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American Gothic

Dorothy and Red

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

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 first met in July, 1927, in Berlin. Lewis was then forty-two years old and was by far the most famous and successful living American novelist. Dorothy Thompson was thirty-three and was employed as the Berlin correspondent for the Curtis newspaper, a chain which included the Philadelphia Ledger and the New York Evening Post. Dorothy Thompson’s first marriage had just ended in divorce; Lewis’s first marriage had long since been on the rocks. The occasion of their meeting was a birthday party Dorothy Thompson gave for herself, to which she spontaneously invited Lewis—they had been casually introduced the day before. At this party, so the story goes, Lewis waited until dinner was over and then asked her to marry him. She was naturally in no position to accept such an offer from a man whom she did not even know. This difficulty was remedied by their starting something that has to be called an affair, and Lewis obligingly continued asking her to marry him. They followed each other around Europe; occasionally they even caught up with each other; and in May, 1928, they were married in London. The marriage ended in divorce in 1942, but it had been over for years before that. It was in some sense over before they were even married. Even in the earliest period of the marriage they spent more time apart than they did together. They had nothing to say to each other, and after a certain point had nothing to do with each other—and wanted to do nothing for each other. Their intimacy was such that they were both able to speak more freely and openly to strangers or casual acquaintances than they were to each other. And yet it would be gross ignorance to write off the marriage of these two extraordinary persons as lacking in content or significance. On the contrary, their relation is almost too exemplary to be true.

Lewis was that remarkable modern phenomenon, a man who had apparently no inner life; he was incapable of reflection or self-examination, and was virtually guiltless of ever having said anything in confrontation with himself. Extremely ugly and graceless, Lewis was to experience humiliation and rejection throughout his life. That endless suffering and the fact that he was a writer are the two most authentic things about him. It is altogether typical, however, that the suffering did not get into the writing, that he was quite unable to express his anguish in the one form of expression available to him. Furthermore, his conception of himself as a writer was entirely external and mechanical; he thought of himself as a machine into which facts or data were fed; when all the material was there, out would come a novel. It would, he said, “write itself.” His well-known methods of writing were equally mechanical. Though she did not carry matters to such an extreme. Dorothy Thompson was herself a thoroughly externalized person. As Mr. Sheean puts it, “for the most part she dwelt outside, resolutely outside herself.” The daughter of an upstate New York Methodist minister, her first work after college was with the Woman’s Suffrage Party: from there she gravitated naturally into the spacious and pseudo-personal world of journalism. Her style of thought ran generally to grandiloquent cliché: women, she would say, “are, somehow, closer to biological verities.” And when it did not run in this direction, it turned into abstract, liberal claptrap: what she wanted from a marriage, she wrote, was “a home which will be a center of life and illumination for people who can really contribute to the development of the humanities.” There is something here that is even deadlier than Lewis in his most clownish vulgarity; compared to this George F. Babbitt seems a true hero of the passions.

Such facts help us to begin to understand one of the most interesting questions this book raises—namely, why Dorothy Thompson married Lewis. Certainly, it was not for love, as most of us understand the idea; there is hardly a shred of evidence in this book to suggest that Dorothy Thompson was able to experience love in relation to men or had any pressing need to experience it. Her conception of marriage, as we have seen, was wholly abstract. That there were certain opportunistic elements in her decision to marry Lewis cannot be doubted. In 1928 he had just about reached the height of his great fame and success; at the same time he was just about going over the hill both as a man and a writer. Putting her acute sense of journalistic timing to use, she chose precisely the right moment to marry him—the moment which turned out to be of largest advantage to her, out of which she got the greatest leverage. Our sense of this is confirmed by what happened subsequently; soon after the marriage, as soon as her own career really began to rise, she left him like a shot, without second thoughts, without regrets, without explanations, indeed without explicit awareness or acknowledgement that she had even done so (not that she hadn’t abundant reasons on other grounds to leave him, and not that he wasn’t doing exactly the same thing as well).

Moreover, she married Lewis with her eyes open. Long before the marriage Dorothy Thompson knew all about him. At forty-two Lewis was a violent and complete alcoholic; when he was not drinking himself into a stupor he was drinking himself into wild and mindless rages. When he was not drinking he was writing. When he was not withdrawn he was holding forth in endless monologues and imitations—he was almost incapable of conversation or being what, for want of a better word, must be called himself. More things were wrong with him—he embodied more unattractive, disagreeable, and unfortunate qualities—than can be numbered. Dorothy Thompson knew all this at once; there was nothing for her to learn, for Lewis hid nothing, was unable to hide anything—and there was in any case miserably little to hide. Yet she married him, and the nature of that decision accurately expressed the character of their relation. Shortly before the marriage, she wrote him a letter in which she took an oath of loyalty: she was giving herself, she asserted, “not to a man who can stir me to excitement with his kisses, or comfort me with his caresses,” but to “a life-ideal”; this ideal was at that moment represented by Lewis, in whom she saw “some call to be the expression of the discontent and aspiration of your country.” The marriage bore out the sense of this dedication. It was so exterior an affair that it seems more like a treaty or trade-agreement between two minor nations than what is usually thought of as a marriage. Both Sinclair Lewis and Dorothy Thompson naturally tended to think of themselves as large corporate institutions with collective goals and representative destinies. This is particularly true of Dorothy Thompson, who, as the Thirties wore on toward their ghastly climax, became what she was called upon to be—a public figure, celebrity, and personage, one of the leaders in a national cause, and a familiar of the great and powerful. Her advice and good opinion were courted by presidents and chancellors; she helped waken America to the menace of Hitler; she became what every journalist wants to be, a maker and unmaker of kings—and even more. Some time during that decade she began, like royalty, to go about without carrying money.

