Puzzle in Hollywood: Discovering Nathanael West’s Hidden Structure

George Dantzig solved unsolvable math problems because he assumed they had solutions.  In my case, I discovered both the problem and the solution when I was assigned an oral presentation on the structure of The Day of the Locust during a college course on novels taught by a Nathanael West scholar.

The presumed solution to the problem of structure in West’s classic 1939 Hollywood novel had already been stated in class.  There’s a riot in the first chapter and also in the final Chapter 27.  The middle Chapter 14 was published as a short story before West wrote the novelMy Dantzig-like assumption was that I had to find something else to say about structure to get a good grade.

On the evening that I worked on the assignment, I immersed myself in the novel for hours before I saw the first clue.  At one point in West’s story, there is a major plot event similar to another event later in the novel.  I realized that the chapters for these two events are equidistant from the central Chapter 14, just like the two riots.  When I looked at the pairs of chapters, 2 and 26, 3 and 25, 4 and 24, etc., I discovered that each pair is a match.  The first half of the novel is reflected in the mirror of the second half.  I had searched for hours, but once I saw the first clue, it took only minutes to figure out the entire novel.  Like a wooden Chinese puzzle, the pieces just fell into place.

I gave my presentation and I was certainly expecting some nice compliments, but I had not even finished the first sentence when the instructor leaned forward in shock.  With just as much shock, I realized this West scholar had not seen the puzzle.  I spent the rest of the presentation aggressively defending my thesis.

That semester I was taking an overload, so after this incident I just went on to the next novel.  Later when I was a library school student at the University of Chicago, there was some national news about professors taking credit for the work of their grad students.  I remembered that I had handed my college instructor a nice fat journal article.  Although I didn’t look into it, the story gave me some standing with my fellow Chicago students.

After graduation, my career immediately veered from traditional librarianship.  I built a new classification system with my first professional position and continued in that direction, building new classifications for a multitude of clients, subjects and materials.  My specialty now is the design of taxonomies and other structures for information presentation.  I’m good at this because I have a natural ability to see patterns, which is why I recognized the puzzle in The Day of the Locust.

A few years ago I attended a professional meeting in New Orleans.  Pam Rollo, now the President of the Special Libraries Association, arranged a dinner at one of the city’s finest restaurants.  It is an evening that I will cherish for many reasons.  Pam and I were talking about my unusual career path when I mentioned the Nathanael West story as an early indication of my skills.  I said that if my teacher, a West scholar, hadn’t seen the puzzle, then nobody had seen it.

It was then I understood my obligation to Nathanael West and decided to pursue the discovery.  I studied, and continue to study, the major criticism on The Day of the Locust.  As far as the literary community is concerned, the structure of the novel consists of two riots and a short story in the middle.  IsisInBlog is the first publication of the puzzle.  Its details will be explored in future postings when I reveal Nathanael West’s elegant mirrored chapters.

Jan 2006

Dantzig and Isis: Real Urban Legends

Robert Schuller recently announced that his son will assume the ministerial duties at the Crystal Cathedral in Los Angeles, which reminded me of a topic I am planning for IsisInBlog.  Schuller once sat on a plane next to the eminent mathematician George B. Dantzig, who told him a story about a graduate school experience. (1)

Dantzig had been late for class, arriving after everyone left.  He saw two problems on the blackboard and, assuming they were the next assignments, set to work.  After solving the problems, he handed them in late, apparently a habit with him.  Dantzig apologized to the instructor, explaining that these problems had been particularly difficult.  The assignments on the board were actually two unsolvable math problems.  Dantzig got two articles and a dissertation out of it and eventually fame beyond the world of math.  That’s where Schuller comes in.

Schuller’s ministry promotes positive thinking.  He recognized that Dantzig’s story supported his own theories, so he included it in one of his books.  According to Schuller, Dantzig solved the unsolvable problems because he assumed there was a solution.  He didn’t have the negative influence of “unsolvable” to hold him back.  The story was picked up by ministers for their own sermons and became a true urban legend.

