdness of American life in a deeply influential way. The parodic vaudevillians of Thomas Pynchon, the lonely obsessives of Don DeLillo, the fraudulent preachers of Flannery O'Connor--they all owe a large debt to Nathanael West. "America has her own religions," says the demonic newspaper editor Shrike in
Miss Lonelyhearts, and from this insight, the rest proceeds: all the various manifestations of our indigenous hysteria.

    West does not offer the satisfactions of a traditional novel. The textures of his imagined worlds are paper-thin, their inhabitants angular and crude. And yet, in the end, his characters come to life. They are never mere instruments for his ideas. The novels transcend didacticism; they achieve an unexpected intimacy. The infusion of personality is what makes them fascinating. The stories of impotence and fakery and violence, are, ultimately, stories about himself: the books "smell like the breaths of their author."

 
Max Weinstein was an immigrant from Lithuania who became affluent building apartment houses in Manhattan. His son, Nathan, was born in 1903, and grew up in the "gilded ghetto" of affluent Jews. They were raised far from the teeming Lower East Side of immigrant legend. On the high holidays they attended elegant Temple Israel, and that was it for Jewish observance. Eventually Nathan Weinstein changed his name to Nathanael West and is the first Jewish writer to be included in the Library of America (joined now by Gertrude Stein). How strangely appropriate that the first Jewish writer in the American canon should be--not an apostate exactly, but a man in flight from his roots. His novels do not depict the immigrant experience, like the writings of Delmore Schwartz or Henry Roth: but perhaps more profoundly, they enact the immigrant experience. He saw America with an outsider's scorn, but at the same time he cherished America as only an immigrant can. Buried within his bohemian scorn is the puzzled ardor of the would-be lover. His will to identify with the nation is evident in his choice of a new name: Nathanael, with its Puritan shadows, and West, as in the direction of America's perennial aspirations.

    West ultimately did go west--to Hollywood, where he was able to support himself writing B-movies, and where he found the ideal topos for his vision of the inner life of crowds. F. Scott Fitzgerald, in The Last Tycoon, wrote about the aristocracy of the film business; but for The Day of the Locust, West looked to a much lower strata of society. He described the losers, the castaways, the aspiring extras and the has-been clowns. The restless hordes of California are not far from the desperate sufferers who write to the advice columnist in his earlier masterpiece, Miss Lonelyhearts. Yet while he writes about the poor, he never sentimentalizes the downtrodden. On the contrary: he makes fun of their hopeless aspirations and romantic delusions. They become prime material for his one insistent theme, the destructive potential of the imagination. His America is a world of miniature Madame Bovaries.
 
    All his works revolve around the danger of the dream. The Dream Life of Balso Snell consists of a series of dream-like encounters, in which the dreams all turn out to be parables of frustration. Miss Lonelyhearts is a meditation on "the business of dreams," how "dreams have been made puerile by the movies, radio and newspapers." Finally, in The Day of the Locust, West ponders the "dream-dump" of Hollywood, where he sees a studio lot as a "Sargasso of the imagination."

    Although West is known as a writer of the 1930s, he never fit in with the earnestness of that decade. He did dabble in the Hollywood left; he involved himself in causes, such as the establishment of the Screen Writer's Guild, and at times he naively defended Communist front organizations. But he was too suspicious of false rhetoric and clichéd romanticism to accept the language of commitment then fashionable. Hard-line leftists considered him decadent, and they were right. Having come of age in the early 1920s, he had been crucially influenced by the uncertainties of that more cynical era. Whatever his political sympathies, no ideal of improved social conditions could possibly survive the atmosphere of disillusionment that pervades his work. West found fakery everywhere, from the mongrel architecture of Los Angeles to the degraded language of contemporary belief. But he was not a traditional satirist, in the sense of someone proposing a positive alternative to a deplorable society. His satire was a way of representing a complex psychological state. The novels take on tragic depth as the accusations turn inwards: in the end, no one is a greater phony than the author, West, née Weinstein.

 
Nathan Weinstein compiled an amazing scholastic record. He failed nearly all his classes at every institution that he ever attended. He dropped out of high school without a degree, and when it came time to apply to college he simply fabricated his transcript. After being expelled from Tufts, a few months into his first semester, he managed to adopt the transcript of another Nathan Weinstein enrolled at Tufts. Using his doppelgänger's distinguished academic record, he was accepted at Brown with fifty-seven credits to his name.

