(1885 - 1951)
Prémio Nobel de Literatura em 1930
The Atlantic Monthly |
Books & Critics
Sinclair Lewis's great accomplishment was, as E. M. Forster marveled, "to lodge a piece of a continent in our imagination"
by Benjamin Schwarz
Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street
by Richard Lingeman
Random House, 688 pages, $35.00
Richard Lingeman has set himself a thankless task. A new biography of Sinclair Lewis, whose novels have been regarded as old but not classic for half a century, is decidedly not in demand. Lewis's dismal reputation stems largely from the trajectory of his career, which concluded with one of the longest and most depressing anticlimaxes in American letters. After a lengthy and unrewarding apprenticeship, during which he wrote five forgettable and forgotten novels, Lewis published Main Street (1920), which his earlier biographer, Mark Schorer, rightly characterized as "the most sensational event in twentieth-century American publishing history." "That idiot has written a masterpiece," a stunned H. L. Mencken cabled his Smart Set co-editor, George Jean Nathan, after reading the galley proofs of the novel. Over the next nine years Lewis wrote four more best sellers—Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927), and Dodsworth (1929)—all important books, though none could rival Main Street, and each was worse than the previous one. If only he had then laid down his pen. Instead, until his death, in 1951, he continued to churn out novels, along with plays that never made it to Broadway. Some of the novels, such as Cass Timberlane (1945) and Kingsblood Royal (1947), were commercial successes, but all these works were at best undistinguished, and many were downright terrible.
Although Lewis's productivity clearly outlasted his talent, that alone can't account for the literary community's consistent dismissal of him. Even during the 1920s, when he was at his most gifted, he was out of fashion among self-consciously sophisticated writers, who thought him a hack. (Lewis was understandably stung by the expatriates' and experimentalists' Franzenian conviction that, as he put it, "if the damned book [Main Street] has sold so well, I must be rotten.") Even his champions—E. M. Forster, Rebecca West, and, by far his most influential supporter, Mencken—offered (quite correctly) qualified praise. And then the Nobel Prize, in 1930, finished him off. Lewis was the first American to win the literature prize, but accompanying the announcement, as the critic Ludwig Lewisohn wrote around that time, "something very like a groan went up" among U.S. writers and critics. The literati were convinced—probably rightly so—that Lewis had won the prize only because his scathing, satirical novels confirmed Europeans' stereotypes of American society as vulgar, hypocritical, and materialistic. ("In crowning Mr. Lewis's work," Lewis Mumford protested, "the Swedish Academy has, in the form of a compliment, conveyed a subtle disparagement of the country they honored.") The prize only intensified disdain for Lewis, and he, and later Pearl S. Buck, would thenceforth provide evidence for those who argue that the award is hollow. Critics who would otherwise have been charitably disposed toward him couldn't help comparing him unfavorably with those they thought more deserving.
Like Mencken's, Lewis's vogue was intense but abbreviated: by the time he won the Nobel, his novels of the 1920s already seemed hopelessly dated to the intellectual tastemakers, whose interests now lay not in diatribes against American provincialism but in political and economic criticism and "proletarian fiction." By the 1940s and 1950s the aesthetically minded New Critics shunned even his best work as stylistically pedestrian. Thus Time, always a journal to confirm the consensus, declared in its obituary that Lewis "was not a great writer, nor even a very good one," and ten years later Schorer averred in Lewis's official biography that "he was one of the worst writers in modern American literature."
Schorer's 868-page biography has for forty years been the definitive life of Lewis. Comprehensive and stylishly written, it effectively married the modern doorstop literary biography—in which seemingly the subject's every journey and quarrel is minutely chronicled, to deadening effect—with a keen if not generous critical assessment ("I must say I never really liked Lewis's work all that much," Schorer once told Gore Vidal). Lingeman, who has written an engaging history of small-town America and also a two-volume biography of Theodore Dreiser (a writer perhaps as out of fashion as Lewis), was probably moved to undertake this project by the conviction, shared by Lewis's remaining admirers, that somehow the novelist deserves better. But Lingeman, an honest and sober biographer, can hardly deliver a full-throated vindication. Moreover, his long book cannot replace Schorer's even longer and far more thorough study, and Schorer's archaeological investigation of the Lewis papers neglected no startling episodes for Lingeman to reveal. This leaves him to embrace Lewis, with more enthusiasm than acumen, as a "literary sociologist" who "really cared."
That may be all one can say of Lewis in the end, but a final judgment doesn't do him justice. Lewis can be rightly appreciated only by concentrating on his anomalous book Main Street, the story of a slightly pretentious new bride's frustrating combat with the petty society of Gopher Prairie, a small Minnesota town (modeled after Lewis's home town of Sauk Centre), and with her stodgy and self-satisfied husband. It evoked the directionless struggle of thousands of Americans (especially women in the hinterland, hundreds of whom were convinced that Lewis was writing about them) to live what the protagonist, Carol Kennicott, calls "a more conscious life." Published when, for the first time in the nation's history, more people were living in cities than in the country, the book was in part a satire exposing the idiocy of rural life, so it also resonated with urban sophisticates and with those—like Carol—who aspired to be such. To be sure, Hamlin Garland (Main-Travelled Roads, 1891, Rose of Dutcher's Coolly, 1895) and other novelists had earlier described village life as narrow and dreary, but Main Street was the right book at the right time, and as Lewisohn wrote, "Perhaps no novel since 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' had struck so deep over so wide a surface of the national life." The novel is remembered for its sociological significance and as the epitome of what the critic Carl Van Doren called "the revolt from the village." But today's reader, expecting a satirical indictment, is struck—just as Mencken, Forster, and other astute critics at the time were struck—by the novel's sympathy and nuance.
With a fresh and vigorous photographic method, Lewis introduced readers to Main Street as Carol, just arrived from St. Paul, saw it—building by building, detail by detail. Slowly and relentlessly Lewis focused: on the food-stained tablecloths in the hotel dining room, on the drugstore's greasy marble soda-fountain counter, on the "pictures of coy fat prostitutes" in the tobacco shop. But while the reader is sharing Carol's dismay at the dingy, haphazard ugliness of the town, Lewis reveals the view of another newcomer, Bea Sorenson, who, bored with farm life, has come to Gopher Prairie in hopes of finding work as a hired girl. Carol, looking through the flyspecked windows of the hotel, sees only rickety chairs and cuspidors, but Bea thrills to "the swell traveling man" she spies there, to the "lovely marble" soda fountain, and to all the stores—"one just for tobacco alone." And then, in what Lewis has already established as a four-block downtown, "the roar of the city began to frighten her." The reader knows that Carol's is the more discerning vision, but also that she sneers too easily and that her view of Main Street—and Lewis's—isn't the only perspective.
What impressed most readers was the ceaseless, precise detail ("The amount of sheer data in it is amazing," the young F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was but briefly infatuated with Lewis's writing, exclaimed in a fan letter). Lewis had captured and catalogued middle-class provincial life—its speech, its houses, its gadgets, its caste marks, its stultifying social rounds. But more important, he had captured the vague stirrings—stymied because they cannot be articulated—of the slightly better than average. By eschewing a main character who would show up the subjects of his satire with clever retorts and sparkling wit, Lewis avoided the trap that ensnares most writers of satirical protest, who use their protagonists to take potshots at buffoons. In fact, though he drew her sympathetically, Lewis made Carol a difficult and shallow young woman, frustrated because she's smart enough to be discontent with her life and her surroundings but not smart enough, as he later wrote, to have "any clearly defined vision of what she really wants to do or be"—a situation far more common (and moving) than that of the heroically protesting artist or genius.
Above all, Lewis apprehended what Mencken called—in the most penetrating and witty assessment of Lewis's artistry yet written—"the essential tragedy of American life, and if not the tragedy, then at least the sardonic farce; ... the great strangeness that lies between husband and wife." Lewis empathized with Carol's feeling of entrapment in her marriage to the obtuse and cloddish Will, and also with Will's decent but constricted code ("Do your work, care for your family ... venerate the flag") and his "pathetic inability to comprehend the turmoil that goes on within her" (a limitation wrenching to both parties). Lewis's great achievement, Mencken recognized, was not to take sides in the resultant conflict, not "to turn the thing into a mere harangue against one or the other."
Above all, he is too intelligent to take the side of Carol, as nine novelists out of ten would have done. He sees clearly what is too often not seen—that her superior culture is, after all, chiefly bogus—that the oafish Kennicott, in more ways than one, is actually better than she is ... Her dream of converting a Minnesota prairie town into a sort of Long Island suburb, with overtones of Greenwich Village and the Harvard campus, is quite as absurd as his dream of converting it into a second Minneapolis, with overtones of Gary, Ind., and Paterson, N.J.
claims cannot be made for the novel. Lewis's grasp of the moral distinctions and
ambiguities of the human condition at the heart of great fiction was unsteady in
Main Street, as is evident when the novel is compared with the one that
beat it for the 1921 Pulitzer Prize—Edith Wharton's
The Age of Innocence. Nevertheless, the novel was
and remains an astonishing accomplishment, and Lewis, then thirty-five, seemed
to be a first-rate—perhaps had the makings of a great—novelist. But his
ambitions lay elsewhere, and he also led himself astray. Two years after Main
Street, Lewis published
Babbitt, and the modulated satire in the former
had coarsened and intensified in the latter. Lewis was a natural mimic, and
starting with Babbitt he played for easy laughs. In fact, his satire was
increasingly so pat and merciless that by 1927, when Elmer Gantry
appeared, it had become clinical and unrelievedly hard. Attempting to be
generous, critics have hailed what Schorer called Lewis's "gift for imitating
the speaking American [midwestern] voice." This is patronizing. Lewis
brilliantly rendered the forced jocularity of the speech of middle-class
midwestern business and social life, but he lacked Ring Lardner's subtlety and
sharp ear, and his mimicry contained far more burlesque than wit. (Babbitt's
famously braying, boosting oration to the Zenith Real Estate Board was
remarkable—but Lewis hit the same note for eleven pages.) One senses that Lewis
had self-indulgently stopped listening to the subjects he was aurally dissecting,
and hence his mimicry lapsed into dated mockery. Malcolm Cowley justifiably
complained that in Lewis's final novel his characters sounded "like survivors
from a vanished world, like people just emerging from orphanages and prisons,
where they had listened for thirty years to nothing but tape recordings of Lewis
Yet if in his reliance on mimicry Lewis took the easy way, in Babbitt, Arrowsmith, and Elmer Gantry he also set for himself an arduous and serious plan of work—one that guaranteed, however, that artistic greatness would elude him. In Main Street and these, his other best novels, Lewis meticulously chronicled the life of the new middle class, in Dakota villages and in the Cincinnatis and the Minneapolises (what Lewis defined as "transitional metropolises," the "cities from 200,000 to 500,000"), in university towns and at third-rate Bible colleges, among salesmen in Pullman cars and smokers, merchants' wives at amateur theatricals, advertising men and real-estate developers at the Athletic Club, public-health bureaucrats in an Iowa city and liberal Methodist ministers in the Corn Belt. Lewis researched compulsively: he spent months collecting material for Elmer Gantry in Kansas City, where he held a weekly seminar with a cross section of the city's clergymen; he filled notebooks with phrases and jargon he'd gathered from his colloquies with salesmen; he drew maps of the composite state and city he created for his novels, noting the kinds and colors of the dogs and which streets they were walked on, and sketched the floor plans of the houses, including types and arrangement of furniture. Lewis's absorption in this milieu made him able, as Forster marveled, "to lodge a piece of a continent in our imagination."