What does this have to do with taxonomy?  It has quite a bit to do with the development of my own organizational skills.  I had a college experience similar to Dantzig’s when I discovered a puzzle in Nathanael West’s Hollywood novel, The Day of the Locust.  West must have been an organizer because he sure built an elaborate structure.

I want to explore West’s puzzle for a couple of reasons.  First, my experience enhances our understanding of structural thinking.  In addition, I owe it to West.  He worked hard on his puzzle and I am the only one who found it.  This may be partly because he died in a car crash on a road in Twenty-Nine Palms, CA shortly after publishing The Day of the Locust.  If he had lived, perhaps he would have made the next puzzle more obvious, giving scholars a few clues that one of our great American novels has an extra treat.

(1) Albers, D. J., Alexanderson, G. L., & Reid, C. (1990). George B. Dantzig. In More mathematical people: Contemporary conversations (pp. 67-68). Boston: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Originally published as “An Interview with George B. Dantzig:  The Father of Linear Programming” by Donald J. Albers and Constance Reid in College Mathematics Journal, 1986, 17:4, pp. 292-314.  This seems to be the primary resource for the retelling of Dantzig’s story, which can be traced by the misspelling of Schuller’s name as Schuler.  The book has photos of Dantzig, who looks like Nathanael West’s twin.  See also the Urban Legends Reference Pages, www.snopes.com/college/homework/unsolvable.asp

Jan 2006

Working with Parameters

Like most organizational geniuses, I am a perfectionist.  This is great for building taxonomies, but a challenge for blogging.  All changes are announced to subscribers, so public editing is a parameter of the blog medium.  When I discovered a strengthening detail for the “Snoopy in Subphylum Vertebrata” table, my edit changed the date of the “Species” post from 12/21/05 to 1/1/06, generating feed messages to subscribers and causing other mayhem.  That post is a lot of fun and I had promoted it by date in my Holiday cards.

Taxonomy construction often has exterior parameters.  The selection of Bloglines for my blog service is one.  Bloglines is plain vanilla but it has a crucial feature that surpasses all others.  It is the only service I know that publishes spreadsheets. My spreadsheets display my taxonomies.  So the selection of Bloglines was an easy decision.

As I indicated in my “Strategy” posting (1/1/06), the “Snoopy in Subphylum Vertebrata” table is the product of many such exterior parameters, primary being the width of the blog.  The spreadsheet has to fit within a defined space.  It also has to be a fairly basic structure to transfer over to Bloglines.

These two parameters resulted in an early strategic decision.  I wanted to include the Latin and the English names for Snoopy’s imagined animals.  Both names on the same line would make the columns too wide for the Bloglines space.  So I put the Latin and English on two separate lines within the same cell.  This made the table longer, but still allowed the five columns.  The two-line cells, however, added a need to differentiate between rows.  Bloglines will not display a table’s borders, so I placed a blank row between species, adding more length, but definitely improving readability.

These parameters greatly impact the appearance and therefore the usability of the structure.  At many points in developing “Snoopy in Subphylum Vertebrata,” I needed to resolve an exterior parameter.  When the change was made, I evaluated the resulting structure from the viewpoint of the reader.  Is this easy to understand and if not, what can I do, given this parameter, to improve user experience?  If it is easy to understand, is there another detail that will make the improvement even greater?  Working with parameters is essentially problem solving.  It’s recognizing the rules and then adjusting the variables for the best fit.

Jan 2006

Snoopy in Subphylum Vertebrata: The Strategy

Zoologic taxonomy, originally conceived by Linnaeus, is now the product of a 271 year biology team. Their lengthy expertise has built perhaps our most elegant organizational structure, one that expands as biologic knowledge grows. This expansion sometimes requires new categories. We are a highly diverse planet and the taxonomic structure for one group of animals may not fit the biologic details of another group. There are even competing theories on the organizational structure for life on earth. We’ll look at those in future postings.

