Monday, October 22, 2012

Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

The Miss Lonelyhearts of the New 
York Post-Dispatch (Are you in 
trouble?--Do-you-need-advice?
--Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and
she-will-help-you) sat at his desk
 and stared at a piece of white 
cardboard.
Opening to
Miss Lonelyhearts
by Nathanael West
Did anyone ever see Nathanael West and Flannery O'Conner in the same room at the same time?

I ask becuase reading Miss Lonelyhearts, re-reading it again for the eighth or nineth time, I couldn't help but notice how much it reads like a story by Flannery O'Conner.  "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" or "A Good Man is Hard to Find" both come to mind.  Certainly her novel Wise Blood.  

Miss Lonelyhearts
deals with the underbelly of American society, people who have fallen through the safety net, back in the days before there was a safety net to fall through.  The title character is a man who has taken the job of writing an advice column for the newspaper, a job no respectable newsman would ever dream of taking.  He begins the job with a cynical attitude, making fun of the people who write to him much the same way the other, more seasoned and serious newsman do.  But after a while the letters start to get to him.  The desperation they express, the sincere desire to escape an unhappy life and the inability to ever do so, drive Miss Lonelyhearts, we never know his true name, to seek solace in the arms of women, in the touch of a man and finally in a near religious ecstacy.

Halfway through th story, he begins to see himself as a Christ figure, sent to deliver those who write to him, only to end up tragically doomed by the husband of a woman he is having a very unfortuante affair with.

This sounds a lot like a Flannery O'Connor story to me.  Except her version would probably be funnier.  Probably a little sicker, too.

Re-reading Miss Lonelyhearts got me thinking of a course on 20th century American literature that someone out there really should teach.  The texts would be Mr. West's Miss Lonelyhearts and his novel about the fringes of Hollywood The Day of the Locust; Ms. O'Connor's shorts story "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" and her novel Wise Blood;  Horace McCoy's novel about a depression era dance marathon They Shoot Horses Don't They,  William L. Gresham's novel about carnival sideshows Nightmare Alley; Eudora Welty's short story "Petrified Man" and Sinclair Lewis's novel about a preacher's rise to celebrity Elmar Gantry.

The course theme would be life on the fringes of celebrity which is what all of these novels and stories deal with--down and out newspapermen, Hollywood extras, carnival sideshows, celebrity preachers, run-down movie houses.  I think the links between the final riot scene in The Day of the Locust and the attack on the man in the gorilla suit outside the movie theatre in Wise Blood would make for an interesting term paper or two.  All of these deal with people looking upwards from America's underbelly, all are outright noir if not proto-noir works.

All of these works come with my highest recommendation.  They're all terrific.  If I had pursued a Ph.D. and given up seventh graders for undergraduates I'd come up with a way to work them all into a decent course syllabus somehow.

I think they would make for a popular class.


My thanks to Mel U at The Reading Life whose post on Miss Lonelyhearts convinced me to re-read the book, again.

3 comments:

Bybee said...

I would so be in this class!

mel u said...

It does sound like a great class. Thanks for the mention. This is a truly great book. Do you agree with Harold Bloom and add The Crying of lot 49 to this list of works on Americans at the fringes?

C.B. James said...

It's been a very long time since I read Crying of Lot 49, but I think I would agree. It's a different sort of fringe than the one West writes about, but as I recall Pynchon is always writing about the fringes of American society, isn't he.