Five Fascinating Facts about… Nathanael West

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Compiled by Oliver Tearle

To accompany our review of Daunt Books’ new reprint of Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, reviewed here, we’ve asked Oliver Tearle to give us Five Fascinating Facts about Nathanael West.

  1. Nathanael West went to Brown University – but only because of a chance coincidence. West was born Nathan Weinstein (his parents were Ashkenazi Jewish), and it just so happened that another student called Nathan Weinstein was enrolled at the same college. West rather boldly appropriated his namesake’s college transcript, thereby gaining admittance to the prestigious Rhode Island university.

2. His first novel has been described by critic Harold Bloom as ‘squalid and dreadful’. The first of West’s four novels, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, was published in 1931 when West was still in his twenties. The largely plotness novel is about a young man who comes upon the Trojan Horse – yes, the actual Trojan Horse of legend – in the inside of which he meets a cast of weird characters. Alan Ross called the novel ‘a sneer in the bathroom mirror at Art’.

3. His 1939 novel The Day of the Locust features a character called Homer Simpson. It is unlikely that Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, was drawing directly on West’s novel when he was casting about for a name for the father of his cartoon family, however – not least because Groening’s father’s name was Homer. It is, however, a nice coincidence.

4. His brother-in-law was one of America’s leading humorists. Nathanael’s brother Laura West married S. J. Perelman, the author, screenwriter, and regular contributor to The New Yorker. Given West’s perpetual struggles to make a living from his writing, it’s worth quoting Perelman’s most famous pronouncement on writing here: ‘The dubious privilege of a freelance writer is that he’s given the freedom to starve wherever he likes.’

5. He died the day after F. Scott Fitzgerald. The author of The Great Gatsby died of a heart attack, aged just 44, on December 21, 1940. West died the next day, possibly as a result of hearing the news of his friend’s death (which he only learned of on the 22nd): West ran a stop sign and both he and his wife died in the ensuing car accident. He was only 37, seven years younger than Fitzgerald.

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Dr Oliver Tearle is a lecturer in English at Loughborough University and freelance writer. He runs the Interesting Literature website.

Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts (Daunt, 1933 repr.2014), 110pp.

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