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.
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.
“On a hill by the Mississippi where Chippewas camped two generations ago, a girl stood in relief against the cornflower blue of Northern sky.” The first sentence is brisk; it places us in time—reminds us that this was Indian territory a half century ago, and so the white man is new to the scene, and his towns are still raw. “Cornflower” is Saturday Evening Post. “Corn” itself is a bit dangerous, as in corny. “Blue” isn’t all that good either. Yet, paradoxically, Lewis had a lifelong hatred of the cliché in prose as well as a passion for sending up clichés in dialogue: this can cause confusion.
Anyway, he has now begun the story of Carol Milford, enrolled at Blodgett College, a girl full of dreams even more vivid than those of Emma Bovary—dreams rather closer to those of Walter Mitty than to Flaubert’s Emma, though, in practice, as it later proves, Carol has more than a touch of Bouvard and Pécuchet in her when she takes to the field with one of her projects to bring beauty to a drab world. Lewis maintained that, as of 1920, he had read neither Madame Bovary nor Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology, whose set of arias from the simple dead folk of a small-town cemetery inspired a generation of writers, achieving a peak, as it were, in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.
Carol is involved in the “tense stalking of a thing called General Culture.” Ostensibly on her behalf, Lewis drops Culture names all over the place. First, Robert G. Ingersoll, the nineteenth-century agnostic, and then Darwin, Voltaire. One can’t really imagine her liking any of them—she is too romantic; she dreams of truth and beauty. Ingersoll is a hardbitten, dour free-thinker. The other two are outside her interest. Later he tells us that she has read Balzac and Rabelais. Since she becomes a librarian, the Balzac would be inevitable but neither Carol nor Sinclair Lewis ever read Rabelais. There are some things that an experienced dispenser of bookchat knows without any evidence.
At a Minneapolis party, Carol meets Dr. Will Kennicutt, a doctor in the small town of Gopher Prairie. He is agreeable, and manly, and adores her. In a short time: “He had grown from a sketched-in stranger to a friend.” Will is “sincere” (a favorite word of Carol’s is “insincere”). Carol meanwhile (as a result of Mrs. Wharton on interior decoration and Italian Gardens?) has dreamed that “what I’ll do after college [is] get my hands on one of those prairie towns and make it beautiful. Be an inspiration. I suppose I’d better become a teacher then…. I’ll make ’em put in a village green, and darling cottages, and a quaint Main Street!” Hubris is back in town. One doubts if the worldly Grace Hegger Lewis ever thought along those lines in Sauk Centre in 1916. But Lewis has got himself a nice premise, with vast comic potentialities. But instead of playing it for laughs and making satire, he plays it absolutely straight and so achieved total popularity. Irony.
In 1912 Carol and Will get married. They take the train to Gopher Prairie. It is all very much worse than she expected. But Will exults in town and people. Although Lewis is noted for his voices, the best of the novel is the description of things and the author’s observations of the people who dwell among the things.
The train was entering town. The houses on the outskirts were dusky old red mansions with wooden frills, or gaunt frame shelters like grocery boxes, or new bungalows with concrete foundations, imitating stone. Now the train was passing the elevator, the grim storage-tanks for oil, a creamery, a lumber-yard, a stock-yard muddy and trampled and stinking.
They are met by Will’s friends, the elite of the village. There is a lot of kidding. Mock insults. Ho-ho-ho.
Main Street with its two-story brick shops, its story-and-a-half wooden residences, its muddy expanse from concrete walk to walk, its huddle of Fords and lumber-wagons, was too small to absorb her. The broad, straight, unenticing gashes of the streets let in the grasping prairie on every side. She realized the vastness and emptiness of the land.
This is “home.” She is in a panic. She notes “a shop-window delicately rich in error” (this is worthy of Wharton), “vases starting out to imitate tree-trunks but running off into blobs of gilt—an aluminum ash-tray labeled ‘Greetings from Gopher Prairie.”‘ And so she makes her way down Main Street, all eyes, later ears.
Carol entertains the village magnates, only to discover “that conversation did not exist in Gopher Prairie….they sat up with gaiety as with a corpse.” Nothing stirs them until one says, “‘Let’s have some stunts, folks.”‘ The first to be called on is Dave, who gives a “stunt about the Norwegian catching a hen.” Meanwhile, “All the guests moved their lips in anticipation of being called on for their own stunts.” A stunt was usually an imitation or ethnic joke. One can imagine Lewis’s own lips moving as he would prepare to hold captive some party with a monologue in a character not his own. As it turns out, there is conversation in Gopher Prairie—about “personalities,” often in the form of lurid gossip, usually sexual. Carol is not happy.
