"He thought of how calm he was. His calm was so perfect that he could not destroy it even by being conscious of it."
Nathanael West was born Nathan von Wallenstein Weinstein on the 17 October 1903 in New York City. West was the first child of German-speaking, Russian-Jewish parents from Lithuania who maintained an upper middle class household in a Jewish neighbourhood on the Upper West Side.
West displayed little ambition in academics, dropping out of high school and only gaining 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. Although West did little schoolwork at Brown, he read extensively. West’s interests focused on unusual literary style as well as unusual content.
Since Jewish students were not allowed to join fraternities, West’s main friend was his future brother-in-law S. J. Perelman, who was to become one of America’s most learned comic writers. West barely finished university with a degree. Following university, West moved to Paris for three months and it was at this time that he changed his name to Nathanael West.
After West’s family ran into financial difficulties in the late 1920s, West returned home and worked sporadically in construction for his father, ultimately finding a job as a night manager of the Hotel Kenmore Hall in Manhattan. Although West had been working on writing since college, it was not until his quiet night job at the hotel that he found the time to put his novel together. During this time he completed Miss Lonelyhearts and published The Dream Life of Balso Snell.
In the 1930s, West got a job as a contract scriptwriter for Columbia Pictures and moved to Hollywood. He published his third novel, A Cool Mission, in 1934 and The Day of the Locust followed a few years later. In The Day of the Locust, West took many of the settings and minor characters of this novel directly from his experiences living in a hotel on Hollywood Boulevard.
On 22 December 1940, West and his wife Eileen McKenney were returning to Los Angeles from a hunting trip in Mexico to attend the funeral of his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, when he ran a stop sign in El Cantro, California, resulting in an accident in which he and his wife were killed. Eileen had been the inspiration for the title character in the play My Sister Eileen, and she and West had been scheduled to fly to New York City for the Broadway opening on 26 December. West is buried in Mount Zion Cemetery in Queens, New York, with his wife’s ashes placed in his coffin.
Although West was not widely known during his life, his reputation grew after his death, especially with the publication of his collected novels by New Directions in 1957. Miss Lonelyhearts is widely regarded as West's masterpiece. The Day of the Locust still stands as one of the best novels written about the early years of Hollywood.
Wordsworth Editions publish The Collected Works of Nathanael West.