Yet even two such highly abstract and depersonalized people must have been possessed of motives of a deeper and less generalized kind. Lewis’s motives, from what we can know of them, seem to have been fairly simple, or minimal. He was losing his grip on life and himself, and he, as well as his friends, looked to Dorothy Thompson as his last hope of salvation. He could not have made a more ruinous choice—not that a fortunate one would have “saved” him either. Dorothy Thompson closely resembled the most important person in Sinclair Lewis’s life, his father. Like Lewis’s father she was extremely competent, utterly self-confident, absolutely incapable of self-questioning or self-doubt. She was, again like the elder Lewis, virtually impregnable to personal emotion: a “vitally important element in Dorothy’s greatness,” writes Mr. Sheean, was that “she could always step over the corpses and go on, steadily, resolutely, right to the end.” All through his life Lewis was to re-experience the emotions of humiliation and impotence which he first sustained in relation to his father; in marrying Dorothy Thompson he made certain of their perpetuation.

Dorothy Thompson’s motives were of a different kind. Her first marriage, to Josef Bard, a Hungarian-Jewish journalist, had been a fiasco. Bard seems to have been something of a Don Juan, and began having affairs and spending Dorothy Thompson’s money on them as soon as they were married. It is also clear that he found Dorothy Thompson sexually inadequate and unresponsive, reproached her for what she calls her “erotic failures,” and talked about these shortcomings to women known to both of them. While admitting to the truth of the charges he brought against her, she seems not to have been particularly disturbed by them; what troubled and angered her was the gossip and disloyalty (though she was to do something of the same during her marriage to Lewis) and the fact that she had been “defeated” by a man. It seems perfectly evident that in marrying Sinclair Lewis she was both avoiding the possibility of another such experience and taking revenge for what had happened in her first marriage. Her idea of marriage was that the male partner should do “creative” work and that she would be “the wage earner of the household.” In a genuinely good marriage, she believed, a woman finds a man “whom she can fertilize with her own spirit,” and she went on to declare that she would only “give my body, soul and spirit to a man who can use it up to make a Damascene blade.” What women need, she continued, “is not to find the man who completes ourselves…what we need is to create a man in ourselves.” The unconscious configuration of these remarks is poignantly revealing.

Lewis earned his own wages, but apart from that he must have seemed to fit her bill of particulars. (In fact he was a parody of it.) He was a “great” and “creative” man, but he was also weak and in trouble and in need of being delivered from himself. Moreover, he represented no sexual threat to her, since he seems to have been impotent a good part of the time and was continually haunted by fears of impotence. And Lewis always behaved so badly, with such self-annihilating intentions and with such preposterous and irrational cruelty that any woman who undertook a relation with him occupied perforce a position of unassailable moral superiority. Sinclair Lewis made it extremely easy for any woman who had a need to feel self-righteous or who thought of sexual relations in terms of moral victory and defeat. Dorothy Thompson had such needs; she was also determined to triumph over life, and Sinclair Lewis may be justly accused of having encouraged her in this illusion.

Such intimate details along with a host of others make up the three hundred and some odd pages of Dorothy and Red. Yet almost none of them is really convincing; almost nothing that we read in this book makes us feel that we have touched upon the literal truth or been in the presence of the authentic. There are several reasons for this. In the first place, the state of Dorothy Thompson’s papers makes it nearly impossible to tell when or whether she is ever telling the truth, not merely about her emotions but about anything at all. It would take a trained scholar, some kind of literary cryptographer, to order, make sense of, and authenticate this material, and Mr. Sheean is not equipped to do such work. Throughout her life Dorothy Thompson was accustomed to write letters “which she never sent; they were kept in her own files and sometimes she rewrote them or parts of them. Occasionally we have two or three versions of the same letter, without any indication if any of them had been sent.” For example, Mr. Sheean reports that her long letters to her first husband, written while their marriage was breaking up, were never sent; we know this to be true, he states, “because she says so.” But how do we know that this is true? Mr. Sheean guesses that such and such a letter was sent and that such and such was not, but he clearly has no way of knowing. Some of her longest and most important letters to Lewis seem never to have been sent, and she wrote these, Mr. Sheean conjectures, “as if there were some thought (conscious or unconscious) that eyes other than his might some day see them.” She was also in the habit of making carbon copies of some of her most personal letters, but again Mr. Sheean has found no way of telling whether the original was sent or destroyed. In her later years she went through her papers with the idea of an autobiography in mind. She made notes and deletions, we learn, but of course we do not know what she destroyed. A similar thing can be said of her diaries; whole years are unaccounted for. Interestingly enough, the one diary that Lewis probably read, the “Honeymoon Diary,” which is an account of a tour they made of England, and which she inscribed “to us,” is, with the exception of one remark, altogether impersonal in tone and manner and reads very much like advertising copy.

