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“lousy with pure / reeking with stark”: Nathanael West, William Carlos Williams, and the Textualization of the “Real”

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 July 2009

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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 1920s with Robert McAlmon.) The response Williams received from cummings accurately, albeit somewhat parodically, characterized the magazine's ambitions. If Contact was to be more than merely another magazine devoted to “good writing,” the editors felt – in a decidedly less ironic vein – that it had to be “redblooded,” “stark,” “fearlessly obscene.”

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1996

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1. e. e. cummings, “Let's Start a Magazine,” Contact, 2nd ser., 1, no. 1 (02 1932): 10.Google Scholar

2. Cummings's poem was one of four published in the opening pages of Contacts first issue in the thirties. The second poem in that series parodies the magazine's ambitions in a more elliptical and playful manner:

The poem, to “quote” cummings's pentultimate line, is “rearrange(d) becomingly” in a game of verbal and typographic play whose symbol is the grasshopper. The colons, parentheses, and other forms of punctuation are there for pure show – making a mockery of the meaning-making operations they purport to parse into grammatical units. One can (if one must) rearrange the letters in this poem in order to paraphrase it thus: Grasshopper, who as we look up now, gathering into the … leaps, arriving to rearrange becomingly. But it is the becoming rearrangement of alphabet and sense that most interests cummings. And that rearrangement has a rather pointed message for the editors of Contact.

The message is based on the parable of the grasshopper and the ant invoked by the poem. In that admonitory little scenario, it is the ant's willingness to labor while the grasshopper plays that ultimately enables the ant to survive the winter. The grasshopper, lacking such foresight, goes begging. But here, cummings reverses the values and celebrates the indifference and joie de vivre of the grasshopper. Given the context in which the poem appears, it is hard not to conclude that cummings intended the poem as a sly parody of the magazine's ambitions. While the “worker” ants of proletarian fiction perform the tedious labor of social criticism, cummings asserts, in grand fashion, his right to go on playing.

3. Tashjian, Dickran, William Carlos Williams and the American Scene, 1920–1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), 24, 27Google Scholar. Tashjian argues that this spirit of “contact” animated much of the domestic cultural scene of the American avant-garde – from Stieglitz's early photographs to Duchamp's readymades to the Precisionists, to the Objectivists, to the poetry of William

Carlos Williams himself (and most especially Contact). “Contact,” Tashjian argues, is “especially helpful for understanding the common endeavor of these diverse artists” (91).

4. Williams and McAlmon were adamant in their rejection of “past art” as a “hangover from previous generations no better equipped to ascertain value than are we” (“Opening Comment,” Contact, orig. sen, 1, no. 1 [12 1920]: 1)Google Scholar. They were equally adamant in their rejection of all “imported thought”: “Americans are still too prone to admire and to copy the very thing which should not be copied, the thing which is French or Irish alone, the thing which is the result of special local conditions of thought and circumstance” (“Further Announcement,” Contact, orig. ser., 1, no. 1 [12 1920]: 10)Google Scholar. T. S. Eliot, in particular, is singled out by Robert McAlmon for the way “he continually relates literature to literature, and largely overlooks the relation of literature to reality” (“Modern Antiques,” Contact, orig. ser, 1, no. 2 [01 1921]: unpaginated).Google Scholar

5. Williams, William Carlos, “Yours, O Youth,” Contact, orig. ser., no. 3 (undated): 1416Google Scholar. Williams's discussion of the significance of “contact” is carried on throughout the life of the magazine, but his most succinct meditation takes place in this essay. (The title is borrowed from a young California painter named Rex Slinkard, whose letters were published in Contact's first three numbers: “The mountains are bathed in gold and the air is gold itself. The sun is setting. Yours O Youth, yours” [3]).

