Sinclair Lewis

All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated

Sinclair Lewis

Excerpt from Babbitt
Published in 1922

Anative of the midwestern United States, Sinclair Lewis (1885–1951) chronicled through novels and short stories the changes brought by the shift from a mainly rural, agricultural society to one that was increasingly urban and industrial. The middle-class businessman and resident of the up-and-coming town of Zenith who is the title character of Babbitt is probably Lewis's best-known creation. The novel captures in realistic detail many of the major trends of the 1920s, including the worship of business, rising materialism and consumerism, boosterism (enthusiastic promotion), and the conflict between the older and younger generations. Lewis exposes a spiritual emptiness and complacency (being uncritically satisfied with oneself or one's society) at the core of his characters' lives.

Lewis was born in 1885 in Sauk Centre, a tiny village on the Minnesota prairie. He entered Yale University in 1903, pursuing his interest in writing and publishing his work in student magazines. After traveling to Europe and Central America, Lewis graduated in 1908. He lived in Iowa, New York, California, and Washington, D.C., working as a journalist while also writing short stories and novels. Lewis's first big success came with the publication of his novel Main Street (1920), in which the central character, Carol Kennicott, is an idealistic city dweller who moves to a small town with her new husband. There she struggles with and finally accepts the narrow-mindedness and limitations of her environment.

In Babbitt, which appeared two years later, real estate salesman George Follansbee Babbitt suspects that something is lacking in his well-ordered, up-to-date lifestyle, but by the end of the novel he has embraced it again. In this excerpt from Chapter 8, Babbitt and his wife have planned a dinner party at which they hope to entertain and impress their guests. They intend to treat their friends to alcoholic beverages, which are illegal due to the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919, which forbade the sale and purchase of liquor, but nevertheless accepted and expected. This passage chronicles Babbitt's journey into a seedy part of town to buy gin.

Things to remember while reading this excerpt from Babbitt

The character of George Babbitt has come to symbolize the 1920s, particularly its glorification of business values and of the businessman as a natural leader. In fact, the name "Babbitt" has since been used to describe a type of person who, like the novel's title character, is not very cultured, does not think very deeply, and conforms strictly to his society's expectations.

Some critics have found Babbitt's moments of deeper awareness and doubt unconvincing. They contend that such self-questioning reflects the distaste that intellectuals like Lewis, and certainly not the average person, felt for the common materialism and mindless boosterism of the United States during the 1920s.

The fact that the Babbitts purchase their ice cream from Vecchia's suggests the presence of Italian immigrants in their town. During the 1920s, newcomers from southern and eastern Europe were objects of scorn and suspicion due to their religious and cultural differences (for example, most Italians were Catholic, while most U.S. residents were Protestants). Although the Babbitts frequent an Italian-owned store, there are no recent immigrants among their social crowd.

Excerpt from Babbitt

On the morning of the dinner, Mrs. Babbitt wasrestive .

"Now, George, I want you to be sure and be home early tonight. Remember, you have to dress."

"Uh-huh. I see by the Advocate that the Presbyterian General Assembly has voted to quit the Interchurch World Movement. That—"

"George! Did you hear what I said? You must be home in time to dress to-night."

"Dress?I'm dressed now! Think I'm going down to the office in my B.V.D.'s ?"

"I will not have you talking indecently before the children! And you do have to put on your dinner-jacket!"

"I guess you mean my Tux. I tell you, of all the doggone nonsensical nuisances that was ever invented—"

Three minutes later, after Babbitt had wailed, "Well, I don't know whether I'm going to dress or NOT" in a manner which showed that he was going to dress, the discussion moved on.

"Now, George, you mustn't forget to call in at Vecchia's on the way home and get the ice cream. Their delivery-wagon is broken down, and I don't want to trust them to send it by—"

"All right! You told me that before breakfast!"

