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He Foresaw History

Author Nathanael West died 56 years ago in relative obscurity--a man ahead of his time. Perhaps now, his time has come.

July 30, 1997|DAVID L. ULIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Nathanael West died on Dec. 22, 1940, in an automobile accident in El Centro, it sent barely a ripple through the literary world.

Just 37, the author of four slim novels that between them had sold only a few thousand copies, he'd spent much of the previous seven years as a screenwriter, working on what he once called "grade-C scripts only--dog stories and such things for low pay." Eighteen months before his death, in a letter to critic Edmund Wilson, West explained his situation:

"My books meet no needs except their own, their circulation is practically private and I'm lucky to be published. . . . The radical press, although I consider myself on their side, doesn't like it, and thinks it even fascist sometimes, and the literature boys, whom I detest, detest me in turn. . . . The proof of all this is that I've never had the same publisher twice. . . . My stuff goes from the presses to the drugstores."

Even at the end, West's most significant achievements were overshadowed; although his novel "The Day of the Locust" is now considered a definitive piece of Hollywood fiction, a newspaper caption accompanying a photograph of the crash site identified him simply as a "Hollywood scenarist." His first name was misspelled.

Fifty-six years later, West remains a figure of mystery, a wraith-like specter haunting the fringes of American literature. Inasmuch as he is remembered, it's as a literary oddity, a marginal writer of the 1930s whose books alternate between the negligible and the profound. For all the enduring resonance of his masterpieces, "Miss Lonelyhearts" and "The Day of the Locust," with their bleak, unrelenting portrayals of the tension between private and public imagination, West has become almost invisible, as if his work sprang full form out of its time.

"There's a history to that," explains Jay Martin, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and author of "Nathanael West: The Art of His Life" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970), the only full-scale biography of West. "Throughout the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, he was a kind of a cult figure; people were interested in him but little was known." Adds novelist T. Coraghessan Boyle, who cites West as an influence, "He died young and had a small output, which makes him difficult to pin down."

Boyle's point is a good one, for in a product-oriented culture like this, we tend to overlook writers who don't leave much work behind. With West, that's been exaggerated by the vagaries of his estate; his wife, Eileen, died with him in the accident, and his brother-in-law and literary executor, S.J. Perelman, took a mercurial attitude toward promoting him.

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Now, however, the time has come for a reassessment, for West, finally, to receive his due. The prestigious Library of America has just released a single volume called "Novels & Other Writings," which features everything he ever published, as well as nearly 400 pages of previously unavailable work. Edited by Sacvan Bercovitch, a professor at Harvard, it is the first West omnibus to include the handful of occasional pieces to appear during his lifetime, as well as a sample of his writing for the screen. There is also a play, "Good Hunting," co-written with Joseph Schrank, that ran for two performances on Broadway in 1938, and a revealing selection of letters.

Thus, "Novels & Other Writings" emerges as a kind of literary reclamation project, presenting the author's career in a complex light. "West," Bercovitch points out, "is a pivotal figure. He represents both the high point of the visionary tradition in American literature and a fantastic critique of it. His work relies on a mix of cynicism and compassion, which you can trace from the beginning."

In such a context, West's first novel, "The Dream Life of Balso Snell," a modernist fable about a poet who gets lost in the intestines of the Trojan Horse, takes on a resonance it might not otherwise have. Says Jonathan Veitch, author of the forthcoming "American Superrealism: Nathanael West and the Politics of Representation in the 1930s," it is "a breviary from which West takes his motifs: excessiveness, scatological humor, a preoccupation with violence."

The novel also contains one of West's most revealing comments on the writer's life: "The wooden horse, Balso realized as he walked on, was inhabited solely by writers in search of an audience, and he was determined not to be tricked into listening to another story. If one had to be told, he would tell it."

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For West, the very substance of modern life exists in the place where the medium and the audience connect. His aesthetic was firmly rooted in the idea of mass communication, which by the 1930s, he recognized, had begun to change American culture in unpredictable ways. It's one of the things that sets him apart from his contemporaries, and, as such, may have contributed to his marginal status.

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