Nathanael West: An Underappreciated Postmodern Visionary

I’m Edward Millman, an English Major at the College of William and Mary. My project aims to widen the critical discourse on Nathanael West, a writer who, despite his influence on later Postmodern writers and high praise from his contemporaries, remains underappreciated in the academic literature. The goal of my project will be to discuss a fuller range of Nathanael West’s work than most discussions cover. I intend to discuss and analyze West’s novels, short stories, and letters, and his unpublished works, and screenplays, which are usually overlooked or marginalized in the analyses of West’s work. In particular, I will address the role religion plays in his work and the ways in which West saw media (such as cinema, newspapers, and radio) propagating secular capitalist fantasies in 1930’s America, which West saw as commercialized substitutes for
earlier religious faith. His bleak, darkly comic satires on American ideals of success, spiritual comfort, and romance portray such hopes as media-manipulated and unachievable in the hyper-fragmented contemporary US rife with art and religion awash in pastiche and cliché. West’s critiques of consumerism, atomized materialist individualism, the replacement of religion with media, and his belief in the futility of master-narratives to convey a true depiction of 1930’s American Capitalist society parallel aspects of Frederic Jameson’s analysis of Late Capitalism, which I intend to use to assist my analysis of West’s work.

During the summer, I plan to travel to research several archives to review West’s original manuscripts, unpublished works, screenplays, and letters which are located both on the East Coast at Brown University, Columbia University, and the Beinecke Library at Yale University, and on the West Coast at the UCLA Library Special Collections (which houses the RKO Pictures archive,) and associated manuscripts located at the Huntington Library in San Marino California. Although the Huntington Library does not allow access to undergraduate researchers, I will request photocopies of relevant material. The limited discussion of West’s short stories, unpublished works, letters, and the near non-existence of critical discussion of West’s screenplays provide an opportunity to expand the academic discussion on West. I will be reading additional relevant background studies and academic literature available on West under the direction of Professor MacGowan. Funding provided by the Charles Center and the fundraising campaign will be used in tracking down unpublished letters from West, which are held in various libraries scattered across the East and West Coast, and in expenses anticipated in traveling to the libraries and archives previously mentioned, and in purchasing relevant texts.