"Well, I don't want you to forget. I'll be working my head off all day long, training the girl that's to help with the dinner—"

"All nonsense, anyway, hiring an extra girl for the feed. Matilda could perfectly well—"

"—and I have to go out and buy the flowers, and fix them, and set the table, and order the salted almonds, and look at the chickens, and arrange for the children to have their supper upstairs and—And I simply must depend on you to go to Vecchia's for the ice cream."

"All riiiiiight! Gosh, I'm going to get it!"

"All you have to do is to go in and say you want the ice cream that Mrs. Babbitt ordered yesterday by phone, and it will be all ready for you."

At ten-thirty she telephoned to him not to forget the ice cream from Vecchia's.

He was surprised and blasted then by a thought. He wondered whether Floral Heights dinners were worth the hideous toil involved. But he repented thesacrilege in the excitement of buying the materials for cocktails.

Now this was the manner of obtaining alcohol under the reign of righteousness and prohibition:

He drove from the severe rectangular streets of the modern business center into the tangled byways of Old Town—jagged blocks filled with sooty warehouses and lofts; on into The Arbor, once a pleasant orchard but now amorass of lodging-houses,tenements , andbrothels . Exquisite shivers chilled his spine and stomach, and he looked at every policeman with intense innocence, as one who loved the law, and admired the Force, and longed to stop and play with them. He parked his car a block from Healey Hanson's saloon, worrying, "Well, rats, if anybody did see me, they'd think I was here on business."

He entered a place curiously like the saloons of ante-prohibition days, with a long greasy bar with sawdust in front and streaky mirror behind, a pine table at which a dirty old man dreamed over a glass of something which resembled whisky, and with two men at the bar, drinking something which resembled beer, and giving that impression of forming a large crowd which two men always give in a saloon. The bartender, a tall pale Swede with a diamond in his lilac scarf, stared at Babbitt as he stalked plumply up to the bar and whispered, "I'd, uh—Friend of Hanson's sent me here. Like to get some gin."

The bartender gazed down on him in the manner of an outraged bishop. "I guess you got the wrong place, my friend. We sell nothing but soft drinks here." He cleaned the bar with a rag which would itself have done with a little cleaning, and glared across his mechanically moving elbow.

The old dreamer at the table petitioned the bartender, "Say, Oscar, listen."

Oscar did not listen.

"Aw, say, Oscar, listen, will yuh? Say, lis-sen!"

The decayed and drowsy voice of the loafer, the agreeable stink of beer-dregs, threw a spell ofinanition over Babbitt. The bartender moved grimly toward the crowd of two men. Babbitt followed him as delicately as a cat, andwheedled , "Say, Oscar, I want to speak to Mr. Hanson."

"Whajuh wanta see him for?"

"I just want to talk to him. Here's my card."

It was a beautiful card, an engraved card, a card in the blackest black and the sharpest red, announcing that Mr. George F. Babbitt was Estates, Insurance, Rents. The bartender held it as though it weighed ten pounds, and read it as though it were a hundred words long. He did not bend from hisepiscopal dignity , but he growled, "I'll see if he's around."

From the back room he brought an immensely old young man, a quiet sharp-eyed man, in tan silk shirt, checked vest hanging open, and burning brown trousers—Mr. Healey Hanson. Mr. Hanson said only "Yuh?" but hisimplacable andcontemptuous eyes queried Babbitt's soul, and he seemed not at all impressed by the new dark-gray suit for which (as he had admitted to every acquaintance at the Athletic Club) Babbitt had paid a hundred and twenty-five dollars.

"Glad meet you, Mr. Hanson. Say, uh—I'm George Babbitt of the Babbitt-Thompson Realty Company. I'm a great friend of Jake Offutt's."

"Well, what of it?"

"Say, uh, I'm going to have a party, and Jake told me you'd be able to fix me up with a little gin." In alarm, inobsequiousness , as Hanson's eyes grew more bored, "You telephone to Jake about me, if you want to."

Hanson answered by jerking his head to indicate the entrance to the back room, and strolled away. Babbitt melodramatically crept into an apartment containing four round tables, eleven chairs, a brewery calendar, and a smell. He waited. Thrice he saw Healey Hansonsaunter through, humming, hands in pockets, ignoring him.

