Lewis, Sinclair (7 February 1885 - 10 January 1951)
Sinclair Lewis (7 February 1885 - 10 January 1951)
See also the Lewis entries in DLB 9: American Novelists, 1910–1945; DLB 102: American Short-Story Writers, 1910–1945, Second Series; and DLB Documentary Series 1: Sherwood Anderson, Willa Gather, John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis.
BOOKS: Hike and the Aeroplane, as Tom Graham (New York: Stokes, 1912);
Our Mr. Wrenn: The Romantic Adventures of a Gentle Man (New York & London: Harper, 1914; London: Cape, 1923);
The Trail of the Hawk: A Comedy of the Seriousness of Life (New York & London: Harper, 1915; London: Cape, 1923);
The lob: An American Novel (New York & London: Harper, 1917; London: Cape, 1926); The Innocents: A Story for Lovers (New York & London: Harper, 1917);
Free Air (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Howe, 1919; London: Cape, 1924);
Main Street: The Story of Carol Kennicott (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Howe, 1920; London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1920);
Babbitt (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1922; London: Cape, 1922);
Arrowsmith (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1925); republished as Martin Arrowsmith (London: Cape, 1925); Mantrap (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1926; London: Cape, 1926);
Elmer Gantry (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1927; London: Cape, 1927);
The Man Who Knew Coolidge; Being the Soul of Lowell Schmaltz (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1928; London: Cape, 1928);
Dodsworth (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1929; London: Cape, 1929);
Cheap and Contented Labor: The Picture of a Southern Mill Town in 1929 (New York: United Textile Workers of America/Women’s Trade Union League, 1929);
Speech Accepting the Nobel Prize (Girard, Kans.: Haldeman-Julius, 1931);
Ann Vickers (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran, 1933; London: Cape, 1933);
Work of Art (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran, 1934; London: Cape, 1934);
jayhawker: A Play in Three Acts, by Lewis and Lloyd Lewis (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran, 1935; London: Cape, 1935);
It Can’t Happen Here (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran, 1935; London: Cape, 1935);
Selected Short Stories (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran, 1935);
It Can’t Happen Here [play], by Lewis and John C. Moffitt (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1938);
The Prodigal Parents (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran, 1938; London: Cape, 1938);
Bethel Merriday (New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1940; London: Cape, 1940);
Gideon Planish (New York: Random House, 1943; London: Cape, 1943);
Cass Timberlane: A Novel of Husbands and Wives (New York: Random House, 1945; London: Cape, 1946);
Kingsblood Royal (New York: Random House, 1947; London: Cape, 1948);
The God-Seeker (New York: Random House, 1949; London: Heinemann, 1949);
World So wide (New York: Random House, 1951; London: Heinemann, 1951);
The Man from Main Street; A Sinclair Lewis Reader: Selected Essays and Other Writings, edited by Harry E. Maule and Melville H. Cane (New York: Random House, 1953; London: Heinemann, 1954);
I’m a Stranger Here Myself, and Other Stories, edited by Mark Schorer (New York: Dell, 1962);
Storm in the West, by Lewis and Dore Schary (New York: Stein & Day, 1963; London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1964);
If I Were Boss: The Early Business Stories of Sinclair Lewis, edited by Anthony Di Renzo (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1997);
Minnesota Diary, 1942–46, edited by George Killough (Moscow: University of Idaho Press, 2000);
The Minnesota Stories of Sinclair Lewis, edited by Sally E. Parry (St. Paul, Minn.: Borealis Books, 2005);
Go East, rung Man: Sinclair Lewis on Class in America, edited by Parry (New York: Signet Classics, 2005).
Editions and Collections: Lewis at Zenith; A Three-Novel Omnibus: Main Street. Babbit. Arrowsmith (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961);
Selected Short Stories of Sinclair Lewis, introduction by James W. Tuttleton (Chicago: Elephant Paper backs, 1990).
PLAY PRODUCTIONS: Hobohemia, New York, Greenwich Village Theatre, 8 February 1919;
Jayhawker, by Lewis and Lloyd Lewis, New York, Cort Theatre, 5 November 1934;
It Can’tHappen Here, by Lewis and John C. Moffitt, New York, Adelphi Theatre, 27 October 1936;
Angela Is Twenty-Two, by Lewis and Fay Wray, Columbus, Ohio, Hartman Theatre, 30 December 1938.
SELECTED PERIODICAL PUBLICATION-UNCOLLECTED: “On Receiving the Nobel Prize,” Writer’s Digest, 9 (June 1931): 9–13, 44.
Sinclair Lewis was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930, the first American writer to be so honored. The prize marked the high point of Lewis’s career; after he received it, the quality of his novels gradually declined. His novels of the 1920s, from Main Street in 1920 to Dodszoorth in 1929, Won him the prize and are the ones for which he is still remembered. The 1920s Were Lewis’s great decade: during those years he Was one of the most famous Writers in America. His books regularly made the best-seller lists While stirring up noisy controversy and serious debate.
Lewis Was by birth and sensibility a Midwesterner. Born Harry Sinclair Lewis on 7 February 1885, the youngest of three brothers, he grew up in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, a market town set amid rolling Wheat country and barely twenty-five years out of pioneer days. His father, Edwin J. Lewis, Was a traditional country doctor Who ventured to isolated farms on subzero nights to perform appendectomies or amputations by lantern light.
The crucial event of Harry’s childhood was the death of his mother, Emma Kermott Lewis, When he Was six. He barely remembered her, he said later, but her absence may have affected him more than he knew. She suffered from tuberculosis and Was sent to sanitariums in New Mexico or Florida, but there Was no improvement, and she returned home to die in 1891. The boy Watched her Wasting away, and her sudden absence from his life left an emotional void.
Besides Harry, there were two much older brothers, Claude and Fred. To give them a mother, Edwin Lewis remarried a year later. The stepmother Was a sensible, kindly spinster named Isabel Warner, Who Lewis said was more a real mother than a stepmother. Yet, When he was angry with her, he called her “step mother” With all the negative connotations of the Word. She Was the classic small-town clubwoman, active in civic affairs and good Works, such as building a rest center for farmers’ Wives. Harry’s brothers Were already formed, so she concentrated on Harry, drawing him out of his shell by reading to him and encouraging his literary interests. By age fifteen he was sending Whimsical poems to Eastern magazines.
Connecticut-born, a man of steady habits, Edwin Lewis loved his son in his taciturn way but never under stood Harry’s inability to be like “normal” boys. Harm’s brother Claude Was athletic, loved hunting like his father, and followed him into the medical profession. Harry grew into a gangling, red-haired, acned adolescent, uncoordinated and unathletic, a sweet-natured dreamer With an antic imagination. His peers teased him as odd, “different.” He compensated for loneliness by becoming a voracious reader, reading every book in the Sauk Centre library. The imaginary realms in books, particularly the medieval romances of Sir Walter Scott, offered him escape from small-town drabness. Of lasting influence on him Were the novels of Charles Dickens; even as a young man he thought of transplanting Dickens’s broad caricatures to the American scene.
Obsessed With “going back East” to college, he passed the entrance exam for Yale and took a college preparation course at Oberlin, Where he had a short-lived conversion to the prevailing Christianity. At Yale in 1903 the naive, awkward freshman from Minnesota Was an alien species among the polished products of Eastern prep schools Who dominated his class. The college Was intensely clubbish, With membership in Skull and Bones and other top senior societies the crowning achievement of one’s college career. But the limited places in these elite secret societies Were reserved for the “Big Men”—the athletes, class leaders, and socially con nected.
