When the war finally ended, it was called the Great War, because it was thought that no such war would ever be fought again.
The next decades did nothing to break the pessimism that many felt about the world's future. The crash in the world financial markets that happened in 1929, the worldwide drought in 1930, conspired to create the Great Depression, a worldwide economic downturn that basically lasted until industry began gearing up for what would be called the Second World War. As a result, the 1930's was a decade of extreme pessimism, which was manifested in a number of ways. The arts produced "case studies, reportage, documentary photography, proletarian literature, and 'social problem' films" with the goal of "reconstruct[ing] the 'hidden' logic of an elusive social reality" (Veitch, xvii).
This is the time period in which Nathanael West made his literary mark. Jonathan Veitch makes note of the problems that critics have had in assigning West a particular place within the writing of that time, and American literature as a whole. Different critics described him, variously, as a "poet of darkness," "an apocalyptic writer," "a universal satirist," "a homegrown surrealist," and a "writer of the left." (Veitch xi, xvi). Some of these descriptions have definite contradictions with one another, but they all reflect different elements of the author's persona, and his work. His "style was never constant. At times his pictorial technique closely resembled collage [but also] cartoon strips, movies, and several schools of painting, as well as such non-graphic visual arts as the tableau and the dance." (Schug).
While many of West's novels and other writings defy classification, though, The Day of the Locust does not. The surreal elements of this novel place it squarely in the camp of modernist fiction. His technique and methods bear considerable similarity to those of his contemporaries. When one considers some of the commonalities of modernist fiction: violence, decadence, irony, the grotesque, dreams, realism, allusion, distortion, and experimentation (Schug), all of these apply to The Day of the Locust, and many of them are a result of the surrealist techniques that West applies to his novel.
The particular target of West's writing in The Day of the Locust is the dilemma that the artist faced when taking on the growing culture industry of the 1930's. The Hollywood industry is both the object of critique in the novel, as well as the subject of the story itself. The book executes a dark criticism of the so-called "dream factory" that Hollywood was in those times (and still is seen to be today) (Blyn). Ironically, those many of the aesthetic techniques at work in the novel owe a debt to that same Hollywood industry that the book itself is attacking. Consider, for example, the riot scene where a star appears at the premiere of a film. Protagonist Tod Hackett is taken away by the police in a squad car:
He was carried through the exit to the back street and lifted into a police car. The siren began to scream and at first he thought he was making the noise himself. He felt his lips with his hands. They were clamped tight. He knew then it was the siren. For some reason this made him laugh, and he began to imitate the siren as loud as he could. (185)
Clearly, the siren operates as a