Nathanael West: America and Acid Satire
The novels of Nathanael West—acerbic, mordantly comic satires of the emerging culture industries of 1930s: newspapers and motion pictures, in New York and Hollywood, respectively—lampoon in earnest and scathing fashion the intellectual pieties that prevailed in the radical politics of the era. Combining elements borrowed from the European avant-gardes, including Dada, Surrealism, and German Expressionism, with the tendencies of American proletarian literature, West’s critique is leveled equally at the sentimental pretensions of those who wish to speak for “the people” and the highbrow disdain with which such left populist aspirations were often met. West positioned himself dialectically between these poles, depicting both the producers and consumers of mass culture at a crucial historical turning point from capitalist crisis in the 1930s to the consumer abundance of the 1940s and after. Liable to publishers’ whims and the economic calamities of his day, West’s work emerged only in fits and starts from the obscurity to which the Depression and his own early death had consigned it. How can reading West today—in a time of renewed populist agitation, fascist manipulation of the media, and energetic labor organizing—provide us with insights into the complexities and challenges of our own dissonant political moment?
In this course, we’ll read two of West’s most notable works, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and Day of the Locust (1939), against the intellectual and cultural backdrops of 1930s New York and Hollywood, from the proletarian literary milieu of writers like John Dos Passos and William Carlos Williams to the stylistic innovations imported from Weimar Germany. How did West utilize avant-garde techniques to satirize intellectual responses to the economic crisis? What role does mid-level creative labor—in this case, newspaper columnists and screenwriters—play in transforming a particular aesthetic or political aspiration into mass culture? With supplementary readings from West’s broader body of work, as well as texts by, among others, Walter Benjamin, Carey McWilliams, Rita Barnard, Michael Denning, and Mike Davis, we will examine West’s idiosyncratic work in the context of New Deal cultural programs and broader movements of antifascism and liberal nationalism. What can we make today of these caustic “American tales,” rooted, as Elizabeth Hardwick put in, “in our transmogrifying soil”?
Course ScheduleThursday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
March 09 — March 30, 2023