Through his accumulation of detail Lewis painted the most vivid and comprehensive picture we have of the middle-class heartland as it was being fully subsumed by a national economy and a consumer culture—an event that historians now recognize as one of the most far-reaching social transformations in American history. These novels are much less successful as explorations of character and motivation than they are, to paraphrase Lingeman, as works of literary sociology, and fiction was perhaps not the most appropriate vehicle with which to impart the world Lewis observed. Fitzgerald, for one, was indisputably a far greater novelist. Even so, Lewis's first wife, Grace, asked and answered an important question: "Were the 1920s really the Jazz Age except for a few? Most Americans at that time lived more like Sinclair Lewis characters." Moreover, the novels remain much more compelling than the great contemporary sociological work that explored the same ground: Middletown (1929), Robert and Helen Lynd's exhaustive examination of the middle class of Muncie, Indiana. The novels work on the reader with an unspectacular, cumulative, absorbing power, which is perhaps why Edmund Wilson commented that "you have to read the whole of a novel of Lewis to find out that there is anything remarkable about it."
Nevertheless, to praise those novels is to acknowledge that after writing his one truly spectacular book, Lewis abjured literature for what Forster called "photography." And in what would prove an astonishingly prophetic assessment (and also the only analysis of Lewis's work I've come across that addresses what would seem the obvious question provoked by an examination of his career), Forster explained in 1929 that Lewis's work was henceforth "bound to be disappointing," because "photography is a pursuit for the young." "So long as a writer has the freshness of youth on him," Forster wrote, "he can work the snapshot method, but when it passes he has nothing to fall back upon." As Lewis's mimicry became broad, so his observations became flabby. The "sheer data" that he had used to delineate minute yet telling social distinctions was now too often just so much stuff.
But the consolation Forster offered continues to be the best reason—aside from Main Street, the only reason—to read Lewis: "The historian of our future will cease to worry over this, will pick up the earlier and brighter volumes ... and will find there not only genius, but a record of our age."
A new biography of Sinclair Lewis.
by JOHN UPDIKE
What has Sinclair Lewis done lately to deserve a new, five-hundred-and-fifty-four-page (plus notes and index) biography, "Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street," by Richard Lingeman (Random House; $35)? Mark Schorer's even bigger biography of forty years ago, "Sinclair Lewis: An American Life," would seem to have closed the case, at least until Lewis's reputation—stuck in a slot below that of Theodore Dreiser, whose clumsy naturalism attained in at least two novels a tender, awed sense of tragedy that Lewis's satires never mustered, and above that of Upton Sinclair, the remorselessly prolific idealist with whom Lewis was frequently, to his disadvantage, confused—emerges from its doldrums. Unlike Zona Gale or Dorothy Canfield Fisher, he has not been quite forgotten. His pair of breakthrough novels, "Main Street" (1920) and "Babbitt" (1922), both of which contributed new terms to the American vocabulary of self-comprehension, compose a volume in the Library of America, and the Library plans to include in another volume "Arrowsmith" (1925), "Elmer Gantry" (1927), and "Dodsworth" (1929), the other major novels of Lewis's prodigious decade. "Main Street" made a publishing sensation the likes of which hadn't been seen since "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (1852), or at least "Ben-Hur" (1880); the full-price edition, by the fledgling firm of Harcourt, Brace, and the cheaper edition, by Grosset & Dunlap, together sold more than two million copies. Best-selling does not a classic make; "Babbitt" eventually outsold "Main Street" and comes closer to being a contemporary classroom standard, though far surpassed in that regard by a modestly successful short novel of 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby."
The writers slightly younger than Lewis—Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald—have remained more interesting than he to the critics and academics who perpetuate literary reputations. "Sinclair Lewis is nothing," Hemingway pronounced in his testamental "Green Hills of Africa," and a certain attic dust of datedness, as on quickly obsolete gadgetry, began to gather on Lewis's sensational novels as early as 1930, when he became the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. It turns out that the choice, that year, had come down to Lewis and Dreiser, and the three-man committee went for Lewis, two to one, because he embodied "a vigorous trend in modern literature—high-class American humor." Lewis himself, forty-five at the time, was overheard (by Lillian Gish) to say, "This is the end of me. This is fatal. I cannot live up to it." It was not soon fatal, but things were never the same for him, and the rest of his life, while he continued famous and rich, is the tale of a losing struggle against alcoholism, loneliness, restlessness, and depleted, scattered creativity.
No doubt it is to blow the dust off the oeuvre that Lingeman has undertaken to tell the author's tale again, but it is hard to know from what angle he is blowing. His acknowledgments claim, "I am critical of the late Mark Schorer's monumental 1961 biography," yet no criticisms emerge until the very end, when an epilogue states that the monumental biography (earlier cited as "an indispensable resource") is "pervaded by such a tone of disapproval that it left the impression with many readers that Schorer disdained both Lewis himself and his work. . . . Schorer's book gave academics and general readers a license not to read Sinclair Lewis, if they needed one." Such a license is generally issued at desks broader than a biographer's, and this peruser of Schorer's ten-year labor of research and criticism felt less disdain than, perhaps, impatience bred of overlong immersion in a character almost everyone found exasperating. Schorer writes in the lofty, sometimes sardonic voice of fifties mandarinism ("Perhaps it is futile," he gloomily muses, "to approach any Lewis novel as a work of art"), but his biography is at most junctures more energetic, more circumstantial, more engaging, and more earnestly analytical than Lingeman's. Lingeman, who devoted two excellent volumes to Dreiser, here seems hurried, and given to summation. He doesn't show Schorer's hospitality to direct quotation—Lewis, after all, crossed the path of almost every literary American of the half century—and many brisk assertions must be taken on faith. "He took the Yale entrance examinations in June, and while browsing in a Saint Paul bookstore met the owner, Arthur Wheelock Upson, a published poet who impressed him vastly." Who says Upson did? "It was not that he didn't want to be like the other boys; he wanted very much to belong, but on his terms." How do we know this? The critical first seventeen years of Lewis's life, spent in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, get thirteen pages; Schorer gave them forty-one, more richly exploiting the not inconsiderable record of small-town news clippings, Lewis's adolescent diary, and his abundant later reflections upon his roots. A portion of what Lingeman offers might be true of almost any boy: "Sometimes, he had to hold in his anger and became moody and withdrawn. This made him wary, touchy, and thin-skinned, lashing out at rejection yet needing acceptance, wanting to belong."
The prose can be untidy to the point of vagueness: "In her memoir, Gracie gives her wedding night the faint virtue of having avoided the Victorian bride's trauma in the hands of a clumsy husband." Some sentences are hastily overloaded: "Jimmy Sheean, to whom Dorothy had been a rock in Moscow when his woman friend had tragically died, and who had returned to the States, joined them at Dorothy's invitation." There is a curious chumminess of diction: we find the phrase "baching it," "rock" oddly employed above and then in "Flanagan, a rock in a crisis," a manuscript called a "script," Hemingway's prose described as "carefully beveled" (chiseled?), and the word "dope" used, by my count, six times to mean "information," only once with quotation marks to indicate slang. To be fair, Lingeman can write wittily, as in calling the Lincoln Highway in the twenties "a notional rather than national road" and in saying of Lewis in Minneapolis society that "his impersonations, raucous speech, love of disputation, and unconventional manners soon mobilized tribal antibodies." But too often he writes like someone with his attention slightly elsewhere, and being editorially advised to get on with it. His biography of Dreiser gave the reader an impression of a basic nobility in the subject, amid considerable muddle and folly. Lewis's foremost virtue comes across as his brute industry: he was heroically able to rise, in whatever unhomey shelter his wanderlust had brought him to, through whatever grisly thickness of hangover, and go to his typewriter and pound out his daily five thousand words.
Lewis typed with his two forefingers, which as he aged became so sensitive from hard use that he taped them. He produced the lesser novel "The Prodigal Parents" (1938) by writing from five in the morning until seven at night for two months. He composed two hundred and twenty-one thousand words of "Main Street" in fourteen weeks, and the four hundred and fifty-eight pages of "It Can't Happen Here" (1935) in four months. He did not, like many speed merchants both modern and Victorian, submit first drafts to the printer; he told James Branch Cabell that he had "destroyed all but a few pages" of the first thirty thousand words of "Main Street," and the editor of his first novel, "Our Mr. Wrenn" (1914), marvelled at the ease and good humor with which he executed suggested revisions. John Hersey, who acted as Lewis's secretary for a summer, was horrified, as he "endlessly" retyped drafts, "to see thousands upon thousands of words—not scattered words and phrases but long passages, whole scenes—ruthlessly slashed out." In England in 1923, Lewis and Arnold Bennett showed each other their manuscripts: Bennett's, of the masterly "Old Wives' Tale," was, in Lewis's eyes, "a strange MS, handwritten, in the most delicate script, legible as typing, with almost no changes in it, and decorated with colored initials by him, so that it's like a monkish scroll," whereas the first typescript of Lewis's "new novel," presumably "Arrowsmith," struck Bennett as "all blue and red with millions of alterations,—a terrible sight." Writing was for Lewis an industrial process, of which the first stage was gathering raw material—interviewing specialists such as clergymen and Realtors, occupying relevant terrains (Kansas City for "Elmer Gantry," Duluth for "Cass Timberlane")—and the second stage was turning his notes, outlines, detailed character sketches, careful maps, and extensive synopses (sixty thousand words, in the case of "Babbitt"!) into fiction.