By this time Babbitt had modified his valiant morning vow, "I won't pay one cent over seven dollars a quart" to "I might pay ten." On Hanson's next weary entrance he besought "Could you fix that up?" Hanson scowled, and grated, "Just a minute—Pete's sake—just a minute!" In growing meekness Babbitt went on waiting till Hanson casually reappeared with a quart of gin—what iseuphemistically known as a quart—in hisdisdainful long white hands.

A Decade of Colorful Language

Sinclair Lewis was particularly praised for his ability to mimic the everyday speech of U.S. citizens. During the Roaring Twenties, the language spoken by ordinary Americans became increasingly colorful. Many of the slang words that entered the U.S. vocabulary during this period are still used today. Some came from the world of Prohibition, and many from African American culture. Here are some examples.

All wet: Incorrect.

Attaboy!: Well done.

Baby: Sweetheart.

Baloney: Nonsense.

Beat it: Get lost, get out of here.

Bee's knees: Terrific.

Big Apple, the: New York City.

Big cheese: Important person.

Blind pig: A drinking establishment with a false front.

Blowing your top: Getting angry.

Boogie Woogie: A kind of dancing.

Cat's meow: Great, wonderful.

Clam: A dollar.

Coffin varnish: Homemade alcohol.

Crush: An infatuation.

Dig: To understand.

Dogs: Feet.

Doll: An attractive woman.

Don't take any wooden nickels: Don't do anything foolish.

Dough: Money.

Fella: Fellow (used like dude or guy are today).

Flivver: First a Ford Model T, and later any old, broken-down car.

Glad rags: Party or going-out clothes.

Goods, the: The right material, or the facts, the truth.

Goofy: In love.

Hauling: Running away.

Heavy sugar: A lot of money.

Hip to the jive: Cool.

Hooey: Nonsense.

"I have to see a man about a dog.": I have to go buy (illegal) liquor.

Java: Coffee.

Joe: Coffee.

John: Toilet.

Joint: Establishment, place of business.

Keen: Appealing.

Level with me: Be honest.

Live wire: An energetic person.

Mind your potatoes: Mind your own business.

Moonshine: Homemade alcohol.

Neck: To kiss passionately.

Nifty: Great, excellent.

On the level: Legitimate, honest.

Petting: Necking, making out.

Pinch: To arrest.

Pipe down: Stop talking.

Rag-a-muffin: Dirty, messy child or person.

Razz: To make fun of.

Real McCoy: A genuine thing, authentic.

Sap: A fool, an idiot.

Says you!: Expression of disbelief.

Sheba: A young woman.

Sheik: A young man.

Shin dig: A party that is so crowded that one is in danger of getting kicked while dancing.

So's your old man: An irritated reply.

Soused: Drunk.

Speakeasy: An undercover saloon where people could buy and consume illegal liquor.

Stuck on: In love.

Tin Lizzie: A Model T Ford.

Wet blanket: A solemn, joyless person.

What's eating you?: What's wrong?

Whoopee: Wild fun.

For many more examples of Roaring Twenties slang, see The Harlem Renaissance: A Historical Dictionary for the Era, edited by Bruce Kellner (Greenwood Press, 1984); The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life from Prohibition through World War II, by Mark McCutcheon (Writer's Digest Books, 1995), or The Internet Guide to Jazz Age Slang, compiled by David Larkins (

"Twelve bucks," he snapped.

"Say, uh, but say, cap'n, Jake thought you'd be able to fix me up for eight or nine a bottle."

"Nup. Twelve. This is the real stuff, smuggled from Canada. This is none o' yourneutral spirits with a drop of juniper extract ," the honest merchant said virtuously. "Twelve bones—if you want it. Course y' understand I'm just doing this anyway as a friend of Jake's."

"Sure! Sure! I understand!" Babbitt gratefully held out twelve dollars. He felt honored by contact with greatness as Hansonyawned, stuffed the bills, uncounted, into his radiant vest, and swaggered away.

