From: Robison Michael R CNIN ( Robison_M@crane.navy.mil)
Date: 11 Nov 2002

When I was a child it was common for parents to tell their children to eat everything on their plate because there were "starving children in Africa." Aside from the obvious moral warning against wasteful living, the comment also served the valuable purpose of subconsciously hardening a sensitive and impressionable child against the many cruelties in the world, especially the ones that are a comfortable distance away.

But what if all that pain and suffering was suddenly paraded before a person's eyes? What if one's daily existence consisted of the unceasing whisper of those in anguish and distress? Could a person live with the constant knowledge of all that sorrow and desperation? Enter Miss Lonelyhearts.

Miss Lonelyhearts is a guy. He gets his name from the byline of a newspaper column he writes which gives advice to people who write in about their problems. He hates the job, but he keeps it because it keeps him from his former job of street reporter, where he actually came in contact with the people. Although the column is considered an insider joke at the paper, the burden of reading and answering the many letters of pain and misery begin to obsess Miss Lonelyhearts, and he slowly realizes that, far from being able to offer any help, the column is just another way these sad people are exploited. Heaping irony on irony, Miss Lonelyhearts turns his wrath on his unfortunate readers.

West satirized the American Dream, portraying the nightmare it is for many. A recurrent West theme is despair and hopelessness painted against a brutally indifferent background, with tension churning through the novel to an inevitably violent climax. W.H. Auden described the theme as "West's Disease." West follows this pattern closely in MISS LONELYHEARTS.

Despite his apparent concerns for the great unwashed masses, there is something insensate and cold in his writing. His compassion appears more clinical than heartfelt. Graham Greene's description of a female reporter in ORIENT EXPRESS comes to mind: "There wasn't a suicide, a murdered woman, a raped child who had stirred her to the smallest emotion; she was an artist to examine critically, to watch, to listen; the tears were for the paper."

Nathanael West was born in New York in 1903, the son of immigrant German Jews. His father gave him the popular Horatio Alger novels to read, but the rag-to-riches theme had little effect on him, and he entered Brown University with little enthusiasm. When he graduated in 1924, he moved to Paris for a couple years and joined the many expatriate authors and artists of the Lost Generation.

When he returned to the United States he managed small hotels from 1927 to 1933. An amazing amount of writers sought him out for a free place to stay, including James Farrell, Erskine Caldwell, and Dashiell Hammett. In 1931 he published a set of short surrealistic sketches called THE DREAM LIFE OF BALSO SNELL. Selling only 500 copies, it was not a success. Distancing himself somewhat from the avant-garde school's love for the absurdly absurd, he did better with MISS LONELYHEARTS in 1933. A COOL MILLION followed in 1934.

In 1935 he moved to Hollywood where he lived for the short remainder of his life. He wrote for small studios when he could, and when he was out of work he spent time with the failed outcasts of Hollywood society. Both these experiences provided material for his final, and probably most critically acclaimed, novel, DAY OF THE LOCUST, which came out in 1939. West never saw much fame or fortune from his work, and the critics were often harsh in their reviews. Fitzgerald, author of THE GREAT GATSBY, was one of the few who publicly praised him, and the two became friends. The day after Fitzgerald died, on December 22, 1940, West ran a stop sign and crashed his car, killing himself and his wife.

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