The newspaper advice column has shaped the American imagination in unacknowledged ways. Using Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) as a lens into a wily, underestimated genre, I juxtapose West’s riff on the newspaper advice column with readings of the real thing. I review the lovelorn column’s distinctive features and situate West’s satiric novella in that context. I also examine the racial dynamics of both the novella and the genre, touching briefly on the careers of two lovelorn columnists: the well-known Dorothy Dix, who was white, and the now-obscure Princess Mysteria, who was African American. In the process, I show that literary critics have allowed the misogyny of West’s novella to define one of the most enduring of all women’s popular genres. Advice columns have been dismissed as a morally bankrupt product of consumer capitalism, but they did more than simply render irrelevant the question of genuine emotional expression. Using a complex masquerade of gender and race, columnists shifted counsel outside the bounds of interpersonal exchange, forged an anonymous, recursive imaginative field, and generated glimmers of an ethics of intimacy.

You do not currently have access to this content.