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The Romance of Sinclair Lewis

Main Street and Babbitt

by Sinclair Lewis, edited by John Hersey
Library of America, 898 pp., $35.00

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Elmer Gantry. It Can’t Happen Here. Babbitt. Main Street. Dodsworth. Arrowsmith. Sinclair Lewis. The first four references are part of the language; the next two are known to many, while the last name has a certain Trivial Pursuit resonance; yet how many know it is the name of the writer who wrote Elmer Gantry, played in the movie by Kirk Douglas—or was it Burt Lancaster?

Sinclair Lewis seems to have dropped out of what remains of world literature. The books are little read today, and he’s seldom discussed in his native land outside his home town, Sauk Centre, Minnesota. Although Sauk Centre holds an annual Sinclair Lewis Day, the guide to his home recently admitted, “I’ve never read Main Street…. I’ve been reading the biographies.” Elsewhere, the Associated Press (July 18) tells us, “About forty copies of Lewis’s books are on the shelves of the town library. For the most part, that’s where they stay.”

I expect to be the most talked-of writer,” Lewis boasted before he was. But the great ironist in the sky had other plans for him. In the end, Lewis was not to be talked of at all, but his characters—as types—would soldier on; in fact, more of his inventions have gone into the language than those of any other writer since Dickens. People still say, in quotes as it were, “It can’t happen here,” meaning fascism, which probably will; hence, the ironic or minatory spin the phrase now gets. In the half century since Sinclair Lewis (one wants to put quotes about his name, too) what writer has come up with a character or phrase like Babbitt or Elmer Gantry that stands for an easily recognized type? There is “Walter Mitty” and Heller’s “Catch-22”; and that’s that. Of course, much of this has to do with the irrelevance of the novel in an audio-visual age. It is “Murphy Brown” not “Herzog” that registers, if only for the span of a network season. Finally, even if the novel was of interest to the many, its nature has certainly changed since the first half of the century when serious novelists, committed to realism/naturalism, wrote about subjects like the hotel business, the sort of thing that only pop novelists go in for nowadays.

That said, it would seem impossible that a mere biographer could effectively eliminate a popular and famous novelist; yet that is exactly what Mark Schorer managed to do in his 867-page biography, Sinclair Lewis.1 Schorer’s serene loathing of his subject and all his works is impressive in its purity, but, at the end, one is as weary of Schorer himself as of Lewis. I once asked Schorer, an amiable man who liked to drink almost as much as Lewis did, why he had taken on a subject that he so clearly despised. The long answer was money; the short, too. In this Schorer did not resemble Lewis who, as much as he liked every sort of success, had a craving for Art in an echt-American way, and a passion for his inventions; also, he believed that somewhere over the rainbow there was a great good place that would prove to be home. As it turned out, he was never at home anywhere; and his restless changes of address take up altogether too many pages in Schorer’s survey, as they must have used up too much psychic energy in Lewis’s life, where the only constant, aside from frantic writing and frantic drinking, was, as his first wife sadly observed, “romance is never where you are, but where you are going.” Since he never stayed put, he never got there. Wives and women came and went; there were hardly any friends left after the end of the great decade of his life, 1920–1930.

In 1920, the unadmired great man of American letters, William Dean Howells, died, and Lewis published Main Street; then Babbitt (1922); Arrowsmith (1925); Elmer Gantry (1927); Dodsworth (1929). The Nobel Prize followed in 1930. That was the period when the Swedes singled out worthy if not particularly good writers for celebration, much as they now select worthy if not particularly interesting countries or languages for consolation. Although the next twenty-one years of Lewis’s life was decline and fall, he never stopped writing; never stopped, indeed: always in motion.

He was a queer boy, always an outsider, lonely.” Thus Schorer begins. Harry Sinclair Lewis was born in 1885 in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, population 2,800. At the same time a couple of dozen significant American writers were also being brought up in similar towns in the Middle West and every last one of them was hell-bent to get out. Lewis’s father, a doctor, was able to send him to Yale. Harry or Hal or Red was gargoyle ugly: red-haired, physically ill-coordinated, suffered from acne that was made cancerous by primitive X-ray treatments. He was a born mimic. He had a wide repertory of characters—types—and he was constantly shifting in and out of characters. But where Flaubert had only one act, The Idiot, Lewis had an army of idiots, and once started, he could not shut up. He delighted and bored, often at the same time.

Although Lewis had been born with all the gifts that a satirist needs to set up shop he was, by temperament, a romantic. Early writings were full of medieval fair ladies, gallant knights, lands of awful Poesie where James Branch Cabell was to stake out his territory, now quite abandoned. Lewis also had, even by American standards, absolutely no sense of humor. In a charming memoir his first wife, Grace Hegger, noted, “Main Street was not a satire until the critics began calling him a satirist, and then seeing himself in that role, is it possible that [his next book] Babbitt became true satire?” The question is double-edged. Like Columbus, Lewis had no idea where he had gone, but the trip was fun. He loved his high-toned heroine, Carol Kennicutt, but if others thought her a joke, he was willing to go along with it.

