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Nathanael West

(1903-1940)


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Nathanael West was born Nathan Wallenstein Weinstein, on October 17, 1903, in New York City. After dropping out of high school, West gained admission into Tufts University by forging his high school transcript. After being expelled from Tufts, West got into Brown University by appropriating the transcript of a fellow Tufts student who was also named Nathan Weinstein. While at Brown, West became increasingly interested in unusual literary style and the writings of French surrealists and British and Irish poets.

Following graduation, he went to Paris for three months, and it was at this point that he changed his name to Nathanael West. Shortly thereafter he returned home to work in construction for his father as well as a night manager of the Kenmore Hotel in Manhattan. He also worked a short while for the magazine Contact with William Carlos Williams. Though West had been working on his writing since college, it was not until his quiet night job at the hotel that he found the time to put his novel together. Finally, in 1931, West published The Dream Life of Balso Snell, a novel he had conceived in college. Then, in 1933, West published Miss Lonelyhearts.

In 1933, West bought a farm in eastern Pennsylvania, but soon got a job as a contract scriptwriter for Columbia Pictures and moved to Hollywood. In 1934, he published a third novel, A Cool Million. None of West’s three works were selling well, however, so he spent the mid-1930s in financial difficulty, sporadically collaborating on screenplays. It was during this time that West wrote The Day of the Locust, which would be published in 1939. Sadly this was the last book West ever wrote.

West died on December 22, 1940, in a car accident. Ironically, West’s reputation grew after his death, especially with the publication of his collected novels in 1957. Miss Lonelyhearts is widely regarded as West’s masterpiece, and The Day of the Locust still stands as one of the best novels written about the early years of Hollywood. Most of West’s fiction is, in one way or another, a response to the Depression that hit America with the stock market crash in October 1929. West saw the American dream as having been betrayed, both spiritually and materially.


Sources: “Nathanael West (1903 - 1940).” American Jewish Historical Society, American Jewish Desk Reference, (NY: Random House, 1999). pg. 563-4, Nathanael West

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