During his freshman year Lewis tried fiercely to belong at Yale but soon got the message that he Was not acceptable (too brash, too “fresh”), though tolerated. His only friends Were fellow literati on the fringe of Yale society, such as Allan Updegraff and William Rose Benét. Two compassionate young English instructors, William Lyon Phelps and Chauncey Brewster Tinker, sensed the young man’s idiosyncratic brilliance and encouraged him. He threw his considerable energies into Writing stories, poems, and essays for the Yale Literary Magazine and became an editor after toting up the required number of acceptances. During the summer vacation after freshman year he traveled to England on a cattle boat and Was deeply moved by London, Cambridge, and other storied places he had imagined in his reading. Returning for his junior year from an idle summer in Sauk Centre (when he claimed he conceived a novel about small-town dullness called “The Village Virus”), he declared himself fed up with the unreality of campus life, sloughed off the last vestiges of religious belief, and proselytized for socialism. Midyear he and Updegraff dropped out to join novelist Upton Sinclair’s New Jersey cooperative commune, Helicon Hall.
The two Yale men soon tired of the drudgery of janitorial work at Helicon Hall and decamped for New York With the idea of becoming full-time Writers. Both Worked at the Transatlantic Review, translating articles by German authors. After an ill-conceived junket to Panama, Lewis returned to Yale and graduated in 1908 as a member of the class of 1907 (Which had already voted him “most eccentric”).
Unsure of what he wanted to do next, he took a job with a newspaper in waterloo, Iowa, writing editorials on subjects he knew little about. Discharged from that job, he spent an interlude in the bohemian colony at Carmel, California, where he wrote short stories in the manner of Henry James and Edith wharton. When his money ran out, he migrated to San Francisco, where he was fired from two newspaper jobs, and then to washington, D.C., where he briefly was assistant editor of a magazine for the deaf. In October 1910 he moved to New York and obtained a low-paying editorial job at the publishing house of Frederick Stokes (father of a Yale classmate). For the next five years Lewis worked, with increasing success, in book publishing.
He lived in Greenwich Village for a time and joined the Socialist Party. He became friendly with social-Worker feminists but kept aloof from real bohemians with their Freudianism and free love. He met Grace Livingston Hegger, a junior editor at the fashion magazine Vogue. She later said that he made her laugh, and he was smitten by her. They were married on 15 April 1914.
By the time he met her, Lewis had a good job as managing editor at the publishing house of George Doran, which specialized in religious books but also had a stable of promising young British writers, whom Lewis admired. But he spent most of his time editing and touting mediocre authors, and he yearned to write full-time. During a summer vacation he completed a boy’s book, Hike and the Aeroplane, which appeared under the pseudonym Tom Graham in 1912. His first novel, Our Mr. Wrenn, on which for the first time he used his middle name, Sinclair (on the advice of Grace Lewis, who disliked “Harry”; she called him “Hal”), was published two years later, in the same month he was married. This debut was heavily influenced by H. G. Wells’s The History of Mr. Polly (1909), a novel about the rebellion of a “little man.”
Mr. Wrenn is a meek office worker, a member of what wells dubbed the “salariat.” He dreams of foreign climes and finally, with an inheritance, quits his boring job and sails to England, where he has adventures with a blasé bohemian woman. Upon his return, now possessed of the courage to stand up for himself, he gets his old job back, contrives a new sales strategy that earns him a raise, and goes on to achieve the coveted assistant managership. He is also able to marry his shopgirl sweetheart, Nelly Croubel. Lewis injected some awkward social commentary into his novel, expressing the socialist ideal of the brotherhood of the workers of the world. He also included a great deal of whimsy and sentiment, a weakness he struggled to overcome. But the novel displayed a talent and originality that drew praise from reviewers.
He had proclaimed his admiration of wells as “the greatest living novelist” in an essay published in the November 1914 Bookman titled “Relation of the Novel to the Present Unrest: The Passing of Capitalism.” In this ambitious assessment Lewis grandly doled out praise and disfavor to a gallery of the best contemporary British and American authors, judging them by their awareness in their novels of “the coming struggle which shall threaten the very existence of this status called capitalism.” Based on his sociological test, he places wharton, James, and william Dean Howells (all of whom had at one time influenced him stylistically) in the outer circle of “pure individualism” because they lack an understanding that “back of all the individual’s actions [is] a lowering background of People… raucously demanding that they have some share in the purple and fine linen.” Lewis felt the problem of the age was the rising expectations of the mute, downtrodden masses, who deserved a share of the wealth created by industrialization, education, and technology. The essay reveals Lewis as a Fabian (evolutionary) socialist who envisioned wells’s “cooperative commonwealth” gradually replacing the capitalist system. The Bookman essay is a direct precursor to Carol Kennicott’s idealistic perorations in Main Street.
Now Lewis was embroiled in the free market, supporting a pretty wife in a comfortable house in the suburb of Port washington on Long Island. He made the daily commute to his Manhattan publishing office and continued writing in his spare time. Thus, he was able to finish his second novel, The Trail of the Hawk (1915), which combined the themes of early aviation, class differences, and young love.
If Our Mr. Wrenn had purveyed a romantic view of life, Lewis in The Trail of the Hawk dwelled on the “romance of reality.” As far back as Yale he had declared himself a realist, and he attempted a determinedly unromantic picture of his aviator hero’s life as filled with danger, grit, and engine grease, though Lewis lacked direct experience in this sphere. Then “Hawk” marries an Eastern woman, who bears not a little resemblance to Grace Lewis, and in the third section of the book, Lewis veers into a realistic portrait of a modern two-career marriage. Although the book could have been three separate novels, reviewers enjoyed Lewis’s sense of the American scene and marked him as a rising talent.
In 1915, hiking the length of Cape Cod with his wife, Lewis conceived a story satirizing naturists they had encountered. He sold it to the large-circulation Saturday Evening Post, whose editor, George Horace Lorimer, urged him to become a regular contributor. Lewis promptly sold him four more stories, amassing a cushion of $2,000 that enabled him to quit his publishing job.
Driven by a vow never again to work in an office, Lewis wrote prolifically, contributing stories to the top-paying Saturday Evening Post and other popular magazines between 1915 and 1920. Many of them were about young lovers in the city or office workers and business people, in keeping with Lorimer’s interest in “business fiction.” He kept his stories within the bounds of propriety decreed by Lorimer, but nothing he wrote was false or meretricious; Lewis could have taken for his motto the title of one of his stories about a real-estate salesman: “Honestly—If Possible” (The Saturday Evening Post, 14 October 1916).
But he chafed against Lorimer’s constraints, and the thought of writing always for The Saturday Evening Post depressed him. An idea for a new novel, his most ambitious yet, burned in his brain. It was sparked by a 1916 trip to Sauk Centre for Grace Lewis to meet his parents. Returning to his hometown as an urban success, he saw it afresh through his wife’s eyes. The new perspectives apparently prompted him to transform the small-town novel he had conceived in college days into the story of an idealistic young bride experiencing culture shock in a backward Minnesota town. During his three-month stay he took voluminous notes and snapshots as memory aids. He already had a title for the new novel: “Main Street.”
