Nathanael West and American Apocalyptic

Kevin Lewis

One should begin by declaring one's interest. For me, literature and its criticism is a sub-field of the history of ideas. And what I care about in literature (and all the arts) is the powerful contribution it makes, in its privileged language, to the discussion, implicit as well as explicit, in every period and place, of the ideas through which we chart our relations to each other, to the past, the future, and the elusive transcendent.

My subject here - it has a long resonance in the history of western ideas - is the enduring European American myth of apocalypse: that narrative myth which, for three and a half centuries, in various forms, like a reaction formation to provocation or trauma, has made responding protest to the primary and preferred myth of American self-understanding through the 'city on a hill,' the 'last best hope, the New Eden, the New Adam, and the comprehensive prosperity gospel of the American Dream itself.

I will proceed first by summarizing an insightful analytic observation by the extraordinary Canadian Americanist scholar, Sacvan Bercovitch, linking these two myths; then by, drawing attention to the curious personality and career in prophecy as a fiction writer of Nathanael West, now dead for nearly sixty years; then by casting the great un-read American classic, and still the best novel written about Hollywood, West's The Day of the Locust (1939), as a secularized, transformed instance of traditional genre apocalypse. This will entail reading the novel's central character, Tod Hackett, as an interesting fusion of both an American moralist-innocent in the tradition of the New Adam and an artist-prophet clairvoyant in the mode of the John-on-Patmos who claims authorship of the biblical book of Revelation. Finally, I will illustrate by commenting on John Schlesinger tantalisingly suggestive 1974 adaptation in film of the culminating, apocalyptic riot scene of West's novel.

First, following Bercovitch, 1 the myth of apocalypse, on one hand, can be linked with the myth of America, as variously 'dreamed,' on the other hand, thus:

The Puritans provided the biblical basis for what we have come to call the myth of America. The rhetoric of American self-under-standing is grounded in the Bible, and has remained so for longer than the steady increase of secularization over three centuries would lead us to think. The biblical structure of the American myth has survived if its original biblical content has long been eroded and, for many, has been irretrievably lost. In the founding Puritan colonies, the earliest European-American society was sanctified by biblical figures and types. With these industrious, vision-driven Puritans and their Influential descendants, America brought the Bible to life -America the idea was discovered in the Bible. America arranged itself as prophecy in the eyes of the Puritans. Ralph Waldo Emerson was later to translate this, 'America [the real America] is a poem in our eyes.' America is not a geographic so much as a visionary concept and entity. As Bercovitch urges, 'To be an American is to discover oneself by prophecy,' citing the political rhetoric of Ronald Reagan alongside Puritan texts as his sources. And all his sources reflect this common testimony: 'America exists as a transmutation of history into hermeneutics. 'In the beginning was the word "America," and the word was in the Bible, and the word was made flesh in the Americans, this new breed of humans, destined to build a shining city on a hill' (220).

But, and I stress this 'but,' one can observe (if one looks closely), as does Bercovitch, that Americans have always simultaneously feared that this myth amounts to nothing but a myth, and, as such, is vulnerable to history, to what Mircea Eliade calls the 'terror of his-tory,' the contingency of an endless sequence of chance events posessing no higher meaning in themselves. Apocalyptic warning and lament runs throughout American histary-we could develop a long list of such utterances. Why? Because deep down, in spite of them-selves, the Idealist, the believer-prophet, the innocent, the super-patriot-jingoist, and the Pollyanna (or combinations of these) are aware that history can and, at some point, will withdraw its chance favor- from the 'great experiment of the Republic' - effectively, his-tory will have its revenge.

Americans have consistently had recourse to doomsday, observes Bercovitch, not as a hopeful means of social revitalisation but rather in wary observance of the inexorable fatalities of history. Americans have benefited from the chances of history, we may sooner than we know suffer from unavoidable exposure to these chances - history may sever the symbol from the nation. This is the fear, to echo Puritan rhetoric, that - to quote Bercovitch - Americans will be forced eventually to conclude, 'I have been to the Bible and America does not exist' (228). The American apocalypse of which he speaks is not a vision which functions to confirm trust in a transcendent order or divine plan which guarantees the greater American enterprise. It is rather a fear of destruction, as he puts it, born of a 'sense of foreboding, an intimation rarely articulated and perhaps only dimly conscious' (227). Bordering on the inchoate as this primal fear would seem to, perhaps all the more for this it would help to explain the continuous recourse in America to the expressive form of traditional apocalypse, a form which notoriously (and conveniently) confuses as it mingles cognitive and emotional contents. The phenomenon is to be observed whether the paraphrasable content filling this formal structure be regarded as 'religious' or 'secular,' that is, even when apocalypse is employed by writers, songwriters, artists, or film-makers without conscious adherence to the inherited religious tradition.

