West's Lonelyhearts

April 8: Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts was published on this day in 1933. The oddball mix of distress, black comedy, and religion in West's "novel in the form of a comic strip" (his description) was highly praised by many critics, but like his other books it was largely a flop with the public when it first appeared. The following is an early letter from "Desperate"—the sort of thing that, piled upon the "Sick Of It All" seeking answers and the "Broken-Hearted" seeking assignations, drove Miss Lonelyhearts to drink, despair, and delusion:

Dear Miss Lonelyhearts —

 

I am sixteen years old and I don't know what to do and would appreciate it if you could tell me what to do. When I was a little girl it was not so bad because I got used to the kids on the block making fun of me, but now I would like to have boy friends like the other girls and go out on Saturday nites, but no boy will take me because I was born without a nose—although I am a good dancer and have a nice shape and my father buys me pretty clothes.... What did I do to deserve such a terrible bad fate? Ought I commit suicide?

West was inspired to Miss Lonelyhearts by some of the characters he met through his job as night manager in a New York hotel, and by a group of letters shown to him by an acquaintance who wrote a "Heart-to-Heart Letters" column for a New York daily. The most recent biography of West, Marion Meade's Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney (2010), uses the real letters as a framing device. The opening chapter is a narrative account of the evening West read them, and the closing chapter describes his (and McKenney's) premature death in an inexplicable car crash in the Californian lettuce fields as if another "terrible bad fate" for a writer Hard Done By:

Dead before reaching middle age, Nat left behind no children, no literary reputation of importance, no fine New York Times obituary ensuring immortality, no celebrity eulogies, just four short novels, two of them [Miss Lonelyhearts and Day of the Locust] unforgettable.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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