6. Williams, , “Opening Comment,” 1.Google Scholar

7. Williams, William Carlos, “Final Comment,” Contact, orig. ser., 1, no. 2 (01 1921): last page.Google Scholar

8. Williams, , “Further Announcement,” 10.Google Scholar

9. Martin, Jay, Nathanael West: The Art of His Life (New York: Carroll and Graf, 1970), 144.Google Scholar

10. West's faith in the little magazine as a forum for experimental writing was amply demonstrated in a letter he and Julian Shapiro sent to a column entitled “Book Marks for Today,” in the New York World Telegram (October 20, 1931). The letter defended “panhandling magazines” against the charge that they were somehow deficient because they could not afford to pay their contributors. West and Shapiro argued that, thanks to the generosity of their sponsors, the little magazine had found audiences for a distinguished list of writers. “Surely,” they concluded, “the unpaid writer for that type of magazine has little to complain of, since he and ‘litrachoor’ – but never the sponsors – get anything out of it” (23).

Indeed, one of the most distinctive aspects of Contact was its commitment to the tradition of the little magazine. Each number contains an extensive bibliography (compiled by David Moss) devoted to the publishing history of the little magazine. In a short commentary entitled “The Advance Guard Magazine,” Williams offers his own idiosyncratic overview of that history, which concludes by saying that “the ‘small magazine’ must in its many phases be taken as one expression” (Contact, 2nd ser., 1, no. 1 [02 1932]: 89).Google Scholar

11. Two years earlier, in 1929, S. J. Perelman – West's brother-in-law – had been given some letters by an acquaintance who wrote an advice column for the Brooklyn Eagle under the name of “Susan Chester.” She thought Perelman might be able to put to them to comic use. Perelman ultimately decided he could not use them; West decided otherwise (Martin, , Nathanael West, 109)Google Scholar. Contact gave him the ideal opportunity to explore the various uses to which these letters might be put.

12. Although it is beyond the purview of this essay, it could also be argued that Contact was to prove crucial in the gestation of Williams's Paterson as well.

13. West, Nathanael, Letter dated 10 1931Google Scholar to William Carlos Williams, Jay Martin Collection, Box 1, Huntington Library.

14. The date of this letter is unclear, but the events to which it refers place it in November or December of 1931 (Nathanael West, Letter to William Carlos Williams, Jay Martin Collection, Box 1, Huntington Library).

15. West, Nathanael, Letter dated 06 1932Google Scholar to William Carlos Williams, Jay Martin Collection, Box 1, Huntington Library.

16. Williams may have had reservations of his own about Sheeler's appropriateness. In the late thirties, he confided to Constance Rourke that Sheeler's reliance on the impersonal effects of photography often resulted in an empty realism (Tashjian, , William Carlos Williams, 81).Google Scholar

17. Ibid.

18. For more on the importance of cover design in defining the tone, themes, and aspirations of the little magazine, see Nelson, Cary, Repression and Recovery (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 181233.Google Scholar

19. In the commentary “Advance Guard Magazine,” Williams picks up his running battle with T. S. Eliot where he left off. Taking the latter's appointment to a teaching position at Harvard as an occasion for comment, Williams expresses his concern over the increasingly “professorial” and “system[atic]” (read bookish) approach to American letters. After criticizing Eliot's Criterion (88), he goes on to chide the other journals of High Modernism for a variety of sins – citing the “unreasoned exclusiveness” of the Hound and Horn (89), the scattershot or “everywhere” approach of Poetry (88), and the Eurocentric bias of The Dial (89). This diatribe not only lacks the fire of its predecessors, it is placed at the end (rather than the beginning) of Contact's first number, where it no longer serves as the raison d'être of the magazine.

