Skip to main content
Select Source:

Harry Sinclair Lewis

Harry Sinclair Lewis

Although Harry Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) was the most celebrated American literary figure of the 1920s, his popular, mildly satirical novels today are valued mainly for their sociohistorical relevance.

In his best work Sinclair Lewis wrote with infectious exuberance, and his visual detail and sensitive dialogue provide a striking, though superficial, verisimilitude. He lacked the insight into social complexities characteristic of the naturalistic authors of the next generation, but Lewis's satire of the smugness, hypocrisy, and puritanism of American small-town life served as a needed contrast to the sentimental literary traditions that had enshrined so much of provincial America. The importance of this achievement, however, should not obscure Lewis's artistic failings: a commonplace world view, little literary imagination, and a style that often failed to rise above journalism.

Born in Sauk Centre, Minn., the son of a small-town physician, Lewis was a lonely, awkward, introspective boy. He first left his provincial environment to study at Yale, briefly interrupting his education in 1907 to work at Upton Sinclair's socialist colony in New Jersey. After his graduation in 1908, Lewis spent several years doing newspaper and editorial work in various sections of the United States. His first four novels were all unsuccessful and insignificant, containing little indication of the satire and realism to follow.

Main Street and Babbitt

In 1920 Lewis achieved instant worldwide recognition with the publication of Main Street, which, according to Lewis's biographer Mark Schorer, "was the most sensational event in 20th-century American publishing history." It is the story of a gifted young girl, married to a dull, considerably older village doctor, and her futile attempts to bring culture and imagination to vapid small-town life. "This is America," wrote Lewis, "a town of a few thousand in a region of wheat and corn and dairies and little groves. The town is, in our tale, called Gopher Prairie, Minn. But its Main Street is the continuation of Main Streets everywhere." Lewis's satire on smug provincial complacency, though devastating and admirable for its cultural criticism at the time, seems curiously naive today.

Lewis next focused on the American businessman in Babbitt (1922), perhaps his major work and the novel more likely to retain its impact. The reason for Babbitt's success is that Lewis, never a master of literary realism despite his reportorial skills, deliberately wrote in a fantastic, almost surrealistic style. Abandoning formal plot development or structure, the work achieves a quality of improvisational spontaneity. The prose, consistently energetic, often rises to such Dickensian flourishes as, "His shoes were black lace boots, good boots, honest boots, standard boots, extraordinarily uninteresting boots," and "Babbitt loved his mother, and sometimes he rather liked her." The creation of George F. Babbitt—whose name has become synonymous with bourgeois mediocrity—an intellectually empty, emotionally immature man of dubious morals who nevertheless remains a lovable comicstrip figure, is Lewis's greatest accomplishment. The ineffectiveness of the satire is attributable less to the obviousness of the attack and the author's lack of ingenious wit than to the irony that Lewis himself embodied the Philistinism which he derided. But to fault the satirical impotence of the novel appears superfluous for, as one critic has remarked, "If Babbitt could write, he would write like Sinclair Lewis."

Later Novels and Nobel Prize

Lewis's next popular novel, Arrowsmith (1925), returns to the conventional form of Main Street to portray a young doctor's battle to maintain his integrity in a world of pettiness, dishonesty, and commercialism. Despite its often simplistic treatment of the dedication of pure scientists as a means of spiritual salvation, Arrowsmith was offered the Pulitzer Prize. Lewis, however, immediately refused it, because the terms of the award require that it be given not for literary merit, but for the outstanding presentation of "the wholesome atmosphere of American Life."

Elmer Gantry (1927), an extremely emotional assault on religious hypocrisy, seems more concerned with the main character's degeneracy than with the failings of organized religion. Dodsworth (1929), a sympathetic portrait of a wealthy retired manufacturer seeking happiness in Europe, is more successful. Here Lewis makes little effort to conceal his liking of, and even admiration for, the values of Babbittry. In 1930 Sinclair Lewis became the first American to win the Nobel Prize, but this distinction brought little personal happiness.

The large quantity of writing Lewis produced in the following years is almost without interest. To the earlier superficiality of his fiction was now added a fatal dullness. Ann Vickers (1933) traces the career of a neurotic woman who starts as a social worker and ends as the mistress of a politician; It Can't Happen Here (1935) warns of the possibility of a fascist takeover of the United States; Gideon Planish (1943) is an expose of organized philanthropy; Cass Timberlane (1945) deals with an unhappy marriage between a middle-aged judge and his loving wife; Kingsblood Royal (1947) takes on the subject of racial prejudice; and The God-Seeker (1949) tells the story of a New England missionary's attempts to convert the Indians of Minnesota in the 1840s.

