The Glasgow Review Issue 2

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'Miss Lonelyhearts and the Party Dress': Cross-dressing and Collage in the Satires of Nathanael West

Jane Goldman

Please give me your attention and I'll introduce to you,
A man that is a credit to our red, white and blue.
His head is made of lumber and solid as a rock;
He is a common worker and his name is Mister Block.
And Block he thinks he may
Be President some day.
Oh, Mister Block, you were born by mistake,
You take the cake,
You make me ache.
Tie a rock on your block and then jump in the lake;
Kindly do that for Liberty's sake.
... The money kings in Cuba blew up the gunboat Maine,
But Block got awful angry and blamed it all on Spain.
He went right in the battle and there he lost his leg,
And now he's peddling shoestrings and is walking on a peg.
He shouts, `Remember Maine,
Hurrah! To hell with Spain!'[1]

The satiric lyrics of the Wobbly troubadour Joe Hill[2] provide a paradigm for the lyric satires of Nathanael West. Like Mr Block (whose song is sung to the tune of `It Looks To Me Like A Big Time Tonight') the central characters in West's fiction steadfastly remain loyal to the ideology that is actually destroying them piece by piece. Mr Block is, in Louis Althusser's term, interpellated by the dominant ideology as a patriotic anti-unionist. He is a scab worker, invariably duped by his bosses and the authorities, yet happy in the thought that `he may / Be President some day'. This same delusive thought motivates Lemuel Pitkin, the hero of in West's A Cool Million, (1934)[3] who, faced with repossession, is duped by the Horatio Alger ploughboy-to-president rhetoric of Shagpoke Wipple into a life of vagrancy and even greater poverty. In the face of ruthless exploitation these characters doggedly stick to their dangerous beliefs. The gap between their imaginary and their real experiences is the source of their authors' satiric vision.

Promised the ultimate in unified subjective and sovereign power (the presidency), both Mr Block and Lemuel Pitkin literally fall apart. Mr Block's head, we note, is a solid piece of lumber, a reified lump, and his lost leg is replaced by a wooden one. In the course of A Cool Million, significantly subtitled `or, the Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin', `our hero' Pitkin is almost entirely dismantled (he loses all his teeth, one eye, a thumb, a leg, and is scalped to the bone), and continually reassembled with the aid of various prostheses (false teeth, glass eye, wooden leg, and wig). His tendency to fall apart actually works to his advantage on one occasion when he is forced `to don a tight-fitting sailor suit' and offered to a client in a brothel. The disappointed customer withdraws bewildered: `What kind of pretty boy was this that fell apart so horribly?' (p.208). But Pitkin is obliviously happy with his lot. Not surprisingly, he ends up a stooge in a comedy act.

At this both actors turned on Lem and beat him violently over the head and body with their rolled-up newspapers. Their object was to knock off his toupee or to knock out his tooth and eye. When they had accomplished one or all of these goals, they stopped clubbing him. Then Lem, whose part it was not to move while he was being hit, bent over and with sober dignity took from the box at his feet, which contained a large assortment of false hair, teeth and eyes, whatever he needed to replace the things that had been knocked off or out. (pp.249-50)

Lem is a site of identity in process. His fragmenting body puts into question not only his dignity as an individual subject, but also the very possibility of individual somatic integrity. The prostheses indicate his partial and fluctuating commodification. His grotesque body stands also as a metaphor for mass experience. For when `our hero's employers congratulated him on his success', he piously spouts the dominant Depression ideology: `although he had a headache from their blows he was made quite happy by this. After all, he reasoned, with millions out of work he had no cause to complain.'

Lemuel Pitkin, needless to say, does not become President. He dies a fascist martyr.

`Alas, Lemuel Pitkin himself did not have this chance, but instead was dismantled by the enemy. His teeth were pulled out. His eye was gouged from his head. His thumb was removed. His scalp torn away. His leg was cut off. And, finally, he was shot through the heart.

`But he did not live or die in vain. Through his martyrdom the National Revolutionary Party triumphed, and by that triumph this country was delivered from sophistication, Marxism and International Capitalism. Through the National Revolution its people were purged of alien diseases and America became again America.'

`Hail, Lemuel Pitkin!'
`All hail, the American Boy!' (p.255)

Like Mr Block's, Pitkin's partial reification also makes him open to transformation. Despite the song's invitation to suicide, the possibility of Block's joining the I W W (the Wobbly union) remains. Similarly, until his martyrdom, Pitkin's body is a site of ideological conflict. Betty Prail, Pitkin's sweetheart, imprisoned in a brothel for most of the novel, suffers a couple of transformations herself. At first she is the sole American representative in Wu Fong's `House of All Nations' (p.169) where, like the other inmates, she is forced to wear a costume `specially designed to go with her surroundings' (`colonial' in Betty's case). But later:

... when the Hearst papers began their `Buy American' campaign [Wu Fong] decided to get rid of all the foreigners in his employ and turn his establishment into an hundred per centum American place.