Bent on seeing America first, he and his wife headed west in a new Ford Model T, jouncing over unpaved dirt roads and wagon trails and sleeping in a tent. Along the way Lewis collected more grist for his notebook-descriptions, statistics, scraps of conversation, and slang words. His hometown remained the principal model for Gopher Prairie in the novel, but his knowledge of other places helped make it seem representative of all small towns.
During his stay in Sauk Centre, Lewis had completed what he considered his most uncompromisingly realistic novel yet, The Job. Published in 1917, it tells the story of small-town girl Una Golden, who seeks opportunities in New York, accompanied by her widowed mother. Drawing on his own office experiences and the perspectives of Grace Lewis and other career-Woman friends, Lewis painted a depressing picture of the life of a contemporary female office hand. The heroine is shown as a cog in a machine dedicated to efficiency.
After several years Una tires of dead-end secretarial work and makes a desperate grab at marriage. Her choice is a slick-talking traveling salesman, who turns out to be a heavy drinker and a philanderer. Rather than submit to her domestic fate as women of her time were expected to, she leaves him, returns to the job world, and becomes a successful business-woman with help and inspiration from a sympathetically portrayed Jewish boss (unusual in novels of that day) and a successful female mentor (also uncommon at the time). Probably under pressure from his publisher, Lewis tacked on a happy ending-marriage to a cynical, radical-minded coworker (a portrait obviously based on himself)-that added a false, sentimental note. Still, The Job was an impressive performance. Ahead of its time, it has been rediscovered by contemporary feminist scholars.
Lewis was now eager to write his small-town novel. He feared he was becoming a well-paid Saturday Evening Post hack. He had fathered a son, wells, in 1918, and with a voguishly dressed wife and a retinue of nannies and maids to support, he needed the ever-higher fees Lorimer paid him. Then he composed a light-Weight romantic serial about a small-town mechanic who woos a society girl on a cross-country motor trip. The serial was a hit with Saturday Evening Post readers, and Lorimer demanded a sequel. (The serial was published in book form as Free Air in 1919.) with this windfall, the Lewises moved to St. Paul for further research into Midwestern mores, soon finding that their irreverent, free-spirited attitude offended the city’s conservative social set. While there, Lewis wrote a play, Hobohemia (performed in 1919), satirizing Greenwich Village bohemians as pretentious failures, which earned him the enduring enmity of their real-life counterparts. Although panned by the critics as middlebrow, the play held on for an eleven-week Broadway run. Meanwhile, the Lewises moved to Mankato in southern Minnesota to soak up the small-town ambience. Then they headed east and settled in temporary lodgings in washington, D.C., where he devoted his waking hours to writing Main Street.
In the summer of 1920, after eight months of intensive labor, Lewis completed Main Street, his break-through book. He had a new publisher now, Alfred Harcourt, a friend from his publishing days and one of the few editors who believed he could write the small-town novel. Harcourt had the previous year cofounded the house of Harcourt, Brace and Howe. After reading Lewis’s manuscript he predicted for it a sale of perhaps twenty thousand copies. Lewis, more pessimistic about the fate of realistic small-town novels, estimated ten thousand.
Main Street sold more than 414,000 copies in the original hardcover edition and more than 2 million in cheaper editions. Widely reviewed and discussed, it was the literary sensation of 1920–1921-one of those books, like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), that becomes a social-cultural event. Lewis had touched a sensitive nerve, the moral and cultural divide between urban and rural America. The heroine, Carol Kennicott, reflected the questioning post-World war I mood. She is-in Lewis’s vision-pitted against the xenophobia and conservative mores of rural and small-town America, embodied in her husband, Dr. Will Kennicott, and the citizens of Gopher Prairie. Perhaps the largest block of readers consisted of married women who identified with Carol’s struggle against the bonds of domestic servitude.
Main Street sounded reveille for the cultural awakening of the 1920s, a fertile decade of iconoclasm and experimentation in the arts. To many of the intelligentsia and a rebellious younger generation, Lewis’s novel demolished the myth of small-town America as the locus of “true” American values and showed it for what it really was-the epitome of the provincial, art-hating America they were rebelling against, where standardization reigned; dullness was God; and the Ford car was the acme of civilization. In fairness, Lewis also praised the small town’s neighborliness and community; many readers considered the steady, capable will Kennicott the true hero. Not Lewis, who poured much of himself (so he later said) into the flawed, exasperating, ultimately (but honorably) defeated heroine, Carol Kennicott. She was, Lewis said in notes to Harriet Ford (Who worked on a dramatization of Main Street), “a woman with a working brain & no work.” The novel sounded a radical feminist note–a call for liberation from the “gray darkness”s of domesticity, which stifled women’s desire to lead a “more conscious” life.
The success of the novel also reflected the post-War reaction against wartime curbs on free speech and the political repression known as the Red Scare, with its antiunion strike-breaking and wholesale deportation of aliens and radicals. Lewis, a self-styled “parlor socialist,” blamed the crackdown on the conservative political and business establishments–embodied in microcosm in the elite of Gopher Prairie–Working in league with the Ku Klux Klan, the Fundamentalists, and the local censors to impose “100% Americanism.” Main Street was a leading voice in the literary protest against what the iconoclastic critic H. L. Mencken called Puritanism, denoting the desire to impose a narrow religious morality on the arts.
Historically, Lewis’s novel was in the literary cur rent that CarlVan Doren, books editor for The Nation, called in 1920 “the revolt from the village.” writers such as wharton in Ethan Frome (1911), Edgar Lee Masters in Spoon River Anthology (1915), willa Cather in My Antonia (1918), Sherwood Anderson in Winesburg, Ohio (1919), and Zona Gale in Miss Lulu Bett (1920) had scored the provincialism and soul-deadness of the American small towns. But in Main Street Lewis drew up the definitive indictment.
Unlike some writers of the “Lost Generation,” Lewis was not a literary rebel against sexual taboos, though he matter-of-factly analyzes the effects of Carol’s frigidity and will’s clumsiness as a lover on their marriage. Stylistically, he was not a modernist. He made a conscious effort, however, to accurately reflect American speech in his dialogue. In this way he was carrying forward a vernacular tradition apotheosized in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Lewis was a brilliant mimic whose frequent cocktailparty imitations of a Fundamentalist preacher or a loquacious Midwestern businessman later appeared in his novels.
One such monologue may be found in his next novel, Babbitt, published in 1922. It appears as the speech of George F. Babbitt, realtor, to the Zenith Real Estate Board on “Our Ideal Citizen” (“busier than a bird-dog, not wasting a lot of good time in day-dreaming or going to sassiety teas or kicking about things that are none of his business”). The novel lampoons materialism, consumerism, commercialism, boosterism, dubious business ethics, advertising, and salesmanship. In the title character, Lewis created one of the lasting types of American fiction. Even today his likeness is discernible–the jovial conformist businessman, overly suspicious of Culture and “unAmericanism” but basically good-hearted, whose only ulterior motive is to sell people something for more than they want to pay for it. Lewis not only caught this man’s external mannerisms but also understood his vague yearning for a beauty and a faith or a cause beyond making money.
The first part of the novel depicts Babbitt as vaguely dissatisfied with his life in the city of Zenith but not knowing what he wants. Lewis describes Babbitt’s milieu with a hyperrealism that imparts to it a suffocating oppressiveness and spiritual sterility. For Babbitt, gadgets are “symbols of truth and beauty.” His car is a pirate ship; it is also “poetry and tragedy, love and heroism.” His idealism consists of boosting Zenith in order to increase real-estate values. In politics, he demands a sound probusiness administration in washington.
