On May 31, 1932 Nathanael West wrote Josephine Herbst that he an idea for his next novel. It was the first thing for West, the thing he needed to begin--an idea, a structure, a scheme. West explained what was next, "The breakdown of the American dream. I'm doing it satirically, of course. I'm re-writing the Horatio Alger myth--from barge boy to president or from shirt-sleeves to shirt-sleeves in one generation."
His plan to re-write was, in fact, to reverse Alger's rags to riches scheme--make it riches to rags, and so on. He would use his borrowed Andy Grant's Pluck extensively. He would reverberate out of nearly everything Alger wrote, Bound to Rise, Onward and Upward, Paddle Your Own Canoe, etc.
What A Cool Million would finally be, written so quickly, dashed nearly, is a reaction to what overwhelmed us. What the novel would lack would be true characters, characters West knew well, characters on which the action would work and ruin. What suffers here are ideas, politics, causes, and not the people who possess them. As one critic has suggested, the novel is like a "drugstore" of our many, varied, ills.
In the winter of 1932 Paris was a memory, a story, a growing fiction in the life of Nathanael West. He made of it what he needed, when he needed it. He finished Balso Snell there, or he stayed two years, something or so forth. Most everything West ever said about Paris was false, a lie in the conventional sense. He was a good, well, storyteller.
In the winter of 1932 the first chapters of Miss Lonelyhearts were published in his own literary magazine, Contact. They were published at the request of Williams Carlos Williams who found them interesting, even important. By the end of the year, five chapters in all would appear in magazines, four in Contact and one in Contempo. These chapters show West at work on revision. His protagonist is Thomas Matlock, and not Miss Lonelyhearts. He plays with first-person and then abandons it. A comparison shows West's wheels turning, the editor at work. Lessons can be learned.
By the end of the year, Miss L is finished. It is published in the spring of 1933. That's another story.
It is sometimes said that the French blame us for everything. Enough said.
In the winter of 1933, as West's masterpiece Miss Lonelyhearts was being prepared for publication, America was bouncing off the bottom. The Depression was a free fall that had already lasted over 3 1/2 years (the stablization and recovery would take another 8 1/2 years). West would, of course, get caught up in it. His publisher would go bankrupt the same month his book appeared. The publisher's creditors would seize all the inventory and so no books could be shipped to bookstores, etc.
However, one month later things would turn around (for West and not for America). West would regain his copyright, place the book at Harcourt, Brace, and sell the film rights for an amazing $4,000. That summer he would arrive in Hollywood for the first time. That stay would be brief, but its impact, lasting.
Notre Dame in renovation. A visual metaphor, and so on.
Writers often write against (or to expose) what I'll call "the good lie." A good lie is seen as a gesture of good intent, though its wave is often destructive. Parents participate. Politicians participate. Etc.
Nathanael West wrote to expose lies (good and otherwise) almost entirely. Read: Miss Lonelyhearts, A Cool Million, The Day of the Locust.
One example is this: during the Depression, the Retail Merchants Committee of the Portland Chamber of Commerce suggested to its members that the word "prosperity" replace "depression" in business advertising whenever possible. This simple slight-of-word seems banal enough here, perhaps, but its practice has been monstrous. The slight-of-word must be considered a work-horse of history.
Looking back in 1961, in an essay in the Kenyon Review, Josephine Herbst wrote, "The people in West's fiction are not so much looking for something they have lost as for something that they never had and will never had. Their lives are splintered, held together by wisps."
The times are partly to blame. The 1930s. Suffering abounds, and so on. As cultural historians have observed, the darker things got during the Depression the brighter the mass dream became, the sweeter the music, the more unbelievable the movie plots, etc. America is good at cheering itself up. Joan Didion was right, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live."
