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Nathanael West | Biography

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Early Life and Works

Nathanael West was born Nathan Weinstein on October 17, 1903, to a middle-class Jewish family in New York City. A very indifferent and unmotivated student, he graduated from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1924, after using a false transcript to enroll. Like many American writers of the early 20th century, West spent time working 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.

Life as a Struggling Writer

Although West made friends with and was admired by many contemporary writers, he was discouraged about not earning a living and felt the need to "sell out" and go to Hollywood to try and earn money by writing for films. To add to his troubles, Miss Lonelyhearts was sold to Liveright, a prestigious American publisher, but before the book was distributed the press went bankrupt and the publisher's printer seized most of the run. West eventually regained the rights to the book, which was sold to Twentieth Century Pictures for $4,000, and shortly thereafter, West was hired by Columbia Pictures to write a script. He sold the movie rights to his new novel, A Cool Million, and applied for a Guggenheim fellowship, which he did not get.

West made his move to Hollywood to become a screenwriter. In 1935, living in Los Angeles, struggling financially, and frequenting neighboring prostitutes, West contracted gonorrhea for a second time. He was living in the Parva-Sed Apartments, which was a home to prostitutes, madams, bit players, movie extras, and old vaudevillians. This experience provided the setting for The Cheaters, a novel later renamed The Day of the Locust. This final novel 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, The Day of the Locust was not widely read during his lifetime. The novel was published in 1939 and was much admired by American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, who had become a Hollywood friend. West was elected to the Screen Writers Guild shortly thereafter and met Eileen McKenney, a young, recent arrival in Hollywood from Ohio, at a party. They married a year later. He began to earn a handsome living with advances for a new novel, $10,000 in movie rights for A Cool Million, and a $25,000 for a film script.

Death and Legacy

While returning from a hunting trip, West, who was known as a reckless driver, died in a car accident in California on December 22, 1940. His wife, Eileen McKenney, was also killed in the crash, which occurred the day after his friend Scott Fitzgerald died.

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. In 1975 John Schlesinger directed a film version of The Day of the Locust starring William Atherton, Karen Black, Burgess Meredith, Donald Sutherland, and Geraldine Page. 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 of glamour and rampant materialistic values.

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