The second part depicts Babbitt’s abortive rebellion, precipitated when his best friend, the sensitive, music-loving Paul Riesling, is imprisoned for shooting his termagant wife, Zilla. With Paul in prison, Babbitt is deprived of the one person he cares for in the world outside his family. All the routines and rituals of his life–lunch at the Zenith Athletic Club with other good fellows; running the Babbitt and Thompson Realty Company; domesticity with his plump, docile wife, Myra, and his three ill-mannered children–now seem meaningless. What he once regarded as decent and normal now seemed stultifying and empty. He begins to question values he once held to be sacrosanct. He wearies of the soul-abrading competitiveness of business.
In Lewis’s view, by starting to challenge conventional wisdom of his city and class, Babbitt is beginning an overdue transformation into a thinking human being. The high point of his rebellion comes when he impulsively supports a strike by underpaid telephone operators. This act is Babbitt’s ultimate heresy against the values of his tribe, the “Clan of Good Fellows” at the athletic club, who make up Zenith’s ruling class. They believe, Lewis writes, that “American democracy did not imply any equality of wealth, but did demand a wholesome sameness of thought, dress, painting, morals and vocabulary.”
George Babbitt feels the backlash of Zenith’s invisible rulers: No one will buy a home from him; his onetime lunch mates cut him. Even his bland wife has criticized his philandering and late-night parties. Then Myra is felled by appendicitis and nearly dies. The whole scaffolding of Babbitt’s life collapses. He returns to his wife, and the Clan of Good Fellows rallies around him. The black sheep is restored to the fold.
Reviewers heaped praise on the novel. Virginia woolf, writing in the London Saturday Review (1 August 1925), called Babbitt “the equal of any novel written in English in the present century.” Mencken, who had encouraged Lewis since Main Street, announced that the title character “simply drips with human juices.” Mencken wrote in the October 1922 Smart Set that “There is more than mere humor” in the novel; it “is a social document of a high order.”
A few commentators complained that Lewis lacked artistic detachment from Babbitt: that he held the same materialistic values and could envision nothing better for his hero or his country. There was some truth to that; Lewis always insisted that he loved Babbitt, that he was a fine fellow. He wrote for the very people he caricatured. And he refused to prescribe cures for Babbittry; he was only a diagnostician, he said. He did not have any remedies, and if he did, they did not belong in a novel. As John O’Hara, one of many younger novelists who admired and emulated Lewis, told biographer Mark Schorer, many writers were aware of Babbitt and Babbittry, but Lewis was the only one to make him live in a novel. Babbitt is a true creation, a composite of American men seen and over-heard in hotel lobbies and Rotary Club luncheons.
Beginning with Babbitt, Lewis adopted a method of writing a novel that he more or less followed through his career. Typically, the initial idea remained dormant in his mind for several years, altering over time. Lewis often started with a protagonist who is at odds with his or her social environment, like Carol Kennicott and Gopher Prairie. Babbitt was another matchup of character and setting. The latter came to him first: a medium-sized American city, population around three hundred thousand, like Minneapolis or Cincinnati. Such places had not been touched in American fiction. Next he envisioned his hero, describing him in a 28 December 1920 letter to Harcourt as “the typical T.B.M. [tired business man] … he is all of us Americans at 46, prosperous but worried, wanting—passionately—to seize something more than motor cars and a house before it’s too late.” Babbitt derived in part from Lewis’s fascination with traveling salesmen.
Lewis’s next step was to embark on a “field trip.” Before writing Babbitt, he circulated through the Mid-West listening to businessmen in bars, Rotary Club luncheons, restaurants, and hotel lobbies. He visited stores and offices associated with his central character’s profession. He clipped items from the society pages and shoptalk from trade magazines. He typed up phrases he had overheard—he had a tape-recorder memory—or items of data he had read somewhere. Then he inserted the page in his ring notebook under the appropriate heading. Facts were crucial to Lewis; he believed that characters’ houses, rooms, furnishings, clothes, books, and other details revealed their nature. He often portrayed a character’s environment—business, social, and geographical—as a living, stifling force against which he or she futilely rebels. The few autonomous characters in Lewis’s novels are technocrats like Sam Dodsworth, scientific geniuses like Dr. Martin Arrowsmith, or charlatans like the Reverend Elmer Gantry.
After Lewis assembled what he called “the dope,” the factual grist for the novel, he drew up a list of characters and composed biographies of the major ones. A character’s name was crucial. Lewis said that the person did not come alive until he had found the name that sounded right. He sweated over the cognomen of his central character in Babbitt, rejecting Pumphrey, Fitch, Bassett, and Burgess. He said he wanted a name that was “normal but not too common,” like Smith or Jones. In Babbitt and subsequent novels Lewis introduced a gallery of American caricatures with evocative names: Virgil Gunch, Roscoe Geake, Rippleton Holabird, Almus Pickerbaugh, H. Sanderson Sanderson-Smith, Mrs. Adelbert windelskate, waldo Dringoole, and Dr. Addington Slenk.
Lewis’s next step was to write a detailed scenario, which might run to sixty thousand words and describe in detail scenes and chapters. He also drew detailed maps of the fictional cities, towns, and neighborhoods where his characters lived and worked. Once he had “caught” the story in an outline, he could write the final novel rather rapidly. He could write anywhere and preferred a gypsy lifestyle, believing that being tied to one place would thwart his creativity. Grace Lewis became adept at setting up temporary domiciles in rented houses or hotel suites in the United States or abroad. After they had a child, however, she increasingly lobbied for a permanent home.
Lewis’s next work, Arrowsmith (1925), required extensive research because of its scientific themes and exotic settings. The novel chronicles the struggles of Martin Arrowsmith, an idealistic young doctor turned scientist, who wrestles with temptations of success, money, and social status. Lewis conceived a positive hero as his reply to the critics who complained he could only scoff and tear down. For this book Lewis engaged a technical adviser: Paul de Kruif, a bacteriologist with a congenial debunking attitude. De Kruif was a budding journalistic talent, who went on to write The Microbe Hunters (1926) and other works of popularized science. Lewis had sketched his vision of the novel in late-night talks with de Kruif, who provided the scientific underpinnings of the story as well as suggesting characters and situations.
Arrowsmith’s career dramatizes a conflict between science for commercial gain versus science to benefit humanity. Dr. Martin Arrowsmith is constantly pressured to compromise the austere standards of scientific truth inculcated in him by his teacher, Dr. Max Gottlieb. Lewis added some satirical material, such as the chapters in which Martin works for Dr. Almus Pickerbaugh, the jingle-writing public-health crusader, but overall, Arrowsmith includes less satire and more realistic narrative than Babbitt does. And there is no irony at all in the climactic Caribbean island plague scenes, which have acquired a fearsome resonance in the age of Ebola and AIDS.
Drawing nearly unanimous praise from reviewers, Arrowsmith was awarded the 1925 Pulitzer Prize in fiction; but Lewis, with great fanfare, turned down the prize. He did so in part out of justified resentment over the Pulitzer trustees’ veto of the 1920 choice of Main Street, which they considered too controversial and critical of the American way. The terms of the prize required that it go to a novel “Which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” Because of the prestige of the award, such a standard, Lewis argued, cast a pall of conformity over American letters; it made the Pulitzer judges the arbiters of what novels would be morally acceptable.