In any case, the neglected Nathanael West is to be counted as a dark, dark transmitter of apocalyptic prophecy, and especially in this novel which offers no comfort whatsoever to its characters or to its readers. It offers no hope that America of the thirties could avert a slide into social chaos and revolution which would annihilate the idea of America in the production of a new fascist state. West was not a good-humored satarist. He was not even a bad-humored satirist -if by satire we mean a genuine attempt to make the world better whether by criticizing or by condemning it.

He was born Natham Weinstein, the son of Lithuanian immigrant parents, in New York City in 1903. Following what we have come to see as a common pattern among immigrants, his parents invested all their hopes for the New World and the American Dream in their son, an only child, the first generation of the family to be born in, America. Apparently the pressure of these parental hopes was difficult to bear. And his Eastern. European Jewish cultural heritage, in the inevitable clash with American values and opportunities, apparently contrib-uted to the mordant twist displayed in his personality and reflected in his fictions. He failed to complete his formal secondary education - he left high school in New York after only three of the required four years. In order to gain a place at Tufts University outside Boston, he forged an academic transcript. But Tufts was not socially prestigious enough for the young 'climber.' Again he forged a transcript in order to transfer to Brown University in Rhode Island, one of the so- called Ivy League universities to which the elite of the Eastern sea-board sent their sons. He changed his name from Nathan to Nathanael, from Weinstein to West - to make it sound more WASP. At Brown, reportedly West dressed himself in clothes expensive and and correct tofit in with the wealthy and stylish 'establishment.' He joined one of the most desirable social fraternities. But his degree, earned at age twenty-one, and this reconstruction of his personal image, built upon deceit, subsequently did him little good. The only jobs he could find were that of night manager in a New York hotel and journalist - one of his assignments for a Brooklyn newspaper was to read and to respond in a regular column to the 'Miss Lonelyhearts' letters asking for advice in personal matters. The experience supplied the material for his short novel bearing this title published in 1933.)

Contemporaries noted that he possessed merciless intellectual humor. Edmund Wilson saw in him a kind of eastern European suffering and sense of the grotesque which he shared in common with Gogol and Chagal - a sad, quick Jewish humor, as Wilson noted, both Russian and Jewish. Robert Coates saw him as afflicted with an immense, sorrowful, all pervasive pessimism. We know that West was a collector of unusual tales of the grotesque, of strange weapons, of exotic methods of torture, of exotic diseases, corruptibility, witchcraft, the occult, and violence.

In his fiction (his four novels, including The Day of the Locust, the last) we trace a pattern: a search for literary form and a vision expres-sive, of moral indignation and contempt but without any self-right-eousness. 2 His was a tragic sense of life, but absolutely unrelieved by a vision of redemption. All four of the novels end with violent escape from the conscious ego and its make-believe: an orgasm, two mur-ders, and a surrender to madness respectively. W.H. Auden's view of West as a writer of despairing parables about a kingdom of hell is persuasive. In Auden's diagnosis, West suffered from a sickness of consciousness which renders a person incapable of converting wishes into desires and issues ultimately in a craving for death as a release. Auden labels this condition 'Wests disease.' 3

At age thirty-three West put his hand to writing scripts in Holly-wood, for RKO, Universal, and Columbia. He wrote a play, Good Hunting (1938) which closed after two performances. In his thirty--fifth year he wrote The Day of the Locust. The following year, in 1940, he married a woman, described as 'a feather-headed divorcee,' but was then killed with, her in a car accident at age thirty-six, the day after the death of Scott Fitzgerald.

Most critics acknowledge that The Day of the Locust is a neglected classic. But few read or discuss it. Like another great secular Ameri-can apocalypse in the twentieth century, Norman Mailer's An Ameri-can Dream (1965), condemned and dismissed for its misogyny, West's novel has remained buried. Apparently, to label it a neglected classic is to ensure its interment. And why? In part because our critics would seem, to lack the religious genre interest and training to explore such instances of traditional apocalypse appearing trans-muted in secular fictional forms.