    Dada would have approved of this impressive hoax. But for West there must have been a deepening sense of his own fraudulence. At Brown he only wore Brooks Brothers clothes and soon acquired a reputation as a dandy and a gentleman. He started calling himself Nathaniel von Wallenstein Weinstein. The only thing missing in his quintessential college image was membership in a fraternity, but no Jews were allowed. Even if he wanted to forget that he was Jewish, no one else would. While he adopted identities and changed names with bravado, his work became obsessed with themes of spiritual emptiness and imposture. His masterpiece, Miss Lonelyhearts, is the story of a newspaper man who takes a job as an advice columnist, Miss Lonelyhearts. At first the whole thing is a joke, a hoax akin to the ones West liked to play: a man pretending to be a woman, a mockery of the saccharine pieties of the daily paper. But the letters affect Miss Lonelyhearts more than he expects. His spiritual crisis begins when he realizes "he is the victim of the joke and not its perpetrator."

    Published in 1933, the novel received wonderful reviews, but the publisher went bankrupt, and all copies of the book were seized by a creditor. It was a bad stroke of luck, one of many for West. He never had literary success. He wrote to Edmund Wilson in 1939: "My books meet no needs except my own, their circulation is practically private and I'm lucky to be published." Throughout it all he desperately wanted to prove to his family that he could be a success. Certain anecdotes from his life lend him the pathos of one of his characters, such as his two year-long attempt to market a confection called "Cactus Candy."

    In despair after the disastrous publication of Miss Lonelyhearts, West wrote a short novel called A Cool Million, a satire on the Horatio Alger story of success. Lemuel Pitkin, the native hero, sets off for New York to make his fortune, but instead is robbed and cheated, unjustly arrested, beaten, and exploited. Although at moments heavy-handed, the novel is wildly imaginative, Candide filtered through the Grand Guignol. Over the course of the story Lem Pitkin loses his eye, his teeth, his thumb, his scalp, his leg and finally his life, but he never loses his hopefulness and his gullibility. The poignancy of the novel lies in his dogged optimism. In general, West reserved his mockery for his most painful identifications. He tortures his hapless surrogate like a voodoo doll; in the end, what comes across most clearly is West's disgust at his own failure.

    A Cool Million demonstrates West's sharp eye for the hollowness of American life, the way everything authentic becomes a platitude, packaged and commercialized, converted immediately into a spectacle. When Lem Pitkin arrives in New York, he discovers his humble Vermont homestead transplanted whole to the window of a Fifth Avenue design store as an example of "authentic" colonial architecture. Later the owner of that store appears as the designer of an absurd multicultural bordello, a proleptic satire on Disneyland as whorehouse. Further on, after being scalped by a revolutionary Indian chief who quotes Spengler and Valéry, Lem exhibits his scalped skull in a sideshow as the "sole survivor of the Yuba River massacre." This is American history chopped up into nonsense, revealed as show business.

    Nathanael West has more in common with the Marx brothers than he would have liked to admit. His closest friend, and brother-in-law, S.J. Perelman, wrote several Marx Brothers movies; Perelman, like West, was a brilliant and compulsive parodist who wielded imitation like a weapon. West claimed not to like Jewish stage humor, but his work has the slapstick quality of vaudeville, and clowns appear over and over. Poor multilated Lem Pitkin ends up playing the "stooge" in a vaudeville show; it is his role to get beaten up. And Harry Greener, the most memorable character in The Day of the Locust, cannot even allow himself to stop performing on his deathbed. He reached the peak of his stage career as a "bedraggled Harlequin" abused by a troupe of Chinese acrobats. Harry employs parody to fend off the world's blows:
 
          Now he clowned continuously. It was his sole method of defense.... He used a set of
          elegant gestures to accent the comedy of his bent, hopeless figure and wore a special
          costume, dressing like a banker, a cheap, unconvincing, imitation banker.... His outfit
          fooled no one, but then he     didn't intend it to fool anyone. His slyness was of a different
          sort.
 
    Vaudeville was not invented by Jews, but Jews dominated the theatrical business, as well as the motion picture industry. Almost no one in a Nathanael West novel admits to being Jewish, but the Jewish intonation is everywhere. Jewish names pop up in the oddest places: the Indian chief Israel Satinpenny, the Fifth Avenue decorator Asa Goldstein, the official fascist coonskin tailor Ezra Silverblatt. The joke here is about authenticity, national or ethnic. Nothing is native, not even the natives; everything is borrowed and mongrel. "We're not fake Europeans," Shrike insists, and yet Los Angeles is filled with "Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Egyptian and Japanese temples, Swiss chalets, Tudor cottages." West laughs at cultural pretensions and at the same time pays tribute to the ersatz. One of the funniest scenes in The Day of the Locust is the "Charles H. Grotenstein Production" of Waterloo. West finds in Hollywood's outrageous unreality a general truth about America's fantastical essence.

