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Miss Lonelyhearts | Study Guide

Nathanael West

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Miss Lonelyhearts | Context



In 1917 Congress passed the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed the sale of alcohol. In 1919 the amendment was ratified by three-quarters of the states and became law. The 18th Amendment called for Congress to pass legislation concerning the enforcement of the alcohol ban. Representative Andrew Volstead championed this enforcement legislation, which was called the National Prohibition Act. Volstead saw to it the law passed, despite President Woodrow Wilson's veto. Therefore the Prohibition Act was also known as the Volstead Act. This law was in effect from 1920 until 1933, when the 18th Amendment was repealed by the 21st Amendment. This period from 1920 to 1933 is known as Prohibition, and Miss Lonelyhearts is set during that era, with many of its scenes set in so-called speakeasies—secretive bars where alcohol was sold illegally.

Prohibition grew out of a 19th-century religious movement known as the temperance movement, which aimed to better humanity by removing a temptation toward immorality and crime. However, when Prohibition became law, not everyone was willing to give up alcohol, and consumption continued. Thus Prohibition was marked by the flourishing of bootlegging—the illegal production of alcohol. Speakeasies also flourished, as did the gangsters who profited from them. The law designed to quell drinking and improve moral character instead, in some ways, encouraged drinking.

The characters in Miss Lonelyhearts drink in speakeasies and nightclubs with great abandon, getting in bar fights, waking up to hangovers, and missing work. In the chapter called "Miss Lonelyhearts and Mrs. Shrike," Mrs. Shrike is buoyed up by the nightclub's atmosphere, which she calls "gay," meaning perhaps happy: "Everyone wants to be gay—unless they're sick," says Mrs. Shrike as she prepares to drink the night away. But West's novel shows the desperate crowds of people are happy and sick. They have been duped. They have been sold cheap dreams of happiness, such as swilling bootleg liquor without end. Their unquenched thirst for something they can't name sets the stage for Miss Lonelyhearts's botched act of redemption.

Great Depression

The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic downturn that lasted from 1929 to approximately 1939. Although it had worldwide effects the Great Depression originated in the United States, with a recession in the summer of 1929. A "recession" is a downturn in economic activity: fewer sales, fewer jobs, less production in factories and on farms. The summer's recession grew more severe as the year went on. In October 1929 the stock market crashed, an event also known as the Great Crash. Stocks refer to the way companies raise money by selling shares in the company. Throughout the 1920s the US stock market expanded enormously. Prices of stocks soared, encouraging more people to invest in stocks. Many people bought stocks on margin. Stocks on margin are bought with money the purchaser doesn't have; the broker lends the purchaser the money. This made the stock market unstable. The ballooning US stock market began to deflate in the autumn of 1929. People still tried to make money, though, and shares were traded furiously. On October 18, prices went into a free fall, spiraling down.

The stock market crash had effects on the rest of the US economy. Prices of goods and wages fell; unemployment soared. Banks foreclosed on farms, forcing farmers off the land. Many other economies throughout the world were also affected, particularly in Europe.

Certain images are often associated with the Great Depression in the United States: people standing in "bread lines" for food; unemployed men hitching rides on freight trains, also known as "riding the rails," in search of better prospects; and impoverished farm families in jalopies making their way West. None of these images are in Miss Lonelyhearts, and yet Miss Lonelyhearts is a novel of the Great Depression. The suffering of the letter writers is tinged with the Depression's economic desperation. Economically, the letter writers are hanging on, but only barely. One, Broad Shoulders, is trapped with an abusive maniac of a husband, in part because she cannot support her family by herself. Another, Peter Doyle, is trapped in a job that causes him physical agony. Everyone is just one paycheck, or one charity donation, away from utter misery. The Great Depression is the backdrop that colors the suffering of the impoverished characters in Miss Lonelyhearts.

Sources for Miss Lonelyhearts

Not long after the publication of Miss Lonelyhearts in 1933 two women announced they were prepared to sue author Nathanael West. Their letters to "Susan Chester," advice columnist for a Brooklyn newspaper, had instead been published in Nathanael West's novel Miss Lonelyhearts. West quelled the trouble by insisting the letters in his novel were fictional.

In fact, however, the women's protest had some merit. In March 1929 West met up at a New York diner with two friends, journalist Quentin Reynolds and humor writer S.J. Perelman, who was also West's brother-in-law. Reynolds had been West's classmate at Brown and was now working at a Brooklyn newspaper. The task of writing the paper's advice column, "Susan Chester Heart-to-Heart Letters," was rotated through the newspaper staff, men and women. Reynolds was currently stuck with "Susan" duty and frustrated by a task considered a joke in the newsroom. He had brought along a half dozen Susan letters, to see whether Perelman could work them into a satirical piece. Perelman declined, but West was intrigued. He took the letters home with him that night.

One letter writer was a disabled 16-year-old, who was afraid of never having a date. Another letter writer complained about a husband who had infected her with gonorrhea. This woman, who signed the letter "Broad Shoulders," describes her husband sneakily lying in wait for her, in order to terrify her. When she stoops to make the bed, she comes upon "a face that resembled the mask of a devil." Her grimacing husband had lain there for hours, even soiling himself, to make the "joke." This horrifying scene in the novel appears to be adapted from a letter to "Susan Chester" in the Brooklyn newspaper.

The letters were more tragic than funny. But the idea of a newspaperman pretending to be "Susan" was funny to West, and the letter writers had elements of bleak humor in their sad lives. Although it took him years and many drafts, West eventually used the black humor of the situation to illuminate tragic lives in Miss Lonelyhearts.

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