The first five novels established Sinclair Lewis as a serious if not particularly brilliant novelist; but one with, as they say at Billboard, a bullet. As a careerist, Lewis was an Attila. In his pursuit of blurbs, he took no prisoners. He cultivated famous writers. Main Street is dedicated to James Branch Cabell and Joseph Hergesheimer, the two classiest novelists of the day. Babbitt is dedicated to Edith Wharton, who took it all in her magnificent, ruthless stride.
In 1915 his old mentor Upton Sinclair was invited to assess the product. He did:
You seem to me one of the most curiously uneven writers I have ever known. You will write pages and pages of interesting stuff, and then you will write a lot of conversation which is just absolute waste, without any point or worth-whileness at all; and you don’t seem to know the difference. Everything of yours that I have read is about half and half…wherever you are writing about the underworld, you are at your best, and when you come up to your own social level or higher, you are no good.
Nicely, Upton Sinclair adds a postscript: “Don’t be cross.” Writers usually get other writers’ numbers rather more quickly than critics ever do. After all, as contemporaries, they have been dealt much the same cards to play with.
By 1929, the apprenticeship of Sinclair Lewis was over. He had married and become the father of a son, Wells, named for H.G., whom he had yet to meet (Lewis was deeply irritated when people thought that he had been named for Upton Sinclair when his father had named him after one Harry Sinclair, a dentist of the first rank).
The genus of Lewis’s ascent can be located in the year 1916 when he and his wife, Grace, came to stay in Sauk Centre with Dr. Lewis and his wife, Sinclair’s stepmother. In her memoir, Grace Hegger Lewis is very funny about what must have been a fairly uncomfortable visit. “One morning when ‘the curse’ was upon me,” Grace asked for breakfast on a tray. The Lewises said no, while Hal, Grace’s name for her husband, was “furious. He had always taken for granted his affection for his parents and their behavior he had never questioned. But seeing his family through the eyes of New York and of marriage he was appalled by his father’s overbearing rudeness.” Grace suggests that this visit forced Lewis to see his home town in an entirely new way and shift the point of view from that of a lonely off-beat lawyer, in what was to be called The Village Virus, to that of Carol, a girl from outside the village who marries the local doctor, Will Kennicutt, and so observes the scene with big city (in her case Minneapolis) eyes.
Grace reports that Dr. Lewis did apologize; the young couple stayed on; and the town magnates were brought to their knees when they learned just how much Lewis had been paid for a two-part serial in the Woman’s Home Companion ($1,500). “When he told them that it had taken him two weeks to write the serial, the banker, dividing so much per diem, was visibly awed….The young Lewises were to find that this measuring of talent by dollars was fairly universal, and Hal was hurt at first by this lack of interest in the writing itself.”
Their later life in Washington sounds agreeable. She tells us how they would walk to the Chevy Chase Club with the young Dean Achesons and how Lewis also frequented the Cosmos Club and got to know General Billy Mitchell, Clarence Darrow, and the scarlet lady of our town, Elinor Wylie—murmur her name, as indeed people were still doing a few years later when I was growing up. The Lewises seem not to have known the Achesons’ friend, Grace Zaring Stone, author of The Bitter Tea of General Yen, who, when told by a lady novelist—not Elinor Wylie—that she was writing a novel about Evil, sighed, “If only I had thought of that!”
Lewis maintained that the idea for a novel whose subject would be a small midwestern market town came to him in 1905. I should suspect that it was always there. Village life was the first thing that he had known and, sooner or later, writers usually deal with their origins. The real-life lawyer Charles T. Dorion was to be the main character, an idealistic soul, able to see through the pretenses, the hypocrisies, the…the… the absolute boredom of Sauk Centre (renamed by Lewis Gopher Prairie). But the 1916 homecoming gave Lewis a new point of view, that of his elegant New York wife, to be called Carol. Dorion was demoted to supporting cast, as Guy Pollack.
In July 1920, in a Washington heat wave, Sinclair Lewis finished Main Street. He gave the book to his friend Alfred Harcourt, who had started a new publishing house to be known, in time, as Harcourt, Brace, in which Lewis had invested some of his own money. In the business of authorship he seldom put a foot wrong.