    The greatest mistake about Nathanael West is to view him as a moralist, scourging the impurities of American life. In fact, he delights in them. Or more exactly his disgust is never far from delight, and his deploring is always a form of celebration. Phoniness may infuriate him, but his camera likes absurdities. Only bizarre phenomena inspire him; only then is his sense of aesthetic discovery palpable.

    In another of the newly published short stories, West imagines Sancho Panza and Don Quixote as two voices singing a duet inside an ordinary man named Mr. Potts. His hometown, Pottstown, is a garden of delusionary wishes--the local men go on hunting expeditions despite the absence of game in the area; they wear mountain climbing outfits and yodel, undisturbed by the dearth of mountains. But Mr. Potts eventually decides to leave behind the fantasy-land of America; he attempts to climb the real Alps in Switzerland--whereupon he discovers that "Switzerland is nothing but a fake--an amusement park owned by a very wealthy company." The most revealing moment in the story is when garish Mr. Potts bursts cheerfully into the dining room of the Palace-Ritz Hotel, and shouts "Howdy!" to the gathered European aristocrats. They ignore the intruder, returning haughtily to their food, yet West unexpectedly sticks up for his hero: "They were shocked by what they thought was vulgarity, but what was really vitality." West might have believed that "wishers were ever fools," as Cleopatra puts it, but, in the end, he placed himself firmly on the side of the fools.
 
 
II.

Before the Fact may be the first screenplay to be collected in the Library of America. It is not a shining example of the art. Although West had evidently mastered his craft, he had no particular gifts as a screenwriter. Even worse is his one play. Good Hunting, which closed after two dismal performances, but not before consuming most of West's savings. It is hard to know why these scripts should have been included here, other than to bulk up his slender oeuvre and to remind us of his frantic attempts to stay afloat financially. West had no pretensions to be a cinéaste: "I write grade C scripts only," he told a friend. He worked on such forgotten classics as Ticket to Paradise, Follow Your Heart, Gangs of New York, Ladies in Distress, Orphans of the Street--the latter recounting the adventures of little Tommy Ryan and his dog Skippy.
   Ironically, though West may be our most famous novelist-screenwriter, his novels are fundamentally uncinematic. For a start, they have weak plots: the episodic narratives sputter forward on waves of choked feeling. Moreover, his characters are caricatures, and their distortion is part of their vividness. It is almost impossible to visualize them, except as cartoon characters, or perhaps as faces from Goya. They have internal force, but no external truth. In terms of visual description, we only know that Shrike has a "triangular" face, but in the weird rhetorical thrust of his monologues, he acquires a larger-than-life eminence.
 
I am a great saint. I can walk on my own water. Haven't you ever heard of Shrike's Passion in the Luncheonette or the Agony in the Soda Fountain? ... Under the skin of man is a wondrous jungle.... In this jungle ... lives a bird called the soul ... Taxidermy is not religion. No! A thousand times no. Better, I say unto you, better a live bird in the jungle of the body than two stuffed birds on the library table.
 
    Shrike could not be represented through any naturalistic medium without losing his weird grandeur--it would be as ridiculous as an actor playing Beelzebub in a Grotenstein production of Paradise Lost. The final obstacle in adapting West for the screen would be that all his characters talk ironically. Some speak in quotes deliberately, as a joke; others borrow their language unconsciously, from the radio and the movies. His heroes find that they cannot speak sincerely, even when they try. Language is hopelessly corrupted; genuine feeling is blocked. The atmosphere is claustrophobic with cliché.

    West's first novel, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, reads a little as what Baudelaire might have written had he been one of the Marx Brothers. It is a strange, furious book, animated by anger against a world of second-hand feeling and borrowed experience. The story begins with Balso Snell, aspiring American poet, climbing into the anus of the Trojan horse. Balso is oddly helpless. Even his dreams are no longer his; they are colonized by other writers. This is a world where it is impossible "to tell where literature ends and I begin." At one point, lost in the layrinth of equine intestines, he encounters the biographer of the biographer of the biographer of the biographer of Boswell: the very apex of unoriginality. The Trojan horse, both monument and trap, has the same monstrous quality as the library--there are so many other voices that Balso loses his own power to speak. "The wooden horse, Balso realized as he walked on, was inhabited solely by writers in search of an audience."

    Balso Snell is a book about aspiring to be a writer and not knowing where to start. In the unpublished short stories that follow, visions of failure multiply. "The Imposter," for example, tells the story of Beano Walsh. On the basis of his "marvelous hands," the Hahn foundation has awarded Beano a grant to live in Paris and make sculpture. The joke is that Beano cannot sculpt anything: he has no talent whatsoever. "Whatever it was he saw in the stone, he couldn't chop it free." West returns over and over to this particular kind of failure, the paralysis of the imagination.