Because of the controversy stirred up by his previous books, Lewis’s critics accused him of making his refusal a publicity stunt for Arrowsmith. Although he exaggerated the influence of the Pulitzer Prize on American writers, he was sincere in his belief that the language of the Pulitzer trust codified an outmoded standard from which a new generation of American writers was eager to free themselves.
Lewis’s next novel stirred up a public furor that made the Pulitzer controversy look like a teapot tempest. Having in Arrowsmith created an ethical hero who worshiped scientific truth, Lewis chose to make his next protagonist a hypocritical minister with a weakness for sex, money, and power. Thus, Lewis reversed the pilgrim’s progress narrative of Arrowsmith to present a rogue’s unscrupulous climb to churchly eminence.
He had been planning what he called “the preacher novel” for nearly a decade, but the spark was the 1925 prosecution of John Scopes by the state of Tennessee for teaching his high-school students about the theory of evolution. Much of the nation followed the trial in the press and on the new medium of radio. The exchanges between the two lawyers representing Scopes and the state, Clarence Darrow (whose arguments were scripted by Lewis’s artistic conscience, Mencken) and william Jennings Bryan, the aging Populist Party hero, encapsulated the theological battle in Protestantism between the Modernists and the Fundamentalists. The former accepted scientific truth and believed that the theory of evolution should be taught in the schools; the latter believed in the literal biblical account of the creation of the world and supported the state ban on teaching the theory.
In January 1926 Harcourt, Brace issued a press release stating that Lewis was moving to Kansas City to research his new novel about a minister. In Kansas City he organized what he called his “Sunday school class,” a group of Protestant clergymen, a priest, and a rabbi. Over a period of weeks he interrogated them on their views on religion and pastoral work and on their lapses of faith. He also devoured tomes on theology, church history, and administration. He was biased—he opposed organized religion and doubted the divine inspiration of the Bible—but he had in him a reservoir of sympathy drawn from his adolescent religious faith and nostalgic memories of small-town churches as communities of belief.
Elmer Gantry was published in March 1927. Riding gales of controversy, sales soared past two hundred thousand copies in its first year. It was denounced in nearly every pulpit in the land—including the Congre gational Church in Sauk Centre, whose minister had the previous year presided at the funeral of Lewis’s father. A majority of reviewers damned the central character as a travesty, a monster. The evangelist Billy Sunday, one of several real-life divines whose careers had provided models for Elmer Gantry, publicly called on God to strike Lewis dead. (Lewis had earlier, in a speech, suggested that if God really punished infidels—as Fundamentalists had claimed after the April 1926 death of Darwin-influenced plant breeder Luther Burbank—then why did He not strike him down? He politely gave the Lord fifteen minutes to do so. The demonstration, intended to be ironic, was sensationalized in the press as “Lewis Defies God!”).
Elmer Gantry outraged many readers who had praised the author’s earlier satires. In taking on religion, Lewis had crossed some forbidden line. Some of the contemporary criticisms seem overwrought now. Lewis did not mean Gantry to be “typical” of all ministers; he sought to contrast him to the sympathetically portrayed, underpaid ministers in his novel who seek to do good, even when their faith wavers. As with most authors, Lewis’s motives were mixed. There is no doubt that he had a flair for promotion, learned during his publishing career, and that he aimed to exploit the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversy; Harcourt had to rein in some of Lewis’s wilder ideas. Although not averse to book-selling controversy and flamboyant advertising, such as a campaign touting Elmer Gantry on spotlighted billboards during a Methodist ministers’ convention in Kansas City, Harcourt always insisted that Lewis preserve his dignity as a serious writer and not make a fool of himself for the sake of publicity. Thus, he toned down Lewis’s angry letter to the Pulitzer Prize committee refusing the fiction award and warned him about his unpredictable pulpit appearances
while researching Elmer Gantry. But Lewis had planned a novel about a corrupt evangelist for nearly a decade, and it expressed his heartfelt questioning of organized religion.
That said, it is a flawed novel. The British critic Rebecca west was partially right when she suggested in the New York Herald Tribune Books (13 March 1927) that Lewis had no vision of a true religious faith against which to judge Gantry’s false gods. More damaging was a structural flaw, pointed out by Mencken, who otherwise was enthusiastic about the book: two-thirds of the way through, Lewis’s love for Gantry the bumpkinish rogue fades. The plot develops a hole; the central character gets out of hand. He becomes harsher—an unredeemed monster rolling over people unopposed. Later critics have remarked on the ugly misogyny that also crept in, although in the character of evangelist Sharon Falconer the author depicts a liberated woman. Gantry’s ultimate ambition is political power. Thus, he founds a censorship organization that will crusade against sin, immoral books and movies, evolution, and free thought in general. But Lewis ends the book on this note; he does not dramatize the theme in his novel.
The problems in the final third of Elmer Gantry may have had their origins in traumatic events in Lewis’s life while he was finishing the book in 1926: the death of his father, the breakup of his marriage, rejection by a woman with whom he had fallen in love, his haste to finish the novel so that it would be timely, and the inner guilts and conflicts that writing about religion conjured up from the psychic depths. All these pressures conspired to drive Lewis toward a breakdown as his deadline loomed. The chief symptom of collapse was his total loss of control over alcohol; his drive to finish the novel became a race with delirium tremens and landed him in a sanitarium. He had, like many of his class and kind in 1920s America, become a heavy drinker in part out of defiance of the Prohibition law, regarded as a religiously motivated attempt to legislate morality. But his alcohol consumption had already reached the point where it was threatening his career and his marriage.
Escaping the Elmer Gantry furor but not his private demons, Lewis wandered London and Paris, depressed and drinking to the edge of physical and mental collapse. He pulled himself together in time to make a therapeutic walking trip through Germany’s Black Forest with the poet and novelist Ramon Guthrie. Along the way he talked out future books. One was a previously conceived “labor novel,” which he now called “The Man who Sought God” and which had as its hero a character based on the Socialist leader Eugene Debs, whom Lewis idolized as a Christ figure. The other was the story of a “nonBabbitt,” a Zenith auto magnate named Sam Dodsworth.
Arriving in Berlin, Lewis met Dorothy Thompson, the independent-minded foreign correspondent for the New York Evening Post, and instantly fell in love out of need and desire. She was herself coming off a painful divorce, and she extravagantly admired Lewis’s novels. Lewis stayed in Berlin to court her. Thompson responded favorably but worried about his heavy drinking. Her need for love and Lewis’s promises of reform, however, overrode her fears. Lewis divorced Grace Lewis in 1928, and he and Thompson were married in London that same year and thereafter sailed to the United States. They lived in New York, where their only child, Michael, was born in 1930; then the family moved to a large country property in rural Vermont known as Twin Farms. Thompson, bored with motherhood, resumed her journalistic career with Lewis’s encouragement.
Lewis published The Man who Knew Coolidge; Being the Soul of Lowell Schmaltz in 1928. It was one of his cocktailparty monologues—a shaggy story about an obtuse Zenith businessman who tries to visit the president—padded to book length. He called it his “swan-song to Babbittism,” vowing to Harcourt that he would clear his system of satire in preparation for his next “serious” novel. This book was Dodsworth, the tale of the “non-Babbitt,” which appeared in 1929. It is Lewis’s most personal novel, drawing on his breakup with his first wife. The hero, Sam Dodsworth, founder of the Revelation Motor Company, is a member of Zenith’s industrial aristocracy, an engineer, a maker and a doer, in contrast to Babbitt, the middle-class middleman. But Dodsworth is also seeking something more than autos and balance sheets. After selling his company to a huge corporation that he fears will cheapen his beloved car, he sails to Europe with his ice-maiden wife, Fran.