What we have then in Dorothy and Red is neither a biography nor the account of a marriage; in a sense we do not even have the materials for either. What we have is a construction, a fantasy, a work of fiction. And insofar as all biography and autobiography are selective and conjectural and rely on memory and other uncertain kinds of evidence, a work of this kind renews our awareness of how unreliable is the line of distinction we draw between fact and fiction. There is, however, an illustrious precedent for such a performance; with its combination of letters, diaries, and marginal editorial commentary, Dorothy and Red often reads astonishingly like Richardson’s Pamela, and Dorothy Thompson is unmistakeably one of Pamela’s granddaughters. Like Pamela, she uses her letters and journals to control and manipulate the reality of others. Like Pamela, she is a master of duplicity and calculation without apparently ever being quite aware of it. Like Pamela, she is relentlessly high-minded and a remorseless moralizer. Her principal mode of address is self-congratulation; she shakes moral hands with herself all day long. Like her great predecessor, she sets out to overcome the masculine world by means of her moral virtue, personal superiority, and intellect. But Dorothy Thompson was not Pamela, and what in the mid-eighteenth century amounted to a whole new range of self-consciousness and inwardness, a new fullness of account in rendering one’s responses to life, has two hundred years later become cliché and avoidance and palpable self-deception. These qualities are even present in what has already become a widely publicized section of this book, Dorothy Thompson’s confrontation of her homosexuality. It is a truly touching passage and does represent an attempt at honesty. At the risk of appearing ungenerous, I must say that it too struck me as tainted. It is, to begin with, rather cheaply literary, a sad little effort to imitate the style of D.H. Lawrence. And it is, in the end, not self-confrontation, doubt, or examination but one more self-assertion, one more exertion of the abstract will to prevail over experience.

None of this demonstrates that Dorothy Thompson was a bad or wicked person, or that she was even what is ordinarily thought of as a liar or coiner of falsehoods. It does demonstrate what can be thought of as the lie of consciousness. She and Sinclair Lewis probably belonged to the last generation of Americans who were able to believe that one could give a full and reliable account of oneself in strictly conscious terms. They were both considerable figures, but we must understand them as coming at the end of a line of development rather than at the beginning of one. Lewis was among the last of the external, realistic school of novelists; the strength of his sociological-mythological images of American life lies in their breadth of representativeness, a breadth which is somehow inseparable from their shallowness. Dorothy Thompson was among the last of the original “new women,” whose intention in life was to impose themselves and their wills on the world in the way they thought men do, and who therefore imagined the world as a wholly exterior place and themselves as externalized. They did not, in other words, think of themselves as we have come to do. They did not think of themselves as having unconscious minds which were over-whelmingly powerful, largely uncontrollable, and a central part of themselves. They were the last generation able to do so, and the strain of the effort is everywhere visible—as it is not in figures of an earlier period who did not have this new knowledge to deny.

This is what makes them so different from us, this simultaneous lack of consciousness and lie of consciousness. But it is also what endows them with their awkward and crude yet genuine force, vitality, and magnitude. For they were creatures who inhabited a real external world, a world which they took as the only reality, which they wanted to conquer and possess, for which they created themselves and felt they had been created. And they could live in this world without suspecting that its value or existence might be problematical, without doubting it or themselves as part of it. For all the unreality of their inner lives, for all their poverty of inwardness, for all the naked evasions, flights, and self-deceptions, they had an undeniable reality. They had the reality of large figures engaged in a large, strange, substantial world which had actual objects in it. Out of Sinclair Lewis’s belief in that world came those remarkable documents which confirmed and enlarged its existence. In Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, and Dodsworth, Lewis was able to make a considerable contribution to the mythology that, in America, has always tended to take the place of history and society. Dorothy Thompson was not nearly so sizeable a presence, but she too has been rewarded. She believed in and committed herself to the quasi-fictional world of journalism and the official American democracy represented in its utterance. If she was not privileged to make a lasting contribution to the mythology that is America, she remains herself as a figure in its folklore. It is their reality in this sense that makes these two still meaningful for us.

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