ABPress

From suburbia and skyscraper scrawl to the open prairies and 'local color', slum life to rural idyll: reprinting American and British literary classics.

Miss Lonelyhearts
Nathanael West

£6.00

Nathanael West’s novel was published in 1933 and became the basis for several Hollywood films. It was written while he worked as the night manager of a Manhattan hotel. Miss Lonelyhearts is an unnamed male advice columnist, a job derided by others who work for the newspaper. As he starts to take his responsibilities seriously, he falls prey to depression, alcohol, fisticuffs in bars, religion, days out to the countryside, and intemperate lust; also he contends with the jive of the newspaper’s features editor.

AMERICAN RETRO SERIES : AR08
C format paperback (216mm x 135mm)
gatefold cover, 96pp

cover design by Alexandra Andries

Biography

NATHANAEL WEST (1903-1940) was born Nathan Weinstein in Upper West Side in New York City. He was expelled from school and only just passed his degree at Brown University. He had gained admittance to both college and university by deceit, after he had forged his high school transcript and ‘borrowed’ one from a cousin who had the same name for his university entrance. (Malcolm Cowley referred to these misdemeanours as “the ethics of Dada.”) His Jewish background excluded him from much of fraternity life at university. He was supremely inadequate at sport, a trait he mythologized as raconteur and writer, and he flunked his classes spectacularly. When a student he read widely, though he was drawn far more to French surrealism, Dada and the Fin de Siècle British and Irish writers, Oscar Wilde especially, than to the bestselling realism of his time.

His family’s business failures meant that his financial support, which had afforded him life in Paris for three months in 1926, was withdrawn. From the late 1920s he worked for his father’s building firm, and eventually as night manager of Manhattan’s Hotel Kenmore Hall, then assistant manager of the Sutton Hotel, East 56th Street, which he turned into a writers’ retreat. Dashiell Hammett finished The Maltese Falcon there; Maxwell Bodenheim, Erskine Caldwell, S. J. Perelman (West’s brother-in-law), Edmund Wilson and others were frequent overnight visitors. This job also afforded West time to write: The Dream Life of Balso Snell was published in 1931 and Miss Lonelyhearts, considered his best novel, was published in 1933, though it had been started in early 1930 and finished in late 1932; A Cool Million followed in 1934.

These novels were commercially unsuccessful though. West relocated to Hollywood as a contract scriptwriter for Columbia Pictures. He worked on B movies mostly, with no outstanding success, and completed his last novel, The Day of the Locust, which was published in 1939. He had written to Scott Fitzgerald: “So far the box score stands: Good reviews—fifteen percent, bad reviews—twenty five percent, brutal personal attacks, sixty percent.” He admitted though that: “Sales: practically none.” This disappointed West, who originally had high hopes for the books but reflected that “I seem to have no market whatsoever.” Bennett Cerf, his publisher at Random House, was enthusiastic initially but in fact did little to promote the book. West described the book to Edmund Wilson as a “definite flop.”

Nathanael West died in California in December 1940 with his wife in a car accident when he jumped a stop line; by repute he was a bad driver. He was only 37. His great friend F. Scott Fitzgerald had died the previous day.

“…an artist can afford to be anything but dull.” – NATHANAEL WEST

“Wildly funny, desperately sad, brutal and kind, furious and patient there was no other like Nathanael West.” – DOROTHY PARKER

 

Contemporary reviews

Nathanael West died aged only 37, never to receive the recognition he deserved during his lifetime. This is West’s second novel, published originally in 1933 by Liveright of New York. It is possibly the best known of his four novels, and it had three film adaptions based upon it. It is set in New York during the depression and is described often as an Expressionist black comedy, and as a critique of post-war America and disenchantment with the so called American Dream.

West’s literary reputation at the time of his death was negligible. His literary consequence was gradually reassessed, and achieved a higher rank only in the 1950s. His moral satire – he was deeply disappointed by the American Dream and what he regarded as the capitalist nightmare it had encouraged – has become since a masthead for subsequent and similar dissent. W. H. Auden in 1962 wrote of what he termed “West’s Disease.” West’s novels still read as bleak and unremittingly dark. Auden said that West’s books were “parables about a Kingdom of Hell whose ruler is not so much a Father of Lies as a Father of Wishes.”