He had a number oftitillations out of concealing the gin-bottle under his coat and out of hiding it in his desk. All afternoon he snorted and chuckled and gurgled over his ability to "give the Boys a real shot in the arm to-night."

What happened next …

After the publication of Babbitt, Lewis continued his exploration of the new culture of the United States with several acclaimed novels. In Arrowsmith (1925), an idealistic scientist sees his dreams overwhelmed by commercial concerns. Elmer Gantry (1927) satirizes the evangelical religious leaders who were so popular in the 1920s, while in Dodsworth (1929) an American businessman traveling in Europe finds his values tested and changed.

Lewis's popularity and influence were confirmed when, in 1930, he became the first U.S. author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. However, most commentators agree that after the end of the 1920s the quality of his work began a steady decline. His short stories lacked the satire and realism that had enlivened his earlier novels, and they actually reflected the sentimentality that Lewis had once scorned. His last years were marked by restless travel, failed relationships, and alcoholism. He died in Rome in 1951.

Did you know …

  • In addition to being the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Lewis was also the first to decline the Pulitzer Prize, which he won in 1926. Lewis objected to the idea that the prize championed everything that was supposedly wholesome in U.S. society, and he also claimed that prizes were corrupting to writers. Some critics, however, suggested that Lewis turned the prize down because he was angry that Babbitt had been snubbed.
  • Despite his harsh criticism of U.S. society and culture, Lewis was much read and admired by a wide audience. His books remained consistently on bestseller lists throughout the 1920s.

Consider the following …

  • Prohibition was controversial, with some people (commonly known as the Drys) supporting it as a way to resolve social problems and some (known as the Wets) maintaining it was both unnecessary and harmful. How do you think Lewis felt about Prohibition? Provide evidence from this excerpt to support your conclusion.
  • Read other chapters of Babbitt to learn how Lewis satirizes other aspects of the 1920s. For example, in Chapter 14 he describes the "representative businessman"; in Chapter 18, the Babbitt's teenaged son invites his friends to a party that highlights the differences between young people and their parents.

For More Information


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

Fleming, Robert E., and Esther Fleming. Sinclair Lewis: A Reference Guide. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1980.

Grebstein, Sheldon N. Sinclair Lewis. New York: Twayne, 1962.

Hutchisson, James M. The Rise of Sinclair Lewis, 1920–1930. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.

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

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

Schorer, Mark. Sinclair Lewis: An American Life. New York: McGraw Hill, 1961.

Stevenson, Elizabeth. Babbitts and Bohemians: The American 1920s. New York: Macmillan, 1967.

Web Sites

"Sinclair Lewis and His Life." The Sinclair Lewis Society Web Page. Available online at Accessed on June 17, 2005.

"Sinclair Lewis—Autobiography." Available online at Accessed on June 17, 2005.

Restive: Unable to keep silent.

B.V.D.s: Underwear.

Sacrilege: Violation of something cherished.

Morass: Complicated or confused area.

Tenement: House divided into several separate residences.

Brothels: Places where prostitutes worked.

Inanition: Mindlessness.

Wheedled: Used endearments or flattery to get someone to do something.

Episcopal dignity: Like that of a high church official.

Implacable: Incapable of being pleased.

Contemptuous: Reflecting that belief that someone is worthless.

Obsequiousness: Showing obedience or servility.

Saunter: Walk leisurely.

Euphemistically: Substituting a milder word for one that is unpleasant or embarrassing.

Disdainful: Reflecting the belief that someone is unworthy of respect.

Neutral spirits with a drop of juniper extract: Ingredients in the gin made by people in their own homes during Prohibition.

Titillations: Arousing mild excitement.

views updated

Sinclair Lewis

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


"In any strict literary sense, he was not a great writer, but without his writing one cannot imagine modern American literature."