As it turns out, down-to-earth Sam humbly seeks to learn about the art and beauty of an older civilization, while sophisticated Franhunts for handsome Continental males, preferably of aristocratic lineage, whose attentions will restore her fading youth and beauty. The theme of America versus Europe is central to the novel. It had preoccupied Lewis ever since he escaped Sauk Centre for Yale and the East. Living abroad himself during much of the 1920s, he wrote American novels. In Europe he defended his native land against aspersions from the expatriates and Continental intellectuals, then returned home to tell Americans they should devote less time to moneymaking and more to culture. Sam Dodsworth embodies this split in Lewis’s soul. He stands up for the virtues of American technology against the condescending European intellectuals Fran attracts, but he condemns his own obsession with work, money, and success.
Mingled with Dodsworth’s search for his soul is the story of his deteriorating marriage. The character of Fran is another portrait of Grace Lewis, this time as a frigid narcissist. Fran was regarded by critics as another Lewis discovery, of what one reviewer called “the well-groomed female American monster.” She deserts Sam to marry a younger, impoverished Austrian count, who casts her aside because she is too old to bear him an heir.
Out of pity Sam is drawn back to the temporarily humbled Fran, but he realizes soon enough that he can no longer endure her. In the end, he returns to the United States with a new wife, the sympathetic, cosmopolitan Edith Cortright, who represents the best of both worlds, America and Europe.
Some critics found Sam an inconsistent and unconvincing character and the cultural debate banally done. Most reviewers, however, welcomed Lewis’s revelation of an introspective side of himself and his successful attempt to compose a serious novelistic narrative.
The Jazz Age ended with a crash on Black Thursday, 24 October 1929. By the early 1930s, the middle class, Lewis’s subject and primary audience, was hurting; young people were desperately searching for jobs rather than idols to topple; writers marched to a Marxian beat. Although not a Marxist, Lewis focused on the social struggle. In 1929 he covered a North Carolina textile strike in Marion in which seven workers were shot dead by sheriff’s deputies. His syndicated articles were published as a pamphlet, Cheap and Contented Labor (1929). It includes a caustic, ironic castigation of the real-life Babbittry of local textile-mill owners, who posed as community pillars in the Rotary Club while using the sheriff and his deputies to crush efforts of their underpaid workers to organize a union.
With his usual sensitivity to his times (Van Doren, the historian, compared him to a seismograph of the Zeitgeist), Lewis turned once again to the long contemplated, now socially relevant “labor novel.” Being prounion, he felt an inhibition against satirizing labor leaders the way he had Babbitts; yet, he saw some union leaders as blue-collar Babbitts who were, in their own way, as conservative as their bosses. Finally, he was surrounded by a clique of leftist technical advisers who tried to force-feed him economic doctrine, rather than suggesting settings, characters, and conflict, as de Kruif had done.
Lewis’s anxious quest for a new subject was interrupted in 1930 by the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Swedish Academy’s Nobel Committee had virtually proclaimed the Year of the Americans and had narrowed down the candidates to Lewis and Theodore Dreiser, the pioneering turn-of-the-century realist. Dreiser had brought a tragic tone and a philosophical fatalism into American literature beginning in 1900 with Sister Carrie. In its citation the Nobel Committee singled out Lewis’s “vigorous and graphic art of description and his ability to create, with wit and humour, new types of characters.”
Though the choice of Lewis was popular in Sweden, it drew a mixed reaction in America. Perhaps there was a Depression-era backlash against his irreverent attacks on America. Editorials in U.S. papers proposed more deserving writers. The expatriate avant-garde had long dismissed Lewis as a sellout to the middlebrows. Conservatives called him irreligious and unpatriotic. Some charged that foreigners liked him because of his anti-Americanism. He was called hypocritical for accepting the Nobel after refusing the Pulitzer Prize. Finally, there were critics such as the New York Times editorial-page writer who spoke of Lewis in the past tense as a product of the irresponsible iconoclasm of the 1920s.
Lewis had patriotically regarded the prize as honoring American literature as well as himself, and the attacks wounded him. For all his relish of controversy, his quips, his public performances, he was a self-doubting, vulnerable man in need of approval. He was overheard to say, “This is the end of me. This is fatal. I cannot live up to it.”
Accepting the prize in Stockholm, Lewis delivered a defiant speech, “The American Fear of Literature,” in which he hit back at his conservative critics. He blasted the “tea-table gentility” of the religious moralists and censors who had banned geniuses such as walt whitman, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, and Dreiser. He blamed academia for propagating only an American literature that was safe, cold, and dead. He closed his address on a positive note, however, saluting the new generation of American writers—Ernest Hemingway, Thomas wolfe, william Faulkner—for “their determination to give… to an America that is as strange as Russia and as complex as China, a literature worthy of her vastness.”
The purported effect of the Nobel as a jinx on the recipient’s career seems to have been true in Lewis’s case. First, he broke with Harcourt, his friend of nearly twenty years and astute publisher for the past ten. The cause of the breach was Lewis’s belief, seconded by Thompson, that Harcourt had failed to rush out a new edition of his novels in time to profit from the Nobel Prize fanfare. Lewis was also upset with Harcourt for not taking out advertisements to answer the critics of his Stockholm speech.
Harcourt had his grievances too. He believed that Lewis’s drinking had reached a point where it threatened his health and his talent. He was weary of his friend’s increasingly erratic behavior (Lewis had recently insulted Harcourt’s wife while drunk) and worried about his inability to come up with an idea for a new major novel. The publisher therefore raised no objections when Lewis informed him from Berlin that he wished to end their relationship.
Other publishing houses vied for Lewis’s next book. He chose Doubleday, Doran, a large, business-like house that offered him a $30,000 advance. The company desperately hoped his next novel would lift the firm out of its Depression doldrums.
Lewis had promised them a lengthy historical saga narrating the story of American idealism through three generations of one family, but he grew bored with the research and probably fearful that he could not finish such a sprawling work. Instead, he turned to a subject closer to home—a novel about a liberated woman, a social worker named Ann Vickers. For her story Lewis cribbed events from Thompson’s career as a suffragist, as well as drawing on his own participation in feminist causes and the experiences of the women he had known in Greenwich Village. The novel is modishly socially conscious; Lewis turns his most scathing satire on the cruelties of a Southern prison. But he also satirized the confused intellectual tendencies of the time, mocking the Communists as ideological conformists while revealing his own lack of any political faith. In his central character, Lewis creates a rounded portrait of a contemporary woman. He took care to delineate the social barriers and prejudices that Ann faces in her quest for professional equality and personal fulfillment.
Published in 1933, Ann Vickers gave Lewis’s new publisher the financial success it coveted and won praise from most reviewers. Critics in the left-leaning journals were more skeptical, doubting his commitment to radical change. However, Lewis Gannett, writing in the New York Herald Tribune of 25 January 1933, breathed a public sigh of relief that Lewis was back after all the rumors that “he was done, that he was drinking himself to death, that he was a neurotic and could begin but never finish another [novel], that he had lost his contact with the grass roots of humanity.” with a successful dramatization of Dodsworth by Sidney Howard on Broadway (later made into a movie), Lewis’s financial fortunes rose.