The one place he did not scour for dope was within himself. The women and the venues of his life left traces in his imagination, and certain characters speak his mind more than others, but his novels took their inspiration from a sociological topic rather than a confessional or self-exploratory impulse. While drawing on Sauk Centre memories all his life, Lewis never, Schorer points out, wrote the "Moon-Calf" novel so frequent in American literature—the autobiographical account of a "sensitive and misunderstood adolescent" in an unsympathetic environment—though young Hal Lewis certainly was a mooncalf, spindly, pimply, ill-coördinated, unpopular, romantically book-obsessed. And a mooncalf he remained, while acquiring wealth enough to wear London suits, travel through Europe, buy big houses, divorce two women, and get radium treatments for his face that ravaged it further. I would have welcomed from Lingeman a more detailed medical account of Lewis's red, riddled face. Hemingway viciously harped on Lewis's ugliness, even putting it into the novel "Across the River and Into the Trees," though it was Mary Hemingway who, after an encounter with the elderly Lewis in Venice, penned the horrific image "His face was a piece of old liver, shot squarely with a #7 shot at twenty yards."
One wonders how his facial appearance, which might have made many men wish to be inconspicuous, consorted with his insatiable desire to show off and dominate a room. He was compulsively theatrical; as his affair with the young actress Marcella Powers intensified his interest in the stage, he wrote numerous plays and ebulliently acted in other people's, taking such roles as that of the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" and, in Paul Vincent Carroll's "Shadow and Substance," that of a priest opposite Powers's girlish aspirant to sainthood. "The theatre fascinated him," the playwright Marc Connelly later wrote, "but I do not think he ever had any comprehension of its technical demands." Amateur performance was his métier. Bennett, the most sympathetic and patient of Lewis's British observers, noted in his journals:
Lewis has a habit of breaking into a discussion with long pieces of imaginary conversation between imaginary or real people of the place and period under discussion. Goodish, but too long, with accent, manner, and all complete. He will do this in any discussion; he will drag in a performance, usually full of oaths and blasphemy.
Schorer, finding boyhood acquaintances still alive in Sauk Centre, reported that two of them concurred in remembering Lewis as "a show-off and something of a bore." Corroborative testimony abounds. William E. Woodward, in a 1934 New Yorker Profile, allowed, "Even his pleasing talent for impersonation dazes people unless they know him well." Rebecca West, an astute and initially enthusiastic critic of his work, said that his torrent of talk "was wonderful, but after five solid hours of it I ceased to look upon him as a human being." A Minneapolis journalist, William McNally, watching Lewis paralyze local society with "impersonations that went on for hours," concluded, "He cannot travel other than 'on high' and has no brakes." In the aftermath of "Babbitt" he continually talked Babbittese, and when his second wife, the long-suffering Dorothy Thompson, was ushering him, straitjacketed, into an ambulance during an attack of the DTs, he forestalled her reproaches by expertly mimicking her: "You've ruined your life, you're ruining mine! You've ruined your sons, you miserable creature. You're sick, sick."
Mimicry is, of course, a way of avoiding conversation, of drowning out interchange. Lewis, Lingeman says, "had a phobia about being alone," but he contrived to be alone when surrounded by people, deafened by his own "endlessly narratory" voice. One of the few friends who stayed the route with him, Carl Van Doren, said, "What Red doesn't realize is that in order to have friends, one must be willing to suffer a little boredom, and Red has never learned that, and he has almost no friends left." His personal qualities carried into the fiction: it tends to be, aside from some of its well-felt domestic moments, loud and blatant, more performance than shared experience. Everything illustrates the point. George Babbitt reads the newspaper, with comments to his wife:
"Lots of news. Terrible big tornado in the South. Hard luck, all right. But this, say, this is corking! Beginning of the end for those fellows! New York Assembly has passed some bills that ought to completely outlaw the socialists! And there's an elevator-runners' strike in New York and a lot of college boys are taking their places. That's the stuff! And a mass-meeting in Birmingham's demanded that this Mick agitator, this fellow De Valera, be deported. Dead right, by golly! All these agitators paid with German gold anyway. And we got no business interfering with the Irish or any other foreign government. Keep our hands strictly off. And there's another well-authenticated rumor from Russia that Lenin is dead. That's fine. It's beyond me why we don't just step in there and kick those Bolshevik cusses out."
Further, his satire, as more politically committed critics pointed out, ends up in a kind of hopeless surrender to the values satirized. No wonder he could never make headway on the big labor novel that he contemplated for decades; his sympathies were thoroughly bourgeois, and his knowingness had to do with the maneuvers whereby the bourgeoisie regroups after a setback and carries on. His novels have happy endings, and when something tragic happened to him, like the death of his elder son, Wells, in the Second World War, he turned from it. The boy, the product of Lewis's marriage to Grace Hegger, was better than his disrupted upbringing warranted—a graduate of Harvard magna cum laude, the promising author of a novel, and such a spit-and-polish aide-de-camp that a German sniper may have shot him under the impression that Wells himself was the general whom he was accompanying in a jeep in Italy. Lewis's reaction was to rebuff expressions of sympathy and treat the grieving mother with what she called an "abominable" coolness.
And yet the single photograph in the bedroom of his Duluth mansion was of Wells. When all complaints about Lewis's rude, skittish, impossible social behavior are registered, there remained something good-hearted about him, as we can read in "First Job," Hersey's account of his pleasant summer with Lewis, a summer when Lewis was not drinking. In a more bluntly rivalrous literary atmosphere than obtains now, he was generous in praise of other writers, even those who, like Dreiser and Hemingway, quarrelled with him. His yen to perform in the theatre and the lecture hall had its self-abnegating, modest side, and there was a generosity, too, in the topics he chose to address, with his ebbing novelistic powers, after the war: feminist issues in "Cass Timberlane" (1945) and "World So Wide" (1951), racism in "Kingsblood Royal" (1947), a melodramatic, slashing book that blacks liked more than whites. Paul Robeson's wife, Eslanda, wrote him that "it is a beautiful job, and one which Negroes could not have done, because it just isn't our side of the medal." Main Street and Babbitt became glib tags only after he had exercised the social vision to uncover and name them. John O'Hara said, "All the other novelists and journalists and Babbitt himself were equally blind to Babbitt and Zenith and the United States of America until 1922." Who in the last century more manfully and systematically attempted to fill the demand, in recent times voiced by Tom Wolfe and Jonathan Franzen, that American novelists cast off solipsism and introverted delicacy and embrace the nation as it exists, in its striving variety and dynamism?
Sauk Centre now holds a Sinclair Lewis Avenue, and boasts on signs of being "The Original Main Street"—it has enlisted Lewis in the boosterism that he mocked. The town is the occasional site of the annual meeting of the Sinclair Lewis Society, which issues, Lingeman says in his acknowledgments, a "lively newsletter." I have scanned Lingeman's seventy pages of notes and seven pages of bibliography hoping to snag my eyes on publications since 1961 that might urge an updating of Schorer's biography, and noticed few. In these forty years, a new sexual frankness is permitted, if not compulsory, in biography, and Schorer's explanation of why Michael Lewis, Sinclair's younger son, was forty-five minutes late for dinner with his father in Rome—"He had been enjoying Rome during the afternoon and arrived about forty-five minutes late"—can be, with a puzzling change of meal, amplified by Lingeman to: "When Michael Lewis arrived at Christmastime, he committed the faux pas of spending the night with a prostitute he picked up on Via Veneto. This escapade caused him to arrive late for Lewis's rigidly planned lunch." Sexual specifics that Thompson confided by letter to Schorer's discretion can now be broadcast:
She summed up
Lewis's problem as premature ejaculation due to nervousness: "He could be
tender, playful, delightful with women except in the sexual
relationship." She told Schorer that Lewis would "fuck her quick and then abuse
Later, Lewis's inadequacies as a lover would drive Dorothy to others for affection. As she told Schorer: "All his wives, even when they stuck to him, had affairs."
Well, who ever said that alcoholic mooncalves made great lovers? As for his "alcoholism," the word has taken on, thanks to the helpful credo of Alcoholics Anonymous, the dignity of a disease, whose victims are mired beyond their own will power. But Lewis could quit, when he wanted to, and the fact that he didn't want to more often suggests a character trait, not a physiological one. The invaluable Thompson (always marry a writer if you want your underside in black and white) recorded in her diary a night when instead of taking her to a full-dress ball as he had promised he called up, said "I'm shot . . . Come here, darling," passed out in her arms, and woke up enough to make love and buy sausages, in that order, while the "alcohol odor oozing from his pores was 'like rank weeds.' " Next morning, shaky but articulate, he explained that he knew he must choose between spirits and her and he could not give up spirits. From her diary:
"A man takes a drink," he said, "the drink takes another, and the drink takes the man. And it's got me. I don't know how it began. It was my father & Gracie. They both hated me—and you will hate me too. I am a rotter, but I won't go like Verlaine—like Oscar Wilde. I'll take care not to get that far."
He did get that far, but, dying at the age of sixty-five, took longer than it took Verlaine and Wilde, and longer than his fellow Midwestern topers Scott Fitzgerald and Ring Lardner. He shared with Thompson that night a no win/no lose formulation which left room for doing his work but not any for family life or what Freud called normal human unhappiness. His frenetic activity—all those books, all those addresses, all those binges—seems in the retelling one long escape, an anesthetic administered to a peculiarly American pain, just before the last screw of his talent could be turned. Rebecca West sagely complained as early as 1927, "If he would sit still so that life could make any deep impression on him, if he would attach himself to the human tradition by occasionally reading a book which would set him a standard of profundity, he could give his genius a chance."