Biographer Mark Schorer

Sinclair Lewis may have been the most popular novelist of the Roaring Twenties. In such best-selling works as Main Street and Babbitt, he captured many details of daily life while exposing the dullness, conformity, and hypocrisy of average, middle-class citizens of the United States. Part of what made Lewis such an effective chronicler of this era was his great skill in imitating the speech of ordinary people. Some critics felt that his harsh social criticism reflected his internal struggle between a desire for respectability and a yearning for deeper meaning and discovery.

A restless wanderer and writer

Almost all of Sinclair Lewis's fiction features characters and settings drawn from the midwestern setting he knew so well. Born Harry Sinclair Lewis in the village of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, he was one of three sons of a physician. His mother died when he was six, and his father soon remarried. Lewis remembered his father, who sometimes allowed his son to accompany him when he visited patients, as stern and dignified, and he admired his dedication to hard work. Nevertheless,

Lewis felt an early dissatisfaction with small-town life. When he was only thirteen, he made an unsuccessful attempt to run away from home to become a soldier in the Spanish-American War (1898).

Lewis grew into a tall, slim, book-loving young man with a face scarred by acne, a factor that no doubt contributed to his shyness. In 1903 he enrolled in Yale University (located in New Haven, Connecticut), where he felt like an outsider but contributed many stories, poems, and essays to various campus publications. During his first summer vacation, he sailed to England on a cattle boat, thus beginning a pattern of restless travel that would last his entire life.

Lewis returned to Yale in the fall, but he left in 1906 and spent several months as a janitor at a utopian community (based on the ideal of communal living, in which every member is equal) run by the famous novelist Upton Sinclair (1878–1968). After short periods spent in New York City and the Central American country of Panama, Lewis returned to Yale in December 1907 and graduated the following June.

For the next few years he wandered between Iowa, New York, California, and Washington, D.C., working as a newspaper reporter and occasionally selling his short stories. Despite all of his travels, however, he always felt the pull of his native Midwest. While living in New York in 1914, Lewis married Grace Hegger. Five years later the couple's son Wells was born (he would be killed in World War II [1939–45]).

A changing society

As the 1920s approached, U.S. society was changing. For the first time in the nation's history, more people were living in towns and cities than on farms; the population was becoming more diverse as immigrants streamed in; and new developments in science, technology, and industry were dramatically altering the ways in which people lived, worked, and thought. Literature was changing too, as some leading writers practiced a new kind of realism while others offered the comfort of romanticism, sentiment, and an escape from ordinary life. In his own writing, Lewis was influenced both by contemporary trends and by the great authors of the nineteenth century, such as Charles Dickens (1812–1870) and H.G. Wells (1866–1946). The works of these authors feature a concern for social issues, satire, and sentimentality, qualities that would be evident in Lewis's writing as well.

Having settled in New York in 1910, Lewis began a period of experimentation and development, writing short stories in a conventional style marked by a light, humorous tone. After selling stories to such magazines as the Saturday Evening Post, he published his first novel, Our Mr. Wrenn: The RomanticAdventures of a Gentle Man (1914). Like Lewis himself, the hero of this book ships out for England but eventually returns to an ordinary existence in the United States.

The Trail of the Hawk (1915) also involves a young man's quest for fulfillment. In The Job: An American Novel (1917), the story of an ambitious young woman's experiences in work and love, Lewis attempted for the first time to re-create the speech of the salesmen he had encountered during his frequent travels. Generally, however, these early novels are not considered as accomplished as his later works.

Exposing small-town dullness and hypocrisy

The first of Lewis's truly distinguished novels appeared, very appropriately, in the first year of the 1920s. Main Street (1920) centered on what Lewis would term "the village virus," meaning the negative effects of life in the stifling atmosphere of a small U.S. town. It takes place in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, closely modeled after Lewis's hometown, where young, idealistic college graduate Carol Kennicott has gone to live after marrying an older doctor. She has imagined Gopher Prairie as a charming village full of good-hearted folk, but she finds the actual town dreary and run-down and the people dull, ignorant, and hypocritical. They are not interested in her ideas about bringing culture and improvements to their town. Carol leaves for a year to live in Washington, D.C., but she finally returns to Gopher Prairie and settles back into her old routines.