October 23, 1920, Main Street was published and, as one critic put it, “if Main Street lives, it will probably be not as a novel but as an incident in American life.” Even Schorer, not yet halfway through Lewis’s career, concedes, a bit sadly, that the book was “the most sensational event in twentieth-century American publishing history.” As of 1922 an estimated two million Americans had read the book; and they went right on reading it for years. With Howells gone, Lewis took his place as numero uno and reigned both at home and abroad until 1930, after which, according to Schorer, “with the increasing conformity at the surface of American life and the increasing fragmentation at its base, there have been no contenders at all.” I’m not sure that Bill or Ernest or Scott or Saul or Norman or…would agree. The contenders are all in place. The problem is that fiction—stories intended to be read by almost everyone—ceased to be of much interest to a public “with no time to read” and movies to go to and, later, television to watch. The Saturday Evening Post serial, often well-written by a good writer, would now be done, first, as a miniseries on television or as a theatrical film. Today nonfiction (that is, fictions about actual people) stuffs our magazines and dominates best-seller lists.
In any case, pace Schorer, conformity in American life, whatever that means, would certainly be a spur to any writer. As for fragmentation, it is no worse now as the countryside fills up with Hispanics and Asians as it was when Lewis was describing the American hinterland full of Socialist Swedes and comic-dialect Germans. Actually, to read about the career of Sinclair Lewis is to read about what was a golden age for writing and reading; now gone for good.
Lewis’s energetic self-promotion among the masters of the day paid off. His dedicatees Cabell and Hergesheimer wrote glowing testimonials. Predictably, the novel appealed to the English realists and not to Bloomsbury. The former wrote him fan letters—John Galsworthy, H.G. Wells, Rebecca West; presently he would be taken up by the monarch of bookchat and the master of the fact-filled realistic novel, Arnold Bennett. At home a fellow Minnesotan wrote him “with the utmost admiration,” F. Scott Fitzgerald. But five years later Fitzgerald is wondering if Arrowsmith is really any good. “I imagine that mine [Gatsby] is infinitely better.” Sherwood Anderson leapt on and off the bandwagon. Dreiser ignored the phenomenon but his friend H.L. Mencken was delighted with Lewis, and praised him in Smart Set. When Lewis’s sometime model Edith Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence, Lewis wrote to congratulate her. As for this uncharacteristic lapse on the part of a committee designed to execute, with stern impartiality, Gresham’s Law, Mrs. Wharton responded with her usual finely wrought irony: “When I discovered that I was being rewarded by one of our leading Universities—for uplifting American morals, I confess I did despair.” She praises Lewis vaguely; later, she is to prove to be his shrewdest critic.
While Mr. and Mrs. Sinclair Lewis toured restlessly about Europe, trying to enjoy his success, he was already at work on Babbitt.
The Library of America has now brought out both Main Street and Babbitt in a single volume, and it was with some unease that I stepped into the time-warp that is created when one returns after a half century not only to books that one had once lived in but almost to that place in time and space where one had read the old book—once upon a time in every sense. It was said of Lewis that, as a pre-1914 writer, he had little in common with the rising generation of post-World War writers like Hemingway, Dos Passos, Faulkner. It might equally be said that those of us who grew up in the Thirties and in the Second War made as great a break with what had gone before as today’s theoreticians made with us. Literary history is hardly an ascending spiral, one masterpiece giving birth to an even greater one, and so on. Rather there are occasional clusters that occur at odd intervals each isolated from the others by, no doubt, protocreative dust. Lewis was pretty much his own small star lying between Twain, Crane, James, and Wharton, and the small but intense postwar galaxy which still gives forth radio signals from that black hole where all things end. In the Twenties, only Dreiser was plainly Lewis’s superior but Dreiser’s reputation was always in or under some shadow and even now his greatness is not properly grasped by the few who care about such things.
What strikes one first about Main Street is the energy of the writing. There is a Balzacian force to the descriptions of people and places, firmly set in the everyday. The story—well, for a man who supported himself by writing stories for popular magazines and selling plots to Albert Payson Terhune as well as Jack London, there is no plot at all to Main Street. Things just happen as they appear to do in life. In Minneapolis, Carol Milford meets Will Kennicutt, a doctor from the small town of Gopher Prairie. There are events, some more dramatic than others, but the main character is Main Street and the intense descriptions of the place are most effective, while the people themselves tend to be so many competing arias, rendered by a superb mimic usually under control. Later, Lewis would succumb to his voices and become tedious, but in Main Street he is master of what Bakhtin (apropos Dostoevsky) called “the polyphonic novel…. There is a plurality of voices inner and outer, and they retain ‘their unmergedness.”’ Lewis is splendid on the outer voices but he lacks an idiosyncratic inner voice—he is simply a straightforward narrator without much irony—while his attempts to replicate the inner voices of the characters are no different, no more revelatory, than what they themselves say aloud.