Monday, April 12, 2010

Nathanael West by Marion Meade

At dinner one evening with playwright and film writer Joseph Schrank, Nat described a book he had been reading, an analysis of military strategy and the tactical mistakes made by the allies in the Great War. "You wouldn't believe how stupid these generals are," He told Joe. The twenties had produced tomes of antiwar literature, notably the poetic novel All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque and Laurence Stallings and Maxwell Anderson's play What Price Glory. These were serious efforts, but Nat wondered if the subject might lend itself to satire.

Joe Schrank turned out to be an ideal collaborator. During 1937, when Joe was working at Warners Bros. and Nat at Republic Pictures while writing The Day of the Locust, they completed three drafts. In Gentleman, the War! ( 'Good Hunting') scatterbrained British officers, using a church in France as their field headquarters, map out their preparations while sounding exactly as if they were planning a shooting expedition. Their daily routine includes breakfast at eleven, tea in the garden, and an afternoon nap. None of the generals has an ounce of sense, and the appearance of generic German officers reveals them to be equally insipid. The play owed much to Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore, in which a nincompoop Sir Joseph Porter rose to First Lord of the Admiralty without ever going to sea. The collaboration proceeded so smoothly that Nat and Joe were able to give the finished play to an agent in November 1937; an option followed shortly thereafter. The producer was Jerome Mayer, an eager fellow in his twenties who had already produced several Broadway shows, all of them flops. Any producer was better than no producer.

The long-waited night of opening, November 21, 1938, was the Monday before Thanksgiving. Before the performance, the partying got under way with an alcoholic dinner at an Eighth Avenue saloon, in a crowd of friends. Then everybody sloshed over to the Hudson Theatre on Forty-fourth Street, where the curtain rose on an impressive set, the interior of a fifteenth-century church. The audience behaved as decorously as worshiper at a midnight Mass, not a good sign. Throughout the first act, when nobody laughed, Nat began to audibly grind his teeth, and at intermission fled down the street to a bar, where he spent most of the second act trying to quiet his nerves. Forcing himself to return for third act, he found the actors gamely plugging away on stage as the audience awaited deliverance with expressions of polite suffering. Obviously something had gone wrong.

The production brought facetious remarks from newspaper reviewers. The Wall Street Journal managed to slip in the old chestnut "laid an egg." The Times critic described Good Hunting as "nitwit theatre" notable for "faint and tedious jokes" and "disastrous direction". Still, Brooks Anderson advised his readers, "if you hurry, you may find some reputable actors defying doom in a damp whizbang." The play closed after two performances, which was better than opening and closing on the same night.

On Thanksgiving Day, In Erwinna with Joe and Bertha and the Milburns, Nat "hunkered down under a tree like a stunned ox.", Joe recalled. "He simply didn't know what hit him." What hit him, Nat admitted later, was " a rain of stones".

Two explanations may account for the harsh pummeling received by Good Hunting:

A. War. The "peace in our time" Munich agreement of September 29 divided Czechoslovakia among Nazi Germany, Poland, and Hungary, thus appeasing Hitler and broadening the conflict that had hitherto been confined to Spain. Most Americans, fearing another bloody European war, were in no mood to laugh. They were praying for the nightmare to go away.

B. Poultry. The play was a turkey.

B seems most likely.

Nat returned to California feeling as if he'd been "batted over the head with a stick with a nail in the end of it," he told Edmund Wilson. The failure of Good Hunting was a humiliating blow. It did teach him a lesson, though: he had no talent for writing plays.


The Day of the Locust was published by Random House the following April, just a few weeks after the fiction sensation of the year, John Steinbeck's tenth novel, The Grapes of Wrath, which blasted onto the bestseller list. Selling 2,500 copies a day in the first month, it rolled on to win a Pulitzer Prize and Twentieth Century Fox turned it into a successful film. Nat felt obliged to praise the work but could barely conceal his disdain to Malcolm Cowley. To him it seemed an unbelievable, wordy, proletarian melodrama. He wasn't comfortable with tear-jerking pamphleteering about good triumphing over evil and hope for a better world left him wanting to laugh or at least smile. As he pointed out to another friend: "There is nothing like (that) to root for in my work, and what's even worse, no rooters."

Few fantasies bring a writer greater pleasure than the prospect of large sales and unqualified praise. As notices began tricking ii, it became clear that Nat was going to get neither. The New York Times Book Review thought it " an effective grotesque," but it was the assassins who tended to stand out; Clifton Fadiman told the readers of The New Yorker to expect " a nice bit of phosphorescent decay," original but unpleasant"; the cannibals at Time dispatched the novel as "screwball grotesque," the reviewer from Books called it "emotionally inert" and "two dimensional". Distinguishing the good reviews from the bad could sometimes be tricky; the Los Angeles Times described it as a "dirty" novel that was "riotous and side-splitting." In the Saturday Review, George Milburn drubbed Nat for "hasty, disjointed writing." In New Republic Edmund Wilson called Nat "brilliant" and the novel "remarkable" but undercut the praise with sour details. In West's universe, he wrote, the people were not just bizarre but "sordid and senseless," the plot failed to provide even a marshmellow of a center.... [etc.]