 
 When we first meet Miss Lonelyhearts, he is staring at a blank piece of paper, unable to finish his column. Miss Lonelyhearts has been interpreted through the light of a thousand theories, Freudian, Marxist, neo-Christian, and so on. We might start afresh with the simple observation that he is a writer, a writer who cannot write. He has lost faith in words; words fail him. His ironic fate is that he is condemned to listen. Readers besiege him with their stories. And, aesthetically speaking, they outdo him. His consolations are only worn-out phrases, but the letters, though fumbling and inarticulate, are fiercely eloquent. The most famous is the unhappy sixteen year-old girl named "Desperate."
 
          ...I would like to have boy friends like the other girls and go out on Saturday nites, but no  
          boy will take me because I was born without a nose--although I am a good dancer and
          have a nice shape and my father buys me pretty clothes.
 
    How can we separate the pain from the humor here? We can't help laughing at "Desperate," partly because she imagines that a pretty figure could compensate for the absence of a nose, but mostly because her misfortune is so grotesque, she burlesques misfortune. What makes the letters most painful is the trust their authors place in Miss Lonelyhearts, and their eager expectation that he will be able to solve their insoluble miseries. "Ought I commit suicide?" asks "Desperate" politely at the end of her letter.

    Miss Lonelyhearts is the story of a young man trying to come alive. "How dead the world is," he thinks, "a world of doorknobs." He stares at a wooden statue of Christ on the wall, hoping it will spring to life. He ponders his own coldness. "Like a dead man, only friction could make him warm or violence make him mobile." He is stuck; he cannot change. Like his friends at the speakeasy, he had once "believed in literature ... in personal expression as an absolute end," but having lost faith in himself, he has become a "spiritual cripple." The ruthless aesthetic economy of the novel emphasizes the feeling of being trapped. Human feelings drain into symbols with the insistence of a hallucination: Miss Lonelyhearts is a rock, Betty is a party-dress. The images are relentless and circular. In a lyrical writer such as Virginia Woolf, visionary language will take wings on an expanded moment of perception--an epiphany, a moment of clarity and truth; but in the case of Nathanael West, the visionary moment is shrunk into a terse image--reduced, compressed, withered in its contempt for words.

Tod Hackett, the hero of The Day of the Locust, is another artist manqué: a painter who has sold out. After studying art at Yale, he has become a set designer in Hollywood. His intellectual friends fear that he will never paint again. The plot of the novel, in so far as there is one, is the story of a painting ("The Burning of Los Angeles") and how different encounters feed into his conception of the painting. Of all West's characters, he is the most successful artist and yet the least sympathetic protagonist. He does find a (non-verbal) means of expression, but there is a corresponding loss in vitality. Tod--his name perhaps echoing the German for death--thrives on fantasies of annihilation. He is not as interesting or intense as his nameless predecessor, but he surpasses Miss Lonelyhearts in one respect: in his imagination for collective violence.

    The Day of the Locust derives its title from the terrifying description of an army of locusts in Revelations. "The noise of their wings sounded like the racket of chariots with many horses charging. Their tails were like scorpions' tails, with stings, and with their tails they were able to torture people for five months.... When this happens, people will long for death and not find it anywhere; they will want to die and death will evade them." Hackett wants to paint the "people who come to California to die," the bored and restless mob, grasping for excitement. But he is not so different from them. He has the same relish for violence and apocalypse. Standing at the top of a hill, looking down at Los Angeles, Hackett imagines "the city burning at high noon." He attends services at various weird Hollywood churches in order to sketch the worshippers: he appreciates their "awful anarchic power." At one point he even admits that he suffers from the same "morbid apathy" he likes to depict in others. After a vision of America convulsed in civil war, "he was amused by the strong feeling of satisfaction this dire conclusion gave him. Were all prophets of doom and destruction such happy men?"

    Hackett's longings are finally satisfied by the famous riot at the movie premiere, West's finest set piece. What makes the scene fascinating is Tod's perverse fulfillment. The riot provides the release for which he has yearned. "Spasms" and "surges" pass through the intensely sexual mob, and he is not the only one to become excited. A man in horn-rimmed glasses molests a girl. People joke about ripping up a girl with scissors. Just as Tod had predicted, the apocalyptic violence takes on a holiday atmosphere. The language here irresistibly recalls the ending of West's first novel, in which Balso Snell's orgasm is described as an army moving through his body. "The army of his body commenced a long intricate drill.... His body screamed and shouted as it marched and uncoiled." Similarly, the sensuous description of the surging crowd might be read as an extended projection of a process internal to Tod Hackett: "He was the spearhead of a flying wedge when it collided with a mass going in the opposite direction ... As the two forces ground against each other, he was turned again and again, like a grain between millstones...." His sexual and emotional riot is painful but in the end generative: in the midst of chaos, Hackett ponders his painting and, for the first time in the novel, he imagines it whole.