Although in 1928 it would have been exceedingly difficult for him to have obtained the necessary girls, by 1934 things were different. Many respectable families of genuine native stock had been reduced to extreme poverty and had thrown their female children on the open market. (p. 202)

Asa Goldstein, in whose store window is exhibited Pitkin's family house, is hired to redecorate the brothel in a series of American interiors. Whereas Betty remains trapped in this fixed, commodified gender category (the pun on `stock' suggesting America as warehouse-cum-whorehouse), Pitkin, as we have noted, manages to evade by virtue of his dismantling body the role marked out for him by the sailor suit. The possibility of resistance to commodification is glimpsed, then, in Pitkin's flight through the very (and various) commodifying somatic and sartorial changes inflicted upon him.

Balso Snell, in The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931) hits Miss McGeeney, the school teacher, in the gut for recounting the theories of her biographical subject (Samuel Perkins: Smeller) who `had built from the odours of his wife's body an architecture and an aesthetic, a music and a mathematic ... he had even discovered a politic, a hierarchy of odours: self government, direct ...' (p.36). Balso's final union with Miss McGeeney (in masturbatory fantasy) refutes the intellectual, aesthetic, scientific, and political co-option of bodily pleasures catalogued by Perkins. He celebrates the body's momentary release from all such discourses:

His body broke free of the bard. It took on a life of its own; a life that knew nothing of the poet Balso ... Home and Duty, Love and Art, were forgotten ... His body screamed and shouted as it marched and uncoiled; then, with one heaving shout of triumph, it fell back quiet. (pp.61-2)

Balso's dream life disperses his identity across a range of literary, aesthetic, and sexual personae, all of which return the reader to a celebration of physical pleasure. The novel opens with a hymn to the anus, and closes with an encomium to `the organs of sex'. But if, as in the final scene, the body breaks free of the bard, it does not appear to break free of the garb. The fragmented body itself provides elements of Balso's fast moving wardrobe. For example, the blasphemous tale told by Maloney the Areopagite concerns Saint Puce, the flea born in the flesh of Christ's armpit. At the moment of the crucifixion when `the arms of Christ were lifted so that His hands might receive the nails', Maloney explains,

`The walls and windows of Saint Puce's church were broken and its halls flooded with blood.

`The hot sun of Calvary burnt the flesh beneath Christ's up-turned arm, making the petal-like skin shrivel until it looked like the much-shaven armpit of an old actress.' (p.12)

The body, in this vision, is not a sacred, unitary whole, but a series of discrete locations. Indeed, `in his prime, Saint Puce ... explored and charted every crevasse, ridge, and cavern of Christ's body. From notes taken during his travels he later wrote his great work, A Geography of Our Lord.' The fragmenting body, then, dislocates conventional notions of unitary somatic sexual/sexed identity. Christ's feminine armpit hints at the transvestism of Miss Lonelyhearts' messianic identity in West's next novel, and offers a shifting, fragmentary, transgressive, sense of gender (`crevasse, ridge, and cavern'), which informs all of West's work. But West's satirical target is the policing of bodily and sexual transgressions.

`Don't be morbid. Take your eyes off your navel. Take your head from under your armpit. Stop sniffing mortality. Play games. Don't read so many books. Take cold showers. Eat more meat.' (p.13)

Here Balso reverts fleetingly to his original type (West named him after his authoritarian college basketball coach).

The role of the Hearst papers in the construction of oppressive gender positions within the ideological frame of Depression America is more fully explored by West in Miss Lonelyhearts (1933). Here the eponymous newspaper columnist is interpellated as a female subject and a Christian, yet is manifestly at odds with the assignment. The novel's humour not only exploits the gap between Miss Lonelyhearts' imaginary and real experience, but also his role in the interpellation of his readers. Marjorie Garber observes that `cross-dressing for success is the mark of both the well-born and the self-made(up) man': it may be used to reinforce class division and class privilege. In this light the newspaper columnist's transvestism is a means of containment.[4] But Miss Lonelyhearts, a man with no other name, dubbed a latter-day Christ by his feature-editor, cannot cope with his messianic designa-tion. His gruesome dream, in 'Miss Lonelyhearts and the lamb', belies the religious sentiments he is daily obliged to purvey in his column. In it Miss Lonelyhearts and friends sacrifice a lamb to the Lord, only to be confronted with a gory scene of non-transcendence which prompts Miss Lonelyhearts to violence:

Their hands were covered with slimy blood and the lamb slipped free. It crawled off into the underbrush.