The character at the center of this novel about the Hollywood dream factory is Tod Hackett, to whom is assigned, improbably but understandably, given West's obsession with the networks of the WASP elite, an East Coast and Yale University pedigree. But Tod does not appear sophisticated. West wants to present him as 'really a very complicated young man, with a whole set of personalities.' But, at the same time, 'His large sprawling body, his slow blue eyes and sloppy grin made him seem completely without talent, almost doltish in fact.'4 Tod is both an actor in the plot and an observer, the se-quence of whose perceptions, described throughout, unifies a narra-tive fully in the control of West's omniscient authorial voice. In American literature, Tod follows in the steps of those other observer moral-innocents like Ishmael in Moby Dick, Henry Fleming in The Red Badge of Courage, Lambert Strether in The American, and Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.

Tod is on a voyage of discovery in Hollywood, having just taken his university degree and trekked out west to a job as a set designer with an oh so symbolic recreational sideline as a serious painter. He is an artist whose imaginative response to Hollywood is self-con-sciously shaped by Goya and Daumier-at first, and then by Italians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries described as 'painters of Decay and Mystery:' Salvator Ron, Francesco Guardi, and Monsu Desiderio (127). In West's scheme, Tod is more than merely an artist. In the Western tradition of art, the iconic figure of John on Patmos has attracted considerable attention, among artists especially who would seem to have identified (occasionally in self-portraiture) with John's heroic gift of privileged vision. Such a figure in this iconic tradition is Tod. His role is that of a prophet-artist clairvoyant who sees more deeply than others, the shallow and pathetic around him, into the reality in which they are submerged together. This gift, however, makes him no wiser and no better a man - he simply sees more clearly. In fact, he himself is subject to the same lustful violence which, in-virtue of his art, he is able to interpret in others as a portent of doom.

As the story progresses, we are shown Tod in his free time at home in his rented room developing on a large canvas a painting entitled 'The Burning of Los Angeles.' This painting of fantasised catastrophe and chaos comes to life at the dramatic conclusion of Schlesinger's film when the mob riot scene outside Kahn's Persian Palace Theatre at the Hollywood film premier is suggestively interplayed with frames showing distorted Goya-like figures from the painting watching, and then parading in cemonic glee as fire rages in the streets.

The locusts of the title, are the misfits, the losers in America who, in pursuit of the American Dream- like previous generations, have been heading ever westward onto the, receding frontier in hopes of a new start and another chance at success on newly opened or stolen land. The locusts, having failed and failed again, have come to Cali-fornia where they can go no further, where they can no longer escape their failure - where it sticks to them. The locusts make a mob, bored, resentful, bitter, angry at their betrayal by the American Dream proven false (by the Frederick Jackson Turner thesis proven terribly incomplete or simply inadequate). Carefully, West crafts the fictional realization of his apocalyptic vision around this reworking of the biblical vision of terminal locust plague, sketching- in details of deformity, monstrosity, and corruption as signs of irreversible de-cline toward a crash. West allows Tod to see and to express in his painting the forces gathering. But he does not protect him from these forces. In the novel, in the final scene, the mob riot signalling the final descent into political and social chaos produces Tod's descent into madness as he is hauled away in a police car screaming.

To describe The Day of the Locust as an apocalypse is to link it to other previous instances of genre narrative apocalypses. This genre emerged in the late ancient world and eventually found its most memorable, certainly most influential instance in the biblical book of Revelation: It is to argue that elements of West's plot and characteri-sation replicate formula elements of plot and characterisation found in traditional apocalypses of overtly religious character. The identifi-cation of standard or conventional elements in traditional narrative apocalypses, as one would rightly guess, is an issue debated among biblical scholars. I would argue, against this background, that we are perfectly justified in deriving strategically, in good faith, our own formula plot from the book of Revelation, given its immense influ-ence, and in using this as a standard by which to measure latter-day Western cultural works of apocalyptic structure, whether explicitly religious in character or transformed in secular dress.

The formula plot I recommend goes like this: (1) depiction of portents, unnatural or extraordinary occurrences read as signs; (2) a sense of irreversible deterioration of values and behavior, incapable of correction by purposeful reform; (3) a centerpiece catastrophe imminent or actual which will radically alter the status quo frame of reality; (4) an accompanying final judgement; and (5) the coming of a new world, frame of reality, or consciousness to replace what was destroyed.