Despite its harsh criticism of U.S. society, the book was a best-seller. Readers were both shocked and fascinated by this new view of familiar places and people, and they rushed to buy the book. Lewis became a literary celebrity, a stature he would maintain throughout the decade. He was particularly praised for his ability to accurately imitate the speech patterns of ordinary U.S. citizens.

Main Street was soon followed by Babbitt (1922), which most commentators consider Lewis's best work. The central character is businessman and booster (someone who enthusiastically, and rather mindlessly, promotes mainstream culture) George Follansbee Babbitt, the middle-aged, middle-class manager of a real-estate office in the fictional town of Zenith. In detailed prose that paints a vivid picture of daily life in the 1920s, Lewis tells the story of Babbitt's vague dissatisfaction with his conservative, proper life and his dreams of escape as he begins an extramarital affair and flirts with liberal political views. In the end, however, Babbitt returns to his wife and family, adhering once again to his old habits and views.

Though some critics question whether Lewis was successful in blending within one character the opposing strands of conformity and rebellion, Babbitt was as popular with readers as Main Street had been. Lewis was lauded for his portrayal of many of the major issues and themes of the 1920s, including Prohibition (the popular name for the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which banned the manufacture and sale of alcoholic drinks), consumerism, and the conflict between parents and children. In addition, the word "Babbitt" became a permanent part of the U.S. vocabulary, signifying someone who is an uncultured, narrow-minded conformist.

Lewis produced another unflattering portrayal of U.S. society in his next novel, Arrowsmith (1926), which also takes place in and around Zenith. The title character is a brilliant medical researcher who struggles between his yearning for meaningful work and the demands of both his materialistic society and his own family. Lewis was named the winner of the Pulitzer Prize (a prestigious yearly award) for Arrowsmith, but he declined it on the grounds such awards were corrupting to writers. Probably the main reason that Lewis declined the Pulitzer, however, was because he was still angry over the judges' failure to award it to Babbitt four years earlier.

More success, and then a decline

Lewis's next major novel offered an extremely negative view of the fundamentalism (a form of Christianity that includes the belief that the stories in the Bible are literally true) that had gained strength during the 1920s. This was a time when many people, shaken by perceived threats to traditional values in their fast-moving society, turned to such dynamic and deeply conservative religious leaders as Aimee Semple McPherson (1890–1944; see entry). The title character of Elmer Gantry (1927) is a fraudulent evangelist (someone who tries to persuade others to follow his or her own religious beliefs) who engages in a series of deceptions, including adultery. Many readers were angered by the book, and a number of critics felt that Lewis's portrayal of Gantry was too extreme.

After writing The Man Who Knew Coolidge (1928), a series of monologues by a shallow, hypocritical character named Lowell Schmaltz (another resident of Zenith), Lewis turned to the theme of the U.S. citizen abroad. In Dodsworth (1929) he chronicled the travels and soul-searching of the central character, a wealthy automobile manufacturer who travels through Europe with his wife and is stirred by the art and history he encounters there. By the end of the novel, Dodsworth has left his shallow wife and formed a relationship with a calmer, more serious woman, and he has made plans to become a builder of artistically designed homes.

Lewis's success in capturing with accuracy and power both the material details and the deeper themes of the Roaring Twenties was confirmed in 1930, when he became the first U.S. citizen to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. In accepting this honor, Lewis praised a number of other promising young writers, including Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961) and William Faulkner (1897–1962). Those who expected Lewis to achieve new heights of accomplishment after the 1920s were disappointed, however, for his career now began a steady decline.

During the remaining two decades of his life, Lewis seemed to run out of ideas and insights. His later work lacked the satire and realism of his earlier novels and became increasingly sentimental. Neither critics nor readers were enthusiastic about Ann Vickers (1933), the story of a woman's search for fulfillment, or It Can't Happen Here (1935), in which the United States is taken

Pioneering Journalist Dorothy Thompson

Married to novelist Sinclair Lewis in 1928, Dorothy Thompson was a talented and celebrated writer herself. Her articles, radio broadcasts, and weekly newspaper columns made her one of the best-known journalists in the United States.