Final Years

Lewis spent his last years traveling throughout Europe, unable to find publishers for his work and poignantly aware that his place in American literature was far less significant than his early admirers had led him to believe. Writing before the reputations of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner were established, and at a time when Theodore Dreiser was encountering critical and public hostility over the uncouth nature of his genius and assault on conventional traditions, Lewis by the nature of his talent and intellectual limitations had been able to fill the literary vacuum. But later critics accused him of depriving the stronger novelist Dreiser of the Nobel Prize in 1930. Married and divorced twice, Lewis retreated into almost total solitude. Increasingly sensitive to his physical deterioration, he was reluctant to be seen even by his few friends. He died on Jan. 10, 1951, of heart seizure, in an obscure small-town clinic just outside Rome.

Lewis's unique place in American literary history is perhaps best expressed by Mark Schorer: "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."

Further Reading

The definitive biography of Lewis is Mark Schorer, Sinclair Lewis: An American Life (1961). For early critical estimates of Lewis's work see sections in Carl Van Doren, The American Novel (1921; rev. ed. 1955); Walter Lippmann, Men of Destiny (1927); and James Branch Cabell, Some of Us (1930). In addition, note Vernon L. Parrington's short study, Sinclair Lewis: Our Own Diogenes (1927). Later estimates include Robert Cantwell's "Sinclair Lewis" in Malcolm Cowley, ed., After the Genteel Tradition: American Writers since 1910 (1937); Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds (1942; abr. 1956); sections in Maxwell Geismar, The Last of the Provincials (1947); and Frederick J. Hoffman, The Twenties: American Writing in the Postwar Decade (1955; rev. ed. 1962). □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Harry Sinclair Lewis." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Harry Sinclair Lewis." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/harry-sinclair-lewis

"Harry Sinclair Lewis." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/harry-sinclair-lewis

Lewis, Sinclair

Sinclair Lewis

Born: February 7, 1885
Sauk Centre, Minnesota
Died: January 10, 1951
Rome, Italy

American writer

Although Sinclair Lewis was one of the most famous American writers of the 1920s, today his popular, mildly satirical (poking fun at human folly) novels are valued mainly for their descriptions of social institutions and relationships of that time.

Early life

Harry Sinclair Lewis was born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, on February 7, 1885, the third son of Edwin J. Lewis and Emma Kermott Lewis. His father, grandfather, and older brother were all small-town doctors. Lewis was a lonely, awkward boy who liked to read. He began writing while in high school, and some of his articles appeared in Sauk Centre newspapers. After high school Lewis left Minnesota to study at Yale University in Connecticut, interrupting his education in 1907 to work briefly at Helicon Hall, a New Jersey socialist colony (a group of people living and working together as equals for the benefit of all) set up by the writer Upton Sinclair (18781968). After his graduation in 1908, Lewis spent several years doing newspaper and editorial work in various parts of the United States. His first four novels were all unsuccessful.

In 1920 Lewis achieved instant worldwide recognition with the publication of Main Street, the story of a gifted young girl married to a dull, considerably older village doctor who tries to bring culture and imagination to empty, small-town life. Next Lewis focused on the American businessman in Babbitt (1922), perhaps his major work. Lewis purposely wrote in a fantastic style, ignoring formal plot development or structure. The creation of George F. Babbitt, an intellectually empty, immature man of weak morals who nevertheless remains a lovable comic figure, is Lewis's greatest accomplishment. One critic remarked, "If Babbitt could write, he would write like Sinclair Lewis."

Later novels and the Nobel Prize

Lewis's next popular novel, Arrowsmith (1925), returned to the form of Main Street to portray a young doctor's battle to maintain his dignity in a petty, dishonest world. Despite its often simplistic look at science as a means of saving one's soul, Arrowsmith was offered the Pulitzer Prize. Lewis, however, immediately refused the honor because the terms of the award required that it be given not for a work of value, but for a work that presents "the wholesome atmosphere of American Life."

