American Gothic

Dorothy and Red

by Vincent Sheean
Houghton, Mifflin, 416 pp., $6.95

Dorothy Thompson and Sinclair Lewis
Dorothy Thompson and Sinclair Lewis; drawing by David Levine

One of the oddest things about Mark Schorer’s biography of Sinclair Lewis was that its hero’s name was Dorothy Thompson. She gave Mr. Schorer full access to her papers, he reported, and permission to use any of them as he pleased; and before she died in 1961, Mr. Schorer was in return able to offer her an uncorrected copy of the typescript of his immense biography. Mr. Schorer tells us that “she read it with approval and finished it in tears.” She had reason to, since the story of her marriage to Sinclair Lewis was recounted essentially from her point of view. It isn’t difficult to understand why this should have been so. The chief characteristic of Sinclair Lewis’s life was its incoherence, its want of form, direction, or even idea. In comparison to the pitiful and self-destructive chaos into which his life at length dissolved, Dorothy Thompson’s appeared to have been a model of shapeliness, order, and proper self-preserving self-regard. She was at any rate anything but incoherent.

Now we have another book about the Sinclair Lewis-Dorothy Thompson marriage Dorothy and Red, by the memoirist Vincent Sheean. Mr. Sheean was a close acquaintance of both partners in the marriage; he traveled with them in Europe, stayed with them as house-guest in America, and partied with them wherever the party happened to be. Mr. Sheean is more or less explicitly a partisan of Dorothy Thompson; he too has had access to her private papers—which are now deposited at Syracuse University—and his account of the marriage, in large part based on these documents, features her as its central character, and is also told from her point of view. It should be said at once that Mr. Sheean is in no way capable of satisfying the intellectual requirements that his subject demands. One sentence will serve to diagnose his standards of judgment. “It is a misfortune,” he writes, “that the greatest of American journalists should have been married to the greatest of American writers.” The irrelevant or inappropriate attribution of greatness in the first instance combined with the exaggerated or inflated attribution of it in the second fairly indicates Mr. Sheean’s values: they are the values of café society or of advertising—it does not matter which, they are the same thing. By “greatest” he means of course most famous, most newsworthy, most talked about. Nevertheless, this dismissive talked about. Nevertheless, dismissive judgment of Mr. Sheean cannot be extended to his book or to what it contains. He has chosen to publish a good deal of material which Mark Schorer either had to reject or did not see; this material is in itself of considerable interest. And in a curious way Mr. Sheean’s very incompetence and naiveté allows his subject to reveal itself with a clarity which Mr. Schorer’s infinitely superior work was denied.

Dorothy Thompson and Sinclair Lewis…

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