Thompson was born in 1894 in Lancaster, New York. She was an adventurous and sometimes rebellious child who did not get along with her stepmother. Sent to live with her aunts in Chicago, Illinois, Thompson finished high school there and then attended Syracuse University in New York. She graduated in 1914, determined to become a writer.

In 1920 Thomson traveled to Europe. While crossing the ocean on a ship, she met a group of Zionists, people who were working to establish a Jewish state in the Middle Eastern land of Palestine. Sheconvinced a news service to let her write an article on the subject, beginning her career as one of very few female journalists working in Europe.

Thompson covered such stories as worker strikes in Italy and the Irish independence movement. Assigned to head the New York Evening Post's Berlin office in 1925, Thompson moved to Germany, where she would live for varying periods over the next nine years. After several failed efforts, in 1931 she met and interviewed Adolf Hitler, leader of the Nazi Party.

In the article Thompson wrote about Hitler for Cosmopolitan magazine, Thompson described him as unimpressive and incapable of ruling Germany. Over the next few years, Hitler gained more and more power, eventually becoming Germany's leader. This greatly alarmed Thompson. Her articles denouncing Hitler, and particularly his hatred for and harsh treatment of Jews, resulted in her being forced to leave Germany in 1934.

Meanwhile, Thompson had married Sinclair Lewis in 1928 and given birth to a son two years later. The relationship, however, grew strained under the pressure of two careers. The couple would divorce in 1942.

In 1936 Thompson began writing a column called "On the Record" for the New York Tribune. She used this forum, as well as frequent radio broadcasts, to issue urgent warnings about the troubling developments in Europe, particularly the growing flood of refugees and the rising power of the Nazis. The next year, Thompson began writing a column for the Ladies Home Journal that would appear for the next twenty years. She also wrote articles for such publications as the Saturday Evening Post and Foreign Affairs, building a reputation as one of the most influential U.S. journalists.

During World War II Thompson advised President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the refugee problem and reported on the war, also making radio broadcasts into Germany to urge its people to rebel against Hitler. In the decades following the war she wrote about such issues as tensions between Arabs and Israelis, the women's movement, and the dangers of nuclear weapons. She died in 1961.

over by a tyrannical ruler. In his subsequent novels—including Gideon Planish (1943), Cass Timberlane (1945), Kingsblood Royal (1947), and The God-Seeker (1949)—Lewis tried unsuccessfully to breathe life into such themes as fraudulent charity organizations, marriage, and racial prejudice.

Meanwhile, Lewis's personal life also disintegrated as he succumbed to alcoholism and restless wandering. He had married journalist Dorothy Thompson in 1928 (having divorced his first wife) and fathered another son, Michael, born in 1930; the two were divorced in 1942.

Lewis died of a heart attack in Rome, Italy, in 1951. Despite the disappointments of his later career, Lewis is still considered an important figure in literature and especially of the 1920s. His biographer, Mark Schorer, has suggested that, "In any strict literary sense, he was not a great writer, but without his writing one cannot imagine modern American literature."

For More Information


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

Fleming, Robert E., and Esther Fleming. Sinclair Lewis: A Reference Guide. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1980.

Grebstein, Sheldon N. Sinclair Lewis. New York: Twayne, 1962.

Hutchisson, James M. The Rise of Sinclair Lewis, 1920–1930. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.

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

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

Schorer, Mark. Sinclair Lewis: An American Life. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961.

Web Sites

"Sinclair Lewis and His Life." The Sinclair Lewis Society Web Page. Available online at Accessed on June 24, 2005.

"Sinclair Lewis—Autobiography." Available online at Accessed on June 24, 2005.

views updated

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). □

views updated


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.


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.

views updated

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.

views updated

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).

views updated

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.