Early 20th Century Fiction: Fitzgerald and West
F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathanael West became friends in the late 1930s in Hollywood, where each of them labored in the studios for money to write the novels about which they really cared. West had been influenced deeply by Fitzgerald's novels, especially The Great Gatsby, and in turn, West's novels, especially The Day of the Locust, influenced Fitzgerald's last novel. Fitzgerald's masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, was set on the East Coast during the 1920s and laid bare the corruption that lay beneath the glittering wealth of the American Dream. West's masterpiece, The Day of the Locust, was set on the west coast during the 1930s, and laid bare the corruption beneath the Great American Dream Factory: Hollywood. Each of them had come to Hollywood desperate for money; each had his own demons; each was on the verge of beginning again in a new creative direction, after suffering various sorts of failures. And for each of them, that new beginning ended when they died within a day of each other in December 1940.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on September 26, 1896. He was descended from Francis Scott Key, who wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner"; his family was not wealthy, but he went to prep school and then on to Princeton with the financial help of relatives. He was more interested in theater than in academic work, though, and devoted most of his time to the Triangle Club at Princeton, where he collaborated on plays and musicals with his friend Edmund Wilson (who would later become one of the more important critics of his time). In 1917, he left college when his grades fell so far that he was no longer allowed to be part of the Triangle Club. He enlisted in the army and was posted to Alabama. World War I ended before he could be sent abroad, and he was discharged. In Alabama, he met Zelda Sayre, a classic southern belle, with whom he fell madly in love. She refused to consider marrying him, though, because he had no money. He made his way to New York, where he wrote advertising copy and stories for magazines. He was desperate to accumulate enough money to marry Zelda, and that drove him to work frantically on his novel. It was published in 1920 and was an immediate commercial success. He married Zelda a week later. They had a daughter, Frances Scott--she was always called "Scottie"--in 1921.
Fitzgerald's first novel, The Beautiful and the Damned, is a portrayal of the Jazz Age, with its "flaming youth," wild parties, and nonstop drinking. Scott and Zelda lived the same life. They danced on table in speakeasies and fell into public fountains in the small hours of the night and drank. Life was one long party whether they were in New York or Paris or on the French Riviera. Fitzgerald manged to write during all of this--indeed, he needed to. They lived extravagantly and were always strapped for money. He wrote to make more money: another novel, a collection of short stories, a play, and dozens of magazine stories. There was never enough money.
Scott and Zelda partied like they meant it, and they did. But Fitzgerald also knew there was a dark side to their lives, and that awareness appears in his novels, most notably The Great Gatsby, which was published in 1925. The book was praised by the critics but was a commercial failure.
In 1927, desperate for money, Fitzgerald went to Hollywood. He didn't much like the work, but it paid the bills, and there were plenty of those. Scottie was sent to good schools. And in 1930, Zelda suffered the first of many breakdowns; she was in and out of mental hospitals for the rest of her life, until she died in a fire at Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1948.
In 1934, Fitzgerald published a new novel, Tender is the Night, but it was neither a critical nor a commercial success. Battered by the problems of his wife, his professional failures, and his own alcoholism, he spent most of his time in Hollywood, writing for the movies when he could get work. He lived for a time in The Garden of Allah, where he met the columnist Sheila Graham. She helped him stop drinking (although he had lapses), and they were happy for a few years. He began working on a new novel, this one about Hollywood, called The Last Tycoon. But he never got the chance to finish it: in 1940, he suffered a series of heart attacks, and died on December 21, 1940, at the age of 44.
At the time when he died, he was considered washed up, a writer who had wasted his talent. But after his death, his literary reputation began to rise again. Now, more copies of his books are sold in one year than were sold during his entire lifetime. The Great Gatsby is recognized as a masterpiece of American literature, and even in its incomplete form, his last novel, The Last Tycoon, is brilliant.
The Great Gatsby (1925) depicts the extravagant, exciting, glamorous life of the wealthy during the Roaring Twenties. Jay Gatsby is a self-made millionaire whose dream is to win the heart and hand of Daisy, a woman married to another man. The story is told by Nick Carraway, who is an outsider--he lives in the guest house of an estate, but is not himself rich, although Gatsby takes a liking to him and invites him into their world. He is fascinated by their lives, but not a believer: he sees their flaws too. The facade is beautiful, but underneath, there is sterility. Fitzgerald, in Gatsby, is presenting a fictional version of the world we first met in The Wasteland: it looks beautiful, but is a spiritual and emotional wasteland, inhabited by "careless" people. But Fitzgerald is not just reproducing a fictional version of Eliot's work: he has given a particularly American voice to these ideas: Jay Gatsby doesn't love his wealth for itself--he loves it because he believes it will allow him to leave behind his past and become someone new, a man who is worthy of the perfect Daisy, of the perfect, beautiful life--his American Dream. But his dream is an illusion, and his wealth can't buy it for him because it doesn't exist. The past cannot be erased, and the false cannot become real. The voice of Whitman echoes through the novel, too, reminding us sadly of what America has squandered in its carelessness and greed.
Nathanael West was born Nathan Weinstein in New York City on October 17, 1903. His family were Russian-Jewish immigrants. His father was a well-to-do builder; the family spent their summers in the country and wanted Nathan to be well-educated and then follow his father into the construction business. Nathan had other ideas. He read constantly as a boy, and although he could lay a brick, he was not interested in construction. He was not interested in school, either, reading in class rather than doing the work and generally resisting any attempt to help him raise his grades. He left high school before his last year. He didn't really want to go to college, but he wanted to have the college experience. So he forged a transcript for himself and applied to Tufts University. He was admitted, and later transferred to Brown University.
