Idiot Porn: Anti-White Stereotypes in Nathanael West’s The Day of the LocustSpencer J. Quinn
Within the field of literature, Jews have often complained about negative Jewish stereotypes. There is a Wikipedia page  dedicated to the subject, and scholars have dedicated much time to researching this phenomenon. For example, in his 2005 article “How Racist Was Oliver Twist?” novelist Norman Lebrecht actually counted (or relayed someone else’s count of) the number of times Charles Dickens referred to his Jewish villain Fagin in the first thirty-eight chapters of Oliver Twist as “the Jew.” It was 257. This led Lebrecht to aver that “[a] more vicious stigmatization of an ethnic community could hardly be imagined and it was not by any means unintended.”
Tough stuff. On the aforementioned Wikipedia page, over two dozen white authors are taken to task for employing anti-Semitic stereotypes in their fiction or poetry. This includes heavy-hitters such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, T.S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, Ezra Pound, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Voltaire, Honoré de Balzac, Nicolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, and Fyodor Dostoevsky.
I found the following Wikipedia passage quite illuminating — it’s from the German Literature section, under the subheading “Post-World War II”:
Since the end of World War II, negative stereotypes of the Jew have almost totally disappeared from German literature. The awareness of German crimes against Jews and the contribution of anti-Semitism in German literature to the ethos in which those crimes were committed have led postwar authors to work towards providing a more accurate and unbiased portrayal of the Jewish experience.
In other words, white authors can only be “accurate and unbiased” towards Jews if they steer away from negative Jewish characters. Leaving aside the near-jingoistic pro-Jewish bias of the Wikipedia page (and of Lebrecht’s article), it would be interesting to know if Jewish authors practice the same restraint regarding their white characters. The Norman Lebrechts of the world can be counted on to decry the “odious prejudice,” “ignorance,” and “malice” of a Charles Dickens, but will they be equally outraged when a Jewish author degrades and dehumanizes his white subjects?
Well, here’s their chance.
In 1939, Jewish author Nathanael West (née Weinstein) penned a nihilistic hate-letter to white America in the form of a novel called The Day of the Locust. Under the flimsy guise of “satire,” West spins a narrative that involves at least five extremely negative white gentile characters that have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. One of the main characters, Tod Hackett, a Hollywood set designer, is somewhat redeemable at first due to his perceptiveness and artistic talent. He finds himself drawn to the more highbrow artists of Europe than to popular American painters, and is burdened by apocalyptic visions which he intends to put in a painting called The Burning of Los Angeles. But Tod is weak, petty, obsessive, and ultimately gets swallowed up in the phantasmagoric maw of Moloch that is West’s highly fictionalized (and suspiciously WASPy) Hollywood of the 1930s.
The story begins with Tod’s entirely unmotivated infatuation with Faye Greener, a second-rate, out-of-work actress. She’s pretty, but vain, shallow, and manipulative. She keeps Tod around as a (ugh) “friend,” while saving her romantic aspirations for the more masculine, wealthy, or successful types that lurk around Hollywood. But this is all pretense, as we shall see. Any sane person would be quickly annoyed by such a motor-mouthed ditz (as a reader, I know I was), yet out of nowhere, Tod falls in love with her and entertains numerous rape fantasies about her as well:
He expressed some of his desire by a grunt. If he only had the courage to throw himself on her. Nothing less violent than rape would do. The sensation he felt was like that he got when holding an egg in his hand. Not that she was fragile or even seemed fragile. It wasn’t that. It was her completeness, her egglike self-sufficiency, that made him want to crush her.
Tod then moves into the tacky San Bernardino Arms apartment complex just to be near Faye, and encounters all the lowlifes and losers caught in her orbit. And from this point on, there’s no plot — just a genre of fiction I call “idiot porn” in which the author dwells and dwells on all that is negative about his characters and completely rejects any element of heroism or tragedy. The first reprobate Tod meets is Abe Kusich, a nasty, foul-tempered, antisocial dwarf. Tod has a painter’s fascination with this grotesque character and somehow feels personally drawn to him, despite the little man’s relentless stream of violent threats and profanity.
“No quiff can give Abe Kusich the fingeroo and get away with it,” he said bitterly. “Not when I can get her leg broke for twenty bucks and I got twenty.”
The only time any humanity sparkles in this character is when he is caring for the underdog (under-chicken?) in the novel’s ferocious (and, I have to say, brilliantly written) cock-fighting scene. It speaks volumes to the deadened misanthropy of an author when he makes the most sympathetic character in his story a chicken.
Next, there is screenwriter Claude Estee. Unlike Tod, Claude has found wealth and success in Hollywood, yet remains an insipid and pretentious WASP, according to West:
He teetered back and forth on his heels like a Civil War colonel and made believe he had a large belly.
