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The Day of the Locust | Study Guide

Nathanael West

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The Day of the Locust | Context


Movies and the Great Depression

Despite President Franklin D. Roosevelt's efforts through the New Deal to stimulate the economy after the Great Depression, 25 percent of American workers were still unemployed in 1933—a staggering increase from three percent unemployment before the Stock Market Crash of 1929. By 1935 unemployment only marginally improved to 20 percent. During this same period 60–70 million people went to the movies each week. President Roosevelt observed that "when the spirit of the people is lower than any other time, it is a splendid thing that for 15 cents an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles." The American historian Dixon Wecter saw a solace in films somewhat distinct from Roosevelt's smiling baby—an escape to "a never-never land of luxury and melodrama, sex and sentiment."

Hollywood's heyday at this time was marked by the shift early in the decade from silent pictures to talkies. Along with the impoverishment of so many Americans, the funds needed to make talking pictures were astronomical. Hollywood was awash in money, including huge salaries to attract major stars and screenwriters along with technical expenses. Popular genres of film included screwball comedies, social dramas, westerns, and musicals. Musicals were particularly expensive because of the feat of coordinating music and voice sound tracks with the action. Moreover, with the growth of the studio system, both stars and, eventually, screenwriters had to adhere to contracts guaranteeing exclusivity. The major studios were in competition for the best and most glamorous actors and writers, and, nearing the end of the decade, stars such as Clark Gable were making upwards of $7,000 a week (approximately $115,500 today). It cost the large Depression-era sum $3,900,000 to make the Civil War drama Gone With the Wind in 1939.

By the early 1930s it was clearly established that the movies were in the essential business of social uplift—reaffirming and reinstating at a time of stress, despair, and disconnection, a positive view based on the belief that America was a place of individualism, social equality, and progress. The plots and characters tended to be within the realm of the possible, conveying messages of hope that were part of the new function of film in purposeful response to the continuing dislocation and economic stress at home matched by alarm at the rise of fascist dictators in Europe.

Screenwriters, Politics, and Novelists in Hollywood

Written during West's time as a screenwriter in Hollywood, The Day of the Locust mirrors the many historical and social difficulties of the late 1930s. According to historian Ian Scott, trouble was "brewing at home and abroad" and Hollywood "assumed responsibility for diverting attention from the dire realities at hand"—the Depression (1929–39) and the rise of fascism in Europe that would lead to World War II (1939–45)—and offering "hope for the better days ahead." West, a secular Jew who had already changed his name to a more neutral sounding one, was not insensitive to the racial tensions of the period. (Secular Jews observe some cultural practices and family customs without an emphasis on religion.) During the '30s, the studio system was consolidated and six of the eight new large studios were run, for the most part, by Jewish moguls whose prominence led to resentment in Hollywood. In Europe, German aggression against Jews began in 1938 and 1939, the same years West composed The Day of the Locust.

West arrived in Hollywood in 1935, when fierce competition among the studios brought a significant number of literary figures westward to work as very well-paid screenwriters. As Scott notes, the rivalry among the career screenwriters, some exceptionally gifted, others not, and the newly arriving literary folk, arose in salary disparities and technical disagreements. According to Scott, there was tension everywhere: the career screenwriters hated the literary writers, the writers hated Hollywood, the moguls hated the writers, and the directors hated both for trying to steal credit for grand ideas. American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald earned money by satirizing himself in a series of stories in Esquire as the classic example of the writer who didn't understand that film was not a writer's medium. According to Scott, American writer Raymond Chandler complained "all the way to the bank" with the large sums he made in the film industry.

For the literary types, including West, Fitzgerald, and fellow American writer Upton Sinclair and British writers Aldous Huxley and W. Somerset Maugham, screenwriting was replete with petty annoyances: writing on schedule was a threat to creativity and working in assigned collaborations was adverse to creative habits. The greatest difficulties arose from the scripts themselves. Hollywood's habit of sugarcoating even difficult social and political issues for their Depression-era audiences did not sit well with these socially conscious writers. The screenwriters did their jobs creating socially conscious films but from the perspectives of lighthearted genres. The message was that the audience needn't take anything too seriously. Screwball comedy was seen by some critics as a genre intended not to expose the problems of society but to bind it together through laughter.

The Day of the Locust takes up these issues quite specifically, through the naive—or perhaps immature—young artist Tod Hackett. Tod is fascinated by, but makes excuses for, imitation and violence. While he seeks the truth, he regularly softens his judgment regarding the insincerity, imitation, disloyalty, disrespect, and emotional and psychological violence practiced in the name of survival by the novel's characters. He explains away Faye Greener's materialism, ignores Abe Kusich's violence, and accepts Audrey Jenning's sleazy profession and Claude Estee's voyeurism. At the book's center, in Chapter 14, Tod re-envisions his epic painting as a high-strung celebration of Los Angeles, presumably rationalizing the violence and deception he originally imagined at the core. Tod Hackett's struggle with appearance versus reality results in insanity. When, engulfed by violence at the end of the novel, Tod Hackett can no longer evade reality, and he erupts in laughter followed by a scream.