In the meantime, I want to explicate the structural strategy for “Snoopy in Subphylum Vertebrata.” That table displays taxonomic categories for 24 animals in the imagination of my former client Snoopy. None are classified into all 15 available categories, which causes a display discrepancy right there in the first two Classes. The only Class in this collection with a Superclass parent is the ray-finned fish. The next Class is birds. Displaying the Classes in alphabetic hierarchy turns a bird into a bony fish.

Superclass Osteichthyes (bony fish)

Class Actinopterygii (ray-finned fish)

Class Aves (bird)

Zoology Websites resolve this by listing all of an animal’s categories in a drilldown. At the Species level, only the hierarchy for that animal is fully displayed. My goal, however, is to chart the taxonomy of Snoopy’s imagination on one page. A list of every category for each species takes 255 lines.

The animals in this group are all vertebrates. So I save 72 lines by moving the top three categories to the structure’s title, “Snoopy in Subphylum Vertebrata: Phylum Chordata of the Animal Kingdom.” Class is the highest differentiating category that includes the entire group. Similar animals are placed together by organizing the structure in alphabetic order by Class, indicated by all caps. The list is now 183 lines.

Because it does not repeat classifications, an indented hierarchy shortens the list to 113 lines, but then we are back to the problem of birds and bony fish. One solution builds a vertical hierarchy displaying each of an animal’s categories in a set of columns. Here’s a portion of a horizontal hierarchy for the shark in a beagle’s imagination. It can only be the porbeagle shark.

Subclass Elasmobranchii
(guitarfish, ray, shark)
Superorder Euselachii
(guitarfish, ray, shark)
Order Lamniformes
(great white & mackerel shark)
Family Lamnidae
(mackerel & porbeagle shark)


This gives 24 rows instead of 113, but it also has 12 columns, which is too wide for Bloglines.

The names of categories in this table are based on the original Linnaean categories of Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species. Snoopy’s animals are all classified into each of these. The auxiliary categories vary by animal but each is associated with one of the big five. In the “Snoopy in Subphylum Vertebrata” table, Superclass and Superorder are parent categories of Class and Order. Children are Subclass, Infraclass, Suborder, Infraorder, and Subfamily. There are five columns for the major categories, with auxiliary categories entered into associated columns. Excepting Genus and Species, which do not have auxiliary categories in this structure, including the category name with the animal’s name clarifies the hierarchic relationship. The first three categories for placental mammals and the first mammalian Order in Snoopy’s group are displayed in this vertical and horizontal hierarchy.

Class MAMMALIA (mammal)
Subclass Theria (live-birth mammal)
Infraclass Eutheria (placental mammal) Order Artiodactyla (cloven-hoofed ungulate)


Listing every category for each animal, from Superclass to Species, builds a table with 82 rows and lots of repetition. Of the 24 species, 14 are placental mammals. Hierarchic indentation removes repetition and shortens the table to 46 rows. The resulting structure is at once vertical, horizontal and indented. Each row is a horizontal hierarchy. Columns contain both equal classifications and a vertical hierarchy. Here’s a portion of the Aves structure.

Class AVES (bird) Order Ciconiiformes (eagle, heron, stork) Family Accipitridae (eagle, hawk)
Family Ciconiidae (American vulture)
Family Pelecanidae (pelican)
Family Spheniscidae (penguin)
Order Strigiformes (owl) Family Strigidae (typical owl)
Subfamily Striginae (typical owl)


Eagles, vultures, pelicans, and penguins are all children of Ciconiiformes at the Family level, but Striginae is Subfamily only to Strigidae. Multiple children of a parent category are presented as vertical and indented hierarchies. Aves are a vertical parent of Ciconiiformes and an indented parent to Strigiformes. For clarity, I put a space between the two Orders in this sample. The full table has a space between each species. The resulting structure offers a logical glimpse into Snoopy’s imagination, where bony fish swim and birds fly, except for penguins.

