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Funny as a Crutch

Nathanael West

by Robert Emmet Long
Frederick Ungar, 202 pp. (1985; out of print)

1.

Nathanael West (1903–1940) published four novels, wrote many screenplays, and left strewn about among his papers “Unpublished Writings and Fragments.” West had the masochist’s subtle attachment to his failures, a recognition which is, in its fashion, somehow self-affirming. He reports that the income from his first three novels was $780: if one keeps accounts, woefully true, but, in a stretch, like Byron hobbling about on his lame foot and swimming the Hellespont. In a letter to Edmund Wilson:

I forget the broad sweep, the big canvas, the shot-gun adjectives, the important people, the significant ideas, the lessons to be taught, the epic Thomas Wolfe, the realistic James Farrell…. The proof of all this is that I’ve never had the same publisher twice—once bitten, etc.—because there is nothing to root for in my books and what is even worse, no rooters. Maybe they’re right. My stuff goes from the presses to the drug stores.

Biographical and critical studies appear, important reviews, if not in a flood, an impressive stream of recognition. And yet, it is the practice of critics to lament the neglect of Nathanael West, despite the daunting accumulation. West, sly hypochondriac that he was, puts the critics in the position of a crusading doctor reviving the moribund. It may be that West is not so much neglected as unread while more or less well known, a condition obscure and not subject to arithmetic. High reputation and, as the decades pass, the name honored, but the interest, the readers, the glare fading except for graduate students ever in the stacks seeking a “fresh” topic.

Remember Edward Dahlberg, author of Bottom Dogs, with an introduction by D.H. Lawrence, many other books and in particular Because I Was Flesh, a dazzling autobiography, starring, so to speak, his mother, a lady barber with her chair, her clippers and talc. Perhaps it was Dahlberg’s misfortune to have Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway as contemporaries.

And there is the case of Willa Cather of Nebraska and Ellen Glasgow of Richmond, Virginia. Willa Cather is still a bright, commanding figure; Ellen Glasgow, honored and read in her time, is but dimly flickering now. True, breaking the sod and hustling cattle out west is more riveting than the manners of Richmond with echoes of Henry James, an old pioneer only in matters of nuance. Nathanael West’s “neglect” is not so striking. He is like the boy in the orphanage who, when the lads pass by, will be adopted by the town mayor but, after a time, not quite what was wanted and so returned to the line with his curls and snappy come-backs, there to be “placed” once again.

A letter to Fitzgerald:

My dear Mr. Fitzgerald, You have been kind enough to say that you liked my novel, Miss Lonelyhearts. I am applying for a Guggenheim Fellowship and I need references for it. I wonder if you would be willing to let me use your name as a reference? It would be enormously valuable to me…. I know very few people, almost none whose names would mean anything to the committee…. If you can see your way to do this, it would make me very happy.

Fitzgerald responded, naming West as a “potential leader in the field of prose fiction.” Other supporting letters were written by Malcolm Cowley and Edmund Wilson. The application was rejected. West’s biographer, Robert Emmet Long, tells of him at a boys’ camp in the Adirondacks: “He tried out for baseball, but was the sort of boy who, in fielding a fly, would be struck by the ball on the forehead and fall to the ground, which did, in fact, once happen to him.” There you have it.

His first novel, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, is not designed to please, beginning perhaps with the choice of the peculiar name “Snell” for the central character. Snell somehow finds himself in the ancient city of Troy, where he comes upon the famous wooden horse of the Greeks. The only way to enter the horse for his journey is by way of the alimentary canal. “O Anus Mirabilis!” A work of only some fifty pages, it is a dazzling parade of literary and cultural references written when the author was only twenty-six years old, years spent apparently reading everything in the public library. Balso’s guide in the classical journey through the intestine argues with him about Daudet, Picasso, and Cézanne, “the sage of Aix.” Fleeing the contentious guide, Balso comes upon a man, naked except for a derby with thorns sticking out, who is “attempting to crucify himself with thumb tacks.”

The man is Maloney the Areopagite, who is writing a biography of Saint Puce, a flea who was “born, lived, and died, beneath the arm of our Lord.” Then he meets a young man named John Gilson who calls himself John Raskolnikov Gilson, has a Crime Journal in which he tells of murdering an idiot, a dishwasher at the Hotel Astor, the incident a sort of camp, homely version of Crime and Punishment, since this Raskolnikov is Class 8B, Public School 186. The book ends with the thoughts of a young man imagining the suicide of his girlfriend, Janey, who is pregnant. Her young man says, “Suicide is a charming affectation on the part of a young Russian, but in you, dear Janey, it is absurd.” Janey’s mother, seeing her daughter threatening to jump from a window, says: “Go away from that window—fool! You’ll catch your death-cold or fall out—clumsy!”