20. Williams, William Carlos, “Comment,” Contact, 2nd ser., 1, no. 1 (02 1932): 1, 8Google Scholar. Williams attempted to elaborate this position for Blast in 1933, arguing that the present economic crisis challenged the artist not to write “communistically” but to “retreat to the essentials” (quoted in Tashjian, , William Carlos Williams, 118).Google Scholar

21. Gold, Mike, “Proletarian Realism,” in Mike Gold: A Literary Anthology (New York: International, 1972), 206.Google Scholar

22. Ibid., 206–7. In a now infamous attack on Thornton Wilder entitled “Wilder: Prophet of the Genteel Christ” (1930), Gold inaugurated the debate by chastizing Wilder in particular (and bourgeois art in general) for a preoccupation with “little lavender tragedies.” “Mr. Wilder,” he continued, “wishes to restore…. the Spirit of Religion in American Literature”:

But what is this religious spirit Mr. Wilder aims to restore? … It is that newly fashionable literary religion that centers around Jesus Christ, the First British Gentleman. It is a pastel, pastiche, dilettante religion, without the true neurotic blood and fire, a daydream of homosexual figures in graceful gowns moving archaically among the lilies. It is Anglo-Catholicism, that last refuge of the American literary snob. (200)

The attack on Wilder was homophobic and crude. Its singular virtue lay in serving notice that art was no longer immune to questions of politics and society. “After that,” Edmund Wilson observed, “it became very plain that the economic crisis was to be accompanied by a literary one” (quoted in Walter Rideout, The Radical Novel in the United States [New York: Hill and Wang, 1966], 154). And with that crisis, the art of “straddling” – the great liberal sin as the radical left imagined it – was impossible to sustain; the writer would be forced to choose which side s/he was on (155).

23. Amplifying this paradox, Richard Pells observes, Radical books sold poorly, and the circulation of magazines like the New Masses or Modern Quarterly seemed limited to teachers, lawyers, doctors, writers, and those already persuaded by the arguments of the Left. If the people did not read novels or attend plays designed for their edification and addressed to their needs, then revolutionary art could only serve as a ceremonial catharsis for a middle class audience unable to participate directly in the daily struggles of the workers. Thus the obsession with proletarian culture might be in reality a device by which bourgeois intellectuals discharged their feeling of guilt and achieved a vicarious sense of militancy. (Radical Visions and American Dreams [Middeltown: Wesleyan University Press, 1973], 180)Google Scholar

24. Ibid., 181, 185.

25. Literary histories of proletarian literature, and the fierce debates it spawned, abound. Perhaps the best place to begin is with Aaron, Daniel's Writers on the Left (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961)Google Scholar and Pells, 's Radical VisionsGoogle Scholar. Rideout's Radical Novel is somewhat dated but still useful. Gilbert, James's Writers and Partisans (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1968)Google Scholar fills in some of the gaps in the aforementioned studies, most notably in his discussion of Partisan Review. Madden, David's critical anthology, Proletarian Writers of the Thirties (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968)Google Scholar, offers uneven but generally helpful essays on specific proletarian writers (like Robert Cantwell, Jack Conroy, Daniel Fuchs, and Dalton Trumbo). “The Roots of Radicals,” by Marcus Klein, has some interesting things to say about Nathanael West, but the best essay in the volume by far is Fiedler, Leslie's memoir, “The Two Memories: Reflections on Writers and Writing in the Thirties.”Google ScholarFoley, Barbara's Radical Representations (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993)Google Scholar offers a more recent attempt to examine proletarian fiction from a much more sympathetic perspective than many of the aforementioned studies. But her single-minded rejection of the Partisan critique makes for a rather one-sided account. Far better is Repression and Recovery by Cary Nelson, who is certainly no friend of Partisan Review. Nelson's study contains a provocative introduction to the leftist writing of the period, an account of its marginalization, and an extensive discussion of proletarian poetry (a genre of writing largely neglected by the rest). Finally, Stott, William's Documentary Expression and Thirties America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973)Google Scholar provides a good counterweight to the tendency to read the “socially concerned” writing of the thirties exclusively in terms of a leftist aesthetics and agenda.