Elmer Gantry (1927), an extreme assault on religious hypocrisy (the false expression of the appearance of goodness), seems more concerned with the main character's morals than with the failings of organized religion. Dodsworth (1929), a sympathetic description of a wealthy, retired manufacturer seeking happiness in Europe, is more successful. Here Lewis makes little effort to hide his liking of, and even admiration for, the values described earlier in Babbitt. In 1930 Sinclair Lewis became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, but this honor brought him little personal happiness.

Lewis produced a great deal of writing in the following years, but none of these works were as successful as his earlier efforts. Ann Vickers (1933) traces the career of an unstable woman who starts as a social worker and ends as the mistress of a politician; Cass Timberlane (1945) deals with an unhappy marriage between a middle-aged judge and his loving wife; Kingsblood Royal (1947) takes on the subject of racial prejudice; and The God-Seeker (1949) tells the story of a New England missionary's attempts to convert the Native American Indians of Minnesota in the 1840s.

Final years

Lewis spent his last years traveling throughout Europe, unable to find publishers for his work and aware that his impact on American literature was far less than his early admirers had led him to believe. Lewis was overshadowed by other American writers, including Ernest Hemingway (18991961) and William Faulkner (18971962), who had yet to appear when Lewis first attracted attention. Later critics also felt that the Nobel Prize Lewis had won in 1930 should have gone to the stronger novelist Theodore Dreiser (18711945) instead.

Married and divorced twice, in Lewis's last years he retreated almost completely from other people. Increasingly self-conscious about his physical decline, he refused to be seen even by his few friends. He died on January 10, 1951, of a heart attack in a small-town clinic just outside of Rome, Italy. Although Lewis is not considered to have been a great writer, his place in the history of American literature is secure.

For More Information

Hutchisson, James M. The Rise of Sinclair Lewis, 19201930. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.

Lewis, Sinclair. Minnesota Diary, 194246. Edited by George Killough. Moscow: University of Idaho Press, 2000.

Lingeman, Richard. Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street. New York: Random House, 2002.

Lingeman, Richard R. Sinclair Lewis: America's Angry Man. New York: Random House, 2002.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lewis, Sinclair." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Lewis, Sinclair." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lewis-sinclair-0

"Lewis, Sinclair." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lewis-sinclair-0

Lewis, Sinclair

Sinclair Lewis, 1885–1951, American novelist, b. Sauk Centre, Minn., grad. Yale Univ., 1908. Probably the greatest satirist of his era, Lewis wrote novels that present a devastating picture of middle-class American life in the 1920s. Although he ridiculed the values, the lifestyles, and even the speech of his characters, there is affection behind the irony. Lewis began his career as a journalist, editor, and hack writer. With the publication of Main Street (1920), a merciless satire on life in a Midwestern small town, Lewis immediately became an important literary figure. His next novel, Babbitt (1922), considered by many critics to be his greatest work, is a scathing portrait of an average American businessman, a Republican and a Rotarian, whose individuality has been erased by conformist values.

Arrowsmith (1925; Pulitzer Prize, refused by Lewis) satirizes the medical profession, and Elmer Gantry (1927) attacks hypocritical religious revivalism. Dodsworth (1929), a more mellow work, is a sympathetic picture of a wealthy American businessman in Europe; it was successfully dramatized by Lewis and Sidney Howard in 1934. In 1930, Lewis became the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. During his lifetime he published 22 novels, and it is generally agreed that his later novels are far less successful than his early fiction. Among his later works are It Can't Happen Here (1935), Cass Timberlane (1945), Kingsblood Royal (1947), and World So Wide (1951). From 1928 to 1942 Lewis was married to Dorothy Thompson, 1894–1961, a distinguished newspaperwoman and foreign correspondent.

See memoir by his first wife, G. H. Lewis (1955); biographies by C. Van Doren (1933, repr. 1969), M. Shorer (1961), V. Sheean (1963), and R. Lingeman (2001); studies by S. N. Grebstein (1962, repr. 1987), D. J. Dooley (1967, repr. 1987), M. Light (1975), and M. Bucco, ed. (1986).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lewis, Sinclair." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Lewis, Sinclair." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lewis-sinclair

"Lewis, Sinclair." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lewis-sinclair

Lewis, Sinclair

LEWIS, SINCLAIR


Sinclair Lewis (18851951) was one of the leading U.S. novelists of the 1920s. He was a social critic of the era who wrote from the political perspective of Progressivism. Lewis wrote some of the most effective mass-market criticism against the business corruption of society. He was a fierce critic of materialism in the United States. In books such as Babbitt, Arrowsmith, and Mainstreet, Lewis attacked the smug provincialism, social conformity, and corrupt business values of the U.S. middle class in the 1920s.

