The Day of the Locust
1939 first edition cover
|May 16, 1939|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover, Paperback)|
The Day of the Locust is a 1939 novel by American author Nathanael West, set in Hollywood, California, during the Great Depression. Its themes deal with the alienation and desperation of a broad group of odd individuals who exist at the fringes of the Hollywood movie industry.
In 1998, the Modern Library ranked The Day of the Locust #73 on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Time magazine included the novel in its list of 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005, and noted critic Harold Bloom included it in his list of canonical works in the book The Western Canon. The novel was adapted into the critically acclaimed film The Day of the Locust (1975), directed by John Schlesinger.
The book follows a young man named Tod Hackett who thinks of himself as a painter and artist, but who works in Hollywood as a costume designer and background painter. He falls in love with Faye Greener, an aspiring starlet who lives nearby. Between his work in the studio and his introduction to Faye's friends, he is soon interacting with numerous Hollywood hangers-on, including a cowboy who lives in the hills above the studios and works as an extra in cowboy movies, his Mexican friend who keeps fighting cocks, and Homer Simpson, a lonely businessman exploited by Faye. The book ends with a riot at a movie premiere.
The characters are outcasts, who have come to Hollywood to fulfill a dream or wish: "The importance of the wish in West's work was first noted by W. H. Auden, who declared (in one of the interludes in The Dyer's Hand) that West's novels were essentially "parables about a Kingdom of Hell whose ruler is not so much a Father of Lies as a Father of Wishes". In this respect, James Light, in his book "Violence, Dreams, and Dostoevsky: The Art of Nathanael West", suggests that The Day of the Locust falls in with a motif in West's fiction; the exposure of hopeful narratives in modern American culture as frauds.
As some critics point out, West's novel was a radical challenge to modernist literature. Modernists set themselves up in opposition to mass culture; West depicts it and makes it an integral part of the novel. West's use of grotesque imagery and situations establishes the novel as a work of Juvenalian satire. His critique of Hollywood and the mentality of "the masses", depicts an America sick with vanity and the harbor of a malignant sense of perversity.
The most famous literary or historical reference to locusts is in the Book of Exodus in the Bible, in which God sends a plague of locusts to the pharaoh of Egypt as retribution for refusing to free the enslaved Jews. Millions of locusts swarm over the lush fields of Egypt, destroying its food supplies. Destructive locusts also appear in the New Testament in the symbolic and apocalyptic book of Revelation.
West's use of "locust" in his title evokes images of destruction and a land stripped bare of anything green and living. The novel is filled with images of destruction: Tod Hackett's painting entitled "The Burning of Los Angeles," his violent fantasies about Faye and the bloody result of the cockfight. A close examination of West's characters and his selective use of natural images, which include representations of violence and impotence — and which are therefore contrary to popular images linking nature and fertility — reveals that the locust in the title is Tod.
Symbols and metaphors
The novel opens with protagonist Tod Hackett sketching studio back lot scenes from a major Hollywood production. In the scene, a short fat man barks orders through a megaphone to actors playing the role of Napoleon's elite cavalry at the Battle of Waterloo. Waterloo marked the beginning of the end for Napoleon. The chaos of this scene foreshadows the beginning of the end for middle-class Americans in the novel, and the violence that ensues.
James F. Light suggests that West's use of mob violence in the novel is an expression of anxiety about the rise of fascism in Europe. Light compares anxiety in the novel to personal anxieties Jews, like Nathanael West, experienced as marginalized individuals living in America. The artist Tod Hackett’s vision of art, a painting titled “The Burning of Los Angeles,” devolves into a nightmare of terror. It depicts angry citizens razing Los Angeles and spreading, uncontrollably, across the American landscape. In the 1930s, theorists, politicians, and military leaders feared large crowds or mass formations would produce unpredictable and dangerous results.
Regionalism and historical context
The Day of the Locust is often referred to as a Hollywood novel, but Nathanael West also wrote in a regional mode. Regionalism became a popular style of writing during the Depression era, and this novel relates to regionalism (art) and regionalism (politics). President Franklin D. Roosevelt supported programs that advanced nationalism, and the popularity of regionalism gained national significance. The American Guide series reflects regional writing, and is a product of the Federal Writers' Project. The Federal Writers' Project was a New Deal program, subordinate to the Public Works Administration, that employed white collar workers as writers.
West's characters are intentionally shallow and stereotyped and "...derive from all the B-grade genre films of the period..." (Simon, 523) West's characters are Hollywood stereotypes, what Light calls "grotesques". The novel's protagonist, Tod Hackett (whose first name derives from the German word for death and whose last name refers to a common epithet for Hollywood screenwriters and artists, who were pejoratively called "hacks"), is a set painter who aspires to artistic greatness. In the first chapter of the novel, the narrative voice announces: "Yes, despite his appearance, Tod was really a very complicated young man with a whole set of personalities, one inside the other like a nest of Chinese boxes. And 'The Burning of Los Angeles', a picture he was soon to paint, definitely proved he had talent."