26. Williams, , “Comment,” 1Google Scholar. “How can I be a Communist, being what I am?” Williams asks somewhat defensively in a letter to the New Masses. “Poetry is the thing which has the hardest hold on me in my daily experiences. But I cannot, without an impossible wrench of my understanding, turn it into a force directed toward one end, vote the Communist ticket, or work for world revolution” (quoted in Tashjian, , William Carlos Williams, 116).Google Scholar

27. The bulk of the material published in this first issue is, in fact, reminiscent of Seven Arts, particularly insofar as it is devoted to the relationship between high art and commercial culture. Thus, for example, S. J. Perelman offers a satire of the latter in his faux movie proposal, entitled “Scenario.” And Ben Hecht makes his allegiances clear in “Ballad of the Talkies”: “Squawking hams / will go the way of last year's snows / … While Gallant Thespis thumbs his nose” (Contact, 2nd ser., 1, no. 1 [02 1932], 36)Google Scholar. Only Diego Rivera is willing to side (at least to a point) with commercial culture. In “Mickey Mouse and American Art,” he compares cartoons (“the standardization of the drawing of details, the infinite variety of groupings”) to Egyptian friezes, Grecian earthenware, and the folk art of Mexico. “The animated cartoons,” he argues, are “of the purest and most definitive graphic style, of the greatest efficacy as social products, drawings joyous and simple that make the masses of tired men and women rest, make the children laugh until they are ready for sleep…. The aesthete,” he concludes, “will find that MICKEY MOUSE was one of the genuine heroes of American Art in the first half of the 20th Century in the calendar anterior to the world revolution” (37–39).

28. Rahv, Philip, “Notes on the Decline of Naturalism,” in Literature and the Sixth Sense (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1970), 85.Google Scholar

29. Trilling, Lionel, “Reality in America,” in The Liberal Imagination (New York: Viking, 1950), 4, 13.Google Scholar

30. Rahv, , “Notes,” 86.Google Scholar

31. West, Nathanael, “Some Notes on Miss L,” in Nathanael West: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Martin, Jay (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971), 66.Google Scholar

32. For more on the fascination with “decay” within proletarian literature in general, see Aaron, (Writers, 212).Google Scholar

33. Asch, Nathan, “Mary,” Contact, 2nd ser., 1, no. 2 (05 1932): 10.Google Scholar

34. Farrell, James T., “Jo-Jo,” Contact, 2nd ser, 1, no. 3 (10 1932): 77Google Scholar. Walter Rideout, in his study of the radical novel in the United States, categorized the literary conventions implicit in foregoing depictions of the poor as belonging to a subgenre of the proletarian novel he calls “‘bottom dogs’ literature.” He explains that, in such literature, “the message tends … to be implicit only. For the most part refusing the assistance of slogans, resolutions, and other revolutionary gestures, these novelists ambush the reader from behind a relentlessly objective description of life in the lower depths. Here is the vast area of failure, of have-not, of down-and-out” (185).

35. If this sort of reductiveness falls well short of the critical standards espoused by Modernist aesthetics, the exclusive focus on the so-called brute facts of existence deviates from the standards of the radical left as well. Under the guidelines of the latter – laid down by Mike Gold, Granville Hicks, and others – suffering, isolation, and betrayal cannot be allowed to stand without risking a corresponding pessimism about the possibilities for amelioration. Sincere efforts to portray the harsh circumstances of the disenfranchised cannot, must not, result in the existentializing of suffering, lest that lead to political quietism. This was one of the heresies to which the proletarian literature of the day was most susceptible and for which it was carefully scrutinized by its partisans.

There is no shortage of this sort of heresy in the pages of Contact. In Nathan Asch's “Mary,” for example, the narrator's long search for the real Texas culminates in his encounter with the raped country heroine, who is down at the heels, starved, and drifting. Her desperate condition is taken as an emblem of truth, against which the narrator measures the false pretensions of modern cities like Dallas (characterized as a city with “blocks and blocks of houses all more or less alike … [with] Buicks and Chevrolets standing before [them]” [9]). The limitations of this static, polarized opposition as a construction of reality are obvious enough. But from the viewpoint of the left, the most troublesome feature of this construction is the absence of any dialectical alternative. Hence, Mary's desperate circumstances (or, for that matter, Jo-Jo's) come to constitute reality itself, thereby eliminating the potential for agency. In this case, at least, Asch succumbs not just to bad literature, but to bad politics as well. Moreover, Asch's failure to take suburban Dallas seriously blinds him to the emerging consumer culture that West will take as his subject.