He had no belly at all. He was a dried-up little man with the rubbed features and stooped shoulders of a postal clerk.
Claude invites Tod to a party at his house which bizarrely features a life-sized replica of a dead horse in a swimming pool, complete with its legs in the air. Everyone is enthralled by that. Tod then overhears Claude “talking shop” with other guests. And what is talking shop? Griping about the Jews, of course!
“But how are you going to get rid of the illiterate mockies that run it? They’ve got a stranglehold on the industry. Maybe they’re intellectual stumblebums, but they’re damn good businessmen. Or at least they know how to go into receivership and come up with a gold watch in their teeth.” 
Later, Claude takes Tod to another party at the home of a brothel owner named Audrey Jennings. There, they watch a pornographic movie that features homosexuality and pedophilia. West, making sure to put the porn in idiot porn, describes the movie in great detail.
Faye’s father, Harry Greener, is perhaps the most pathetic character in this troupe. Even less talented than his daughter, Greener is a washed-up vaudevillian who makes a living as a door-to-door salesman of silver polish. He uses each visit as an excuse to practice his shtick. This character is fundamentally dishonest and completely devoid of dignity, and is therefore not redeemed in the least by the fact that he is dying. Burgess Meredith did a fine job of humanizing this character in the not-terrible 1975 film adaptation of The Day of the Locust. On the page, however, West portrays him as a sly and loathsome failure.
Earle Shoop, the tall, penniless cowboy who tries to carry on a relationship with Faye, is another dig at white people. Whenever he’s not working on “horse-operas,” he simply stands all day in front of a saddlery store on Sunset Boulevard, smoking cigarettes. He seems self-assertive and masculine, like the cowboys in the movies or cigarette ads, but really he is little more than a simpleminded drunk who can’t control his violent temper. And this comes out when he’s feeling jealous of Faye. When Tod and Faye join him at his “camp” in the mountains, he nearly murders his Mexican friend Miguel for slow dancing a little too closely with Faye. He bashes him over the head with a stick. Then, as Faye flees, Tod tries to catch her in order to — well, his intentions seem less than honorable:
He shouted to her, a deep, agonized bellow, like that a hound makes when it strikes a fresh line after hours of cold trailing. Already he could feel how it would be when he pulled her to the ground.
But she escapes. West then describes how Tod inexplicably falls to his back feeling “comfortably relaxed, even happy.”
Remember, this is idiot porn. It’s not supposed to make sense.
West’s most egregious insult to white people comes in the form of one Homer Simpson. Yes, you read that correctly. According to the Day of the Locust Wikipedia page, Simpsons creator Matt Groening once claimed in a 1990 interview that he named his Homer Simpson after West’s character. And this character is a train wreck of a human being. Both stupid and psychotic, Simpson also develops an unrequited infatuation with Faye. He seems to follow her around like a creepy, throbbing machine. Unlike Tod, however, he doesn’t seem to mind being her platonic friend, and actually consents to living with her while she pursues other men. That West interrupts Tod’s mildly-interesting story arc to fixate for many pages upon this complete cipher of a biped indicates how West’s novel has no soul.
I’d quote West describing Simpson, but West’s prose is as dull as his character. Suffice to say that West describes Homer Simpson as being content with doing nothing all day. Chapters seven through ten are dedicated entirely to this vapid topic. His favorite pastime seems to be sitting in a lawn chair for hours at a time watching lizards. Oddly, West describes Simpson’s hands as having a mind of their own — and these hands seem to get a lot of ideas when pretty women are around. When Simpson cuts his thumb, his hand writhes on his own accord on the kitchen table “until it was carried to the sink by his mate and bathed tenderly in hot water.”
A semblance of a story appears when Harry dies, and Faye casually decides to work for Mrs. Jennings to pay for the funeral. Later, Earle and Miguel move into her garage where they hold the aforementioned cockfight. That night, they all gather for a party and consume large amounts of alcohol. The next morning Homer opens Faye’s bedroom door and catches Faye and Miguel in bed in flagrante delecto. Earle does too, and the predictable violent brawl between the two men ensues. Homer, simpleminded fool that he is, is so shocked and heartbroken by what he had seen (he had heard Faye’s moans and assumed she was sick), that he plans on leaving Los Angeles. He attempts to make his escape during the premiere of a new film and is mobbed by the crowd in the streets. As he attempts to make his way through, a young boy harasses him until Homer stomps him to death. Tod had tried to prevent him, but is carried away in the ensuing riot which goes after Homer (presumably killing him too). Tod then finally has a clear vision of his macabre The Burning of Los Angeles painting, gets put in the backseat of a police car laughing, and begins imitating the sounds of the police siren like a lunatic.
