• U.S.

Books: The Great Despiser

8 minute read

THE COMPLETE WORKS OF NATHANAEL WEST (421pp.)—Farrar, Straus & Cudahy ($5).

“After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” asked T. S. Eliot as he entered the dry season of 1920. At about the same time, another American writer who devoted his life to illuminating this bleakly ruthless question was growing up. Manhattan-born Nathan Weinstein. who later went by the name of Nathanael West, was a knowledgeable man, and nothing he knew induced him to forgive anything. In his brief life (he died* in 1940, aged 37), West wrote only four brief novels, but they were a full life’s work. He wrote during that great interlude of negation, the Depression, when the “System” seemed to be breaking down —but among the whimpers of the jilted bachelors of arts of that drab time, West raised a man’s voice in savage rage against the general condition of man.

As their titles suggest, the novels are a queer quartet: The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931), Miss Lonelyhearts (1933), A Cool Million (1934), and The Day of the Locust (1939). During his lifetime,

West’s books were virtually ignored, but for some readers they have long been collector’s items. In the bland climate of U.S. letters, true satire rarely flourishes, but the chilling ferocity of West’s satirical attack would be rare anywhere. It involves not only a total rejection of common American ideals, but a Swiftian loathing for the texture of life itself. In his earliest work West recognized this of himself, in the character of a Cultured Fiend who says: “I was completely the mad poet. I was one of those ‘great despisers’ whom Nietzsche loved because ‘they are the great adorers; they are arrows of longing for the other shore.’ “

Laugh at the Laugh. When West first started to bat about with his phosgene-filled clown’s bladder, he was an expatriate boulevardier in Paris, sporting umbrella and plaid overcoat among the beards and corduroy of the lost generation. The Dream Life of Balso Snell seems on the surface like one of those near-sophomoric, painfully private japes played for the semiprivate public of a little magazine. It concerns the dream adventures of Balso Snell, a poet, who enters a Trojan Horse from the rear end (“Anus Mirabilis!”), and encounters a number of symbolic characters in the murky interior scenery.

Art religion, and hope itself are derided in the mad figures inhabiting the horse. One is a naked but derby-hatted fellow named Maloney the Areopagite, who is writing the life of Saint Puce, a flea that was born in Christ’s armpit. Another is John Raskolnikov Gilson, an eighth-grade schoolboy who wants to sleep with Miss McGeeney, his English teacher. In order to make his views known (“How sick I am of literary bitches. But they’re the only kind that’ll have me”), the boy has written a pamphlet that sounds very like West’s own credo: “I always find it necessary to burlesque the mystery of feeling at its source; I must laugh at myself, and if the laugh is ‘bitter,’ I must laugh at the laugh. The ritual of feeling demands burlesque . . .”

American Candide. In A Cool Million, West burlesqued American optimism of the Horatio Alger type. The book tells of Lemuel Pitkin, who was born in a “humble dwelling much the worse for wear . . . owing to the straitened circumstances of the little family.” Like Candide. Lemuel lives out the advice of a philosopher. His is the creed of Nathan “Shagpoke” Whipple, president of the Rat River National Bank and former President of the U.S. In the course of behaving well, e.g., rescuing girls with rich fathers from bolting horses, Lemuel goes to jail, loses a leg, all his teeth and an eye, is robbed of his savings, and is finally martyred by an assassin. On Pitkin’s Birthday, a national holiday, the vile Whipple addresses a mob of American fascists wearing coonskin caps: “Jail is his first reward. Poverty his second. Violence is his third. Death is his last.” Shagpoke’s youthful followers roar: “Hail, Lemuel Pitkin! All hail, the American Boy!”

What distinguishes all this from other purposeful literary nightmares that professed to see the ghost of fascism on the American scene during the ’30s is that West brought enough invention to one page for most novelists to spread thin over a book, and a style as lean and resourceful as a hungry wildcat. Above all, West was not parochial, did not advocate political or social systems. He was one of those men in whom pity must take the form of anger, but his anger was not anything as simple as anti-American or anti-Babbitt; it was anti-human nature.

Tomtomfoolery. From Horatio Alger, Satirist West moved on to Hollywood, where he had worked as a script writer. Apart from the usual film-colony grotesques, The Day of the Locust parades witless cowboys, actors, emotional cripples, dwarfs and a memorably mindless, chrome-pated sexpot. It ends in madness and violence, like the others—a mob at a Hollywood premiere tramples an artist, who is carried offstage screaming.

West’s other work seems like mere tom-tomfoolery compared to the drumfire on the nerves in Miss Lonely hearts.

Its hero is a newspaperman—”Miss Lonelyhearts” is his only name known to the reader—who writes the lovelorn column for the New York Post-Dispatch. He is one of West’s quasi-religious figures: “A beard would become him, would accent his Old Testament look.” To the millions without emotional refuge, says one character sardonically, “the Miss Lonelyhearts are the priests of twentieth-century America.” The mail brings the daily semiliterate confessions of horror. “Dear Miss Lonelyhearts,” one letter begins: “I am sixteen years old now and I dont know what to do … When I was a little girl it was not so bad because I got used to the kids on the block makeing fun of me, but now I would like to have boy friends like the other girls and go out Saturday nites. but no boy will take me because I was born without a nose—although I am a good dancer and have a nice shape and my father buys me pretty clothes.”

Damned Aspirin. This sort of thing, signed “Sincerely yours, Desperate,” nudges Miss Lonelyhearts to the brink of madness. He is helped along the way by his diabolical editor, a man named Shrike. Coached by Shrike, his newspaper colleagues sneer at his pity for his letter writers and for humanity in general. “A leper licker,” they call him in Delahanty’s speakeasy. Of himself, Miss Lonelyhearts says to the girl who loves him: “As soon as anyone acts viciously, you say he’s sick. Wife-torturers, rapers of small children, according to you they’re all sick. No morality, only medicine. Well, I’m not sick. I don’t need any of your damned aspirin. I’ve got a Christ complex. Humanity . . . I’m a humanity lover.” As Shrike puts it mockingly, Miss Lonely-hearts is “he of the singing heart—a still more swollen Mussolini of the soul.”

In terms of his own self-parody, Miss Lonelyhearts enacts a series of dramas with the hallucinatory clarity of an obscene nightmare. In a dream scene, a lamb is clumsily sacrificed. Miss Lonelyhearts makes love to a maudlin monster of a woman whom he does not want—like most of West’s characters, he suffers sex like a dreadful, joyless compulsion. The woman has a crippled husband, and so each succeeding scene of the inhuman triangle is frozen in horror, like a movie still, until the last episode, where, after “accepting” God, Miss Lonelyhearts rushes to meet the husband with his arms outspread in brotherhood. In panic at the other’s enveloping pity, the husband accidentally shoots him dead.

What West seems to be saying in spite of himself through all his quirky and relentless blasphemy is religious: that if Christ really is the Incarnate God, life is tolerable; but if mercy is merely embodied in the destructive and sentimental pity of a Miss Lonelyhearts, life is a foul joke.

West’s voice—an octave higher than most ears—will make its reverberant echoes heard for a long time. His portrait of the U.S. and of mankind is like a great caricature that remains in the mind long after the loved or hated face itself has been blurred in the memory. A hard man is good to find, and such a one was West.

*In a California car crash which also took the life of his wife Eileen McKenney, the original of sister Ruth McKenney’s My Sister Eileen.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com