It is the conflicting fate of an American artist to long for profundity while suspecting that, most profoundly, none exists; all is surface, and rather flimsy surface at that. Lewis admired Thoreau, and made fitful retreats into the North American wilderness to regroup his resources, only to fill the tent with the fumes of Scotch and the rattle of his impersonations. Three quotations from Lewis come to mind as epitaphs, two of them cited by Lingeman: "I love America, but I don't like it," and "Everyone ought to have a home to get away from." The third is reported by Schorer, who has the everlasting advantage over his successor biographers of having entered the field when it still held living witnesses: "Once, to the Leonard Bacons, whose very nuzzling dog was giving him a good deal of attention, Lewis said, 'I'm just like this dog. All I want is affection.' " Affection may be what he wanted, but attention is what he got.
Resurrecting Sinclair Lewis
A new biography reintroduces us to the writer who gave the Midwest a prominent place in American literature
Widmer. Ted Widmer is the director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the
American Experience at Washington College and the author of "Young America: The
Flowering of Democracy in New Yo
March 17, 2002
Sinclair Lewis: Rebel From Main Street
By Richard Lingeman
Random House, 659 pages, $35
It was inevitable that Sinclair Lewis and Richard Lingeman would collide. Lingeman, the pride of Crawfordsville, Ind. ("the Hoosier Athens"), has built an impressive career as a chronicler of small-town America, with emphasis on the Midwest. His fine biography of Theodore Dreiser pointed him in a literary direction, and the logical next step was a study of Lewis, who built his literary edifice on Dreiser's foundation (though they quarreled bitterly, as Lewis quarreled with everyone he ever met). No writer ever did more to place the Midwest at the front and center of American literature.
Lingeman's is a brave undertaking. Lewis has been giving headaches to his admirers ever since he burst onto the scene with his first triumph, "Main Street," which affronted a too-easily-shocked America when it appeared in 1920. He followed that triumph with one of the most extraordinary decades of literary productivity in the history of this or any country: "Babbitt" (1922), "Arrowsmith" (1925), "Elmer Gantry" (1927), "Dodsworth" (1929) and a host of fugitive writings. For this hastily assembled catalog, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1930, the first American to be so honored (he narrowly beat out Dreiser, perhaps because Lewis' native Minnesota has more Swedes than Dreiser's Indiana). Lewis also made scads of money, thereby alienating just about every other American writer except Edith Wharton (who was richer) and H.L. Mencken (who didn't care). Then, a long and agonizing decline set in, punctuated by spasms of the old genius ("It Can't Happen Here," 1935), but still irrevocable, abject and total. In 1951 his ruined body finally gave out. Appropriately, this restless seeker died in Rome, the terminus of so many unfulfilled pilgrimages.
Had Lewis died at the height of his powers, say in 1932, he would be lionized still. His reckless life of overwork and hard play appeals perfectly to our Vanity Fair culture, and I'd wager he could drink Charlie Sheen under the table. But the problem, then as now, is that he lived too long and sold too many books to be taken seriously as an artist. Hemingway hated him for his popularity, wealth and garrulity (he wrote, "Sinclair Lewis is nothing"). But of course, Hemingway became far more popular, and now we can buy clothing and knicknacks from glossy catalogs with his craggy likeness trademarked and emblazoned on every surface. Could Lewis have dreamt up a more sublime vengeance?
An argument can be made (and was by John Updike in a recent New Yorker) that we do not need another Lewis biography. It's true that this new volume has done little to displace Mark Schorer's comprehensive 1961 study. But by writing this book, Lingeman has literally forced Lewis' garish face before us again (the cover shows Lewis glowering at the would-be buyer from an uncomfortably close angle). That's a good thing. In researching Lewis at my small-town library, I pulled a book at random off the shelf and saw that it had not been checked out since February 10, 1958. Sinclair Lewis deserves better from his people -- a people he loved, even if he did not like them much.
The story proceeds at a rapid clip, in keeping with Lewis' pell-mell existence. It opens, naturally, in Sauk Centre, Minn., the small town (Gopher Prairie in "Main Street") that once shuttered itself against the chill winds of Lewis' satire but now claims him proudly as a native son. His difficult childhood was followed by an equally hard time at Yale University, which never cottoned to the uncouth outsider. But like so many misfits, he found solace in his ability to devise an alternate reality in writing.
After moving to Greenwich Village and absorbing its bohemian currents, Lewis fell in love with and, in 1914, married Grace Hegger. She was charming and pretentious (she tried to spell his name St. Clair Lewis, but no one bought it), and Gracie and "Hal" found genuine happiness in their early years together. Lingeman is at his best describing their free-spirited romps across the country in a flivver, trips in which Lewis gathered material for the fusillade he was about to launch against the American boobeoisie. From that moment on, Lewis never stopped traveling or drinking (I assume he never joined either AA or AAA).
These road trips taught the young observer that the residents of his native land were just as herdlike as the buffalo who had roamed freely a generation or two earlier. "Main Street" punctured small-town orthodoxies, but it was only prep work for the brilliant satire of "Babbitt," which took on a larger community (Cincinnati) and perfectly captured the selfish concerns and conversations of Warren Harding's America. The next novels, "Arrowsmith," "Elmer Gantry" and "Dodsworth" were nearly as good.
When Lewis was awarded the Nobel, he jokingly but correctly predicted that it was a fatal blow. After, he could never write as well, though he remained news fodder.
The pressures of constant touring and writing eventually took a toll on his marriage, and in 1928 Lewis and Gracie divorced. A month later, Lewis married Dorothy Thompson, a distinguished journalist who was one of the first to sniff out the Nazi menace. They became America's first two-career celebrity couple and inspired the great Tracy-Hepburn vehicle "Woman of the Year." But this curious pairing was doomed to failure through exhaustion and exasperation, and the final third of the book chronicles the depressing degradation of Lewis' talent through drink and frivolity.
To Lingeman's credit, the story moves along at a vigorous pace. He doesn't linger overlong on any issue, but always drives the narrative forward. He's especially good at capturing the work of writing: Lewis seems always to be speaking, listening and typing furiously with his two index fingers. In his prime, he cranked out 5,000 words a day.
But Lingeman's pace brings some shallowness. If you are already well-versed in the aftermath of World War I, or the Sacco and Vanzetti case, or the Depression and New Deal, then you will not be bothered by a rapid-fire treatment of these topics. But I thought the book needed more historical and psychological shading. There is not enough on Lewis' political views (his enthusiasm for labor leader Eugene Debs and progressive Wisconsinite Robert La Follette again show the restless Midwesterner inside him). There is not enough probing of his psyche, admittedly a dark place to root around. We learn exactly what Lewis looked like, including his ravaged face (Hemingway wrote brutishly, "it looked as pock-marked and blemished as the mountains of the moon seen through a cheap telescope"). But even after 500 pages, the man himself -- Harry, Hal, Red, Sinclair -- remains a cipher.
That's not totally Lingeman's fault. To an extent, the blame rests on Lewis' gangly shoulders. It's exhausting to read the incessant catalog of short-term apartments he rented, and petty feuds he started, and writing assignments he either performed poorly or brilliantly, depending on how much he'd been drinking. Lingeman heroically follows Lewis from lair to lair, like Elmer Fudd chasing Bugs Bunny, but after hundreds of pages, the effort weighs on writer and reader alike. If it's Tuesday, this must be "Dodsworth."
Yet the attempt to resurrect Lewis is important and should not be dismissed lightly. In everything he did, including his colossal failures, Lewis revealed a scope of ambition that set the tone for the American century. "[N]ever forget that you're competing with Shakespeare," he told a class of writing students. He and Hemingway were not so different, which may have been the source of their troubles.
The life of Sinclair Lewis still holds more meaning than the members of the academic community who exclude him want to admit (God how he would parody them if he could!). Certainly it holds meaning in the Midwest, where Lewis situated all but six of his 22 novels. He inherited a great angry literary tradition from the likes of Hamlin Garland, George Ade, Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson and Edgar Lee Masters, and passed it along enhanced to the Young Turks who came after him. If it is true that he never wrote a book as good as "Sister Carrie," he still wrote "Babbitt" and "Elmer Gantry," as good a study of religion as anything since "The Scarlet Letter." Only David Mamet can compete with him for capturing the language of American commerce.
I found myself missing Lewis the more I read about him. There's just so much cant that he could have sunk his teeth into over the last 50 years: freaky fads in the '60s, self-actualization seminars in the '70s, savings-and-loan scandals in the '80s, dot-com narcissism in the '90s and the backslapping Enron culture of corporate irresponsibility that we are now laboring to get out from under. And you just know he would have loved the Salt Lake City Olympics: weepy human-interest stories, crooked judges and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir!
This book is not perfect, befitting its subject. But it has given us a chance to reassess a major American artist shrouded in near total darkness. And it has given us a new reason to see our own country, as Lewis did in his Nobel address, as "an America that is as strange as Russia and as complex as China," an America deserving "a literature worthy of her vastness."
In everything he did, including his colossal failures, Sinclair Lewis revealed a scope of ambition that set the tone for the American century.
June 27, 2002
Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street
by Richard Lingeman
Random House, 659 pp., $35.00
Sinclair Lewis: An American Life
by Mark Schorer
McGraw-Hill, 867 pp. (1961; out of print)
Sinclair Lewis: Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry,
edited by Richard Lingeman
Library of America, 1,346 pp., $40.00(to be published in September 2002)
Sinclair Lewis, with a crumpled face, red hair, manic zest, and manic writing, came forth from Sauk Centre, Minnesota, the year of his birth, 1885. His father was a doctor and after the death of his mother he had a kind, ambitious, ever-onward stepmother. The young man was not a hick, although he could pose as one when it suited him; nevertheless his gift for the language and the posturings of a country boy lead one to speculate that the tangled roots of provincialism still sprouted within him. On the other hand, he was as mobile as a hardy cormorant who by gluttonous study and preparation made his way to Yale and then off in the blue. After college, he will alight in Greenwich Village; Carmel, California; Washington; and Long Island; later, with his marriage to the famous columnist Dorothy Thompson, he more or less hitched a ride with her to London, Berlin, Vienna, and Moscow.
From the days of his youth, Lewis seems to have been writing, writing in a fevered marathon race. Mark Schorer, in his large, suitably so, biography (1961), prints a checklist that begins with many publications in the Yale Courant and rolls down the page to stories everywhere, especially in The Saturday Evening Post, the editor urging more and more, until later there was a break or a breach apparently owing to Lewis's intrepid radicalism.
