End Notes: In a Minor Key

I took Miss Lonelyhearts with me on a recent trip and enjoyed it even more than I had before. The novella appeared in 1933 under the more than nom de plume Nathanael West. The author was born Nathaniel Weinstein in New York in 1903 into an immigrant Jewish family that embraced the American dream of upward social mobility through education. The Weinsteins prospered, urged their son to live the American dream and that meant the best possible schools. Nathaniel, as his first name was then spelled, was not a stellar student although he attended DeWitt Clinton where Mortimer Adler too had managed to conceal his gifts. He became a writer who was a succes d’estime but went to Hollywood where he became a mediocre screenwriter. He died in 1940, a week after his friend, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Miss Lonelyhearts is one of the short novels West published in his short lifetime, and either it or The Day of the Locust is his best. I prefer the former. All this would be by the by if I had not on a chilly January day found myself in the Main Book Shop in Sarasota, Florida, where the higher you climb the lower the prices. For a couple of dollars I bought a copy of Jay Martin’s Nathanael West, which was published in 1970. Having recently reread Miss Lonelyhearts in Taiwan with pleasure, I sought to gild the lily by rereading Martin’s biography… with mixed results.

I count myself among West’s fervent fans, but Martin unconvincingly tries to turn him into a major writer. The fact is that West, like B. Traven, is somewhat more fascinating than his own fiction. He was indeed a curious fellow who lied his way to a college degree (Brown) and lived off his family while he tried to write. Meager as his output was, each of his books took a long time to write, and their publications were usually attended by incredible bad luck. S.J. Perlman was his brother-in-law; he palled around a bit with Faulkner and Fitzgerald in Hollywood, but as a writer, he is his books. Martin’s effort to propel West into the front rank of novelists of his day prompted thoughts about the minor writer.

There are only a few great writers, and as Ruth Prigozy points out in her recent little book in the Overlook Illustrated Lives series (2001), F. Scott Fitzgerald is unequivocally the best of his generation. To say that West is a far lesser writer than Fitzgerald is not dis-praise. If we read only the greatest books, we would do more rereading than we do. The ladder to Parnassus has many rungs, and the lower ones, too, are honorable. Most writers never make even the lowest rung. Nathanael West is a very good minor writer, many rungs from the top, but on the ladder nonetheless.

The relation between accomplishment and reputation is a murky one: Not everyone lauded in his own day stands the test of time. Some, like Gerard Manley Hopkins, enjoy only posthumous fame. The ranking of writers is affected by changing fashions, no doubt, but there are fairly objective criteria for appraising accomplishment as opposed to reception. I think West would have been embarrassed by Martin’s biography of him. He had a fairly clear judgment of his own fiction and at the end of his short life planned to attempt a more standard type of novel, regarding what he had already published as limited.

Moral philosophers have for millennia argued that fame and glory do not happiness make. Virtue does that. Well, art is a virtue, and its aim is to make something good. The only thing a writer can effect is the excellence of what he does. What happens after that is out of his hands, but of course he cannot be indifferent to that sequel. After all, one writes in order to be read. Works of all degrees of excellence have known the vagaries of critical appraisal. At least when we’re young, we take special pleasure in discovering a new writer, if only new to ourselves, but to come upon a Peacock or a Ronald Firbank is discovery indeed. But they like West were minor writers, which is not to damn with faint praise.

My banal conclusion is that not every novel is War and Peace or even The Great Gatsby. Most fiction is ephemeral and wastes its minimal sweetness on the upper floors of the Main Book Shop in Sarasota. But genuinely good fiction is found at many levels. Sometimes we are not in the mood for Napoleon’s defeat in Russia and happily settle for even a disquieting tale about one who gives advice to the lovelorn. Nathanael West was no Tolstoy, but that does not detract from West’s accomplishment.

  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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