April 8:Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyheartswas 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” (hisdescription) was highly praised by many critics, but like his other books itwas largely a flop with the public when it first appeared.The following is an early letter from “Desperate”—the sort of thingthat, 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 andI don’t know what to do and would appreciate it if you could tell me what todo. When I was a little girl it was not so bad because I got used to the kidson the block making fun of me, but now I would like to have boy friends likethe other girls and go out on Saturday nites, but no boy will take me because Iwas born without a nose—although I am a good dancer and have a nice shape andmy father buys me pretty clothes…. What did I do to deserve such a terriblebad fate? Ought I commit suicide?
West was inspired to Miss Lonelyhearts by some of the charactershe met through his job as night manager in a New York hotel, and by a group ofletters shown to him by an acquaintance who wrote a “Heart-to-HeartLetters” column for a New York daily. The most recent biography of West,Marion Meade’s Lonelyhearts: TheScrewball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney (2010), uses the realletters as a framing device. The opening chapter is a narrative account of theevening West read them, and the closing chapter describes his (and McKenney’s)premature death in an inexplicable car crash in the Californian lettuce fieldsas if another “terrible bad fate” for a writer Hard Done By:
Dead before reachingmiddle age, Nat left behind no children, no literary reputation of importance,no fine New York Times obituaryensuring immortality, no celebrity eulogies, just four short novels, two ofthem [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.