Along with the tornado of short works, the rampaging Sinclair Lewis published six novels before 1921, widely reviewed with the usual mixture of response, but none quite a commercial success. Among the forgotten titles: Trail of the Hawk, The Job, Free Air, and so on. Lewis was early on a professional writer; it was what he did, what he lived on, and with the worldwide success of his first major novel, Main Street, more novels, and some continuing hack work, Sinclair Lewis was famous and rich. He showed a similar energy in spending, buying a handsome old house in Williamstown, Massachusetts, staying in the best hotels in America and Europe, leasing the grandiose Mussolini-style Villa la Costa in Florence, taking on another fascist-period marble and gold flat in Rome, and dying there in a clinic at the age of sixty-six. Perhaps he had a good time and perhaps not since he died of the complications of alcohol, delirium tremens, a bad heart, and bronchial pneumonia. It's a pilgrim's progress with many deceivers on the way.
Main Street, for all its popularity, was a strain on Lewis's rambunctious, aggressive imagination because the figure to be dissected with his knives of disappointment is an airy, misplaced woman, Carol Kennicott, to be dropped down in a Midwestern village bearing the name of Gopher Prairie. A gopher is a large rodent to be found in our western states and the name alone is an affront to Carol's demure aestheticism. With her bad luck, she is first seen as a student in Blodgett College, a denominational school somewhat raw-boned as a setting for her "thin wrists, quince-blossom skin, ingénue eyes, black hair." But as ever in the most benighted schools there will be a teacher to beam the lights of "general culture" which will give Carol her badge of identity. She goes on to Chicago for a degree in library science and to a position in St. Paul, Minnesota. There she will meet and marry Dr. Will Kennicott of Gopher Prairie, a downright medical practitioner, strong, plausible as a decent, laid-back, conventional fellow without much "taste" and a professional concern with the unpaid bills on his desk.
Gopher Prairie—best to keep going straight on by:
The fields swept up to it, past it. It was unprotected and unprotecting; there was no dignity in it nor any hope of greatness.... The houses on the outskirts were dusky old red mansions with wooden frills, or gaunt frame shelters like grocery boxes, or new bungaloes with concrete foundations imitating stone...the Seventh-Day Adventist Church—a plain clapboard wall of a sour liver color; the ash-pile back of the church; an unpainted stable; and an alley in which a Ford delivery wagon had been stranded.
Carol, whose theme, in the manner of Lewis's fiction, will be to "turn a prairie town into Georgian houses and Japanese bungaloes," inspects the streets and business places. The drug- store offers "pawed over heaps of toothbrushes and combs...noxious mixtures of opium and alcohol"; the grocery has "black, overripe bananas and lettuce on which a cat was sleeping"; a clothing store is displaying "ox-blood shade Oxfords with bull-dog toes"; at the general store there are "canvas shoes designed for women with bulging ankles, steel and red glass buttons upon cards with broken edges, a cottony blanket, a granite-wear frying pan reposing on a sun-faded crepe blouse."
Carol is "sweet" and friendly to the town folk and agreeable at evening parties where a lady recites her specialty, "Old Sweetheart of Mine," and the men tell Jewish and Irish jokes. When she tries to elevate the conversation by asking businessmen what they think of unions and profit sharing, one gentleman says they ought to hang the agitators and Dr. Kennicott agrees. It's not quite serious, just men-talk, and the author knows all about it including what's on the table. Perhaps he is not altogether secure in the refinements of Carol's redecoration of her husband's old prairie home: but he lines up the "appointments" as a rebuke to sagging chintz sofas and ottomans for sore feet.
The partition between the front and back parlor is torn out, making a long room
on which she lavished yellow and deep blue; a Japanese obi with an intricacy of gold thread on stiff aquamarine tissue, which she hung on a panel against the maize wall; a couch with pillows of sapphire velvet and gold bands...a square cabinet on which was a squat blue jar between yellow candles.
She gives an evening party in which the locals take off their shoes and put on sheets of paper with designs of lotus blossoms and dragons: "real Chinese masques...from an importing shop in Minnesota. You are to put them on...and turn into mandarins and coolies...." For dinner, "blue bowls of chow mein, with lichee nuts and ginger preserved in syrup." A divertissement to replace fun evenings of Musical Chairs and Spin the Bottle.
Lewis's picture of Gopher Prairie and all American small towns:
The other tradition is that the significant features of all villages are whiskers, iron dogs upon lawns, gold bricks, checkers, jars of gilded cat-tails...standardized background, a sluggishness of speech and manners, a rigid ruling of the spirit by the desire to appear respectable...the contentment of the quiet dead.... It is slavery self-sought and self-defended. It is dullness made God.
Carol Kennicott is not a scourge; she wishes to get along, joins the clubs, learns to play bridge badly, but her local uplift is rebuffed at every turn, especially by her enlightened friends. The city hall with "piles of folding chairs" and skeletons of "Fourth of July floats covered with decomposing plaster shields and faded red, white, and blue bunting" she imagines transformed into a "Georgian city hall: with warm brick walls, with white shutters, a fanlight, a wide hall and curving stair." On her way about town, like a petitioner for the Red Cross, she meets laughter, scorn, and the vivid claims of practicality. Indeed, it's a misfortune that Carol did not live to read of the pleasures of the "shanty aesthetic."
Her home life, her marriage: it is love, off and on, good days swimming in the lake, times when the rude expanse of the prairie is filled with golden light, "red-winged blackbirds chasing a crow." The landscape is not the murmuring pines she longs for, but she takes heart from "dipping rolling fields bright with wheat." Will Kennicott and his wife have richly convincing arguments of the Who do you think you are? sort on his side and I'm just a person trying my best on her part. She complains about one man or another smoking a filthy cigar and spitting on her carpet and Will insists he's the best fellow on earth and I won't have you snubbing him.
As the novel goes on, for some readers the sympathy will shift to husband Will. He goes out in the dead of night to deliver babies, to save a life by hacking off a bleeding smashed arm; sometimes the snow is so deep and fierce a motorcar can't get through and the horse and buggy has to be hitched up for him to make a call in the darkness. When Carol mourns the ugliness and mediocrity of Gopher Prairie, Will thinks he'd better go and look after the storm windows.
The novel offers more illustrations, one might call them, of the point; the complacency, the fatuity, the narrow views and general lumpiness of the villagers. Carol: "Damn all of them! Do they think they can make me believe that a display of potatoes at Howland & Gould's is enough beauty and strangeness?" In the end there is a speed-up, a crash of defiant activity like that of Ibsen's Nora, except that Carol does not abandon little Hugh, the son who has entered the Kennicott family. She packs up and settles in Washington, the capital, a company town with the sacred monuments splitting the sky like the grain elevators of the Middle West. Carol takes a position with the Bureau of War Risk Insurance; some tedium, but a routine more worthy than "the putative feminine virtues of domesticity, that cooking and cleaning," which she had done little of with her girl from the country on hand. In Washington's clean-swept bright streets there is pleasure; there are concerts and museums and the bold activities of the suffragettes. But flee it as she will, Gopher Prairie pursues her still. Southern girls in the office are in no way free from the tyranny of hairdos, boyfriends, inspirational beliefs in the next step, marriage.
Carol is in Washington for almost two years, an unusual abandonment of her husband honored as due cause in divorce cases. But Lewis has in a way abandoned the manly, realistic Will Kennicott, who sends money to his family but seems to fall into a lonely yearning for reconciliation without believing in his claims. Shyly, apologetically, he visits Carol in Washington, fearing to be an imposition. Carol will return to Gopher Prairie, her rather grave independence and refinement defeated. And Dr. Kennicott, bolting wife back in the parlor, can visit his patients, chat on the front porch with his old friends, and polish his fishing rods. Carol's last thoughts:
But I have won in this. I've never excused my failures by sneering at my aspirations, by pretending to have gone beyond them. I do not admit that Main Street is as beautiful as it should be! I do not admit that dish-washing is enough to satisfy all women! I may not have fought the good fight, but I have kept the faith.
Carol Kennicott, trapped in her sentiments, her "aspirations," is a frail vessel for the muscular, pugilistic talents of Sinclair Lewis. Nevertheless, Main Street was a wild, raging success here and abroad. From England letters of appreciation by: Compton MacKenzie, Hugh Walpole, H.G. Wells, Rebecca West, John Galsworthy, and others. In America, outrage here and there, letters from women who saw themselves like Carol Kennicott a victim of provincial bashing, a sort of opinion policing of the high-minded. More interesting is the aesthetic struggle with Lewis's fame and ubiquity by his fellow American writers.
F. Scott Fitzgerald: eleven years younger than Lewis, published This Side of Paradise in the same year that Main Street appeared. The younger writer was also a success if by way of a more flamboyant, jazz-age flair than the earnest fictions of Lewis had in mind. On the publication of Main Street he wrote the author:
I want to tell you that Main Street has displaced Theron Ware in my favor as the best American novel. The amount of sheer data in it is amazing! As a writer and a Minnesotan let me swell the chorus—after a third reading.
In 1925, the year of the publication of The Great Gatsby and of the novel Arrowsmith, Fitzgerald wrote to John Peale Bishop: "Is Lewis's book [Arrowsmith] any good. I imagine that mine [Gatsby] is better."
With his fame, sales, and productivity, Lewis seemed to take up all the air in the literary landscape. Theodore Dreiser, fourteen years older, had published Sister Carrie (1900) and Jennie Gerhardt (1911) before An American Tragedy in 1925, the same year as The Great Gatsby and Arrowsmith. Dreiser had also published type or situation fictions, somewhat on the order of Lewis's novels if differing in execution: The Financier (1912), The Titan (1914), and The 'Genius' (1915). He was a celebrated novelist and a sore- head not soothed by Lewis's consistent praise and promotion of his talent. Indeed, Lewis could not, as a writer, imagine the mind and spirit that produced Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy. Nevertheless, when the two were the finalists for the first Nobel Prize to go to an American for literature, it was Sinclair Lewis who won the ultimate medal and for Dreiser there was to be what is lightly known as bitter disappointment.
Lewis, chirpy, friendly, too often a "card" in his antics, was everywhere, like the useful A&P turning up on every corner, big, popular, easy. Edgar Lee Masters and Sherwood Anderson had looked at the lonely and hurt men and women in small towns and unenlightened byways in a mood of tristesse, personal failure. Lewis's orating reactionaries denying Carol Kennicott are hearty citizens of a different order. What did the millions of readers of Main Street find? Perhaps the thrill of the novel was the detail, the street, the store, the courthouse, the rest room for women in town of a Saturday for the family shopping, moral struggles over "babies, cooks, embroidery stitches, the price of potatoes, and the tastes of husbands in the matter of spinach." And, perhaps, for the sophisticated here and abroad there was a certain snobbery in enjoying the relentless foolishness and predictability of the response to every challenge to the American way. Dickens and Mrs. Trollope had been there before, never missing a spittoon.
