restricted access Nationalist Ideologies and New Deal Regionalism in The Day of the Locust
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Nationalist Ideologies and New Deal Regionalism in The Day of the Locust

In the late thirties, Los Angeles was not seen as a quintessentially regional space: it was urban, very modern, and already known for quirky fads and pop culture rather than tradition and folk arts. For Nathanael West, however, the city seemed an ideal setting for considering a question routinely invoked by regional art: what, precisely, is (and should be) the relationship between region and nation?1 West posits this question, particularly pressing as regionalism became the nation’s dominant artistic mode in the 1930s, about midway through The Day of the Locust (1939). Here, the novel’s protagonist, Tod Hackett, muses about the meaning of the masterpiece he is soon to paint, “The Burning of Los Angeles”:

[H]e only wondered if he weren’t exaggerating the importance of the people who come to California to die. Maybe they weren’t really desperate enough to set a single city on fire, let alone the whole country. Maybe they were only the pick of America’s madmen and not at all typical of the rest of the land. . . . He changed “pick of America’s madmen” to “cream” and felt almost certain that the milk from which it had been skimmed was just as rich in violence. The Angelenos would be first, but their comrades all over the country would follow. There would be civil war.

(Day 308–09) [End Page 42]

The idea that LA represents America only at its most exaggerated extreme is comforting to Tod (and, undoubtedly, to many who entertain the idea). In this view, LA is home to the nation’s lunatic fringe, a marginal few who can hardly be said to represent the majority of Americans. It is a singular place: quirky, intriguing, and finally isolated. But Tod’s insistence that Angelenos are the “cream” and not the “pick” of America’s madmen supports the other general belief about regional spaces, which proposes that the local region functions as a synecdoche for the nation. Seen from this angle, Los Angeles is composed of the richest concentration of a larger national concoction, a heady sample of those whose trends and lifestyles will soon become national standards. In this particular case, the very close relationship between region and nation is a threatening one, as the riot that closes The Day of the Locust portends “doom and destruction” for the rest of the nation (309).2

Notwithstanding its unusual regional setting, The Day of the Locust was immediately recognized as an exemplar of regional writing due to its detailed depictions of the locals and the city’s exotic natural and built environment, and the book still holds interest today for many readers as a Los Angeles novel.3 Yet Tod’s reflection on the representativeness of regional spaces signals not only the text’s application of the stock techniques of regionalist writing, but also a metafictional critique of the ideologies embedded in the regional mode more generally. Of course, West’s fascination with the styles and formal conventions of both high and low literary texts is patent in all of his writings. Like his other novels, The Day of the Locust burlesques the conventions of a specific genre of writing (The Dream Life of Balso Snell being a tour de force, mocking practically all conventions of all genres. It was, according to West, a “protest against writing books” [qtd. in Galloway 125]). West’s sustained interest in the particular style, form, and content of regional literature, however, has been overlooked by scholars who have tended to focus on his incorporation of new forms of mass culture and textual consumption or who think of him as a “protopostmodern” avant-gardist whose concerns were more literary than social in nature (Strychaz 204).4 In part, this is because West’s tone—broadly parodic and politically and culturally indecipherable—seems to bear little relation to the sincerity, nostalgia, and conservativism that is routinely associated with regional art.5

Yet West’s preoccupation with and revulsion to the nationalist thrust of regional writing guided his literary and extra-literary career: it was the impetus for the breakdown...