It's no wonder, then, West achieved no popular success when he published. His work, as Herbst points out, is full of "bottomless sadness, mad wit, and a melancholy tenderness." All these years later, it is this last quality that separates his talents. It is his tenderness, in the midst of so much agony and violence, that floats his voice beyond the era in which he lived.
Of this I'm sure: there is not a single character he would not try to save from Fate, if only he could.
I spent most of yesterday in the library with William Carlos Williams' In the American Grain. I am reading it because Williams and West worked together on the literary magazine Contact in 1931 and 1932. Together they published three issues. Certainly Williams had already explored his thinking about America, American history, American writing. Williams was already far along on that journey---twenty years West's senior, and so on. I believe now more than ever that it was West's work with Williams, coupled with the forced discipline of choosing poetry and prose for the magazine, which moved him so quickly forward in his own work. This is a watershed, is what I'm saying.
Clearly both Williams and West were interested in what was solely American in contemporary writing, in what made American writing different from European writing. In his provocative book, In the American Grain, Williams most interestingly tackles this in his chapter on Edgar Allan Poe. Here, Williams attempts to clean up Poe's weird reputation (or reputation for weird) and explain Poe was one of the first (and most brilliant) of modern writers. He compares Poe to Hawthorne, for example, an author Williams felt wrote European novels with American settings, etc.
At any rate, it is no accident that West later used Poe, quoted Poe, when describing (or defending) what he was up to in his work. West saw in Poe, perhaps what Williams saw, and more. West invested a great deal of time in fixing his own form, method, and diction for each of his novels. He always worked from a rubric of sorts. So, yes, before Pound's "make it new," there was Poe!
P.S. Above, a quick sketch of Nathanael West's birthplace on 81st Street in New York City.
There are a few physical spaces that stand in permanent repose, in contemplation--the garden at Versailles in early winter is one of them. Versailles in winter is a hollowed out place, a place of quiet that slips between places, time, a place outside of time. This is how it can feel when you're there. You are always there "afterwards." It is the very meaning of "afterwards." And somehow you feel strangely confident that you understand what happened here better than the actors who once walked this ground. This is how you feel, but I do not think it is right.
Afterwards. Afterwards, Versailles in winter, this is the time and space in which a biographer of a dead man works. As I contemplate my actor, Nathanael West, his path, his work, his intentions, I have that false sense of security that because I come afterwards I somehow might understand things more clearly and deeply. If you do, and I hope I will, this will not be why.
Afterwards is when George Orwell wrote "Why I Write." He wrote it in 1946, after the end of World War II. Because one of my jobs as biographer to Nathanael West is to understand and explain why he wrote as he did and what he did, and because he did not leave a short essay for me titled "Why I Write," I read Orwell's work with interest and jealousy and hope.
Orwell's clearity in the essay is wonderful, his clearity in repose, in afterwards, in winter in Versailles. He says, "I think there are four great motives for writing..." and then he names them, explains them each after each.
1) "Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc."
2) "Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement."
3) "Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity."
4) "Political purpose--using the word "political" in the widest possible sense, Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter people's idea of the kind of society that they should strive after."
Orwell, born in the same year as Nathanael West, wrote in and of the same times even if an ocean apart. For Orwell the world war was in his back yard. He wrote as the bombs dropped overhead, and so on. And when the skies cleared, and winter came, etc., etc., he wrote directly of his purpose and profession. It seems honest and true and is a gift to have.
Again, West left no such thing. But, in reading Orwell's truths I see something of what may have been West's. West certainly wrote of "aesthetic enthusiasm," in search of beauty in the arrangement of words. And too, out of "historical impulse," or to "see things as they are." West argued against the idea that he desired to "push the world in a certain direction," and indeed this has been a great criticism of his work--he offers no solution to the wrong he sees. It is not easy to believe there are no solutions to our nature, but perhaps this is what West concluded, or was in the process of concluding. I do not know yet. I am in the middle of things. I am the one looking through the lens of the camera above, the one looking on Versailles in early winter and wondering.