Superclass Osteichthyes (bony fish)
Class ACTINOPTERYGII (ray-finned fish)
Subclass Neopterygii (neopterygian fish)
Infraclass Teleostei (teleost fish) Superorder Ostariophysi (catfish, minnow, piranha)
Order Characiformes (leporin, piranha)
Class AVES (bird) Order Ciconiiformes (eagle, heron, stork)
Jan 2006

Snoopy in Subphylum Vertebrata: The Species

(This is the 12/21 post. Editing the table required a reposting.)

Snoopy frequently transforms himself into other animals. This structure, “Snoopy in Subphylum Vertebrata” shows the taxonomic categories of many of the vertebrate species in Snoopy’s imagination. (1, 2)

The previous posting contained a table with homogenous categories, such as all dog breeds in the immediate parent category of the AKC hound group. The new structure is more heterogeneous. Snoopy has imagined himself to be fish, birds, mammals and reptiles. They are all contained in each category column.

The new table will be used in multiple postings to demonstrate several techniques. First, however, we will start with a tour of Snoopy’s imagination. Each animal is categorized to the species level, but Snoopy himself does not always think in terms of species. His characters appear at all levels of the vertebrate taxonomy.

When Snoopy imagines himself to be a shark, he does not specify what kind. The shark subclass Elasmobranchii contains only one superorder, Euselachii, which has four orders of guitarfish, rays and skates with ten orders of sharks. It is clear to me, however, that when Snoopy imagines himself a shark, he can only be a porbeagle shark. Porbeagles, which grow to 12 feet, are in the same family as the great white shark.

Because Snoopy is a beagle, he would be the ace species in any classification. His vulture would be the largest bird in North America, the California condor. His anteater could only be the giant anteater. Snoopy would also be the emperor penguin, the royal python, and Macropus giganteus or the eastern grey kangaroo.

I once lived near Snoopy. Charles Schulz and I were both in the Sonoma County Wine Country, so I know the animals in the neighborhood. When Snoopy imagines himself a pelican, he must be thinking of the brown pelican that inhabits the San Francisco Bay shoreline. As an owl, he would be a spotted owl, the cause of major environmental controversy in the Redwood Empire. The South Bay is part of the greater Bay Area, so the Easter Beagle is obviously a San Jose brush rabbit. Of course, Snoopy would be a western rattlesnake, the rattler of Northern California, a snake I have encountered on several occasions.

Snoopy’s imaginings sometimes do reach the species level: bald eagle, moose, giraffe, polar bear, cougar, lion, and tiger. Certain other selections are only logical. Surely Snoopy was thinking of a domesticated cow and goat. He’s an American dog, so he must also be an American beaver (Castor canadensis) and an American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis).

The others I selected for my own reasons. Gunnison’s prairie dog is native to my new home in Arizona. The Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) is just too fun to pass up. The black spot piranha was chosen because there aren’t many species of piranha and I like black better than red. Snoopy is a grey wolf because that’s who howls in my own imagination.

Here’s the structure, followed by footnotes, and a comment on comments.