To look at the reception his writing received and how it changed over decades says much about literary taste. When Miss Lonelyhearts, often held to be West’s best work, was published in 1933, it received derisive attention from critics. The Los Angeles Times held it to be “tedious trash. …This book is both dull and dirty, and I hope I shall never lay eyes on it again.” Its realism was noted though. The Philadelphia Record likened West to “a kid who delights in pulling off the legs of a fly to watch it squirm” but praised his “unusual style” and characterization, whilst the Albany Knickerbocker Press opined that “its realism is almost too harsh.” Occasionally its intelligence was noted. According to the Washington News (DC) it was “often hilarious, often swaggering and mocking and cold.” Reviews for his later books were consistently harsh if not downright unfavourable. Several reviewers likened A Cool Million to Horatio Alger, a bestselling late nineteenth-century rag-to-riches writer whose reputation by the 1930s was in tatters.

When Miss Lonelyhearts was reissued first by New Directions in 1946, critics were prepared to allude to its sociological depth. Mademoiselle wrote that it was “a mordant study in contemporary loneliness,” and the New Yorker referred to it as a “bitter, psychologically complex story.” A 1950 reissue of The Day of the Locust similarly met new appreciation, and acknowledgement of its realism replaced previous declarations of disgust; the New Haven Register announced even that it was a book “destined to endure.”

In 1957, West’s Complete Works were published in one volume. By now the tide of unfavourable reception had been turned completely. The New York Post found that West was “an enormous talent;” that he possessed a “Swiftian mordancy and a poet’s eye coupled with a real moral passion.” Vital to this reassessment would have been its publisher, New Directions, founded in 1936 by the poet James Laughlin. It was seen very quickly to be a moniker of worth, and it added a credibility to anything it published. The attention paid to its branding suggested it was on the side of the literary angels: Alvin Lustig’s modernist abstract cover design alongside Heinz Henghes’ striking colophon had only added to its mystique. Its New Classics and Modern Readers series in particular resurrected many books with hitherto damaged or scant critical reputations. Miss Lonelyhearts was the first of West’s books to be reprinted under the New Classics imprint. Laughlin had remembered that it was William Carlos Williams (with whom West had edited the literary magazine Contact in the early 1930s, and who had printed first five of the chapters that comprise Miss Lonelyhearts) who had brought West’s work to his attention.

In 1962 Hayden Carruth was able to write: “Nathanael West, who died almost unknown in 1940, is recognized today as one of the most significant American writers of his time.”

Bibliography

Nathanael West’s Bibliography

1931: The Dream Life of Balso Snell
1933: Miss Lonelyhearts
1934: A Cool Million
1939: The Day of the Locust

Extract

Miss Lonelyhearts Help Me, Help Me

THE MISS LONELYHEARTS of The New York Post-Dispatch (Are-you-in-trouble? –Write-to-Miss-Lonely-hearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard. On it a prayer had been printed by Shrike, the feature editor.

“Soul of Miss L, glorify me.
Body of Miss L, nourish me
Blood of Miss L, intoxicate me.
Tears of Miss L, wash me.
Oh good Miss L, excuse my plea,
And hide me in your heart,
And defend me from mine enemies.
Help me, Miss L, help me, help me.
In saecula saeculorum. Amen.”

Although the deadline was less than a quarter of an hour away, he was still working on his leader. He had gone as far as: “Life is worth while, for it is full of dreams and peace, gentleness and ecstasy, and faith that burns like a clear white flame on a grim dark altar.” But he found it impossible to continue. The letters were no longer funny. He could not go on finding the same joke funny thirty times a day for months on end. And on most days he received more than thirty letters, all of them alike, stamped from the dough of suffering with a heart-shaped cookie knife.

On his desk were piled those he had received this morning. He started through them again, searching for some clue to a sincere answer.