As the bright sun outlined the altar rock with narrow shadows, the scene appeared to gather itself for some new violence.

... He went back alone and found it under a bush. He crushed its head with a stone and left the carcass to the flies that swarmed around the bloody altar flowers. (p.77)

The novel exposes its hero as the self-loathing vector of an ideology which promises salvation but brings only squalid devastion to its victims. The founding rationale of the column is economic not pastoral. (Miss Lonelyhearts can't recommend suicide because it means a drop in circulation!). Miss Lonelyhearts is `overwhelmed by the desire to help' his readers escape the very misery his journalese constructs: `He saw a ragged woman with an enormous goiter pick a love story magazine out of a garbage can and seem very excited by her find'(p.115). Doyle, the cripple cuckolded by Miss Lonelyhearts, who later shoots the columnist through a newspaper (appropriately enough), appears as an assemblage of disparate elements: `like one of those composite photographs used by screen magazines in guessing contests.'(p.124)

Originally the story was told in the first person, and Miss Lonelyhearts' real name made known. In the final version, every time Miss Lonelyhearts is referred to in the third person masculine the crisis in gender categorisation and the very constructedness of gender are foregrounded. Miss Lonelyhearts, uncomfortably clothed in a feminine name, recognises how clothes themselves construct ideologically gendered roles - and not just for their wearers.

He begged the party dress to marry him, saying all the things it expected to hear, all the things that went with strawberry sodas and farms in Connecticut. He was just what the party dress wanted him to be: simple and sweet, whimsical and poetic, a trifle collegiate yet very masculine. (p.137)

The personified party dress offers a chilling prospect of reified human relations in which conventional gender roles are exposed as consumerist constructions. The dress is worn by Miss Lonelyhearts' sweetheart, Betty, as a rhetorical device articulating the commodified basis of her desired relationship. `She dressed for things, he realized' (p.136): she dresses for a marriage proposal. Before submitting, Miss Lonelyhearts claims to have `quit the Lonelyhearts job'. Thus in promising to relinquish his textual transvestism he submits to the normative gender code which sanctions Betty's wearing of the party dress, we might note, but not his. For the title of this scene, `Miss Lonelyhearts and the party dress', seems to promise, though does not deliver, his transition from textual to literal transvestism, and this prospect haunts the exchange.

Yet Miss Lonelyhearts does not give up his feminine persona (`He was not deliberately lying') thus deferring the party dress's construction of him as `very masculine'. The incident provides a metaphor for Miss Lonelyhearts' professional function. Just as the party dress constructs both Betty's and his gender roles, so the guise of Miss Lonelyhearts in effect constructs both him and his correspondents. They write what Miss Lonelyhearts, like the party dress, wants to read. With his assistance they construct themselves as society's victims in need of his quasi-Christian succour. But like Miss Lonelyhearts, himself, each letter is also a site of ideological conflict.

The letters from `Sick-of-it-all', `Desperate', `Broken-hearted', `Disillusioned-with-tubercular-husband', `Broad Shoulders' and so on are not the inventions of Nathanael West, but real letters. They were sent to the `Susan Chester' column of the Brooklyn Eagle, and were originally offered as material to S.J. Perelman; but it was his brother-in-law, West, who saw their potential.[5] One of the first letters in Miss Lonelyhearts is from `Desperate', a sixteen year old girl who writes about her lack of a nose as some teenagers might worry over a mild crop of blackheads. She blames herself for her lack.

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? ... I asked Papa and he says he doesnt know, but that maybe I did something in the other world before I was born or that maybe I was being punished for his sins ... Ought I commit suicide? (p.67)

The last letter in the novel is furtively hand-delivered to Miss Lonelyhearts by the cripple, Peter Doyle. He has a more complicated, and materialist, response to his predicament than the superstition and self-blame of `Desperate'.