Phylum Chordata of the Animal Kingdom
Superclass Osteichthyes
(bony fish)
(ray-finned fish)
Subclass Neopterygii
(neopterygian fish)
Infraclass Teleostei
(teleost fish)
Superorder Ostariophysi
(catfish, minnow, piranha)
Order Characiformes
(leporin, piranha)
Family Characidae
(characin, piranha, tetra)
Pygocentrus cariba
(black spot piranha)
Class AVES
Order Ciconiiformes
(eagle, heron, stork)
Family Accipitridae
(eagle, hawk)
(fish eagle)
Haliaeetus leucocephalus
(bald eagle)
Family Ciconiidae
(American vulture)
Gymnogyps californianus
(California condor)
Family Pelecanidae
Pelecanus occidentalis
(brown pelican)
Family Spheniscidae
(emperor & king penguin)
Aptenodytes forsteri
(emperor penguin)
Order Strigiformes
Family Strigidae
(typical owl)
Subfamily Striginae
(typical owl)
(earless owl)
Strix occidentalis
(spotted owl)
(cartilaginous fish)
Subclass Elasmobranchii
(guitarfish, ray, shark)
Superorder Euselachii
(guitarfish, ray, shark)
Order Lamniformes
(great white & mackerel shark)
Family Lamnidae
(mackerel & porbeagle shark)
(porbeagle & salmon shark)
Lamna nasus
(porbeagle shark)
Subclass Theria
(live-birth mammal)
Infraclass Eutheria
(placental mammal)
Order Artiodactyla
(cloven-hoofed ungulate)
Family Bovidae
Subfamily Bovinae
(bison, cattle)
(ox, true cattle)
Bos taurus
(domestic cattle)
Subfamily Caprinae
(goat, sheep)
Capra hircus
(domestic goat)
Family Cervidae
Subfamily Capreolinae
(caribou, moose)
Alces alces
Family Giraffidae
(giraffe, okapi)
Giraffa camelopardalis
Order Carnivora
Suborder Caniformia
(dog-like carnivore)
Fam ilyhCanidae
(dog, jackal, wolf)
Canis lupus
(gray wolf)
Family Ursidae
(bear-like mammal)
Subfamily Ursinae
Ursus maritimus
(polar bear)
Suborder Feliformia
(cat-like carnivore)
Family Felidae
Subfamily Felinae
(small cat)
(mountain lion)
Puma concolor
Subfamily Pantherinae
(leopard, lion, tiger)
(roaring cat)
Panthera leo
Panthera tigris
Order Lagomorpha
(hare, pika, rabbit)
Family Leporidae
(hare, rabbit)
(cottontail rabbit)
Sylvilagus mansuetus
(San Jose brush rabbit)
Order Perissodactyla
(odd-toed ungulate)
Family Rhinocerotidae
(one-horned rhinoceros)
Rhinoceros unicornis
(Indian rhinoceros)
Order Rodentia
Suborder Sciuromorpha
(beaver, mouse, squirrel)
Family Castoridae
Castor canadensis
(American beaver)
Family Sciuridae
(chipmunk, marmot, squirrel)
Subfamily Sciurinae
(chipmunk, marmot, squirrel)
(prairie dog)
Cynomys gunnisoni
(Gunnison’s prairie dog)
Order Xenarthra
Family Myrmecophagidae
(American anteater)
(giant anteater)
Myrmecophaga tridactyla
(giant anteater)
Infraclass Metatheria
Superorder Marsupialia
Order Diprotodontia
(kangaroo, possum)
Family Macropodidae
(kangaroo-like marsupial)
(kangaroo, wallaby)
Macropus giganteus
(eastern gray kangaroo)
Order Crocodilia
(crocodile-like reptile)
(alligator, caiman)
Alligator mississippiensis
(American alligator)
Order Squamata
(lizard, snake)
Suborder Serpentes
Infraorder Alethinophidia
(common python)
Python regius
(royal python)
Family Viperidae
Subfamily Crotalinae
(pit viper)
Crotalus viridis
(western rattlesnake)


(1) Snoopy: The Little Dog with the Big Imagination. (n.d.). Retrieved December 20, 2005, from http://petcaretips.net/snoopy.html. This page has an extensive list of Snoopy’s imaginary characters.


(2) For this structure, I followed the categories of the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS) as displayed in the Canadian Biodiversity Information Facility at http://www.cbif.gc.ca/. While building the structure, I also researched the Animal Diversity Web of the University of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu. Both were retrieved December 20, 2005.

COMMENTS: If you would like to comment on IsisInBlog postings, please send an email to katherine@isisinform.com.

Jan 2006