Dear Miss Lonelyhearts–
I am in such pain I dont know what to do sometimes I think I will kill myself my kidneys hurt so much. My husband thinks no woman can be a good catholic and not have children irregardless of the pain. I was married honorable from our church but I never knew what married life meant as I never was told about man and wife. My grandmother never told me and she was the only mother I had but made a big mistake by not telling me as it dont pay to be innocent and is only a big disappointment. I have 7 children in 12 yrs and ever since the last 2 I have been so sick. I was operated on twice and my husband promised no more children on the doctors advice as he said I might die but when I got back from the hospital he broke his promise and now I am going to have a baby and I dont think I can stand it my kidneys hurt so much. I am so sick and scared because I cant have an abortion on account of being a catholic and my husband so religious. I cry all the time it hurts so much and I dont know what to do.
Yours respectfully,
Sick-of-it-all

Miss Lonelyhearts threw the letter into an open drawer and lit a cigarette.

Dear Miss Lonelyhearts–
I am sixteen years old now and I dont know what to do and would appreciate it if you could tell me 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 on 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.
I sit and look at myself all day and cry. I have a big hole in the middle of my face that scares people even myself so I cant blame the boys for not wanting to take me out. My mother loves me, but she crys terrible when she looks at me.
What did I do to deserve such a terrible bad fate? Even if I did do some bad things I didnt do any before I was a year old and I was born this way. I asked Papa and he says he doesnt know, but that maybe I did something in the other world before I was born or that maybe I was being punished for his sins. I dont believe that because he is a very nice man. Ought I commit suicide?
Sincerely yours,
Desperate

The cigarette was imperfect and refused to draw. Miss Lonelyhearts took it out of his mouth and stared at it furiously. He fought himself quiet, then lit another one.

Dear Miss Lonelyhearts–
I am writing to you for my little sister Grade because something awfull hapened to her, and I am afraid to tell mother about it. I am 15 years old and Gracie is 13 and we live in Brooklyn. Gracie is deaf and dumb and biger than me but not very smart on account of being deaf and dumb. She plays on the roof of our house and dont go to school except to deaf and dumb school twice a week on tuesdays and thursdays. Mother makes her play on the roof because we dont want her to get run over as she aint very smart. Last week a man came on the roof and did something dirty to her. She told me about it and I dont know what to do as I am afraid to tell mother on account of her being liable to beat Grade up. I am afraid that Gracie is going to have a baby and I listened to her stomack last night for a long time to see if I could hear the baby but I couldn’t. If I tell mother she will beat Gracie up awfull because I am the only one who loves her and last time when she tore her dress they Joked her in the closet for 2 days and if the boys on the blok hear about it they will say dirty things like they did on Peewee Conors sister the time she got caught in the lots. So please what would you do if the same hapened in your family.
Yours truly,
Harold S.

He stopped reading. Christ was the answer, but, if he did not want to get sick, he had to stay away from the Christ business. Besides, Christ was Shrike’s particular joke. “Soul of Miss L, glorify me. Body of Miss L, save me. Blood of…” He turned to his typewriter.

Although his cheap clothes had too much style, he still looked like the son of a Baptist minister. A beard would become him, would accent his Old-Testament look. But even without a beard no one could fail to recognize the New England puritan. His forehead was high and narrow. His nose was long and fleshless. His bony chin was shaped and cleft like a hoof. On seeing him for the first time, Shrike had smiled and said, “The Susan Chesters, the Beatrice Fairfaxes and the Miss Lonelyhearts are the priests of twentieth-century America.”

A copy boy came up to tell him that Shrike wanted to know if the stuff was ready. He bent over the typewriter and began pounding its keys.

But before he had written a dozen words, Shrike leaned over his shoulder. “The same old stuff,” Shrike said. “Why don’t you give them something new and hopeful? Tell them about art. Here, I’ll dictate:

Art Is a Way Out.

“Do not let life overwhelm you. When the old paths are choked with the debris of failure, look for newer and fresher paths. Art is just such a path. Art is distilled from suffering. As Mr. Polnikoff exclaimed through his fine Russian beard, when, at the age of eighty-six, he gave up his business to learn Chinese, ‘We are, as yet, only at the beginning…

Art Is One of Life’s Richest Offerings.

“For those who have not the talent to create, there is appreciation. For those…

“Go on from there.”

You may also like…