Artistically, though, he was floundering. His next novel, Work of Art (1934), was deservedly panned, particularly by leftist critics, for its uninteresting portrait of a hotel keeper whose creation of a great inn Lewis compares to the writing of a great poem. In a loaded comparison, the innkeeper’s brother, a phony bohemian poet who writes a best-selling novel and happily sells out to Hollywood, represents the cause of Art.
In 1935 Lewis made a comeback with a darkly satirical, dystopic fantasy, It Can’t Happen Here, set in the immediate future. In this novel he shows how Americans’ conformist tendencies could enable a fascist movement supported by big business to take over the government in a time of economic distress. (Thompson’s on-the-scene reports on Adolf Hitler’s rise in Germany shaped Lewis’s thinking.) Thus, the novel linked Lewis to his earlier satires of middle-class conformity— Babbitt with a sharper political edge. “This is revolution in terms of Rotary,” a character says of the American Nazi movement. But Lewis also shows the growing American resistance to the fascist takeover, led by a Populist Republican senator from the Midwest. The novel projects a countervision to fascist racism: a tolerant, multicultural America. Lewis’s personal credo is enunciated by the hero of the novel, the small-town Vermont editor Doremus Jessup, who believes that “every-thing that is worth while in the world has been accomplished by the free, inquiring, critical spirit and that the preservation of this spirit is more important than any social system whatsover.”
It Can’t Happen Here presented Doubleday with another best-seller (some ninety-four thousand copies in hardcover), while the left-wing reviewers cheered its antifascist message. But the strain of writing it in a two-month burst left Lewis exhausted. He resumed drinking heavily, while anxiously contemplating his next project. During this hiatus, he sobered up long enough to co-author a dramatization of It Can’t Happen Here for the New Deal’s Federal Theater Project. The play opened simultaneously in eighteen cities in the fall of 1936. Audiences were mesmerized, encouraging Lewis—weary of the loneliness of the novelist’s life and fearing that his novelistic well was drying up—to turn to playwriting and then acting in summer stock. No land-marks in American drama emerged from his typewriter, however.
His fits of rage and neglect of their son, Michael, had made life miserable for Thompson; she sought comfort in extramarital affairs. In March 1936 she launched “On the Record,” a syndicated political affairs column in the New York Herald Tribune. Her intelligence, diligent research, and political acumen collaborated to make the column a hit. Within a year she was called the second most influential woman in the land, after First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Lewis could not bear to play second fiddle in the marriage and walked out in 1937, embarking on one of his most self-destructive benders. After drying out in the Austen Riggs Sanitarium in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, he quit drinking and, aside from a few lapses, remained sober until the last years of his life. Recurrent precancerous lesions on his face and body further depressed his low self-esteem; the condition required repeated painful treatments and left his face a moonscape of scars. He once told a friend that he never again believed anyone could really love him after seeing his face.
Partly as therapy after leaving the sanitarium he wrote a novel, The Prodigal Parents (1938), which was possibly his worst, vying for that distinction with two minor works written solely for money, The Innocents (1917) and Mantrap (1926). In The Prodigal Parents Lewis expressed his disenchantment with the Communists, who had tried to enlist him as a fellow traveler, a role he scorned. He condemned the party’s attempts to tell writers what to write. Then he turned to the politics of family life, gratuitously dismissing the younger generation as brainless idlers. The hero, an auto dealer, was a neo-Babbitt, whom Lewis celebrated as a rock in a collapsing civilization and the savior of his feckless children from radical wiles. Predictably, the leftist critics blasted the book, charging that Lewis had sold out to big business. It had a sale of about fifty thousand copies, his lowest figure thus far.
In 1940 he asked Thompson for a divorce so he could marry Marcella Powers, an eighteen-year-old apprentice actress he had met in August 1939 while performing in summer stock. Thompson refused, fearing he would leave all his money to Powers rather than to his sons, Michael and wells. Assured that would not happen, Thompson divorced Lewis in 1942. (Wells, a promising novelist, joined the army after graduating magna cum laude from Harvard in 1939. He was killed by a German sniper in 1944.)
Lewis’s next novel, Bethel Merriday (1940), was the story of a young actress. He drew the background from theatrical experience in summer stock and touring with a play he had written, Angela Is Twenty-Two (1938), an attempt at sophisticated comedy. Although he had started the novel before meeting Powers, he modeled the heroine on her. The sales of Bethel Merriday were even fewer than those of The Prodigal Parents. Blaming its poor showing on Doubleday’s failure to promote his books, Lewis moved to Random House in 1941. There he found a happier home with an old friend, Harry Maule, serving as his editor.
In 1942, after a lucrative but pointless scriptwriting stint in Hollywood, Lewis started a new novel, over-joyed to return to his true profession. He stayed sober, and his friendship with Powers, despite her infidelities and refusal to marry him, rejuvenated him emotionally. His next novel, Gideon Planish (1943), marked the return of Lewis the social satirist. In it he lampoons do-good organizations in the debunking style of Elmer Gantry. But Lewis’s irreverence was out of step with wartime patriotism. Reviews were mainly negative, although a few loyalists welcomed back the old Lewis.
In the early 1940s Lewis had begun paying visits to his home state, seeking to reconnect with his roots. During one stay he taught writing at the University of Minnesota. In 1943 he moved from Minneapolis to Duluth, where he purchased a mansion, intending to live in it at least part of the year. His research among the city’s upper crust provided material for his next book, Cass Timberlane (1945), the story of a judge in the fictional small city of Grand Republic. Cass, a widower, falls in love with a much younger woman, who betrays him for his best friend (as Powers had done to Lewis). The novel includes inner chapters with the running head “An Assemblage of Husbands and wives.” These were sometimes caustic, sometimes tragic portraits intended to illustrate the parlous state of marriage in America. Although critical opinion was mixed, the marital theme and sexual frankness sparked the interest of the general public. Adding movie and book-club money to royalties, Lewis earned $500,000 from Cass Timberlane. Unlike Judge Timberlane, whose chastened young wife returns to him by the end of the book, Lewis lost Powers. In 1946 she married a man her own age, who could give her a home and children. Lewis never completely accepted the fact that she was not coming back.
In 1947 Lewis published what was perhaps his most radical novel, Kingsblood Royal, dealing with America’s race problem, which flared up after world war II as returning African American GIs demanded that the nation live up to the ideals they had fought for. Lewis had long been critical of the treatment of black people in America. Since the 1920s he had been friendly with walter white, who became general secretary of the NAACP. White was so Caucasian-looking that he had impersonated a white reporter to cover lynchings in the South. White’s 1925 novel Fire in the Flint, about a black man who passes as white, influenced Lewis’s plot. An upper-class young man, Neil Kingsblood, discovers that a distant ancestor was black. He ultimately immerses himself in the city’s African American community and becomes a “voluntary Negro.” Although heavy-handed, the novel is a blistering satire of the cruel irrationality of racial segregation in the tradition of Mark Twain’s Puddnhead Wilson (1894).
Kingsblood Royal touched off a critical storm and became another Lewis best-seller, but it was his final blast at his country, which he once said he loved but did not like. He wrote two more novels, The God-Seeker (1949), an historical saga set in frontier Minnesota, and World So wide (1951), the story of an architect living among American expatriates in Florence. The God-Seeker is a recycling of themes from Lewis’s oft-attempted, oftabandoned labor novel; it shows Lewis’s lack of interest in the historical genre.
