Nathanael West was born Nathan Weinstein in New York City on October 17, 1903, the first child of Max and Anna Weinstein. Both his parents were German-speaking Lithuanian Jews, who married in 1902, shortly after their arrival in America. West's father was a hard-working and successful building contractor until the Depression curtailed the construction industry. His parents were cultivated people and both of them came from close-knit, large families. West attended grade school and high school in upper Manhattan and was always a poor student, preferring to spend his time reading books. He often skipped his classes and did not graduate from high school, but on the basis of a forged transcript, he was admitted to Tufts University in Massachusetts. There, he also neglected his studies and was finally forced to withdraw. West soon gained admittance, however, to Brown University on the basis of the transcript of another Nathan Weinstein. At Brown, West studied what he wished, participated in college dramatics and publications, and made a reputation for himself as a satiric cartoonist. He immersed himself in modern literature and art and read widely in what were then considered to be decadent books, as well as many other books about esoteric lore and religion and magic. He was rejected for fraternity membership because he was Jewish, which was one of the reasons why he eventually changed his name legally.
In his younger years, West became notorious among his friends for his laziness, which earned him the lifelong nickname of "Pep" (the opposite of his usual behavior). At Brown, West began many friendships with the young writers and artists on campus; then after graduating from Brown in 1924 with a Ph.D., he worked for his father until he sailed to Paris late in 1926, presumably to write. Although West allowed his friends to believe that he was abroad for two or three years, he was really there for less than three months. He returned to New York early in 1927 and secured a job as a desk clerk in a second-rate residential hotel, a type of job which he held sporadically during the early 1930s. At the Kenmore Hotel and, later, at the Sutton Hotel, West saw the seamier side of American life and enjoyed putting up his down-on-their-luck friends without charge. During these years, West wrote and rewrote his first novel, The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931), which received little attention and sold poorly. This short novel is a surrealistic fantasy about a young writer's sojourn up and into the intestinal tract of the Trojan Horse, where he encounters various specimens of deranged, deformed, and unsavory humanity. West satirizes optimistic social formulas, religious clichés, and artistic pretensions in an elaborate, epigrammatic style. As in his later work, he shows distaste for the human body and expresses doubts about the dignity of sexuality.
During this period, West's range of friends increased and his artistic dedication intensified. He was friends with William Carlos Williams, Dashiell Hammett, James T. Farrell, Quentin Reynolds, and Josephine Herbst, among others. His closest friend was the humorist S. J. Perelman, who married West's favorite sister, Laura. West interrupted his menial hotel work with stays in the country, where he labored arduously on his second novel, Miss Lonelyhearts. This book, his masterpiece, on which West worked at the rate of about one hundred words a day, was published in 1933 and was recognized by friends and reviewers alike as a work of original genius. But its publisher went bankrupt shortly before the book's publication, and the book never received wide distribution.
In 1933, West began the first of several stints as a Hollywood scriptwriter, working on hack movies with various teams of writers. During this time he finished and published A Cool Million (1934), a contemporary satire of the nineteenth-century Horatio Alger-type stories, those tales which chronicled the success of honest young workingmen — stereotypes that are still major myths in American culture. This novel tells the story of Lemuel Pitkin, a small-town boy whose attempts to gain success allow him to fall repeatedly into the hands of unscrupulous businessmen, wheeler-dealer operators, and politicians. Pitkin, who is literally dismembered as the novel progresses, ends up an unwilling martyr to the cause of an American Fascist-principled president. Intermittently funny and characterized by West's typical grotesqueries, the novel tends too often to depend on practical jokes. However, this technique is occasionally extremely effective in West's satirical questioning of the American formula of Endurance + Ambition = Success, a scheme which West had treated with tragic intensity in Miss Lonelyhearts.
During the second of West's stints as a Hollywood scriptwriter, he conceived and began his fourth and last novel, The Day of the Locust (1939), in which he broadens his social criticism. West had always been a man who had hid much of himself and who had presented many faces to the world. A bookish intellectual, he delighted in hunting and fishing expeditions and counted the novelist William Faulkner among his hunting companions. He loved dogs and open spaces, yet he was also a withdrawn observer-despite the fact that he could, if necessary, socialize with warmth and grace. Wittily satirical, West was also capable of being sensitive and tender. He was always inclined to exaggerate his own experiences, doubtlessly trying to act out his defenses against the world while, at the same time, satirizing its more faddish, empty enthusiasms.
No other major modern American novelist is perhaps less autobiographical than West. Yet he did put certain aspects of himself into all of his fiction, especially into Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust. In his last novel, in particular, he emphasized the artificiality and the dishonesty of Hollywood's films and filmmakers, while portraying at the same time the despair, the rage, and the boredom of those ordinary citizens who still continue to flock to California's warm and hedonistic atmosphere where, allegedly, "dreams come true."
Despite several casual love affairs and a long, inconclusive engagement to a girl whom he knew early in the 1930s, West was basically a loner. Happiness, however, loomed for him when, in 1940, he met and married Eileen McKenney, a young widow with a son; Eileen was later to become famous through her sister Ruth McKenney's biographical sketches and subsequent play, My Sister Eileen. Eight months later, in December, West and his bride were killed in an auto accident while returning from a hunting trip in Mexico. He was thirty-seven years old.
At the time of his death, West's four novels had sold only about 4,000 copies. In the decades after his death, he achieved an international reputation as one of the most skillful and original of modern-day novelists. His two best-known novels have sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and critics and scholars all over the world have studied them avidly and exactingly. He was planning a new novel when he died. What striking departures he might have taken, however, can remain only a conjecture. Although the body of his work is small, the painstaking craftsmanship of his two best books, Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust, has provided material for engrossing entertainment and serious thought. These short novels make a mirror for their times that is paradoxically both personal and impersonal.