36. See especially McAlmon, Robert's “Mexican Interval” (Contact, 2nd ser., 1, no. 2 [01 1921]: unpaginated)Google Scholar and Williams's “The Colored Girls of Passenack” (which I will discuss in more detail) as well as “For Bill Bird” (a series of “hospital” vignettes from Williams's days as a young doctor).

37. One of the most insightful statements about the relationship between suffering and social change came from the philosopher Sidney Hook, in whose view neither Communism nor Capitalism could ever hope to eliminate the pain of the human condition. But Communism could rid human beings of meaningless suffering. Thereafter, suffering would be derived from “moral rather than economic causes” (Pells, , Radical Visions, 140)Google Scholar. As Hook explains, “Under Communism man ceases to suffer as an animal and suffers as human. He therewith, moves from the plane of the pitiful to the plane of the tragic” (quoted in Pells, , Radical Visions, 140).Google Scholar

38. Williams, William Carlos, “The Canada Lily,” Contact, 2nd ser., 1, no. 2 (05 1932): 38.Google Scholar

39. Wallace Stevens suggested as much in his preface to the Williams's Collected Poems. There, Stevens argues that Williams's romance with the “Real” (or what he called the “anti-poetic”) is in fact a form of sentimentality: “To a man with a sentimental side the anti-poetic is that truth, that reality to which all of us are forever fleeing” (quoted in Tashjian, , William Carlos Williams, 144n).Google Scholar

40. Williams ultimately submitted this sketch to Nancy Cunard's anthology of black culture, called Negro (1934)Google Scholar. What more enlightened readers made of the sketch, one can only guess.

41. Williams, William Carlos, “The Colored Girls of Passenack – Old and New,” Contact, 2nd ser., 1, no. 1 (02 1932): 57Google Scholar. Williams's inclination to import biology into the social realm may be attributable to his lifelong profession as a doctor. In any case, it is worth noting in this regard that the original cover design for Kora in Hell was an ovum besieged by sperm.

42. Ibid., 68. Other examples abound. In another vignette from the memoir, Williams writes,

I've seen tremendous furnaces of emotional power in certain colored women unmatched in any white…. Perhaps the fervent type is more accessible in the colored race because it is not removed to socially restricted areas. I don't know. But I do know that I have had my breath taken away by sights of colored women that no white women could equal. Once I went to call on a patient in a nearby suburb. As the door opened to my ring, a magnificent bronze figure taller than I and fairly vibrant with a sullen attentiveness stood before me. She said not a word but stood there till I told her who I was. Then she let me in, turned her back and walked into the kitchen. But the force of her – something, her mental alertness coupled with her erectness, muscular power, youth, seriousness – her actuality – made me want to create a new race on the spot. I had never seen anything like it. (61)

Elsewhere, in a poem called “A Negro Woman,” Williams transforms the black woman into yet another metaphor for the status of the “Real.” This time, instead of infusing reality with mystery and potency, she becomes the figure for its lumpen qualities (“the bulk / of her thighs / causing her to waddle / as she walks” (Williams, , Selected Poems [New York: New Directions, 1976], 156)Google Scholar, qualities that are ultimately redeemed by the “upright marigolds” that she holds in her hand.