What I want to no is why I go around pulling my leg up and down stairs reading meters for the gas company for a stinking $22.50 per while the bosses ride around in swell cars living off the fat of the land. Dont think Im a greasy red ... But thats not what I am writing you about. What I want to no is what is it all for my pulling my god damed leg along the streets and down in stinking cellars with it all the time hurting fit to burst so that near quitting time I am crazy with pain and when I get home all I here is money money which aint no home for a man like me. (p. 125)

Doyle's desires for an end to bodily suffering, a change in social relations, a sexual relationship free of financial implications, emerge through the jostling discourses of journalese. He opens his letter by remarking on his difficulties as a man in breaking orthodox gender codes to begin to articulate his feelings:

`I am kind of ashamed to write you because a man like me dont take stock in things like that but my wife told me you were a man and not some dopey woman so I thought I would write to you after reading your answer to Disillusioned.' (p. 125)

Doyle cannot broach these matters with a fellow male, nor raise them with `some dopey woman', but a man textually masquerading as a woman wins his confidence. Miss Lonelyhearts' very transvestism, then, opens up a space for Doyle's articulation. Miss Lonelyhearts occupies a potentially disruptive social position which cannot be categorised according to the dominant binary opposition of male/female[6] (but nor is this position necessarily androgynous).[7] That this letter is exchanged outside the offices of the newspaper suggests it to some extent evades the ideological containment exercise professionally required of the columnist.

While Miss Lonelyhearts was puzzling out the crabbed writing, Doyle's damp hand accidentally touched his under the table. He jerked away, but then drove his hand back and forced it to clasp the cripple's. After finishing the letter he did not let go, but pressed it firmly with all the love he could manage. At first the cripple covered his embarrassment by disguising the meaning of the clasp with a handshake, but he soon gave in to it and they sat silently, hand in hand. (p.126)

The `meaning of the handclasp' remains ambiguous. It may be interpreted partly as a Christian gesture - the implementation of Miss Lonelyhearts' messianic fantasies - and partly as a sexual one. Miss Lonelyhearts repeats the gesture in the next scene, `Miss Lonelyhearts pays a visit', when he gets mixed up in the sexual conflict of the Doyle's marriage (after `Doyle tore open Miss Lonelyhearts' fly'). Mrs Doyle remarks: `What a sweet pair of fairies you guys are' (p.129). Miss Lonelyhearts, suppressing the possibilities of a relationship with Doyle himself, chooses this moment to enforce his newspaper's code for the married couple:

`You have a big strong body, Mrs Doyle. Holding your husband in your arms, you can warm him and give him life. You can take the chill out of his bones. He drags his days out in areaways and cellars, carrying a heavy load of weariness and pain. You can substitute a dream of yourself for this load. A buoyant dream that will be like a dynamo in him. You can do this by letting him conquer you in bed. He will repay you by flowering and becoming ardent over you ...' (p. 129)

The scene closes with Miss Lonelyhearts' brutal assault on Mrs Doyle's face: `He kept hitting her until she stopped trying to hold him, then he ran out of the house.' (p.130) Miss Lonelyhearts' Christian mission ends in the further oppression of those he seeks to help. His brutality towards Mrs Doyle is bound up with her voicing of his unspoken sexual feelings. Mrs Doyle earlier in the scene `rolled a newspaper into a club and struck her husband on the mouth' (p.128). This time Miss Lonelyhearts violently implements the oppressive ethos of his newspaper column.

We might compare this scene with an earlier one, `Miss Lonely-hearts and the clean old man', in which Miss Lonelyhearts and a drinking pal masquerade as scientists to humiliate an old man taking refuge in a public toilet. The encounter makes Miss Lonelyhearts feel `as he had felt years before, when he had accidentally stepped on a small frog ... When its suffering had become real to his senses, his pity had turned to rage and he had beaten it frantically until it was dead.' (p.87) Using scientific discourse, Miss Lonelyhearts con-sciously inflicts a similar sense of suffering:

`Aw, come off,' Gates said. `We're scientists. He's Havelock Ellis and I'm Krafft-Ebing. When did you first discover homosexualist tendencies in yourself?' ...

`By what right do you ask?'

`Science gives me the right.'

`Let's drop it,' Gates said. `The old fag is going to cry.'

`No Krafft-Ebing, sentiment must never be permitted to interfere with the probings of science.'

Miss Lonelyhearts put his arm around the old man. `Tell us the story of your life,' he said loading his voice with sympathy. (p. 87)

When Miss Lonelyhearts turns to inflicting bodily violence on the old man he feels that he is `twisting the arm of all the sick and miserable, broken and betrayed, inarticulate and impotent. He was twisting the arm of Desperate, Broken-hearted, Sick-of-it-all, Disillusioned-with-tubercular-husband.' (p.88). In authoritarian mode Miss Lonelyhearts equates homosexuality with social decline and poverty, and punishes it as a register of all he despises (and feels threatened by). Yet with Doyle alternatives are glimpsed.