We are introduced to several minor characters, each corresponding to a Hollywood trope. There is Harry Greener, the fading vaudevillian; his daughter Faye, an aspiring starlet; Claude Estee, the successful Hollywood screenwriter; Homer Simpson, the hopelessly clumsy and disaffected "everyman"; Abe Kusich, a midget gangster; Earle Shoop, the cowboy; Miguel, Shoop's Mexican sidekick; Adore Loomis, a precocious child actor; and Loomis's doting stage mother.
The Day of the Locust was released by Paramount Pictures in 1975. The film was directed by John Schlesinger and starred William Atherton as Tod Hackett, Donald Sutherland as Homer Simpson, Burgess Meredith as Harry Greener, and Karen Black as Faye Greener.
In popular culture
- Bob Dylan recorded a song called "Day of the Locusts" for his 1970 album New Morning.
- The 1970s Pop Chronicles audio documentary includes an excerpt dramatically read by Thom Beck in Show 44, "Revolt of the Fat Angel: Some samples of the Los Angeles sound."
- The 1982 song "Call of the West" by the Los Angeles new wave band Wall of Voodoo—which "follows some Middle American sad sack as he chases a vague and hopeless dream in California"—has been described as being "as close as pop music has gotten to capturing the bitter chaos of the final chapter of Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust".
- It has been assumed that The Simpsons (1989) creator Matt Groening named his most famous character, Homer Simpson, after his own father, but in several interviews given in 1990, Groening reportedly stated that he named the character after the Homer in this novel, although neither explanation is considered definitive.
- The novel is mentioned in the comic book series Y: The Last Man (2002–2008), whose main character describes it as "the greatest novel of all time".
- The 2009 song "Peeled Apples" from the Journal for Plague Lovers album by the Welsh band Manic Street Preachers includes the line referencing one of the novel's characters: "a dwarf takes his cockerel out on a cockfight."
- British theatre company Punchdrunk's 2013 performance piece The Drowned Man borrows heavily from The Day of the Locust, incorporating several of the novel's characters and themes into the overarching narrative.
- In the 2013 novella "Wakulla Springs" by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages, set in rural Florida in the 1940s and 50s, one of the main characters is seen reading The Day of the Locust.
- Simon, Richard Keller (1993). "Between Capra and Adorno: West's Day of the Locust and the Movies of the 1930s". Modern Language Quarterly 54 (4): p. 524. doi:10.1215/00267929-54-4-513.
- The Day of the Locust By Nathanael West: free books, online
- The Day of the Locust By Nathanael West Cliffs Notes
- SparkNotes: The Day of the Locust: Plot Overview
- Times Higher Education: "Grotesque Relations: Modernist Domestic Fiction and the US Welfare State"
- Nathaneal West Explores LA
- "All Time 100 Novels". Time. October 16, 2005. Retrieved May 25, 2010.
- Barnard, Rita. "'When You Wish Upon a Star': Fantasy, Experience, and Mass Culture in Nathanael West" American Literature, Vol. 66, No. 2 (June 1994), pgs. 325-51
- Light, James F. "Violence, Dreams, and Dostoevsky: The Art of Nathanael West" College English, Vol. 19, No. 5 (February 1958), pgs. 208-13
- Jacobs, The Eye's Mind: Literary modernism and visual culture, pg. 243 ff
- Aaron, Daniel. "Review: Waiting for the Apocalypse" Hudson Review, Vol. 3, No. 4 (Winter, 1951), pp. 634–6
- the day of the locust criticism: Web Search Results from Answers.com
- Light, James F. "Nathanael West and the Ravaging Locust", American Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring, 1960), pgs. 44–54
- Doss, Erika (2011). "“Artists in Hollywood: Thomas Hart Benton and Nathaniel West Picture America’s Dream Dump". Space Between: Literature and Culture ,1914-1945 7 no. 1 p. 14.
- Gano, Geneva M (2009). "Nationalist Ideologies and New Deal Regionalism in The Day of the Locust". MFS 55, no. 1 (2009): 44.
- Alter, Jonathan (2006). The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope. New York: Simon and Schuster. p. 93. ISBN 978-0743246019.
- Simon, Richard Keller (1993). "Between Capra and Adorno: West's Day of the Locust and the Movies of the 1930s". Modern Language Quarterly 54 (4): pg. 524
- Light, "...Ravaging Locust"
- How Punchdrunk breathed life into The Drowned Man | Stage | The Guardian
- Show 44 – Revolt of the Fat Angel: Some samples of the Los Angeles sound. [Part 4]: UNT Digital Library
- Turner, Chris (2005). Planet Simpson: How a Cartoon Masterpiece Defined a Generation (1st revised ed.). Cambridge: Da Capo Press. p. 77. ISBN 030681448X. OCLC 670978714..
- Y: THE LAST MAN: Safeword, pg. 24