In youth Lewis wrote yards of romantic verse, much of it jocose; yet he had heard Yeats at Yale and was much impressed by the poetry of the early Yeats. Like most born writers, he read everything: Dickens, Scott, Kipling were his first influences. But it was H.G. Wells’s The History of Mr. Polly that became for him a paradigm for his own first novel. Like most writers, again, he later claimed all sorts of grand literary progenitors, among them Thoreau, but it would appear that he mostly read the popular writers of his time and on the great divide that Philip Rahv was to note—Paleface versus Redskin—Lewis was firmly Redskin; yet, paradoxically, he deeply admired and even tried to imitate those Edith Wharton stories that were being published when he was coming of age, not to mention The Custom of the Country, whose Undine Spragg could have easily served time in a Lewis novel.

The literary world before 1914 is now as distant from us as that of Richardson and Fielding. In those days novels and short stories were popular entertainment. They were meant to be read by just about everybody. Numerous magazines published thousands of short stories of every kind, and a busy minor writer could make as good a living as a minor bank president. Writing was simply a trade that, sometimes, mysteriously, proved to be an art. William Dean Howells had balanced commerce and art with such exquisite tact that he was invaluable as editor and friend to both the Paleface Henry James and the Redskin Mark Twain. Howells himself was a very fine novelist. But he lived too long. For the rising generation of the new twentieth century, he was too genteel, too optimistic (they had carelessly misread him); too much Beacon Street not to mention London and Paris and the Russia of Dostoevsky, whose first translations Howells had brought to the attention of those very conventional ladies who were thought to be the principal audience for the novel in America.

While still at Yale, Lewis headed straight to the action. Upton Sinclair had started a sort of commune, Helicon Hall, at Englewood, New Jersey, and in 1906 Lewis spent two months there, firing furnaces and writing. By 1909 he was at Carmel with his classmate William Rose Benét, another professional bookman. Lewis worked on the San Francisco Bulletin, and wrote. When Jack London had come to Yale to speak for socialism, Lewis had met him. Although Lewis was to be, briefly, a card-carrying socialist, he was never much interested in politics, but he very much admired the great Redskin writer, and he got to know him at Carmel.

London wrote short stories for a living. Unfortunately, he had trouble thinking up plots. Although Lewis was not yet making a living from short stories, he had thought up a great many plots. So, in 1910, Lewis sold Jack London fourteen short story plots for $70. Two became published short stories; the third the start of a not-to-be-finished novel. Lewis later described London at that time as someone more interested in playing bridge than sea-wolfing. He also described how “Jack picked up James’s The Wings of the Dove…and read aloud in a bewildered way….It was the clash between Main Street and Beacon Street that is eternal in American culture.” Well, eternity is a long time in bookchat land.

In 1910 Lewis moved on to Washington, DC, which was to become, more or less, his home base in the United States. Meanwhile he worked for New York publishers as reader, copywriter, salesman. He was also selling fiction to the flagship of commercial publishing, The Saturday Evening Post, as well as to other magazines. From 1913–1914 he produced a syndicated book page that was carried in newspapers all around the country. By putting himself at the center of bookchat, he insured good reviews for his own books in much the same way that in England now ambitious young writers not only review each other’s books but also often act as literary editors in order to promote their future reviewers. Those destined for greatness will eventually review television programs in a Sunday newspaper, thus getting to know the television and film magnates who will, in due course, promote them personally on television as well as buy their products for dramatization. The English literary scene today is very much like that of the US pre-1914.

Lewis’s first novel, Our Mr. Wrenn, is very much school of Wells: it was, of course, well-reviewed by his fellow bookmen. In the next four years Lewis published four more novels. Each had a subject, of which the most interesting was early aviation, The Trail of the Hawk (1915). Lewis had got to know Paul Beck, one of the first army flyers, and the novel presages, rather eerily, Lindbergh’s career. In my memory these books are rather like those of Horatio Alger that I was reading at the same time, something of an agreeable blur. Since the Subject comes before the Characters and since Lewis was a thorough researcher, there are many little facts of the sort that pop writers today provide us as they take us on tours of the cosmetics or munitions businesses, subjects they usually know very little about beyond idle, as opposed to dogged, research. Only James Michener, through hard work, has mastered the fictional narrative as a means of instruction in a subject of interest to him, like Hawaii; and then to millions of others.

  1. 1

    Sinclair Lewis: An American Life (McGraw-Hill, 1961).

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