Modernism in "The Day of the Locust" (1939) by Nathanael West

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2003 25 Pages

American Studies - Literature



I. Introduction
1. Modern Society and Popular Culture
2. Modernism
2.1. Philosophical Background
2.2. Characteristics
2.3. Decadence

II. Modernism in The Day of the Locust
1. Surrealism and Dada
1.1. The Use of Readymades and Clichés
1.2. Flow of Narrative
1.3. Surreal(istic) Imagery
1.4. Human Machines
1.5. Humor
2. Modernist Themes
2.1. Alienation
2.2. Violence and Decadence

III. Conclusion


Modernism in The Day of the Locust (1939) by Nathanael West

I. Introduction

Jonathan Veitch asserts in the preface of his book American Superrealism that critics have had problems in placing Nathanael West within the literature of the 1930s and American literature in general. They understood him for example as "a poet of darkness", as "an apocalyptic writer", as "a homegrown surrealist", as "a writer of the left" (see XI), as a "universal satirist" (see XVI), in a way as "the prototype of the contemporary Jewish-American novelist" (Wisker 1-2) or as a realistic writer (Martin, see Roberts). Although some of these characterizations are contradictory, they all fit because they reflect different facets of the author, or rather his work. West combined all these elements and probably even several others in his writings. His "style was never constant. At times his pictorial technique closely resembles collage [but also] cartoon strips, movies, and several different schools of painting, as well as such non-graphic visual arts as the tableau and the dance." (Reid 9)

Taking the (though not planned) final result of his development as a writer, his last book The Day of the Locust (1939) as an example, I want to show in my essay that at least one of West's books does not "fall between the different schools of writing" (Wisker 2), as he once noted. He is certainly a representative of modernism, the "literary movement" and "point of view" of his time (see O'Conner) not only because a "struggle for definition is part of what those years are about" (Wisker 121). Nathanael West was influenced by the same historical events and used many of the strategies other contemporary writers employed to express his way of seeing the world. I will point out the features of modernism in the novel because, as Randall Reid states,

[i]n a century which has made experimental writing almost an absolute value, he is one of the more interesting innovators. The words we like to use to describe modern literature - 'violence', 'the grotesque', 'decadence', 'dream', 'irony', 'allusion', 'distortion', 'realism', 'tradition', 'experiment' - all are applicable to his work. So are a good many other words, both in and out of fashion. Though West anticipated new literary trends, he also incorporated many trends which had already flourished. (10)

First of all, it will be useful to look at the historical background to understand modernism before defining it with emphasis on decadence as a special characteristic. In the next part of my essay, I am going to show how modernism, that is surrealism, Dada and the typical modernist themes, is reflected in the novel. Finally, I will summarize the resulting main points in the conclusion.

1. Modern Society and Popular Culture

The Great Crash in October 1929, the disastrous drought in Summer 1930, Europe stopping to pay reparations, and the bankruptcy of the Bank of America and 9000 others involved, lead to the Depression of the 1930s, a social and political-economic crisis, and made a new structuring of the economic system necessary. Millions of people have lost their savings and/or their jobs, prices and wages were sinking. A panic spread because this situation had not changed for years and its causes were not clear. (see PKH 54/5) Feeling the need to "reconstruct the 'hidden' logic of an elusive social reality", the arts produced "case studies, reportage, documentary photography, proletarian literature, and 'social problem' films". (Stott, see Veitch XVII)

Society seemed to split into two camps: optimists believing in the ability of improvement of people and circumstances, and the ideal state of affairs still to come - pessimists critically negotiating the present and idealizing the past. (see PKH 56) Nervousness was a common feature of the time "manifested as the gloomy insecurity of a shaken, scared middle class, or the perennial anxiety of the working poor, or the desperate fatalism of the unemployed". (BW 4) That is why "restoring their faith in the values of capitalism, bridging this void between the real and imaginary, was the quintessential function and objective of the President [F. D. Roosevelt]'s New Deal ideology." (BW 5) People were uncertain and would perhaps turn to socialism, fascism or another radically new ideology. This led to a rise of the media industry (see BW 5) as well as to

the acquisition of radios [...]; the growth of advertising and market research, with their subliminal techniques of symbolism and image projection; and the popularity of movies, which on the whole replicated (with the addition of sound) the irresponsible attitudes and plots of their twenties counterparts. The terms 'evasiveness' and 'escapism' have been used frequently, and quite properly, in descriptions of popular culture in this period. (BW 6)