Mark Schorer published his biography of Sinclair Lewis in 1961—800 pages; a new one by Richard Lingeman has just appeared, 2002—659 pages. A biographer might wish for a well-documented life to assess and yet find the mountain of material at hand a threatening climb. Lewis kept a diary in his youth and throughout his life appeared to save every letter; the letters he wrote were saved by the recipient. His actual encounters with publishers, wives, children are remembered by them; many as his fame rose wrote of the impression he made. Later he seemed to have kept a guest book and thus there is a record of the luncheons, visits, the remembrance by a rather shady caretaker that as he was dying he called the doctor "father." In Austria in 1932, at the Villa Sauerbrunn, we can learn there were many guests, "the Adolphe Menjous among them." A wisp in the rushing winds of this life.
Schorer, in an athletic audacity, faces the documentation with sacrificial gallantry. It's an accomplishment as graceful and absorbing as the material allows. Lewis does live, day to day as it were, and also as a whole, an odd American littérateur of surpassing energy, grit, uncertainty, acclaim, and not much solace from his human relationships.
Richard Lingeman's biography, long as it is, manages a sort of condensation of Schorer's book. It is readable, sensitive to nuance, and also sensitive to a sort of cost-accounting question of the necessity for a replacement, challenge, revisionary labor in the face of Mark Schorer's pharaonic memorial:
It remained for Mark Schorer's 1961 biography to finish him [Lewis] off in eight-hundred plus pages. Not that Schorer did a shoddy or dishonorable job: To the contrary, his book is devotedly and massively researched and written with literary distinction (and invaluable to biographers). Yet it is pervaded by such a tone of disapproval that it left the impression with many readers that Schorer disdained both Lewis himself and his work.
Schorer' s thoughts:
Brought up in an environment that deplored art and adored success, he managed, in that America, to make a success of "art." Often and increasingly it was bad art, and the success in many ways was vicious and corrosive.... He loved what he deplored; in his life, he was happiest with the kind of people who might have been models for his own caricatures.... He was one of the worst writers in modern American literature, but without his writing one cannot imagine modern American literature. That is because, without his writing, we can hardly imagine ourselves.... He gave us a vigorous, perhaps a unique thrust into the imagination of ourselves.
Richard Lingeman's biography rests upon his view of the permanent value of the fictions created by the rather florid man ever on the run, or so it seems. He will find, for instance, that the catalog of objects in the books are not more dated than objects in Vermeer and Chardin. The frugal artists are not to the point, but it is true that the debris of our common life is rescued with curatorial brio. Decor here, which includes attitude, politics, speech, is fate, hope, and anxiety. Your brown hat and vote for Warren G. Harding are what you are. Lingeman's last line about Lewis: He really cared. A warm tribute to the quarrelsome, interesting iconoclast, cold offstage, at home.
The life, about which so much remains in the carefully preserving cloisters of our libraries, is a swamp of remembered incident. In any case, Lewis married Grace Hegger in 1914 at the Society for Ethical Culture, a nondenominational escape from a pastor or a clerk in City Hall. She was almost two years younger, a well-born New Yorker, child of a British mother and a German father who once had an art gallery on Fifth Avenue but did not prosper. At the time of the marriage, Grace was an editor at Vogue and her husband was furiously writing for a few dollars here and there and not much from his early novel Our Mr. Wrenn. They moved about and every step left its tracks. A son was born, named Wells for the British author; a successful child who went to Exeter and graduated with honors from Harvard, only to be killed in World War II. By that time, Lewis had left Grace for Dorothy Thompson and Grace was now a Mrs. Casanova. Lewis showed only a casual interest in Grace's son and that born to Dorothy Thompson, Michael Lewis. The marriage to the notable political and social commentator lasted some fourteen years and when the legal dissolution came about Lewis said he thought of naming Hitler as the co-respondent. Thus the bare bones of a fat life.
George Babbitt, a monochrome monologuist, commands an expressiveness that would drown another figure of the period, the spare, taciturn Henry Ford, even as they shared a boiling detestation of the unions. Babbitt is forty-six and wakes up, looking for his BVDs, in the middle-sized Midwestern city of Zenith. The town has two country clubs, several movie houses, a residential landscape big enough and small enough to define who you are and thereby create a fog of status anxiety, a pitiful subplot to Babbitt's bluster. He is more or less successful as the owner of Babbitt-Thompson Realty Company, has a wife, Myra, three children, tends to overeat, wears on his gray suit lapel the Boosters' Club button, an emblem of importance to him: "his V.C., his Legion of Honor ribbon, his Phi Beta Kappa key." So, from the first poor Babbitt is a buffoon, human enough to be calculating without the numbers of his existence quite adding up.
The details, details, the minutiae— Babbitt is the supreme example of the author's genius for the particular: the wounded street, the gloss of hope, the dinner party with the salad in hollowed apples, the evangelists circuit and in Babbitt, houses and their furniture. Babbitt's own house in Floral Park, right out of "Cheerful Modern Houses for Moderate Incomes," with plugs, noted, for lamps, electric percolator, and electric toaster. He nervously prepares a speech for a local group and his orotund effusions give him a reputation as a public speaker and he becomes the creator of what is still known as "Babbittry": grandiose self and local promoting of Zenith. He's sharp in trades with nervous clients, resents a long-established, quieter firm, growls sentiments on every occasion with his imposing cigar-resonant voice. Babbitt, ever speechifying to the world and to the inner man, reaches his apotheosis at a dinner for the Zenith Real Estate Board. Pages and pages are given to the weighty articulation—the man of ideas, complete, as it were:
"In rising to address you, with my impromptu speech carefully tucked into my vest pocket...let the waves of good fellowship waft them up to the flowery slopes of amity.... I wouldn't trade a high-class Zenith acreage development for the whole length and breadth of Broadway or State Street.... It's evident to any one with a head for facts that Zenith is the finest example of American life and prosperity to be found anywhere.... The ideal of American manhood and culture isn't a lot of cranks sitting around chewing the rag with their Rights and their Wrongs, but a God-fearing, hustling, successful, two-fisted Regular Guy,...who...belongs to the Boosters or the Rotarians or the Kiwanis, to the Elks or Moose or Red Men or Knights of Columbus.... Get out and root for Uncle Samuel, USA!"
Amusing, yes, captured, impaled, by Lewis's rhythmic assurance, but poor Babbitt brings to mind—laugh, clown, laugh, although your heart is breaking. He's not a happy fellow but given to lacrimal envy; about his golf club, inevitably not the "first-class" Tonawanda, he clouds his thoughts with "Why, I wouldn't join the Tonawanda even if—I wouldn't join it on a bet!" His best friend is a moody fellow with a screeching, nagging wife he is driven to shoot and Babbitt is a faithful jailhouse visitor. Indeed, he himself longs for a girlfriend on the side, the occasion that had brought forth the shooting. Babbitt likes his own mild wife well enough but his efforts for a consoling addition come to nothing; he's too fat and needy. He is seen throughout the portrayal from the outside, ever gross, exaggerated, the victim, perhaps, of the author's devotion to types who, met on the street, nodding off to sleep, seldom articulate otherwise than in the language of their obsessive shape.
Babbitt, intimations of mortality upon him, questions his life, but, with a sigh, there it is. In a reunion with his son, whom he has aggressively criticized, he says: "Don't be scared of the family. No, nor all of Zenith. Nor of yourself, the way I've been...." And, arm and arm, the two Babbitt men join the family. George Babbitt is singular, not a plausible portrait of the American businessman, if that is what was intended. Still, the unrelenting caricature lives on, not as a fiction, but as a mythical native son, like Johnny Appleseed.
Elmer Gantry was drunk: our introduction to a scurrilous portrait of an evangelical preacher, the sort still sanctifying, still ranting and passing the collection plate today. Elmer, known as Hell-cat, is a football player at Terwillinger College, a Baptist institution in Gritzmacher Springs, Kansas. He's a brawler, dumb, brought up by a patient Christian mother. When he thinks about the faith, he lazily decides there must be something to it with so many going on about it. For himself, he's not about to go into the ministry, the aim of the college; he's not thinking to give up chasing girls, drinking and smoking and not making any money from some tightwad, whistle-stop congregation. He grouses about all the Christers nagging at him, little pipsqueaks like one Eddie Fislinger in particular. So Elmer's inner life goes on in growls and grunts and general cussedness.
Fate, or God, put Elmer, far from sober, on the street one night when the detested Eddie was preaching and saving souls. A heckler came after Eddie, and Elmer, seeing the opportunity for a fight, knocked him down, going to the defense, as it were, of his fellow divinity student. In that way, Elmer became a new kind of celebrity, off the football field and now a candidate for salvation.
Lewis, in his fiction, gives his dominating figures a counter-figure as a friend. As Babbitt had the moody, violin-playing college friend who was in desperation led to shoot his wife, Elmer Gantry has one true friendship in his life, an unlikely one. Jim Lefferts, agnostic, intelligent, learned, has found himself in the denominational college because it was cheap and his father, a doctor, practiced in the next village. The father also thought it interesting to put his son in a position to "stir up the fretful complacency of the saints." Jim is aware that Elmer is not a spirit informed by Darwinism, German biblical criticism, or even a temptation to reflection beyond the mundane bothers of the moment. In addition, Elmer is a creature bred on Sunday School, baby Jesus in the manger, baptism by immersion more than once, and his own baritone singing: "Draw me nearer, blessed Lord, to Thy precious bleeding side." And now that he has defended Eddie, Elmer is seen throughout the school as a candidate for salvation yet another time at the Annual College YMCA Week of Prayer.
He goes to the event, his imposing, football-star bulk noticeable as he takes a seat down front and sees that his mother has come for the special service. To be saved, converted, by the pleading of the visiting preacher, Judson Roberts, who had been a football player at the University of Chicago, known as the Praying Fullback —it's too much for Elmer and he confesses his sinful soul and with the congregation saying, "Thank God!" and "Praise the Lord!" Elmer takes the first step on the road to stardom, with many pitfalls and reverses, as the great preacher who will make "the United States a moral nation!"
