The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney
by Marion Meade
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
$28.00 List Price
On Sunday, December 22, 1940, at a crossroads outside El Centro, California, a husband and wife died in a car collision. The woman’s name and much of her private life were known to millions by virtue of a series of articles published by her sister in the New Yorker and the subsequent best-selling book My Sister Eileen (1938); in fact, a play based on that book would open four days later on Broadway to excellent reviews, followed by a record-shattering 864-performance run. The man, in contrast, was a novelist whose readers numbered in the thousands at best, according to the sales figures of his four books, the first two of which yielded a meager $780 in income. He was extravagantly admired by a coterie of critics and intellectuals, but for years he scraped by as a contract screenwriter. Their early demise (she was twenty-seven, he thirty-seven) was overshadowed by the death by heart attack the day before of F. Scott Fitzgerald, in what was definitively the worst weekend in American literary history.
What a difference seven decades makes. Today Nathanael West, né Nathan Weinstein, is recognized as one of the greatest, most original, and most influential American novelists of the twentieth century. Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) has been hailed as the closest thing to Dostoyevsky in our literature, while The Day of the Locust (1939) is the template for the savagely disillusioned Hollywood novel. The urblack humorist, West now enjoys the ultimate accolade, a Library of America edition.
His wife, Eileen McKenney, is a distinct back number, albeit with a certain shaky immortality as
REGISTERED USERS of bookforum.com and BOOKFORUM SUBSCRIBERS have access to this article, but must be logged in to view it. If you are not a registered user of bookforum.com, please create your free login here. If you are a subscriber, but haven’t activated your online account, please do so here.
SUBSCRIBE NOW for access to our online archives,* and receive the printed magazine for the discounted rate of $18 a year.**