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Picture of a stage production poster for Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust

May 16, 1939
Nathanael West   (1903 - 1940)
West's The Day of the Locust
by Steve King

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On this day in 1939 Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust was published. Although now ranked with F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon as one of the best novels about Hollywood, and on the Modern Library's Top 100 of the century list, The Day of the Locust had mixed reviews when it came out and was a commercial flop. (As was Miss Lonelyhearts and West's other two novels: in his only decade of writing -- he died in a car crash on December 22, 1940, at the age of 37 -- West made $1,280 from his books.) The failure of The Day of the Locust compelled him to continue working as a screenwriter, and to continue living in the Hollywood that his novel so darkly satirized.

West's target, unlike most attacks on Hollywood, was not the glitz and sleaze of those atop the "dream dump," or even the movie nether-world – "the old sets on a back lot, like the paintings by Dali, the extra girls, beautiful, hard-pressed, sleeping four in a tiny room dreaming of stardom, brokendown vaudevillians and ancient comics in their special barrooms, where they work over old routines, the racial types, playing Eskimos one week and Hawaiians the next. . . ."

He wanted instead a portrait of the infrastructure, of the entire culture of "screwballs and screwboxes." As religion, this meant those who worshipped at the "Church of Christ, Physical," hoisting chest weights and flexing spring grips; or at the "Tabernacle of the Third Coming," listening to a cross-dresser preach the "Crusade Against Salt"; or at the glass and chromium "Temple Moderne," learning "Brain-Breathing, the Secret of the Aztecs." Seen as "a great bonfire of architectural styles," it meant the pagodas, castles, casinos, chateaus, chalets, beach-huts and haciendas in which such people huddled, and became desperate. As types, it meant a gallery of has-beens, would-bes and think-they-ares: an ex-vaudeville clown peddling silver polish, a drunken dwarf, a "Dr. Know-All Pierce-All," a dangerously simple hotel clerk named Homer Simpson, a horde of disenchanted ordinary people who "had come to California to die":
    Their sweaters, knickers, slacks, blue flannel jackets with brass buttons were fancy dress. The fat lady in the yachting cap was going shopping, not boating; the man in the Norfolk jacket and Tyrolean hat was returning not from a mountain, but an insurance office; and the girl in slacks and sneaks with a bandanna around her head had just left a switchboard, not a tennis court.
If the fat lady bought furniture, it might be "painted to look like unpainted pine"; if she bought groceries, it might be in a supermarket which played spotlights over its food -- "oranges were bathed in red, the lemons in yellow, the fish in pale green, the steaks in rose and the eggs in ivory." But W. H. Auden thought that West put the blame on demand rather than supply, classifying The Day of the Locust as one of West's "Cautionary Tales, parables about a Kingdom of Hell whose ruler is not so much the Father of Lies as the Father of Wishes."

West said that he wanted to believe in Steinbeck's 'Ma Joad' view of California -- he joined the committees to help the workers, he called his novel "The Cheated" in draft -- but when he sat down at the typewriter everything came out as satire.

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