Elmer is not thoughtful enough to doubt or to believe. He's a Christian in the same way he's six foot one, "handsome as a Great Dane" and, it must be said, horny. Elmer, football star, brawny protector of the street preacher, is a trump card for the faith and urged to give a speech. Compositional anxiety and fretting, but on stage he turns out to have the volume and resonance of a fire truck. On to the Mizpah Theological Seminary to get a Doctor of Divinity degree in the Baptist faith. In his senior year he is expelled for drinking, but remains an ordained Baptist minister, if not a Doctor of Divinity.
Elmer can at last give up drinking and smoking, but he cannot give up sex, the snake in the valley for clerics from Henry Ward Beecher to Jimmy Swaggart and to some of the boy-smitten Catholic priesthood. Elmer, defrocked as it were, is two years on the road as a salesman for the Pequot Farm Implement Company. Out west he will encounter the evangelist Sharon Falconer, a performing phenomenon on the order of Aimee Semple McPherson and Billy Sunday.
This interlude, a set piece perhaps, is vivid, emotionally complicated, rich in the usual documentation, but here useful as a fictional ornamentation of character and drama. After a bedazzled evening with the ethereal Sharon in her white and gold robes, Elmer manages to trap her on the way out and to announce himself as a Baptist preacher, at present without a church. Sharon says: "What's the trouble this time? Booze or women?" and passes on.
Sharon is an astute businesswoman with a large staff, a choir, pianist, violinist, children's preacher, press agent, travel agent, sharp attention to pledges and collections. Elmer presses his case as a preacher, helper, assistant and Sharon takes him on because he's "so completely brazen, so completely unscrupulous and so beautifully ignorant." Much is to follow: making love to Sharon, building a spectacular new temple, a detour into faith healing, a specialty with its own catechism. Elmer's energy, his commanding braying at the altar will overcome the flock and the shrewd Sharon; he rolls over her life like a plow in an open field. The ambitious temple and the gifted salvation entrepreneur, the famous lady evangelist, are destroyed in a fire. Elmer escapes the conflagration, only to face the threats to his professional standing ignited by one Hettie Dowler and her husband, who set him up for an alienation of affections lawsuit that will cost him a considerable amount of money. Elmer is not run out of town in a barrel, but free to trudge on in the gospel trip and to become the first preacher to have his own radio show.
Elmer Gantry offended the clergy, was banned in Boston, was selected by the Book-of-the-Month-Club, and sold well in Kansas. As a character, Elmer Gantry has the consistency of his unremitting disrepute; examples ever at hand by way of the author's inclination to repetition and padding. It's an infidel story, hostile not only to religious scoundrels but to the claims of Christianity itself, or at least to Protestantism, high and low. A lot of crazy, unbelievable things happen in the Scriptures, a compendium Lewis knows well and can present as troubling some of his characters. Elmer Gantry is the dark side of Babbitt, two Americans with something to sell.
Arrowsmith, a more traditional novel, appeared after Babbitt and before Elmer Gantry. Here Lewis, with his inclination to think of fiction as a topic, ventured into medical science, abandoning labor as a topic with Eugene V. Debs as the hero. With Martin Arrowsmith to end his journey looking at a strain of Bacillus lepisepticus under his microscope the author will need a lot of help. And there is Dr. Max Gottlieb, a German Jew and renowned bacteriologist by unkind fate landing in the medical school of a Midwestern university, Arrowsmith's idol and mentor—a difficult case. In Dr. Paul de Kruif, to publish the popular Microbe Hunters a year after Arrowsmith, Lewis indeed found a "collaborator" curiously like himself in many ways, the cloning to be a bit comic and finally troublesome. The alliance is told in both the Lingeman and Schorer biographies.
De Kruif, with a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in bacteriology, worked in research at the Rockefeller Institute in New York, found it not to his liking except for the vision and example of the dedicated professor of physiology Jacques Loeb. The director of the institute, Dr. Simon Flexner, and the institute were denounced as a fraud, ever seeking publicity and money by pushing discoveries into the market without adequate testing. The anonymous article was traced to de Kruif and he was fired. De Kruif agreed to work with Lewis and a contract was drawn up with Lewis to get 75 percent and de Kruif 25 percent. They spent two months together in the Caribbean observing outbreaks of infection and then on to England, Lewis all the while writing the novel, drinking heavily with the doctor going along in a convivial manner moderately, at least by comparison with the novelist, now his student in the matter of medicine.
On the publication of Arrowsmith, Doctor de Kruif thought he should be rightly acknowledged as coauthor, or if not that, have acknowledgment as collaborator. The settlement was an acknowledgment, more specific than thanks to "my agent" or "to my wife, without whom this book could not have been written." Lewis wrote: "I am indebted not only for most of the bacteriological and medical material in this tale but equally for his suggestions in the planning of the fable itself—for his realization of the characters as living people, for his philosophy as a scientist." And there the matter and the friendship ended.
Martin Arrowsmith, an attractive son of an unlikely place called Elk Mills, starts his distinguished life in the office of a drunken country doctor who keeps his first appendectomy preserved in a bottle. Martin is fourteen then and is somehow inspired to prepare for medical school at the state university of Winnemac, where the cranky, celebrated Max Gottlieb (de Kruif's Jacob Loeb?) is a professor, the light from his laboratory shining on after midnight. Martin tries to enter his lab but is turned away as too young and so he goes on with his courses, frat life, falling for a girl named Madeline, a summer job installing telephone poles in Montana. The hero's true love is the dedication of Max Gottlieb, but he is established as an American young man, not too different from others except in his early attraction to laboratory science. Madeline, a sleek girl with the soul of a debutante even in the unpromising hinterland, rejects him and the Martin Arrowsmith history unfolds as it will in fiction's capsule. He is accepted in Gottlieb's laboratory, does his internship in Zenith Hospital, and marries a young nurse named Leora.
Arrowsmith finds the field of medicine and many of the doctors practicing the art of healing a rich soil for frauds, "tonsil-snatchers," fools, opportunities for a cool, white masquerade of competence. And again for oratory on "The Art and Science of Furnishing the Doctor's Office":
And from a scientific standpoint, don't overlook the fact that the impression of properly remunerative competence which you make on a patient is of just as much importance,...as the drugs you get into him or the operations he lets you get away with.... Have your potted palms and handsome pictures—to the practical physician they are as necessary a part of his working equipment as a sterilizer or a Baumanometer. But so far as possible have everything in sanitary-looking white—and think of the color-schemes you can evolve, or the good wife for you.... Rich golden or red cushions, in a Morris chair enameled in the purest white.... Recent and unspotted numbers of expensive magazines, with art covers, lying on a white table!
Laboratory science, slow, lonely, prone to the disappointment of false leads, is the heroic endeavor in this somewhat strange novel, itself heroically researched by Sinclair Lewis. And money is the demon. Arrowsmith practices medicine out west to be with his wife as she nurses her ailing mother. This is seen as honorable enough, but not following the gleam. At the famous institute in New York, poor Max Gottlieb gets in trouble for denouncing the staff and will end up ignominiously working for a pharmaceutical company ever anxious to bring "discovery" to market. Martin Arrowsmith will discover the bacterial cause in certain illnesses, hesitate, with Gottlieb's insistent command, and when at last ready to submit his paper for publication will find that French scientists have just come out with a similar discovery. Don't despair, Gottlieb tells him, write a paper of corroboration. And so the arcane field with its treacheries and glories is the topic of Arrowsmith.
Martin Arrowsmith has lost his amiable, practical, and devoted wife, Leora, to the bubonic plague her husband was studying in the Caribbean. His remarriage and the fame of his discovery bring an interlude the novelist might have foregone. The new wife is seriously rich and so it's to be mansions, butlers, a luxe trip to Europe which the shaggy, quiet, obsessed scientist must suffer until there is a separation. Martin retreats with a fellow scientist to a lab in the Vermont woods, there to be himself and contented. The idealism of Martin Arrowsmith is served by his plainness, crankiness, short temper at times, and by the boyish remnant of a lad born in Elk Mills. He is not a fixed point like the admirable Max Gottlieb; there is still something in him of the prairie, the son of the owner of that village's New York Clothing Bazaar, his father.
Arrowsmith won the Pulitzer Prize. Great acclaim and publicity, not for the choice, but for Sinclair Lewis's refusal of the award. His letter, mulled over, questioned the phrase in the prize that mentioned that the honored novel should "present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood." He also doubted the judges' claim to authority in the matter of literature.
Mark Schorer's biography somewhat cattily observes that Main Street had previously been under consideration and passed over for Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence. And if that footnote were not sufficient for subterranean motive in an artistic rejection, bibliographical leavings indicate that Sinclair Lewis had his thoughts elsewhere—in Stockholm.
No matter. Arrowsmith is Sinclair Lewis's most careful and thoughtful novel. The pages are filled with cranks and jackals and clowns, like the memorable Dr. Pickerbaugh who writes execrable jingles performed by his daughters, known as the Healthette Octet. The scheme, the theme, is freely unfair to doctors making their rounds and fateful decisions in order to elevate the laboratory. And yet, like the hero's conquest of what is called the X principle, Arrowsmith is a sort of gold star for a steady workman.
Dodsworth is Sinclair Lewis afloat, all over the place as he indeed was. The biographies are dizzy with his travels, his houses, his visits to country homes, his vast acquaintance. Around the time his publishers were bringing out Elmer Gantry, "he telephoned Lady Sybil Colefax who invited them to tea." Grace Hegger Lewis was still about then. Hemingway and his then wife Martha Gellhorn met Lewis in Key West and they went on to share a woodcock dinner, shot by the sportsman. Some years later the two writers are at the Gritti Palace in Venice and in the stifling documentation we can learn that Mary Hemingway dined with Lewis at Harry's Bar. Pleasant enough, until Hemingway's correspondence with Maxwell Perkins uncovers the muddy side of the welcome mat. "The poor Baedeker peering bastard...defiling Venice with his pock marked curiosity and lack of understanding." Snippets in a cyclonic international whirl of restlessness, celebrity, and, strangely, not one bit of the debris lost to history.
