Funny as a Crutch

Nathanael West

by Robert Emmet Long
Frederick Ungar, 202 pp. (1985; out of print)
Nathanael West
Nathanael West; drawing by David Levine

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Nathanael West (1903–1940) published four novels, wrote many screenplays, and left strewn about among his papers “Unpublished Writings and Fragments.”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…


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