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American Superrealism

Nathanael West and the Politics of Representation in the 1930s

Jonathan Veitch

Publication Year: 1997

Nathanael West has been hailed as “an apocalyptic writer,” “a writer on the left,” and “a precursor to postmodernism.” But until now no critic has succeeded in fully engaging West’s distinctive method of negation. In American Superrealism, Jonathan Veitch examines West’s letters, short stories, screenplays and novels—some of which are discussed here for the first time—as well as West’s collaboration with William Carlos Williams during their tenure as the editors of Contact. Locating West in a lively, American avant-garde tradition that stretches from Marcel Duchamp to Andy Warhol, Veitch explores the possibilities and limitations of dada and surrealism—the use of readymades, scatalogical humor, human machines, “exquisite corpses”—as modes of social criticism. American Superrealism offers what is surely the definitive study of West, as well as a provocative analysis that reveals the issue of representation as the central concern of Depression-era America.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes one to write a book. I have been blessed with a warm and generous village of family, friends, mentors, and colleagues who have helped me to do both over the last few years. ...

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pp. xi-xx

Nathanael West holds something of an anomalous place in American literary history. Often mentioned in studies of the thirties, his place within that decade—and within American literature more generally—is poorly understood. West has been endowed with the "power of blackness" (by Harry Levin), ...

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Introduction: Who Can We Shoot? The Crisis of Representation in the 1930s

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pp. 3-12

In the opening pages of The Grapes of Wrath (1939)—the text that has, more than any other, come to symbolize the wrenching experience of the Depression—there is a revealing exchange between a tenant farmer and a young man on a tractor. The young man has been sent to knock down the farmer's house and evict him ...


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1. American Superrealism

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pp. 15-22

The title of this book—American Superrealism—is an archaism, drawn from a brief moment in American cultural history when the critical possibilities of European surrealism were exploited by a handful of homegrown writers and painters in the early thirties.1 Superrealism is the way that surréalisme was first "translated" ...

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2. Euclid's Asshole: The Dream Life of Balsa Snell

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pp. 23-44

In an unpublished short story entitled "The Fake," Nathanael West recounts the adventures of Beano Walsh, a would-be American artist living the life of a bohemian in Paris during the twenties. Despite his extravagant claims for his art, Beano is really more of a con artist than anything else. ...


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3. "Lousy with Pure / Reeking with Stark": Contact

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pp. 47-66

In the fall of 1931, William Carlos Williams wrote to E. E. Cummings, requesting poetry for a little magazine he was editing with Nathanael West. It was called Contact. (Actually, the magazine was a revival of a previous publication that Williams had put out in the early twenties with Robert McAlmon.) ...

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4. The People Talk: Miss Lonelyhearts

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pp. 67-87

During the thirties there was an unparalleled attempt to record, transcribe, or otherwise gain access to the voice and image of the people. "The people" (as they were affectionately, and sometimes proprietarily, known) talked and talked and talked. In return, they were recorded, photographed, and even tagged as specimens. ...

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5. The Folklore of Capitalism: A Cool Million

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pp. 88-112

In 1934, Nathanael West went to work on a Broadway musical revue he called "American Chauve Souris." The revue marked a revival of interest in American folk materials during the Depression that resulted in, among other things, Howard Hanson's opera Merry Mount, Carl Carmer's collection of Southern folklore, ...

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6. The Clich

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pp. 113-131

It is tempting to think of The Day of the Locust as a redaction of J. K. Huysmans' A Rebours, with the Barber in Purdue as demotic heir to the dandy, and the back lot of a movie studio as the absurd analogue to the dandy's boudoir. The Barber in Purdue is the slightly condescending name by which the public ...

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Postscript: Madonna's Bustier; or "The Burning of Los Angeles"

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pp. 132-138

More than half a century after the death of Nathanael West, his name continues to be invoked in an effort to explain some of the more puzzling aspects of our culture. "It's like something out of Nathanael West," a Chicago newscaster opined as he watched live videotape of the burning and looting that took place ...


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pp. 139-174


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pp. 175-182

E-ISBN-13: 9780299157036
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299157043

Publication Year: 1997