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Nathanael West | Biography

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Nathanael West was born Nathan Weinstein on October 17, 1903, to a middle-class Jewish family in New York, New York. A very indifferent and unmotivated student, he graduated from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1924. Like many American writers of the early 20th century, West spent time in Paris where he took Nathanael West as his pen name. During his year-plus stay in Paris he wrote his first novel, The Dream Life of Balso Snell. This odd novel is set inside the famous Trojan Horse—the wooden decoy the Greeks used to sneak into the city of Troy in the Trojan War. The novel was published in 1931 by Contact Editions, a Paris publisher run by expatriate Americans. With only 500 copies published, The Dream Life of Balso Snell did not garner much attention.

West returned from Paris to New York City, where he worked as a nighttime hotel clerk. He often gave free or discounted rooms to his friends and fellow writers. West set his next novel in New York City. Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) portrays an advice columnist deeply pained and yet angered by the sad, suffering people who write to him. His third novel, A Cool Million (1934), mocks the familiar American rags-to-riches story by featuring its hero on a steady decline in fortunes. Neither of these novels drew much attention during West's lifetime.

West then moved to Hollywood to become a screenwriter. His final novel, The Day of the Locust (1939), satirizes the worship of celebrities and the production of slick, crude commercialized dreams in the movies. The novel ends with a crowd erupting in rage and violence at a Hollywood premiere. Like West's earlier novels this too was not widely read during his lifetime.

Returning from a hunting trip, West died at the wheel in a car accident in California on December 22, 1940. His wife, Eileen McKenney, was also killed in the accident.

Although West's books received some good reviews, he was not widely read until after World War II (1939–45), years after his death. A translation of Miss Lonelyhearts was published in France in 1946, to considerable acclaim. The 1957 publication of The Complete Works of Nathanael West brought about a reevaluation of his four novels. Today West is remembered chiefly for Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust. Both novels portray despair and violence at the heart of the American dream and materialistic values.

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