The Dream Life of Balso Snell

The Dream Life of Balso Snell is a 1931 novel by American author Nathanael West. West's first novel, it presents a young man's immature and cynical search for meaning in a series of dreamlike encounters inside the entrails of the Trojan Horse.

The Dream Life of Balso Snell
The Dream Life of Balso Snell (cover)
1931 first edition cover
AuthorNathanael West
CountryUnited States
PublisherContact Editions
Publication date
Media typePrint (Paperback)
Pages95 pp

Plot summary

Balso, the protagonist, comes across the Trojan Horse in the tall grass around Troy and promptly seeks a way to get in: “the mouth was beyond his reach, the navel provided a cul-de-sac, and so, forgetting his dignity, he approached the last. O Anus Mirabilis!” The literary critic Leslie Fiedler reads much into this and sees the whole novel as “a fractured and dissolving parable of the very process by which the emancipated Jew enters into the world of Western Culture.” [1] Inside the Trojan Horse Balso encounters an array of odd characters who, he realizes, are all “writers in search of an audience”. These characters also represent various religious and artistic ideals. Balso hears their stories systematically, only to discard them one by one, in a strictly nihilist fashion.

Literary significance and criticism

The lack of a coherent plot structure, the juvenile humor and the abundant scatological details are all intended to aggravate, perplex and annoy readers. The desired result, according to West, is a book that is “a protest against writing books”.[2] The juvenileness and incoherence of the novel prompt critics to disregard it as merely “a sneer in the bathroom mirror at Art” (Alan Ross[3]), “squalid and dreadful” (Harold Bloom[4]) and “a hysterical, obscure, disgusted shriek against the intellect” (James F. Light[5]). Nevertheless, by its complete and disgusted rejection of all religious, political and artistic ideals The Dream Life of Balso Snell foreshadows the nihilism of West’s next novels.

Publication history

West began developing material for The Dream Life of Balso Snell as early as 1924; he worked on the novel during his stay in Paris in 1926 and finished a complete draft in New York City between 1927 and 1929, under the title The Journal of Balso Snell. The manuscript was rejected twice before finally getting accepted, largely due to a favorable appraisal by William Carlos Williams. The book was published in New York City by the Paris-based Contact Editions in August 1931 in an edition of 500 copies. There were no other printings during West’s lifetime. After West became famous (years after his death) for Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust, Balso Snell was reprinted in a single volume edition of his complete novels, as well as in the Library of America edition of West's collected works.[6]


  1. ^ Fiedler, Leslie. “Master of Dreams, the Jew in a Gentile World.” The Collected Essays of Leslie Fiedler. New York: Stein and Day, 1970. 183.
  2. ^ quoted in Raban, Jonathan. “A Surfeit of Commodities: The Novels of Nathanael West.” American fiction, 1914-1945. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. 378.
  3. ^ Ross, Alan. “The Dead Center: An Introduction to Nathanael West.” The Complete Works of Nathanael West. New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1957. xii.
  4. ^ Bloom, Harold. Introduction. American fiction, 1914-1945. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. 16.
  5. ^ Light, James F. Nathanael West: An Interpretative Study. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1971. 64.
  6. ^ West, Nathanael. Novels & Other Writings. Ed. Sacvan Bercovitch. New York: The Library of America, 1997. 813.

External links

1931 in literature

This article presents lists of the literary events and publications in 1931.


Anaxagoras (; Greek: Ἀναξαγόρας, Anaxagoras, "lord of the assembly"; c. 510 – c. 428 BC) was a Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher. Born in Clazomenae at a time when Asia Minor was under the control of the Persian Empire, Anaxagoras came to Athens. According to Diogenes Laërtius and Plutarch, in later life he was charged with impiety and went into exile in Lampsacus; the charges may have been political, owing to his association with Pericles, if they were not fabricated by later ancient biographers.Responding to the claims of Parmenides on the impossibility of change, Anaxagoras described the world as a mixture of primary imperishable ingredients, where material variation was never caused by an absolute presence of a particular ingredient, but rather by its relative preponderance over the other ingredients; in his words, "each one is... most manifestly those things of which there are the most in it". He introduced the concept of Nous (Cosmic Mind) as an ordering force, which moved and separated out the original mixture, which was homogeneous, or nearly so.

He also gave a number of novel scientific accounts of natural phenomena. He produced a correct explanation for eclipses and described the sun as a fiery mass larger than the Peloponnese, as well as attempting to explain rainbows and meteors.

Nathanael West

Nathanael West (born Nathan Weinstein; October 17, 1903 – December 22, 1940) was an American author and screenwriter. He is remembered for two darkly satirical novels: Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and The Day of the Locust (1939), set respectively in the newspaper and Hollywood film industries.

Nathanael West bibliography

This is a bibliography of works by Nathanael West

Snell (surname)

Snell is an Anglo-Saxon nickname surname for someone who is lively.

The Imposter (short story)

"The Imposter" is a short story written by Nathanael West in the early 1930s; it was not published in West's lifetime and first appeared in The New Yorker on June 2, 1997 and in the Library of America edition of West's collected work: Novels & Other Writings. The story, told by a struggling writer and set among the expatriate community in 1920s Paris, deals with a failed sculptor named Beano Walsh, who claims he cannot create his art since the anatomy books are all wrong.

Short stories

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