William Carlos Williams invokes the then powerful image of the war veteran when he calls Miss Lonelyhearts' correspondents (`the direct incentive to [West's] story') `the seriously injured of our civic life'. He asks: `Should such people, like the worst of our war wounded, best be kept in hiding'.[8] These people, Williams neglects to mention, are usually women. `Sick-of-it-all', for example, is a woman whose suffering is directly caused by the doctrines of the religion Miss Lonelyhearts himself follows:

I have 7 children in 12 yrs and ever since the last 2 I have been so sick. ... And now I am going to have a baby and I dont think I can stand it my kidneys hurt so much. I am so sick and scared because I cant have an abortion on account of being a catholic and my husband so religious. I cry all the time it hurts so much and I dont know what to do. (pp.66-7)

`Broad Shoulders' is terrorized by her husband (whom she married during the war `to help Uncle Sam'). After a series of stormy scenes over money, violence, murder threats, and child custody, she is persuaded to take him back:

We had three beds and I was on the last which was a double bed when stooping to put the broom under the bed to get at the lint and the dust when lo and behold I saw a face like the mask of a devil with only the whites of the eyes showing and hands clenched to choke anyone and then I saw it move and I was so frighted that almost till night I was hystirical and I was paralised from my waist down ... It was my husband lieing under the bed from seven in the morning until almost half past one o'clock lieing in his own dirt instead of going to the bathroom when he had to be dirtied himself waiting to fright me ... Shall I take my husband back? How can I support my children? (pp.119-21)

The letters reveal the sad complicity of these people in their own oppression. Economic casualties of the Depression, they wage war on each other. The letters are `counterpointed' (Williams' phrase) with the scenes of Miss Lonelyhearts' turbulent exploration of his intersecting professional and sexual lives. Miss Lonelyhearts never literally cross-dresses, but his textual cross-dressing nevertheless foregrounds the constructedness of gender categories and exposes even as it enforces their ideological framing. If alternatives to oppressive gender codes are glimpsed, the main focus of the novel is to satirize the enforcement of the latter.


`The poets find the refuse of society on their street and derive their heroic subject from this very refuse', observes Walter Benjamin.[9] West's is a similarly transformative art. It seeks to expose and correct the corruptive influence of journalese: `Since the newspapers are the principal corruptors of all that has value in language, it is with this very journalistic "aspect" and everyday speech that language must be regenerated.'[10] The inclusion of the `Susan Chester' letters is in keeping with West's collage technique. I want to explore this technique in relation to attire and satire in his work, and will consider and contend with some of the orthodox views of West criticism.

West died at 37, before his work met with public or critical acclaim. He was resurrected in the fifies and after, usually as a nihilist, an existentialist, an absurdist, and a misogynist (or any combination thereof). Just as one of the first indignities suffered by Lemuel Pitkin in his `Dismantling' is to have his teeth needlessly drawn while wrongfully imprisoned, so West's first misfortune in his literary revival was to have his satiric bite blunted, if not pulled entirely. Norman Podhoretz, for example, in an essay of 1957, performs the standard act of critical dentistry on West:

Nothing could be further from the spirit of his work than a faith in the power of new social arrangements or economic systems to alleviate the misery of the human condition. ... His `particular kind of joking' has profoundly unpolitical implications; it was a way of saying that the universe is always rigged against us and that our efforts to contend with it invariably lead to absurdity.

West, he continues, is so `anti-radical' he is `almost un-American' (a novel use of the term, in the era of Senator McCarthy). Podhoretz concludes that, if he is a satirist at all, `at his most authentic, West is the `universal satirist' in whose fiction `the real culprit is not capitalism but humanity.'[11] Diagnosing `West's Disease', W H Auden claims that West is `not strictly speaking a novelist' and is certainly `not a satirist' because his work has no moral base.[12] Where critics stray from a reiteration of these views to consider issues of gender and sexuality, the indictment of universal misanthropy is seen to embrace a specific sense of misogyny. Beyond noting, as Leslie Fiedler does,[13] West's frequent depiction of violent acts against women, or attempting basic Freudian readings,[14] critics have little to add. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar dismiss his representations of transvestism and `gender-merging' as no less than `calamitous'.[15]

Josephine Herbst, a friend of West's in the thirties, suggests that such views tend

to reflect more of the climate of the fifties than of the era in which West lived, felt, created. The penitents of that earlier decade have poured lava over some of the living elements which should once again be seen in their original verdure to make sense of the time and place ... To see what West used and discarded one must return to the Then and strip away the Now.[16]

Chipping away the critical `lava' of the fifties and after may not reveal the `authentic' West, but it may clear the way for more informed and positive assessments of his satire. West himself called his work `moral satire'; if we take this view seriously, we can also make better sense of his aesthetic technique, his political tastes and affiliations, and his reputation for misogyny.