43. Dickran Tashjian characterizes Williams's approach to reality in terms of a “complex empiricism” (William Carlos Williams, 18)Google Scholar. Miller, J. Hillis's essay on Williams in Poets of Reality (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965)Google Scholar is more subtle, and probably more accurate. Miller argues that Williams's “theory of poetry … rejects both the mirror and the lamp, both the classical theory of art as imitation and the romantic theory of art as transformation” (309–10). In Williams's work, Miller continues, there is a “strange lack of tension” in which “the opposition between the inner world of the subject and the outer world of things” ceases to exist. Instead, things exist in a “space both subjective and objective, a region of co-presence” (288). This has profound implications for the poet's use of language. Williams does not think of words as representing things. Rather, as Miller explains, “For him things are already possessed before being named” (299). Thus, instead of merely copying nature, Williams views the poem as “an extension of the processes of the earth, ‘not realism but reality itself’” (310).

In his subsequent essay on Williams, in The Linguistic Moment (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985)Google Scholar, Miller partially revises or, rather complicates this earlier estimation. He argues that Williams's hunger for presence is stymied in Spring and All (and in some of his other poems) by his own recognition of the “linguistic moment” in his work, which “disrupts or dislocates the perceptual or phenomenological vocabulary within which [Williams] for the most part remains caught” (375).

44. For Williams, what matters most is “seeing the thing itself without forethought or afterthought but with great intensity of perception” (“Kora in Hell,” 8). Thus, he laments the onset of age for the toll it takes on his senses and, hence, his access to “reality.” In a letter to Marianne Moore, he wrote, “I don't like not being able to see dust flecks quite so distinctly as formerly – and the grains of pollen in the flowers,” (quoted in Tashjian, , William Carlos Williams, 14).Google Scholar

45. Williams, William Carlos, “Comment,” Contact, 2nd ser., 1, no. 2 (05 1932): 109Google Scholar. The entire quotation reads:

This primitive and actual America – must sober us … We won't solve or discover by using ‘profound’ (and borrowed symbolism). Reveal the object … But always at this point, some blank idiot cries out, ‘Regionalism’! Good God, is there no intelligence left on earth. Shall we never differentiate the regional in letters from the objective immediacy of our hand to mouth, eye to brain existence? … Language is our concern … it must adapt itself to the truth of our senses. Cliches must disappear. (109)

46. West, Nathanael, “Miss Lonelyhearts on a Field Trip.” Contact, 2nd ser., 1, no. 3 (10 1932): 51.Google Scholar

47. Williams, William Carlos, “Marianne Moore,” in Imaginations (New York: New Directions, 1970), 317.Google Scholar

48. West, Nathanael, The Dream Life of Balso Snell (New York: Farrar, Straus, 1970), 14.Google Scholar

49. This is actually a description of Tod's personality in West, Nathanael's The Day of the Locust (New York: New Directions, 1962), 60.Google Scholar

50. West, Nathanael, Letter dated 03 1932Google Scholar to William Carlos Williams, Jay Martin Collection, Box 1, Huntington Library.

51. West, Nathanael, Letter dated 04 1932Google Scholar to William Carlos Williams, Jay Martin Collection, Box 1, Huntington Library.

52. Williams, William Carlos, “Epigraph.” Contact, 2nd ser., 1, no. 1 (02 1932): title page.Google Scholar

53. Davies, Hugh Sykes, “American Periodicals,” Criterion 45 (07 1932): 772–73.Google Scholar

54. West, Nathanael, “Some Notes on Violence,” Contact, 2nd ser., 1, no. 3 (10 1932): 132–33.Google Scholar

55. If the Progressive movement had been able to couple a criticism of American society with an abiding faith in parliamentary reform, the left in the thirties was more doubtful about this linkage. The latter criticized the former for its obliviousness to class, for its faith in the neutrality of the government as an honest broker between its various constituencies. As Walter Rideout explains,

When the shock of the Depression dislodged them from a relatively secure economic place in society, they were brought for the first time into angry awareness of social instability, of widespread suffering, and of the violence of industrial dispute, which exists for the middle class individual chiefly in newspaper headlines. Out of this unprepared-for awareness developed a fascination with violence. (Radical Novel, 178)Google Scholar