In 1950 Lewis settled in Florence, Italy, where he collected material for World So wide among the expatriate set. The novel is a brave but pallid attempt to deal fictionally with some of the demons in his own life-his failures with women, his chronic restlessness, and his paradoxical yearning for a home. In his final days Lewis, alone and lonely, returned to the anodyne of alcohol. He knew he was dying, having suffered heart attacks in 1949 and 1950 (he had been a heavy smoker since college days). In early 1951, sequestered by a shadowy “secretary,” whom American friends suspected of fleecing him, he suffered a massive heart attack at a clinic in Rome. He died on 10 January 1951, aged sixty-five.
Lewis’s irreverent, critical spirit sounded a tocsin for the writers of the 1920s. In creating a gallery of satirical types, Lewis held America up to a mirror. His novels were widely read abroad at a time when America was becoming the major economic power on the world stage and foreigners were intensely interested in the new giant. A Swedish Nobel judge said that Gopher Prairie was universal, that it could “be situated just as well in Europe.”
Lewis was one of the most astute novelistic social observers of his time. He created larger-than-life types and places that entered the language-Babbitt, Elmer Gantry, Main Street. Although a dedicated realist, Lewis used the tools of caricature, irony, and parody to accentuate his criticisms of American society. His first wife, Grace Lewis, said he had to have something to hate when he wrote, although his target was not people but the institutions that enslaved the independent spirit. He once told a friend, “Don’t you understand it’s my mission in life to be the despised critic, the eternal fault-finder?” In the 1940s, when the iconoclasm of the 1920s came under critical fire, Lewis defended his literary cohort. In an article in the 15 April 1944 Saturday Review of Literature he described his generation as writers “who so loved their country that they were willing to report its transient dangers and stupidities.”
Thompson rightly contended that it is impossible to understand the America of the 1920s through the 1940s without reading the novels of Sinclair Lewis. There were other writers who created new prose forms; there were greater writers of timeless themes. But Lewis evoked the American social structure, particularly the role of class distinctions, better than most novelists in his time. He brought the American scene to life in readers’ imaginations through his storytelling, his gallery of characters and social types, and his vivid recording of their talk and their habitats. The English novelist E. M. Forster praised above all Lewis’s photographic realism. His achievement, Forster wrote in Abinger Harvest (1936), was to lodge “a piece of a continent in our imagination.”
From Main Street to Stockholm: Letters of Sinclair Lewis, 1919–1930, edited by Harrison Smith (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1952);
Frederick Manfred, “Sinclair Lewis: A Portrait,” American Scholar, 23 (Spring 1954): 162–184;
Betty Stevens, “A Village Radical Goes Home,” Venture, 2 (Summer 1956): 17–26;
Stevens, “A Village Radical: His Last American Home,” Venture, 2 (Winter 1957): 35–48;
Allen Austin, “An Interview with Sinclair Lewis,” University Review, 24 (March 1958): 199–210.
James Lundquist, The Merrill Checklist of Sinclair Lewis (Columbus, Ohio: Merrill, 1970);
Robert E. Fleming and Esther Fleming, Sinclair Lewis: A Reference Guide (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980).
Carl Van Doren, Sinclair Lewis: A Biographical Sketch (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran, 1933);
Mark Schorer, Sinclair Lewis: An American Life (New York, Toronto & London: McGraw-Hill, 1961);
Vincent Sheean, Dorothy and Red (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963);
James M. Hutchisson, The Rise of Sinclair Lewis, 1920- 1930 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996);
Richard Lingeman, Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street (New York: Random House, 2002).
Harold Bloom, ed., Sinclair Lewis (New York: Chelsea House, 1987);
Martin Bucco, Main Street: The Revolt of Carol Kennicott (New York: Twayne, 1993);
Bucco, Sinclair Lewis as Reader and Critic (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2004);
Bucco, ed., Critical Essays on Sinclair Lewis (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986);
Stephen S. Conroy, “Sinclair Lewis’s Sociological Imagination,” American Literature, 42 (November 1970): 348–362;
Howell Daniels, “Sinclair Lewis and the Drama of Dissociation,” in The American Novel and the Nineteen Twenties, edited by Malcolm Bradbury and David Palmer (London: Arnold, 1971), pp. 85–105;
Jack L. Davis, “Mark Schorer’s Sinclair Lewis,” Sinclair Lewis Newsletter, 3 (1971): 3–9;
D. J. Dooley, The Art of Sinclair Lewis (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967);
George H. Douglas, “Babbit at Fifty-The Truth Still Hurts,” Nation, 214 (22 May 1972): 661–662;
Douglas, “Main Street After Fifty Years,” Prairie Schooner, 44 (Winter 1970): 338–348;
Peter Fish, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt (Woodbury, N.Y.: Barron’s Educational Series, 1985);
John T. Flanagan, “A Long way to Gopher Prairie: Sinclair Lewis’s Apprenticeship,” Southwest Review, 32 (Autumn 1947): 403–413;
Maxwell Geismar, “Diarist of a Middle Class Mind” and “A Postscript,” in his American Moderns: From Rebellion to Conformity (New York: Hill & wang, 1958), pp. 107–118;
Sheldon N. Grebstein, Sinclair Lewis (New York: Twayne, 1962);
Robert J. Griffin, ed., Twentieth-Century Interpretations of Arrowsmith: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968);
Anthony C. Hilfer, “Caricaturist of the Village Mind” and “Elmer Gantry and That Old Time Religion,” in his The Revolt from the Village (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969), pp. 158–192;
James M. Hutchisson, ed., Sinclair Lewis: New Essays in Criticism (Troy, N.Y.: whitston, 1997),
Erik Axel Karlfeldt, Why Sinclair Lewis Got the Nobel Prize, translated by Naboth Hedin (New York: Har-ourt, Brace, 1931);
Alfred Kazin, “The New Realism: Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis,” in his On Native Grounds (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1942), pp. 217–226;
Grace H. Lewis, With Love from Gracie: Sinclair Lewis, 1912–1925 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1955);
Martin Light, “H. G. Wells and Sinclair Lewis: Friendship, Literary Influence, and Letters,” English Literature in Transition, 5 (1962): 1–20;
Light, the Quixotic Vision of Sinclair Lewis (W. Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1975);
Glen A. Love, Babbitt: An American Life (New York: Twayne, 1993);
Love, “New Pioneering on the Prairies: Nature, Progress and the Individual in the Novels of Sinclair Lewis,” American Quarterly, 25 (December 1973): 558–577;
James Lundquist, Sinclair Lewis (New York: Ungar, 1973);
Mark Schorer, “Sinclair Lewis and the Method of Half-Truths,” in Society and Self in the Novel: English Institute Essays, edited by Schorer (New York: Columbia University Press, 1956), pp. 117–144;
Schorer, ed., Sinclair Lewis: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962);
Dorothy Thompson, “The Boy and Man from Sauk Centre,” Atlantic Monthly, 206 (November 1960): 39–48;
James W. Tuttleton, “Sinclair Lewis: The Romantic Comedian as Realist Mimic,” in his the Novel of Manners in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1972), pp. 141–161;
Rebecca west, “Sinclair Lewis Introduces Elmer Gantry,” in her The Strange Necessity (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran, 1928), pp. 295–308;
Hiroshige Yoshida, A Sinclair Lewis Lexicon: with a Critical Study of His Style and Methods (Tokyo: Hoyu, 1976).
Most of Sinclair Lewis’s manuscripts and letters are at Yale University; an additional important collection is at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Some family papers are housed at St. Cloud State University, and the Dorothy Thompson Collection at the Bird Library, Syracuse University, includes material on Lewis’s second wife and their relationship.