The root definition of satire as satura lanx - a mixed dish - fits well both with the allusions to cross-dressing prevalent in West's work, and with the (anti-)Dada or Merz collage technique of Kurt Schwitters which he imitated and adapted.[17] Schwitters declared that `new art forms out of the remains of a former culture'[18]. The accumulation of detritus, clichés, the second hand, and so on, is certainly an organizing principle in both men's work. Indeed, Chief Israel Satinpenny, shortly before scalping Lemuel Pitkin, memorably itemizes some basic materials of the collagist:

`The land was flooded with toilet paper, painted boxes to keep pins in, key rings, watch fobs, leatherette satchels ... The day of vengeance is here. The star of the paleface is sinking and he knows it. Spengler has said so; Valéry has said so; thousands of his wise men proclaim it.

`O, brothers, this is the time to run upon his neck and the bosses of his armor. While he is sick and fainting, while he is dying of a surfeit of shoddy.' (pp. 232-3)

West's lyrical satire, then, is an attempt to transform America's `surfeit of shoddy', or, as he phrases it elsewhere, `the apocalypse of the second-hand'.[19]

Gore Vidal, citing Max Beerbohm, observes that `the satirist does not create; he reacts with caricature and burlesque.'[20] The satirist, then, rearranges or exaggerates the original work of others - just as West rearranges and distorts the standard Alger story in A Cool Million, or as Joe Hill does to popular hymns and songs. Similarly, the very term `Merz' which Schwitters came to apply to all his work, verbal and visual, originates from an advertisement for a bank, `Commerz und Privatbank'.[21] Schwitters thus fragments and reorganizes the discourse of capitalism. West worked with the Dadaist George Grosz when the latter fled to America. They co-edited the short-lived magazine, Americana, which in an editorial of 1932, declaring its disaffection with American Republicans, Democrats, Socialist, and Communists alike, proclaims:

We are Americans who believe that our civilisation exudes a miasmic stench and that we had better prepare to give it a decent but rapid burial. We are the laughing morticians of the present.[22]

West's collage technique is both an act of burial and of reconstruction, involving the processes of selection and assemblage as well as that of `dismantling'. West's engagement with issues of gender and sexuality, then, may be understood in relation to this technique, which brings about the dissolution of the self as unified, of the body as whole, and sexual identity as fixed.

There is a moment of special sartorial interest in the biography of Nathanael West, which is pertinent to the critical concensus on his status as a satirist. West, according to his doubting biographer, boasted in the thirties of having taken part in a violent coal strike in November 1923 while still a student.

The truth was his red Stutz Bearcat broke down near a coal town on the way back from [a basketball game in Pennsylvania] and while waiting for it to be repaired he ... briefly eyed the idle miners, then bought hunting clothes, boots, and buffalo plaid shirts in the local store. The fashion they thus began at Brown was interest not in labor problems but in clothes, for the whole college began to imitate them and the rural fashion held brief sway in the Ivy League.[23]

The insistence on West as a fashion victim rather than a political activist feeds into the critical emphasis upon his reputation as an aesthete whose work is untainted by politics. Most critics, in the face of evidence to the contrary,[24] are anxious to deny West not only an active politics, but any political opinion at all save the bleakest and most nihilistic. West, it is emphasized, never a member of the Party himself, did not please his Communist friends as a writer. Indeed, contemporary Marxists certainly did not approve of West's work. Michael Gold explains: `His writing seemed to me symbolic rather than realistic, and that was, to me, the supreme crime'.[25] Here is one party dress that, for all his love of literary masquerade, West would not wear. But he is alive to his own shortcomings:

I'm a comic writer and it seems impossible for me to handle any of the `big things' without seeming to laugh or at least smile ... What I mean is that out here we have a strong progressive movement and I devote a great deal of time to it. Yet, though this new novel is about Hollywood, I found it impossible to include any of those activities in it. I made a desperate attempt before giving up. I tried to describe a meeting of the Anti-Nazi League, but it didn't fit and I had to substitute a whore-house and a dirty film. The terribly sincere struggle of the League came out comic when I touched it and even libelous.[26]