The Dream Life of Balso Snell was published by Contact Press, a small, avant-garde group based in Paris. It had been recommended by William Carlos Williams, then an editor at the press. The book is generally thought to be a failure and on first reading one is inclined to agree. However, on a second reading, the book gains in vitality, originality, and perhaps bravado. West’s novels are offered as satires, asking the reader to have knowledge about what is being satirized: here, it is literary criticism, popular culture and its clichés, popular Christianity, and other matters. Along the way, there is a satirical aside about biography. A schoolteacher, Miss McGeeney, is writing a biography of Samuel Perkins, the biographer of E.F. Fitzgerald. Miss McGeeney explains:

And who is Fitzgerald? You are of course familiar with D.B. Hobson’s life of Boswell. Well, E.F. Fitzgerald is the author of a life of Hobson. The subject of my biography, Samuel Perkins, wrote a life of Fitzgerald…. Perkins’ face was dominated by his nose. This fact I have ascertained from a collection of early photographs lent me by a profound admirer of Perkins and a fellow practitioner of his art. I refer to Robert Jones, author of a book called Nosolgie.

She continues: “It seems to me that someone must surely take the hint and write the life of Miss McGeeney, the woman who wrote the biography of the man who wrote the biography of the man who wrote the biography of Boswell.” This is lighthearted enough, but Balso’s passage through the landscape is a malodorous journey peopled with the misshapen and deformed, described with what might be called inspired relish. The suicidal Janey begins as a pregnant hunchback, carrying her baby in the sack. The novel is a masturbatory dream, written with the cleverness that is sometimes spoken of as too-clever-by-half.

Nathanael West had some difficulty deciding just who he was in the literal sense. He was born Nathan Weinstein, which didn’t quite suit his idea of himself. His first improvement was to change Nathan, not to Nathaniel, as in Hawthorne, but to the curious Nathanael, the alteration giving the common name a mysterious and somehow glamorous ring. When he was asked by Edmund Wilson how Weinstein became West—the answer: “Horace Greeley said, ‘Go west, young man. So I did.’” In any case, he became Nathanael West legally in 1926 when he was twenty-three years old. His maternal family was named Wallenstein and came from what is now Lithuania. His father, Max Weinstein, was also Russian and both families migrated to the United States in the 1880s. The father became a successful New York builder, first of tenements on the Lower East Side and later of more advanced and spacious buildings in upper Manhattan. Their son, the author, was born at 151 East 81st Street.

In a way that was typical of refined and ambitious families, young Nathan was sent to a progressive school, P.S. 81, that stressed “creativity.” He didn’t do well there and transferred to another, later entering the competitive DeWitt Clinton High School, from which he failed to graduate. As a natural con man, he added six credits to his transcript and thus was accepted at Tufts University. There he joined a fraternity and had a good time but failed in all his subjects. Then he happened upon the transcript of another Nathan Weinstein with better marks, which allowed him to transfer to Brown University as a sophomore. There he sometimes went by the name of Nathanael von Wallenstein Weinstein. At Brown, his friendship with S.J. Perelman began. He wrote for the college paper, made drawings, and even seemed somewhat preppy in his Brooks Brothers suits. He also managed to contract gonorrhea.

West, a sort of genteel con man in his youth, will in his fiction create characters inclined to sly improvements on the limitations of the given. In the memories of his friends, he appears rather shy and reserved and quietly likable. Edmund Wilson, Lillian Hellman, Scott Fitzgerald were lifelong friends. S.J. Perelman married his sister. True, his sense of the main chance was always there to be exploited; when he was manager of the Sutton Club Hotel with its empty rooms, we find Edmund Wilson, Lillian Hellman, Dashiell Hammett, James T. Farrell, and others happily in line for free lodgings. Before that, Uncle Saul and Uncle Charles had somehow been prevailed upon to fund a trip to Paris. After his second novel, Miss Lonelyhearts, he was employed in Hollywood at a respectable salary. His early love affairs had a way of collapsing from inanition on his part. Supposed to meet Beatrice Mathieu, a fashion writer for The New Yorker, in Paris for a confirmation of their engagement, he failed “to show.” Another backed out when she learned he had slept with Lillian Hellman. At last he married Eileen McKenney, the subject of a popular book by her sister, Ruth McKenney. Both were killed when West ran through a stop sign outside El Centro, California. He was thirty-seven years old.

2.

Miss Lonelyhearts, a masterwork, came about when he met a woman who wrote a lovelorn column for the Brooklyn Eagle. She read out some of the letters she had received and West was inspired to create a man, using the name “Miss Lonelyhearts,” for a New York paper. The letters at the beginning of the novel are “stamped from the dough of suffering with a heart-shaped cookie knife.”

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