From Scott Fitzgerald, appreciative of the grueling effort that went into a novel- and usually kind to other writers- came a note of congratulations. Nat gamely replied with a baseball analogy. "so far the box score stands: Good reviews- fifteen percent, bad reviews- twenty percent, brutal personal attacks, sixty percent." As for sales, "practically none."

Like every author with a new book, Nat fell into the role of an agitator, trying to goad his publisher into action. Surely there was something he could do to fire up sales. But Bennett Cerf had nothing to suggest beyond the customary excuses that only word of mouth sold books. The major book audience, Cerf supposed, was women. And by the way, he hoped Nat's next book would treat the opposite sex a bit kinder, because some female friends of his had expressed disgust for Locust in "very emphatic terms."

No magic strategy? Nat persisted.

None that Bennett knew of.

Very well, said Nat, sounding cheerful. He would have to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

Cerf excused Locust's miserable showing by insisting Hollywood novels didn't sell well. "By God," he declared to Nat, "if ever he published another one it would be "My 39 ways of making love" by Hedy Lamarr. What he really meant was that Hollywood novels like Locust didn't sell. At that very time, he was planning to publish a first novel by Budd Schullberg- What Makes Sammy Run?, which became an instant bestseller when released in 1941. It was, he thought, "probably the best book about Hollywood ever written."

But it is The Day of the Locust that continues to be rated as the most penetrating novel ever written about Hollywood. Seventy years after publication, it remains the gold standard in its genre, followed by F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished The Last Tycoon and What Makes Sammy Run? The novel has inspired a deluge of theses, dissertation and essays by those West called "the literature boys I detest." He has been appointed a poet of the profane, a disciple of the Marquis de Sade, the originator of sick humor, and - how he would have loathed this one- "the most indisputably Jewish writer yet to appear in America." Other Westologists have contended that his motifs anticipated the rise of Hitler, World War II and the Holocaust. He was hardly alone, though, in his premonitions that the world was heading for trouble; similar ideas were floating in the air throughout the thirties. Those who extolled his books as apocalyptic visions would especially annoy Josephine Herbst, who believed he was "the last person interested in the prophetic." In the years to come, she would remind the academic "bright boys": "Don't put the fools cap of prediction on Pep West's dead head." The man she knew was lovable and sweet-tempered, a stylish, dignified gentleman, very different from the scofflaw writer launching " a savage unloving assault' against anything in his path.

Taken together, West's four novels can be viewed as the history of both his and his father's lives in roughly 420 pages. Balso Snell was a rebellious adolescent's parlor trick designed to shock and offend the grown-ups and show off the number of books he read. In Miss Lonelyhearts, he had developed the maturity to meditate on the meaning of life (none) and the possibility of alleviating human suffering (hopeless) A Cool Million, produced a year after his father's death, attempted to document how easily a lifetime of raw labor could amount to nothing- or, as he called it, shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in one generation. Similarly, the ghost of Max Weinstein hovers over the torchbearers in Locust expecting to claim their earthly rewards in Southern California. But one aspect of West's fiction had no acknowledged part in his or his father's life.

At a time when gay fictional characters were practically non-existent, every one of West's novels contains unmistakable homosexual motifs and homosexual characters, closeted, outed, and in-between. In the 1930's, the reality was that no American novelists- not even Josephine Herbst- dared identify themselves as gay or bisexual. Revealing one's homosexuality was unthinkable, the equivalent of career suicide. West's obsessive attraction to the forbidden subject could pop up and march around center stage in his work, but it could never be overtly examined.


  1. In 1940 RKO studios paired Nat with Boris Ingster, a Russian who had studied cinematography at the Moscow Institute of Cinema with Ergei Eisenstein. When Paramount invited Eisenstein to Hollywood in 1930, Boris came long as part of his entourage, was bewitched by Southern California and stayed behind when Eisenstein returned to Russia. Although he knew five languages and learned to speak excellent English, his writing skills remained poor. The two were a perfect match. They quickly developed a film treatment for A Cool Million for which Columbia Studios bid $10,000 (75,000 in today's dollars.) Two weeks later RKO bought their 26 page treatment for Bird In Hand for $25,000 ($380,000 today). They began receiving guaranteed employment at $600 a week at RKO, while his next novel for Random House remained on hold. For the first time in his life he finally had money of his own to burn.

    On Decemeber 22, 1940, Nathanael West and new wife- Eileen McKenney- died in a horrendous auto crash on the way back from a hunting trip in Mexico. He was always a terrible driver, prone to driving through stop signs and hitting the accelerator when he should have the brake.

    "Lonelyhearts; The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney" by Marion Meade; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, 2010