 
One pleasure in this new edition of Nathanael West is stumbling upon wonderful passages in forgotten works, such as the speech of Chief Israel Satinpenny in A Cool Million. The chief protests the "surfeit of shoddy" which the white man has inflicted on this "fair, sweet land." He describes civilization as the proliferation of useless objects: fountain-pens, cigarette lighters, key rings, doorknobs. "Now all the secret places in the earth are full," he complains. "Now even the Grand Canyon will no longer hold razor blades. Now the dam, O warriors, has broken and he [the white man] is up to his neck in the articles of his manufacture." Flotsam piles up from novel to novel, a growing mountain of garbage. Tod Hackett comes upon the studio dumping ground for old scenery. Miss Lonelyhearts imagines building a gigantic cross out of marine refuse. Balso Snell wanders in the junkyard of civilization, overwhelmed by all the old stories.

    The absence of history is a common charge against America. Henry James enumerated a famous litany of absences in his book about Hawthorne: "No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy ... no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages, nor ivied ruins...." And yet, in the vision of Nathanael West, the problem turns out to be surfeit, not emptiness. There are too many books in the library; the language is stuffed with cliché to the point of being involuntary. Architectural style is exhausted: there is nothing left to discover. America is crowded with junk, overwhelmed by remnants of a past which can't be washed away.

    The immigrant is the ideal representative of the dream of self-invention. But the new man who appears out of nowhere with his newly coined name is not generated ex nihilo. He is always leaving behind him a very specific past, such as, in West's case, a father who spoke with an accent and failed in business and dropped dead on the job, and beyond that father, an entire culture, which cannot, for any person of imagination, be expunged by a mere change of name. The ghost of the submerged past, forgotten and banished and only floating to the surface as cultural detritus, stirs at the core of West's novels.

    On only one occasion does West venture into explicit autobiography. In "The Adventurer," he reminisces about a childhood spent in Central Park, and almost immediately goes on to disparage the value of remembering: "Memories pile up, hindering action, covering everything, making everything second-hand, rubbed, frayed, soiled... The trail becomes hard to follow, not grown over, but circular, winding back into itself, without direction, without goal." The "apocalypse of the second-hand" recurs, but as a crisis of the individual, not the culture, a Wordsworthian problem rather than a Spenglerian problem. "It is only later," West writes. "Never further, never nearer." Here is the authentic despair of West's heroes, tragic because they cannot go backwards or forwards, because they cannot develop or change.

West, on the other hand, finally seemed to find a way out. In April, 1940 he married Eileen McKinney, the heroine of Ruth McKinney's book My Sister Eileen. By all accounts, their marriage was a great success. They furnished their home in colonial style. They went hunting together. They talked of having children. West had never been happier. And then, on December 22 of that same year, after a weekend of hunting in Mexico, he drove through a stop sign in a little California town called El Centro and straight into another car. Both he and his wife were killed. His ashes were shipped to a Jewish cemetery in Queens, in the Weinstein family plot, between his mother and his sister.

    We can only speculate about the novels West might have written if he had survived. The specter of those imaginary works hangs over this volume. What do we imagine? A mellow West? A post-Holocaust West? A West in full possession of his powers? Or perhaps a hack screenwriter who could never equal his early triumphs? At any rate all we will ever have of West is here: bitter, uneven, youthful, brilliant, his innate darkness accentuated by his final tragedy.

    America has no Westminster Abbey, no Père Lachaise, and perhaps it is better that way. A fine new edition of his work is the best monument a writer can ever hope for. Still, amidst the imposing marble tombstones with their grand Hebrew inscriptions, the small granite stone marking West's final resting spot seems a bit paltry. "Son" reads the epitaph, and then: "Nathanael W. West husband of Eileen." Ivy covers the mound. One story has it that his friends secretly buried his gentile wife's ashes in his coffin, in violation of the regulations of the all-Jewish burial grounds. A final gesture of defiance toward his people? In any case, like it or not, West lies among the Jews, now and for all time.


 
Mr. Lonelyhearts
 
 
September 13-20, 1999
The New Republic

A review of NATHANAEL WEST
Novels and Other Writings
Edited by Sacvan Bercovitch