Main Street and Babbitt
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…
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