As he had expected, few of the classes in college interested West. He had a good time there, but felt that most of his real education came from his voracious reading. He read Eliot, Stevens, Hemingway, Pound--all the contemporary luminaries.
Being Jewish, he was not allowed into any of the fraternities, and this bothered him a lot: he said that he didn't want so much to belong as to be asked to belong. In 1924, he graduated from Brown with a Ph.B. and legally changed his name to Nathanael West; this may have been partly to avoid anti-Semitic prejudice, but it was mainly a symbolic way of establishing a new sense of identity.
In 1926, West went to Paris. He wanted to stay there, but his family called him home: the family business was collapsing--an early victim of what would become the Great Depression--and they could no longer afford to support him. His father managed to get him a job as the night manager of a second-rate hotel, the Kenmore Hall; later he worked at the Sutton Club Hotel. This was not the life he'd have chosen for himself, but it allowed him three important things: first, he could write all night--he finished The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931) and wrote Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) while working there. Second, the people who migrated in and out of these hotels provided him with material for his novels and stories: the lost, the grotesque, the trapped, the people on the fringes became the central characters in his work. And third, it allowed him to help other writers who were poor and needed housing. Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman, among others, lived there cheaply, sometimes for free. Hellman recalls that Hammett wrote The Thin Man there, and they named the dog in the book "Asta," after West's sister's dog.
As little as he liked his job, West was at least working; all around him, people were begging in the streets. The American Dream was a hoax, as his next novel made clear. It was called A Cool Million, (1934) and was a parody of the rags-to-riches Horatio Alger stories.
In 1933, West was offered a job writing screenplays for Columbia Pictures in Hollywood. He jumped at the chance. He didn't go west with the idea that he'd be writing great art, though. He knew this was hack work, and although he could spew out story ideas and scripts very quickly, he never took this work seriously. This was what he did so that he could get money to write novels.
He returned to New York, but went back to Hollywood in 1935. He lived in a cheap hotel, the Pa-Va-Sed, on Ivar Boulevard just north of Hollywood Boulevard. The hotel is no longer there, having been torn down to make room for the Hollywood Freeway. But the neighborhood hasn't changed that much, and there are dozens of hotels like it in the area. These are where the dreamers live. Most of them will never "make it" in "The Business." They hang on for years, working menial jobs, going to auditions or interviews and trying to "break in." A few give up the dream and move on to other careers; on very, very rare occasions, one achieves success. But most of them, in the end, go back where they came from; or they grow old and bitter, but are still unable to give up hope; or they die.
The Day of the Locust, West's last novel, was inspired by the people he met living in the Pa-Va-Sed. West was very poor at this time, often sick and unable to work. The prostitutes who lived in the building brought him soup; he loaned them his car in return. He knew the extras, the ex-vaudevillians, the midgets--the hotel was full of those who had been and those who wanted to be. He finally got a job at Republic Productions, a small studio, and that saved him. He wrote for the studio during the day and worked on his own novel at night. At first this book was called The Cheated, since all of the characters had come to Hollywood hoping for fame, glory, and wealth. But like the inhabitants of the Pa-Va-Sed, they didn't what they were looking for. The Dream Factories kept churning out rags-to-riches stories, but behind the glittering facade was a very ugly, inhuman machine which used people up and spit them out. Other writers, such as Fitzgerald, wrote of the bigwigs at the studios and of their moral corruption; West wrote, instead, of the tiny people who are invisible to the bigwigs, those on the periphery of the movie industry, those who go to movie previews and crowd closer to the celebrities, loving them and hating them at the same time. And one day, when they comprehend that they've been cheated, their adoration evaporates and their envy and hatred emerge, and they destroy everything.
In the canyons of Los Angeles, where the heat is stifling and fires rage out of control, apocalypse doesn't seem that far away. And indeed, in West's novel, it is not. "There is no optimism in the book; its city and people are ravaged by the locusts of their fantasies" (Martin 315).
The sales of The Day of the Locust were crushingly disappointing to West--less than 1500 copies sold. He had hoped that this novel would free him from the studios, but that didn't happen. He went back to work.
West had never had much luck with women, but in October 1939, he met Eileen McKenney. She had a small son from a previous marriage, and West fell in love with them both. He and Eileen were married on April 19, 1940. They bought a house in North Hollywood and began furnishing it. They were both completely happy. They were planning to have more children. They took a short trip to Mexico in December 1940. On December 22, 1940, they were driving back to Los Angeles to prepare for a party they were planning to have on Christmas Eve. But in El Centro, West ran a stop sign at a highway intersection and they were struck by another car. West and Eileen were both killed. Nathanael West was 37.
Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. Eds. George and Barbara Perkins. The American Tradition in Literature. 11th ed., Vol. 2. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007.
2. Eds. Susan Belasco and Linck Johnson. The Bedford Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 2. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008.
3. Eds. George McMichael, et al. Anthology of American Literature, 9th ed., Vol. 2. New Jersey: Pearson, 2007.
4. Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury. From Puritanism to Postmodernism: A History of American Literature. New York: Penguin, 1991.
5. Alfred Kazin. "Introduction." The Day of the Locust. New York: Signet, 1983.
6. Martin, Jay. Nathanael West: The Art of his Life. New York: Carroll and Graf, 1970.