Lewis was born on February 7, 1885 in a prairie village in the most Scandinavian part of the United StatesSauk Center, Minn. He was raised in middle class circumstances and attended the local public schools of his community. Lewis grew up in the midst of the Progressive movement in the United States. Many of his Scandinavian neighbors embraced cooperative and socialist ideas, and had embraced unionization and progressive thinking in various ways. Other neighbors of his were middle-class Protestants who strictly conformed to the social standards they deemed acceptable and who saw financial advancement as the major yardstick of success. Lewis grew up with conflicting feelings about himself. He wanted to be a "regular guy," but he was by nature a non-conformist, an agnostic, a skeptic, and an artist.

Lewis enrolled at Yale University in Connecticut because he hoped to escape Midwestern life. He then began an off-and-on career as a student and world traveler. He graduated from Yale in 1908. Recounting his life to the Nobel Foundation after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930 Sinclair wrote: "I drifted for 2 years after college as a journalist, as a newspaper reporter in Iowa and in San Francisco, and incredibly, as a junior editor of a magazine for teachers of the deaf."

Lewis wrote five novels between 1914 and 1919, and according to him "all of them dead before the ink was dry." In 1920 at the age of 35 Lewis published the novel Mainstreet. It became an instant and scandalous best-seller, largely because he had attacked "one of the most treasured American myths . . . that all American towns were peculiarly noble and happy," as Lewis himself said.

Lewis wrote for mass-audiences and usually criticized class values and virtues. He challenged the smug, narrow-minded, and complacent "business values" of mainstreet United States. He became one of the literary voices that indirectly spoke to the issues of Progressive political thinking in the United States. Lewis saw the modernized world of the 1920s change the United States; he saw great problems looming in the near future. He wrote about those people in the United States who had blinded themselves to the perils of smug, small-town thinking.

Lewis' work flourished in the 1920s. It was a perfect era to indict traditional U.S. values, which had become unacceptable in the young, jaded, sophisticated, and cynical urban climate of the so-called "Jazz Age," as the era of the 1920s was called. The generation that had just witnessed the mechanized slaughter and meaninglessness of World War I (19141918) was ready for Lewis' books. His writing was welcomed as a refreshing statement of the unvarnished truthit rejected genteel optimism, blind U.S. nationalism, and traditional religious values.

Lewis continued writing novels after he received the Nobel Prize; his other works included It Can't Happen Here, Cass Timberlane, and an early civil rights advocacy novel, Kingsblood Royal (1947). He never reclaimed the status he achieved in the 1920s as a critic of business-related pomposity.

Lewis' critical faculty was compared to that of Thomas Paine (17371809) and Mark Twain (18351910). He was regarded as a gadfly of the literary scene in the United States. Lewis both outraged and educated average citizens about their frequently misguided lives as hucksters of U.S. business. His impact on the business world of his era was large, complex, and thoughtful.


FURTHER READING

Dooley, David J. The Art of Sinclair Lewis. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967.

Hutchinson, James M. The Rise of Sinclair Lewis, 19201930. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.

Koblas, John J. Sinclair Lewis, Home at Last. Bloomington, MN: Voyageur Press, 1981.

Light, Martin. The Quixotic Vision of Sinclair Lewis. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1975.

Love, Glen A. Babbitt: An American Life. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lewis, Sinclair." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Lewis, Sinclair." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lewis-sinclair

"Lewis, Sinclair." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lewis-sinclair

Lewis, (Harry) Sinclair

Lewis, (Harry) Sinclair (1885–1951) US writer. Lewis' debut novel Main Street (1920) introduced his central theme, the hypocrisy and parochialism of small town, Midwestern society. Babbitt (1922), regarded as his greatest work, is the story of a businessman forced to conform. Lewis refused the Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith (1925). In 1930, he became the first US writer to receive the Nobel Prize in literature.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lewis, (Harry) Sinclair." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Lewis, (Harry) Sinclair." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lewis-harry-sinclair

"Lewis, (Harry) Sinclair." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lewis-harry-sinclair