Nathanael West was born Nathan Wallenstein Weinstein in New York City in October 1903. West was the first child of Russian Jewish parents who maintained an upper-middle class household in a Jewish neighborhood on the Upper West Side. West displayed little ambition in academics, dropping out of high school and only gaining admission into Tufts University by forging his high school transcript. After being expelled from Tufts, West got into Brown University by appropriating the transcript of a fellow Tufts student who was also named Nathan Weinstein. Though West did little schoolwork at Brown, he read extensively. He ignored the realist fiction of his American contemporaries in favor of French surrealists and British and Irish poets of the 1890s, especially Oscar Wilde. West was interested in unusual literary style as well as unusual content. He also grew interested in Christianity and mysticism as experienced or expressed through literature and art.

West barely finished college with a degree. He then went to Paris for three months, and it was at this point that he changed his name to Nathanael West. West's family, who had supported him thus far, ran into financial difficulties in the late 1920s. West returned home and worked sporadically in construction for his father, eventually finding a job as the night manager of a small hotel in New York City. One of West's real-life experiences at the hotel inspired the incident between Romola Martin and Homer Simpson that would later appear in The Day of the Locust.

Though West had been working on his writing since college, it was not until his quiet night job at the hotel that he found the time to put his novel together. It was at this time that West wrote what would eventually become Miss Lonelyhearts (1933). In 1931, however, two years before he completed Miss Lonelyhearts, West published The Dream Life of Balso Snell, a novel he had conceived of in college. By this time, West was working within a group of writers working in and around New York that included William Carlos Williams and Dashiell Hammett.

In 1933, West bought a farm in eastern Pennsylvania, but soon got a job as a contract scriptwriter for Columbia Pictures and moved to Hollywood. He published a third novel, A Cool Million, in 1934. None of West's three works were selling well, however, so he spent the mid-1930s in financial difficulty, sporadically collaborating on screenplays. It was at this time that West wrote The Day of the Locust, which would be published in 1939. West took many of the settings and minor characters of his novel directly from his experience living in a hotel on Hollywood Boulevard.

West and his new wife, Eileen McKenney, died in a car accident late in 1940. Though West was still a relative unknown at the time, his reputation grew after his death, especially with the publication of his collected novels in 1957. The Day of the Locust is regarded as West's masterpiece, and still stands as one of the best novels written about the early years of Hollywood. It is often compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished novel The Last Tycoon, written at about the same time and also set in Hollywood.

Most of West's fiction is, in one way or another, a response to the Depression that hit America with the stock market crash in October 1929 and continued throughout the 1930s. The obscene, garish landscapes of The Day of the Locust gain added force in light of the fact that the remainder of the country was living in drab poverty at the time. West saw the American dream as having been betrayed, both spiritually and materially, in the years of this economic depression. This idea of the corrupt American dream West pioneered has endured long after his death: indeed, the poet W.H. Auden coined the term "West's disease" to refer to poverty that exists in both a spiritual and economic sense.