56. Fiedler, Leslie, Love and Death in the American Novel (New York: Criterion, 1960), 484.Google Scholar

57. West, , Balso Snell, 36.Google Scholar

58. West, NathanaelMiss Lonelyhearts (New York: New Directions, 1962), 18.Google Scholar

59. Williams, William Carlos, “Sordid? Good God!”Google Scholar in Martin, , ed., Nathanael West: A Collection of Critical Essays, 71Google Scholar. William Carlos Williams goes on to add, “If this is so, why then so is Macbeth sordid, so Crime and Punishment, so nearly the whole of Greek tragedy. And so's your old man. Blah” (71). The review turns into a familiar rant on the thinness of American life, or what Williams calls a “lack of cultural ice,” which, when confronted with a “really first rate native author,” dismisses him as “sordid” (71). Williams praises West in the very language he used to define the aims of Contact, namely, his feeling for language. West's “feeling for language” allows him to descend into the inferno without being consumed by it: “It is the art of writing, in other words, which permits the downward motion since when writing is well made it enlivens and elevates the whole reader – without sweetening or benumbing the sense – while he plunges downward toward catastrophe” (72).

60. According to Leslie Fiedler, those who preceded West in chronicling the phenomenon of urban violence – Stephen Crane, Theodor Dreiser, and the muckrakers, among many others – never quite shook the sense of the wicked Big City. Upon it, they projected all the dire threats that they had heard before the pulpit and hearth of a parochial, Midwestern, Protestant tradition. Despite the claims made for the “realism” of these accounts, they depict the city and its violence in the language of moral fable, as a latter-day Sodom and Gomorrah (Love and Death, 484).Google Scholar

61. West, , “Some Notes on Violence,” 132.Google Scholar

62. West, Nathanael, “Some Notes on Miss L,” Contempo 3 (05 15, 1933): 1, 2Google Scholar; reprinted in Martin, , ed., Nathanael West: A Collection of Critical Essays, 6667.Google Scholar

63. West, , “Some Notes on Violence,” 132–33.Google Scholar

64. Edmund Wilson makes a similar claim in “Boys in the Back Room” (collected in Martin, , ed., Nathanael West: A Collection of Critical Essays)Google Scholar: “The America of the murders and rapes which fill the Los Angeles papers is only the obverse side of the America of the inanities of the movies” (142). West's virtue as a writer was to make the two sides of that coin almost indistinguishable.

65. West, , “Some Notes on Miss L,” 66Google Scholar. What is true of imagery and event is true for the novel as a whole. Arguing that “lyric novels can be written according to Poe's definition of a lyric poem,” West urges American writers to follow suit:

Forget the epic, the master work. In America fortunes do not accumulate, the soil does not grow, families have no history. Leave slow growth to the book reviewers, you only have time to explode. Remember William Carlos Williams' description of the pioneer women who shot their children against the wilderness like cannonballs. Do the same with your novels. (66)

66. If this results in a crisis in representation, it is a crisis that West assiduously courts throughout his fiction.

67. West, Nathanael, “Through the Hole in the Mundane Millstone,”Google Scholar in Martin, , ed., Nathanael West: A Collection of Critical Essays, 29Google Scholar. Nor, for that matter, did William Carlos Williams. Instead, West and Williams merely sought a more appropriate use for their experiments with nonrepresentational forms. For West, that meant Miss Lonelyhearts; for Williams, Paterson. Ultimately, however, it was West – both in his manifesto and in his fiction – who led the way. See Marjorie Perloff's “Lines Converging and Crossing,” in The Poetics of Indeterminacy [Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1981, 109–54], for more on Williams's own “French decade.”

68. Quoted in Martin, , Nathanael West, 149.Google Scholar

69. West, Nathanael, Letter dated 12 1932Google Scholar, to William Carlos Williams, Jay Martin Collection, Box 1, Huntington Library.

70. Williams, William Carlos, “A New American Writer,”Google Scholar in Martin, , Nathanael West, 48.Google Scholar