So this is your story. This is the novel that Time puts in its top-100 novels list. This is the story that the Modern Library cites as the 73rd greatest novel of all time. With no coherent plot, with one negatively portrayed white character after another, and with a very white setting in which just about everything is fake, tacky, and meaningless, The Day of the Locust plainly exhibits bottomless contempt for white people and their civilization. Nathanael West portrays whites as stupid, corrupt, vain, and violent — and yes, Mr. Lebrecht, these are stereotypes, too. Further, West acts as if the portrayal of such traits is interesting in itself, as if it’s a form of voyeurism. “Come,” he tells us. “Open my book and read 800 excruciating words on the banal furnishings of Homer Simpson’s apartment. Isn’t he boring?”
Yes, of course, there are white people in real life who are like this. But when an author writes fiction, he is creating an entire universe; he’s taking the place of God. As Flannery O’Connor tells us, “the serious fiction writer always writes about the whole world, no matter how limited his particular scene.” When West does not include any positive white characters (or negative non-white characters) in his “particular scene,” he’s telling us that good white people don’t exist (at least anymore), and that the civilization they created reflects this. There is nothing in The Day of the Locust that suggests otherwise.
When Norman Lebrecht claims that “[a] more vicious stigmatization of an ethnic community could hardly be imagined,” he’s wrong. At least with Oliver Twist, there was only one anti-Semitic stereotype. The Day of the Locust features many anti-white stereotypes, and they are all far more vicious than Dickens’ treatment of Fagin.
Firstly, Dickens explained his choice of villain because “it, unfortunately, was true, of the time to which the story refers, that the class of criminal was invariably a Jew.” Fagin was supposedly based on a real-life Jewish criminal named Ikey Solomon. Solomon was known as a “fence,” or a criminal whose racket is to knowingly buy stolen goods for resale, often on the black market. Edward Bristow writes the following in Prostitution and Prejudice, his terrific history of the white slave trade [emphasis added]:
…Jewish brothelkeepers and procurers were commonplace in parts of the East End. The authorities at Aldgate complained in 1817, for example, that ‘this parish has found considerable difficulty in indicting brothels; the parties frequently change their abode, and it is difficult to get at the real occupier, they being Jews of bad character, and go by different names.’ Typical of the breed were Wolfe and Hannah Cohen, who were convicted in 1813 of running five brothels, procuring young girls and training them for prostitution, and picking pockets. The most celebrated of the breed was Ikey Solomons, the model for none other than Charles Dickins’ [sic] Fagin. With his wife Ann, Solomons built a criminal network in the 1820s that included a chain of brothels. 
So this demonstrates that there was some justice in Dickens’ portrayal of his Jewish villain. On the other hand, there is no justice whatsoever behind what Nathanael West wrote. Was there a great Hollywood riot in which a white, sexually-repressed misfit stomped a boy to death? Or did West just make it all up in his attempts to slander white people?
Secondly, Dickens softens his treatment of Fagin once Fagin is condemned and placed in prison. His death is downright heartbreaking, with Oliver himself begging forgiveness for the old man. At one point, “venerable men of his [Fagin’s] own persuasion had come to pray beside him,” and Fagin, stricken with shame and guilt, drives them away with curses. Certainly, Dickens went overboard with the Jew thing early on in Oliver Twist, but the heart-wrenching pathos of the book’s conclusion has to count for something.
On the other hand, where is the pathos in the ending of The Day of the Locust or in any of its characters? None exists. Nathanael West, closeted Jew that he was, never cared to give us any. White people aren’t worth it, you see.
And then white people are supposed to turn around and feel sorry for Jews when they get stereotyped in literature?
 Yeah, I didn’t know what a “mockie” was either until I looked it up. The Day of the Locust is not entirely worthless in that it is a treasure trove of tasty early-twentieth-century slang — sort of like a proto-Urban Dictionary. For example, I have never heard anyone except for men of my grandfather’s generation use the world “stumblebum.” And a “quiff,” if you couldn’t infer it from the quote, refers to a promiscuous woman.
 Bristow’s sources for this information include:
- Second Report of the Committee of the Guardian Society (1817), Appendix 3
- Second Report of the Committee of the State of the Police of the Metropolis. Parliamentary Papers (1817), volume 7, evidence of Dandson Coates, Edward Forster, William Lewis Newman
- Times 14 & 27, September 1813
- J.S. Levi and G.F.S. Bergman, Australian Genesis (London, 1974), Chapter 11
I include all this information not to be an autistic show-off but to catch Norman Lebrecht in a lie. In “How Racist is Oliver Twist?” Lebrecht treats us to this whopper:
Dickens, when challenged some years later, said that he had made Fagin Jewish because ‘that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew.’ There is no evidence to support this, nothing in the London crime statistics of the 1830s to suggest that Jews controlled gangs of boy pickpockets.
In light of Bristow’s research, such dishonest and baseless assertions seem to refute themselves, don’t they?
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