Satire in The Day of the Locust

Satire is the art of joking over serious matters for the purpose of creating change or improvement: an attack or exposure of the failings or folly of a public figure, a repugnant social or cultural practice, or a flawed political situation, for example. For the most part, satire is driven by sarcasm, exaggeration, and irony.

In The Day of the Locust West uses exaggeration to demonstrate the false nature of identity among the residents of Hollywood. For example, Earle Shoop, the harmless and ineffectual drugstore cowboy who pursues Faye Greener, is a parody of a cowhand. Unlike most of the Hollywood types in the novel, Earle is recognizable as an inauthentic version of what, strangely enough, he likely is, a real cowhand. In order to survive in Hollywood, Earle self-consciously performs his identity. Earle's favorite hangout is in front of a saddlery shop where, stunning in full dress cowboy regalia rather than the outfit of a working cowboy, he stares up at a sign on a roof advertising "Malted Milks Too Thick for a Straw." In contrast to an authentic person, Earle is an elongated mannequin, a clotheshorse, thin as a pole, "over six feet tall. The big Stetson he [wears adds] five inches to his height and the heels of his boot another three."

Homer Simpson, by contrast, is a troubled man whose unconventional identity as a misfit is represented in super-real fashion. Homer's huge hands, a projection of his troubled mental state, operate independently of Homer's will. Filling the bathroom basin with cold water, Homer tries to awaken his hands: "They lay quietly on the bottom like a pair of strange aquatic animals. When they were thoroughly chilled and began to crawl about, he lifted them out and hid them in a towel."

The surrealist movement in the arts, based in psychoanalytic theory that fascinated so many artists and writers in the early decades of the 20th century, featured fanciful or seemingly incompatible imagery. Homer's hands are a surrealist invention—a key to his identity and his neurotic sexual guilt, despair, and deprivation. Because his hands act independently from his body and mind, impulsive sexual moves then may be excused. His hands can behave as they like without the whole person accepting responsibility.

The satire in the novel surfaces in comically absurd passages: the surrealist moments, the parody, and the satire, which do not justify the horrors of Hollywood as laughing matters but serve to engage readers with the politics and social angst of West's art. The human comedy in West is black and, in The Day of the Locust, baldly disturbing. The surrealism and exaggeration are part of the power of the novel's unconventional truth telling.

Nathanael West and Late Modernism

World War I (1914–18) with its high mortality count, new explosives, and chemical weapons—products of human ingenuity—caused a psychological crisis among survivors. The old rules, civil habits, and customs had not protected humankind from the atrocities of the human imagination—the technologies of destruction. In the period that followed leading artists and thinkers accepted the radical notion of the death of God along with the predictable result: humankind was foundering in its own disorder—what Irish writer James Joyce called "the nightmare of history." Within this context, the characteristics of literary modernism were born:

  • attention to abstraction
  • preference for form over content
  • circumvention of established conventions of grammar and syntax
  • re-invention of language
  • formalism of language that calls attention to itself
  • ethical concerns
  • discussions over the power and role of art

The critic Steven Weisberger notes that modernist writer Nathanael West manages to innovate without losing the element of humanity. Weisberger points specifically to the episodic plotting and the emotionally charged episodes in The Day of the Locust. Weisberger finds the "way out of linear history" when the character of Tod Hackett recognizes in movie sets the "past as dream dump." Weisberger aptly calls the past "an anxious field," taking in both Tod's personal worries and the anxieties of the artist as he makes his art always in relation to what has gone before.

The Day of the Locust also treats time as place in the dream dump of a set that makes a ruined jumble of world history. Here, the specifics of history are translated into signs of decay that are closely related to the book's socioeconomic setting—a world of haves and have nots during the Great Depression (1929–39). Time also becomes place by virtue of the temporal dislocations in the text. That is, the narrative is not linear. Homer's arrival and his rental of the house on Pinyon Canyon, for example, occurs in retrospective narration sometime after he has made his appearance in Faye's life.

Finally, critic Eric White notes that late modernism often sets politics aside and draws on "journalism's traditions" by portraying "unflinching contact with social realities." In The Day of the Locust such journalistic reality is evident in the moment when Faye Greener smacks her father in the teeth for teasing her and when Maybelle Loomis teaches her eight-year-old son about sexuality.

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