These elements are to be found in West's novel and Schlesinger's film. Interpretation can establish their presence with little difficulty. But the tracing of structuring elements in the plot which echo those of Revelation would require a longer essay. Instead, I will make two suggestions of parallels in characterisation. One, Homer Simpson (played by the actor Donald Sutherland - whom we glimpse sitting on a bench on the periphery of the street scene at the film premiere as the concluding action begins) is portrayed a hapless, half-wit, automaton Christ-figure. Unintentionally on his own, part, Homer fits into West's greater scheme as the catalyst for the apocalyptic Tribulation scene of the ensuing riot. Schlesinger adds to this charac-terisation visually by depicting Homer with arms flung out to either side being carried overhead by the mob, visually echoing Christ on the cross, before being trampled. Second, Faye Greener, the shallow, bit-part-actress, is depicted, one could argue, as a teasing-temptress Whore-of-Babylon figure American-made. We glimpse her (played by the actress Karen Black) engulfed by the vicious crowd during the riot, but then also in the coda Schlesinger adds in his adaptation of the story, where, after the riot scene, he returns with her to a scene of calm and restored tranquil reality - with an eye on the box office, I think, to revisit, teasingly, falsely, what, for West in the novel, remains the futility of Tod's courtship of Faye. (In adding this coda, Schlesinger betrays West's apocalyptic vision of radical, metamorphic change. 5)

West's apocalypse, and Schlesinger's interpretation of it for the most part, invites the second of two traditional strategies of inter-preting apocalyptic vision, as much as it invites the first. The first is the familiar literal and allegorical interpretation in which the symbolism is understood to refer to actual events occurring and about to occur on the outer stage of history and the cosmos. The second strategy, virtually as old as the first and, I propose, as venerable as the first, understands that the symbolism and the narrative refer to events taking place on the inner stage of subjective consciousness - in the overwrought mind or consciousness of a highly sensitive, perhaps 'borderline' individual: an artist of naturally, or artificially altered consciousness. The novel plays back and forth between the outer theater of America heading for a crash and the inner theater of Tod Hackett's responding apocalyptic imagination.

The beauty and power of Schlesinger's neglected film 6 is most apparent at its conclusion indicated above, where he goes beyond literal re-creation of the mob riot West describes. Using film tech-niques unavailable to the novelist Schlesinger shows on the screen Tod's realised apocalyptic vision, penetrating the normal frame of reality. What one sees, to repeat, is the interposing of the mob scene riot with images drawn from Tod's painting, 'The Burning of Los Angeles.' What is suggested, here at the climax of the narrative, is that Tod's prophetic visionary art becomes reality - his vision comes true! In the crucible of apocalyptic transformation one frame of real-ity replaces another. The boundary between art and life is breached as ordinary life is subsumed into his vision of terminal, catastrophe - producing Tod's break into madness. Tod's consciousness in this scene is pushed into derangement. But the film, like the novel which concludes with his long scream of protest, cuts away from this scene at the moment of this climax, as it should, to let us draw our own conclusions about what we have just seen - is it a cosmic or merely a personal apocalypse? Or both!

Perhaps it is but a small and therefore forgivable betrayal of the novel when the film returns us, in one more scene, without dialogue, to the denouement tranquillity of a visit to Tod's empty flat paid by Faye. Miraculously healed of wounds suffered when being trampled and perhaps raped during the riot, miraculously still alive, she enters his flat soberly to view the space on the wall where his painting had hung. But this is a betrayal nonetheless: of the integrity of West's and, simultaneously, of a defining theme in authentic apoca-lypse, the radical, irreversible transformation of our reality.


1. 'The Biblical Basis of the American Myth.' The Bible in American Arts and Letters, ed. Giles B. Gunn (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983), 219-229.

2. Before moving to California, West published The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931) and A Cool Million (1934) in addition to Miss Lonelybearts.

3. 'West's Disease,' Griffin VI, 4 (May 1957), 4-11. This review of the Complete Works of West was reprinted in The Dyer's Hand (New York: Random House, 1962).

4. This (on page 22) and all other references are to the text in the Signet Classic paperback edition introduced by Alfred Kazin (New York: New American Library, 1983).

5. For a helpful critique of the uses and misuses of the myth and meta-phor of apocalypse by modem writers see Earl Rovit's 'On the Contem-porary Apocalyptic imagination' (The American Scholar 87 [1968], 453-68).

6. The acclaimed success of Schlesinger's films confirm his distinction as a craftsman in the medium of film: e.g., 'Billy Liar,' 'Darling,' 'Midnight Cowboy,' and 'Sunday, Bloody Sunday.'

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