West in fact underlines an important law of satire: the satirist does not overtly signal the views (s)he condones. They do not `fit' with satire's dominant mode which is to villify everything in its path. `When he turns from vice to virtue, he disarms himself', Gore Vidal notes of Evelyn Waugh. This is precisely West's point. His careful omission of the Anti-Nazi League from The Day of the Locust, moreover, makes clear that his satiric aim is selective and not, as the critical concensus has it, universal. West's work has, then, the (necessarily) occluded moral base of true satire. For, as Vidal observes, `to deal properly with the sins of the present, the satirist needs an alternative view of the way life should be. He does not need to stress it. Few satirists mean to be taken seriously as political or even moral reformers, but the alternative way must exist for them, if only as contrast.'[27]

West removes from his firing line not only the Anti-Nazi League, but also an interesting sexual exchange. Carter A Daniel has identified a particular revision to Miss Lonelyhearts, which in his opinion `devitalized [the] scene by eliminating its shocking and hilarious repulsiveness and thereby reducing it to an ordinary incident.'[28] In the first version of `Miss Lonelyhearts on a Field Trip', West describes a moment from Miss Lonelyhearts' intimate encounter with the lascivious Mrs Doyle:

He drew back when she reached for a kiss. She caught his head and put her tongue into his mouth. At first it ticked like a watch, then the tick softened and thickened into a heart throb. It beat louder and more rapidly each second until he thought that it was going to explode, and pulled away with a rude jerk.[29]

West alters this for the novel to:

He drew back when she reached for a kiss. She caught his head and kissed him on his mouth. At first it ticked like a watch, then the tick softened and thickened into a heart throb. It beat louder and more rapidly each second until he thought that it was going to explode, and pulled away with a rude jerk. (p.101)

This alteration is not reductive, but it does change the nature of the relationship between the lovers. In the first version Mrs Doyle is clearly the sexual predator. Her tongue takes on phallic qualities from which Miss Lonelyhearts withdraws in horror. In the second version it seems to be Miss Lonelyhearts who is doing the ticking. Although `it' refers ostensibly, and at first, to his mouth in this version, in repetion `it' seems to allude to the phallus, which significantly is attributed to neither party. By maintaining the ambiguous reference to the mouth West keeps in play the notion of sexual ambiguity, and fluidity of gender category. At the same time he witholds from Mrs Doyle the more dominant act of penetration (or at most allows it an elliptical presence). It would be reductive, however, to read this exchange only on a sexual level. As Shrike cruelly demonstrates in reference to another of Miss Lonelyhearts' correspondents, there is a political allegory to be discerned: `Label the boy Labor, the violin Capital, and so on ...' (p.134)

The Doyles' struggle with Miss Lonelyhearts is West's topic at this point, not their overcoming of him. For the satire to work, the latter may be elliptically glimpsed but not overtly stated. The nearest to a class victory is Doyle's partial and murderous fall down stairs with Miss Lonelyhearts at the novel's end. The explosion he triggers echoes the one his wife so nearly achieves in the earlier scene.

Gilbert and Gubar arrive at very different conclusions. They place West in the company of T S Eliot, D H Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner - literary men `who record their horror at a battle men are losing' (p.40). Mrs Doyle, they explain, is responsible for `the final unmanning of the man called "Miss Lonelyhearts"'.

The explosion of Doyle's gun functions at least covertly as an assertion of Mrs Doyle's will ... Thus when the columnist dies, locked in the deadly embrace of a dwarfish non-man, West implies that, like so many other male characters created by modernist men of letters, he is not only a prisoner of sex but a prisoner of the female sex. [30]

West, like other male modernists, is misogynist and homophobic. Whereas `literary women generally persisted in seeking an ontological "wild free thing", a third sex beyond gender', these men, on the contrary, `continued for the most part to express anxieties about or at the very least ambivalence toward sex change in texts focusing on transvestism or transexualism'. Gilbert and Gubar simplistically place West's work amongst male-produced texts of Spenglarian vision that `in various ways express a nausea associated with the blurring of gender boundaries.'[31] Eagerness to erect an apartheid system between male and female modernists obliges Gilbert and Gubar to ignore the way West's satire actually works. His exploration of ideology and class in relation to gender construction, his celebration of sexual pleasure, and his collage technique are lost to their analysis. In keeping with the cold war criticism, they accuse West of condoning the very values his satire attacks.

It is not by reading against the grain of West's work, but by reading it as satire that his virtues become visible. Sadly, Gilbert and Gubar do not mention West's striking depiction of a transvestite in his final novel, The Day of the Locust (1939).

All three of them turned to watch a young man in a tight evening gown of red silk sing a lullaby.

Little man, you'e crying,
I know why you're blue,
Someone took your kiddycar away;
Better go to sleep now,
Little man, you've had a busy day ...