The thirties were "a time when destitution, stagnation and aimlessness were widespread, but also one in which legislation and technology moved the nation towards the welfare state, the suburban lifestyles and the consumerism characteristic of the postwar period." (BW 8-9)

2. Modernism

The movement responded to the social breakdown of the Decade of Depression. (see O'Conner) Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin and Robin Parmar characterize it quite comprehensive as:

the radical shift in aesthetic and cultural sensibilities evident in the art and literature of the post-World War I period. The ordered, stable and inherently meaningful world view of the nineteenth century could not, wrote T. S. Eliot, accord with 'the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.' Modernism thus marks a distinctive break with Victorian bourgeois morality; rejecting nineteenth-century optimism, they presented a profoundly pessimistic picture of a culture in disarray. This despair often results in an apparent apathy and moral relativism. (KMP)

Modernism gave writers the possibility to stand outside the social system and take part in its revolutionary gesture at the same time. They were in an "organized isolation, one that would be related to this society and useful, its function being rebellion." (Klein, see PKH 77) They saw life and the world as fragmented and as missing morals, the connective patterns and frameworks. Being full of irony but not unfeeling, their point of view is usually remote and separated from the main theme. Modernist literature often questions the purpose of art in a world in decay. It is anti-romantic seeing meaning not in nature but subjectively and in art itself. (see O'Conner)

Influencing and including all arts, the movement was international (see O'Conner) but, as Heinz Ickstadt emphasizes in his essay "Deconstructing/Reconstructing Order: The Faces of Transatlantic Modernism", it is originated in Europe. America "saw itself as the champion of the technological modern, certainly as vanguard among modernizing nations". Therefore "Futurism's glorification of the machine, Dada's attack on the status of bourgeois art and culture, and modernism's general fascination with the energies of the unconscious and the primitive" had to be changed and defined in a different context (see 189). American modernist fiction "took an avant-garde form inspired by the German expressionism and French and Spanish surrealism of the early twentieth century, and issued in the thirties in an American version strongly marked by gothic elements." (Norris 327)

2.1. Philosophical Background

Opposing the historical causes: World War I, the Depression and the feeling of forlornness, the thoughts of three men: Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche influenced modernism. They all believed in some kind of determinism. Marx's economic philosophical doctrine saw human behavior controlled by outer forces and a class struggle that the workers should unite against for a utopian change. On the other hand, the psychoanalyst Freud understood the reactions and actions as being determined by interior forces, individual taboos and rules that influence the self and the world. The philosopher Nietzsche believed in another type of economic and psychological determinism. He stated that God is dead and therefore divine patterns do not exist, that people have to search for meaning and are trying to structure the world. (see O'Conner)

2.2. Characteristics

[Modernist] writers introduced a variety of literary tactics and devices: the radical disruption of linear flow of narrative; the frustration of conventional expectations concerning unity and coherence of plot and character and the cause and effect development thereof; the development of ironic and ambiguous juxtapositions to call into question the moral and philosophical meaning of literary action; the adoption of a tone of epistemological self-mockery aimed at naive pretensions of bourgeois rationality; the opposition of inward consciousness to rational public, objective discourse; and an indignation to subjective distortion to point up the evanescence of the social world of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie. (Barth, see KMP)

In addition, Michael O'Conner described the following characteristics of modernist art: estrangement from society and feeling of loneliness - laziness, carelessness and inability to act - persistent agonizing flashbacks reminding of the past - fear of death and its appearance - inability to love or to express affection - picture of a desolate world and damaged environment - creation of individual myths to fall back upon. Major themes were "violence and alienation, historical discontinuity, decadence and decay, loss and despair, rejection of history, race relations, unavoidable change, sense of place and local color."



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University of Frankfurt (Main)
Modernism Locust Nathanael West Decadence Moderism Late Century American Cinema



Title: Modernism in "The Day of the Locust" (1939) by Nathanael West