Sam Dodsworth is a man of business, but he is not Babbitt scanning the for-sale ads in the morning paper. Dodsworth, in Zenith, has designed a cheap, practical motorcar, named the Revekation, which "became the sensation for a season and one of its best-selling cars for a score of years." At the age of fifty, his company is sold out and his share of the stock makes him a rich man. He is also married to Fran, daughter of a prominent, well-to-do local family, children grown, and so it's time for a vacation in Europe where Fran as a girl has been to school. However, her theme in life and in the manner of Lewis's fictional bricks of character is given straight off and never to be forsaken:
She had a high art of deflating him, of enfeebling him, with one quick, innocent-sounding phrase. By the most careless comment on his bulky new overcoat she could make him feel like a lout in it.... She could make him feel so unintelligent that he would be silent all evening. The easy self-confidence which weeks of industrial triumphs had built up in him she could flatten in five seconds. She was, in fact, a genius at planting in him an assurance of his inferiority.
That is the novel Dodsworth, Sam and Fran in London, Paris, Madrid, Florence, Venice, Vienna, and, at last, Berlin. They quarrel, somehow meet as many lords and ladies and duchesses and crass, ignorant American tourists as Lewis himself certainly ran into. Fran is very pretty, flirtatious with all men except her husband, whom she continues to torment in a strong, villainous expertise, rather more like a boxer than the frail, elegant, still young in her forties, little American wife would call to mind.
Sam Dodsworth himself is a manly, credible husband of a virago with considerable perfumed charm. He's not a supine victim, but she's his wife and they are not in Zenith, but in Europe, with the great cities a challenge to his ways and experience. Lewis is not subtle; Fran, who has superficial culture, a bit of French, is shown to be incurious, dead to the beauties of the ancient cities, awkwardly sluttish in a provincial way. Dodsworth will not become a connoisseur of art, but is sensitive to the byways, the shops, the working people, the sidewalk cafés, the interesting "foreignness" of it all. He remains a robust American, a defender, as it were, since throughout the travels his country and its people are the objects of ridicule, not least by Fran who cringes at the sight of an "American tourist" running around with guidebooks and awful accents.
There's a sentimental roundup in the frantic corral of trains and hotels and alliances formed in restaurants and by letters of introduction. The Dodsworths separate; Fran is to be married to a Viennese fellow with a von in his name but his mother intervenes and Fran is abandoned to slink back to Zenith in bad shape. Sam marries a fine widow, American, who since her husband's death had lived in Venice, but is happy to go back home with her nice new husband and help him build some sensible, well-designed houses in a new development. The book is a clot, a swelling of tourism, stop by weary stop. But old Dodsworth, a husband, survives and fights the indignities of marriage with the patient attention of a man who had struggled with wheels and axles.
Sinclair Lewis is a prodigy, something like a local star who can play cadenzas faster than anyone else. But, as a writer, the rousing creator is also lazy. His gift is not for drama; his inspiration is variations on a theme. Babbitt cannot walk down the street without expressing his babbittry in disquisitions short and very long. Elmer Gantry, once in the groove, would preach in the grocery store while buying altar candles. Doctors in the basement cafeteria chat about fees; Fran Dodsworth, packing or worrying about the rate of exchange, will ever dismiss her husband for delinquencies and tackiness.
Repetition, padding, and insistence are the enemies of the author's original inspiration in creating the vivid characters still standing over the American landscape like the Statue of Liberty. The country itself is a dour spread, a conspiracy of dollar worship, mediocrity, vapid conformity. Idealism is isolating; individuality, difference, and dissent are the mark of losers—for all except the extraordinary Sinclair Lewis himself.
Obras principais de Sinclair Lewis:
Main Street (1920)
Elmer Gantry (1927)
Ann Vickers (1933)
It Can't Happen Here (1935)
Cass Timberlane (1945)
Kingsblood Royal (1947)
The Sinclair Lewis Society
Pegasos – Finlândia
Sauk Centre Herald
Stories of Sinclair Lewis
Versões integrais na Internet:
Lewis, Sinclair: Arrowsmith (text in Australia; NO ACCESS)
Lewis, Sinclair: Babbitt
Lewis, Sinclair: Kingsblood Royal (text in Australia; NO ACCESS)
Lewis, Sinclair: Main Street
Lewis, Sinclair: Kingsblood Royal (text in Australia; NO ACCESS)
Lewis, Sinclair: Our Mr. Wrenn (text at English Server)
e-book | Palm | web version
Main Street (1920)
e-book | Palm | web version
My affair with Sinclair Lewis
March 15 — I confess. For the past seven months I’ve been falling more and more deeply in love with a man who can never reciprocate my feelings: Sinclair Lewis. He’s been dead for 51 years, and besides, everything I’ve read tells me that like many brilliant artists he’d have been a lousy partner.
THAT HASN’T STOPPED me from voraciously ordering up and
consuming his complete major works, dissecting them with the glee of a scholar,
passionately recounting his tales, as if I’d written them myself, to anyone
who’ll listen. Nor has it stopped me from becoming more and more enamored of his
rich satire of American life and his depiction of romantic complexities, which
make his books so resonant, even today — 70, 80 years after he created them.
Here’s how the love affair began:
When I lost my full-time job last August, I resolved to do
something productive with my newfound time. Twelve years ago I had been assigned
by the Greensboro News and Record to review “American Cassandra,” a biography of
Lewis’ second wife, the journalist Dorothy Thompson. After that, I intended to
track down a copy of his novel “Ann Vickers,” published in 1933 and dedicated to
Thompson. It was inspired by her life as a suffragette and feminist pioneer.
Also last summer, my friend Joe Hutsko, a novelist, told me he’d become intrigued with Lewis after reading about his work and his storytelling — and that I might find him interesting, too.
This provided the final kickstart I needed. I didn’t know then that Sinclair Lewis would become an obsession.
ONE WOMAN’S STRUGGLES
On a yacht in Italy last summer, where I’d taken an indulgent vacation to kick off my underemployment, I sat, rapt with attention, reading a worn copy of “Ann Vickers” that I’d found for $15 on Alibris.
As my Italian friends chattered around me in their native
language and dove into the sea, I gasped at Ann’s plight, as drawn by this man
Sinclair Lewis — her struggles as a strong woman in the working world, as well
as her struggles to find romance with a man not threatened by her strength and
Ann’s friend and confidant, Dr. Malvina Wormster, consoles her one evening with words any modern professional woman has herself uttered, or heard:
“It’s only an improbable accident when a woman and a man who are both of them big enough not to be jealous of each other’s bigness do meet — and then, probably, when they do meet, one of them will already be married to some little pretentious squirt and they can’t marry!”
Which is what happens to Ann, but you’ll have to read the book to find out more.
After finishing “Ann Vickers,” I knew I had to keeping going, had to find out more about Sinclair Lewis through his characters and stories. I picked up the 1920 novel that catapulted him to fame and into controversy: “Main Street.” I’d heard about it for years, of course, but had no idea what it was about.
It, too, was a startling, modern depiction of a woman’s
struggle to reconcile ambition with her desire for love and security. Unlike Ann
Vickers, Carol Kennicott, née Milford, was more conventional, a young woman
working as a librarian in the city of St. Paul, disappointed by the boredom of
her day-to-day career, and lonely, to boot.
At a vulnerable point when she is questioning her choice of profession, she meets a small-town doctor, who convinces her to come to his world as his wife.
There, she proceeds to go even crazier as she grapples with the banality of housewifery and motherhood, and the conventions of middle America.
From Carol’s perspective, Lewis wrote: “It is an unimaginatively standardized background, a sluggishness of speech and manners, a rigid ruling of the spirit by the desire to appear respectable. It is contentment . . . the contentment of the quiet dead, who are scornful of the living for their restless walking. It is negation canonized as the one positive virtue. It is the prohibition of happiness. It is slavery self-sought and self-defended. It is dullness made God.”
Such words offended much of America, but didn’t keep the book from becoming a sensational best-seller.
Carol Kennicott eventually does what so many woman even today dream of doing, but don’t: She takes her baby and runs away, in search of a bigger life outside the cocoon-like world her husband adores. In 1920! I thought only thoroughly modern women struggled with their place in the world.
Ever since I was a young woman during the early ’80s, I’ve eagerly consumed stories of women in the post-feminist age, looking for clues to how they’ve dealt with life’s questions and hoping they would help me deal with them.
Here was a man several generations before me, posing
those same questions and drawing magnificently rich stories that illustrated how
timeless those questions really are, and how difficult they are to answer.
But it isn’t just Lewis’s women who are struggling. As I read “Arrowsmith” and “Babbitt” and “Cass Timberlane” and “Dodsworth,” I saw that the men he created were trying to balance their lives and their work and their quest for richness in love, too, and for meaning in their very existence.
In “Elmer Gantry,” I read a tale that could have been written today about evangelism and religious hypocrisy.
In “It Can’t Happen Here”, I read a tale of political extremism that could have written today. In “Kingsblood Royal,” a tale of racism, that could have been written today.
DEVOURING THE PAGES
With every page I have read, I’ve become more intrigued by
the man behind them.
Vincent Sheehan’s 1963 portrait of Sinclair Lewis’s marriage to Dorothy Thompson, “Dorothy and Red,” brought out a dimension of the man that I found upsetting, given my deepening admiration of his work. Though he created characters who feel emotions deeply, suggesting that Lewis himself might be a kind, empathetic person, he doesn’t appear to have been a compassionate husband or father, but rather a man possessed by his work and consumed at times by alcohol.
Knowing that Sinclair Lewis
was radically flawed makes my unrequited love affair easier to bear.
Two weeks ago, I was on a crosstown bus, devouring the climactic last pages of “Dodsworth,” in which the lead character struggles over whether to reconcile with his shrew of a wife, who had left him for a younger man, or to go off with his newfound paramour. An elderly woman boarded and sat right next to me, disturbing my concentration. Her interruption turned out to be a welcome one, when she said, “Are you enjoying Sinclair Lewis? I love that one you’re reading!”
The two of us gossiped about his books as if we were sharing details about people we knew, about men we were in love with. Like me, she’d read one Lewis —- “back in the day,” she said — and proceeded to read them all. She remembered the details vividly. As I got to my destination, I practically skipped off the bus, thrilled to have found a fellow Lewis fan — and vowing to pass along my admiration of his work, somehow, to others.
Lisa Napoli is regular contributor to MSNBC.com.