He had a soft, throbbing voice and his gestures were matronly, tender and aborted, a series of unconscious caresses. What he was doing was in no sense parody; it was too simple and too restrained. It wasn't even theatrical. This dark young man with his thin, hairless arms and soft, rounded shoulders, who rocked an imaginary cradle as he crooned, was really a woman.

When he had finished, there was a great deal of applause. The young man shook himself and became an actor again. He tripped on his train, as though he were't used to it, lifted his skirts to show he was wearing Paris garters, then strode off swinging his shoulders. His imitation of a man was awkward and obscene.

Homer and Tod applauded him.

`I hate fairies,' Faye said.

`All women do.' (pp. 370-1)

Like Faye Doyle's in Miss Lonelyhearts, Faye Greener's homophobia, along with her gender identity, is here seriously undermined - not only by the transvestite's exposure of the constructedness of gender, but also by the `fairy'-like connotations of her own name. It is with some irony, then, that we should view the attempts of Gilbert and Gubar to fit modernist treatments of transvestism, and West's in particular, into the dichotomized categories of male or female.


[1] Joe Hill, 'Mr Block'; in Rebel Voices: An I.W.W. Anthology, ed. Joyce L Kornbluh, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1964)

[2] The Wobblies (IWW) were an American syndicalist labour union. See Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, vol. 4: The Industrial Workers of the World, 1905-1917, New York, International Publishers 1965; and Foner, The Case of Joe Hill, New York 1966

[3] Page references are to The Complete Works of Nathanael West, (London: Picador, 1988).

[4] Interestingly, William Randolph Hearst himself, according to Garber, was a member of the oldest and best known of 'institutionalized transvestite theaters', Harvard's Hasty Pudding Club; Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety, Penguin London 1992, p.60.

[5] Jay Martin, Nathanael West: The Art of his Life (1970); Carroll & Graf, New York, 1984, p.109.

[6] Garber, p.10.

[7] That Miss Lonelyhearts is in search of the 'androgynous state' has been been suggested by a number of critics. See Roger D. Abrahams 'Androgynes Bound: Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts', Seven Contemporary Authors: Essays on Cozzens, Miller, West, Golding, Heller, Allbee, and Powers, ed. T.D. Whitbread, Un. Texas Press Austin and London 1966.

[8] Williams, `Sordid? Good God!', (1933) inNathanael West: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Jay Martin, (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1971) p.72

[9] Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, (London: Verso, 1983) p.79.

[10] William Carlos Williams, "A New American Writer", in Nathanael West: A Collection of Critical Essays, pp.48-49.

[11] Norman Podhoretz, `Nathanael West: A Particular Kind of Joking', (1957); in Nathanael West: A Collection of Critical Essays, pp.154-55, 169.

[12] W.H. Auden, `Interlude: West's Disease', The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays, New York, Random House, 1962, pp.238-245.

[13] Leslie A. Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel, New Revised Edition, Cape, London, 1967.

[14] James W Hickey, `Freudian Criticism and Nathanael West', in Nathanael West: The Cheaters and the the Cheated, ed. David Madden, Everett/Edwards, Florida, 1973, pp.111-150.

[15] Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century Vol. 1: The War of Words, (New Haven, London, Yale UP, 1988) p.

[16] Josephine Herbst, `Nathanael West' (1961); in Nathanael West: A Collection of Critical Essays, p.25.

[17] Deborah Wyrick, 'Dadaist Collage Structure and Nathanael West's Dream Life of Balso Snell,''Studies in the Novel 11 (Fall 1979) pp. 349-59.

[18] Kurt Schwitters, `Daten aus meinem Leben' 1926; John Elderfield, Kurt Schwitters, Thames and Hudson, 1985 1987, p.12.

[19] West, `The Adventurer' in Alistair Wisker, The Writing of Nathanael West (Basingstoke, 1990), p.175.

[20] Gore Vidal, Rocking the Boat (London: Heinemann, 1963) p. 63.

[21] Elderfield, p.12

[22] Editorial, AMERICANA (1932).

[23] Martin, Nathanael West: The Art of his Life, p.56.

[24] Daniel Aaron, Writers on the Left, (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World Inc, 1961) pp.175, 307, 432.

[25] (Martin, p.257).

[26] West, Letter to Malcolm Cowley (1939), Wisker, p.96.

[27] Vidal, p.237.

[28] Carter A Daniel, `West's Revisions of Miss Loneyhearts', Studies in Bibliography 16 (1963): 232-43.

[29] West, '`Miss Lonelyhearts on a Field Trip', Contact I (October, 1932) p.54

[30] Gilbert and Gubar, vol.1, pp.42-43

[31] Gilbert and Gubar, vol.2: Sexchanges (1989), pp.365, 66