Lewis is good at tracing Carol’s ups and mostly downs. She puts on a play. Everything goes wrong. She joins the Library Board to encourage reading, only to find that the librarian believes that their function is not to lend but to preserve books. This, of course, was the ancestor of today’s Sauk Centre Library where Lewis’s books are preserved but not read. Carol joins the Jolly Seventeen, the fashionable young matrons of the village where bridge is played and personalities dissected. Carol is thought a bit too citified and definitely stuck-up when she tries to talk of General Culture and town improvements. She does her best to fit in but she “had never been able to play the game of friendly rudeness.”
In time, Carol flirts with the lawyer, Guy Pollack. He loves literature and disdains the town and one can see that Lewis had it in mind to bring them together but Guy is too damp a character. She drops him; then she goes off in two unexpected directions. A beautiful young Swedish tailor has come to town, Erik Valberg. A townswoman soliloquizes: “They say he tries to make people think he’s a poet—carries books around and pretends to read ’em, says he didn’t find any intellectual companionship in this town…. And him a Swede tailor! My! and they say he’s the most awful mollycoddle—looks just like a girl. The boys call him Elizabeth….” Plainly, the influence of Willa Cather’s curiously venemous short story “Paul’s Case” of 1905 was still strong enough for Lewis to ring changes on the sissy boy who dreams of art and civilization and beauty.2
As it turns out, Erik is not hot for Will but for Carol. They talk about poetry; they lust for each other. They are two against the town. He is randy Marchbanks to her Candida. But nothing happens except that everyone suspects, and talks; and Lewis is at his best when he shows Carol’s terror of public opinion in a place where it is not physically possible to escape from eyes at windows. This sense of claustrophobia and of no place to hide is the heart of the book. Even the metaphor of the unending “grasping” prairie contributes to the stifling of the individual.
Erik is a farm boy turned tailor turned autodidact: he has got the point. “It’s one of our favorite American myths that broad plains necessarily make broad minds, and high mountains make high purpose. They do just the opposite.” Carol’s attempts to integrate him in the town fail. Will observes them walking together at night. There is no scene, but it is clear that Erik must leave town, which he does.
The other counterpoint voice to Gopher Prairie is Miles Bjornstam, unfondly known as “the Red Swede.” He is a self-educated laborer; he cuts wood, does odd jobs, lives in a shack like Thoreau. He reads Veblen. Reading lists of the characters are all important to Lewis. Carol has not only read but bought “Anatole France, Rolland, Nexe, Wells, Shaw, Edgar Lee Masters, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Henry Mencken.” Of those on this list, three subsequently gave Lewis blurbs. Ambitious pen-persons take note.
Daringly, Carol pays Miles a call; he shocks and delights her by putting into words her own thoughts about the village. Then he goes into business for himself; prospers with a dairy; marries Carol’s best friend, her maid-of-all-work, Bea Sorenson, who comes from the hinterland and though she speaks with a comic Scandinavian accent her heart is gold. Earlier, the village was scandalized that Carol had treated her as an equal. Now, although Mr. and Mr. Bjornstam are hard-working and prosperous, they are still shunned, partly because of their foreignness and low class but mostly because the agnostic Miles has been “lippy” about the greatest nation in the country and the most perfect of its Main Streets. With the arrival of the First World War everyone is now a super-American, busy demonizing all things foreign—like Miles and Bea. But Carol continues to see the Bjornstams and their child. She, too, has a son.
It is during these scenes that Lewis must do a fine balancing act between melodrama and poetic realism in the Hardy vein (sometimes Hardy, too, lost his balance). The Bjornstams are the only people Carol—and the reader—likes. But the villagers continue to hate them even though Miles has done his best to conform to village ways.
Bea and her child get typhoid fever, from the bad water that they must drink because the neighbor with the good water will not share. Will Kennicutt does his best to save Bea and her child but they die. Carol is shattered. Miles is stoic. When the ladies of the village unexpectedly call with gifts, not knowing that mother and child are dead, Miles says, “You’re too late. You can’t do nothing now. Bea’s always kind of hoped that you folks would come see her…. Oh, you ain’t worth a God-damning.” Like Erik, he, too, leaves town.
Set piece follows set piece. There is a trip to California where Will searches for fellow villagers and, unhappily for Carol, finds them. She is now ready to leave Gopher Prairie, “Oh, is all life, always an unresolved but?” She resolves the “but.” She will get out into the world, any world but that of the claustrophobic censorious village folk. Will accepts her decision even though he continues to be In Love With Her. (Rather unlikely this.) Carol and son set out for Washington, DC—the city from which we locals used to set out for New York as soon as we could. On the train east, the boy asks where they are going and Carol says, “We’re going to find elephants with golden howdahs from which peep young maharanees with necklaces of rubies, and a dawn sea colored like the breast of a dove…” John Cheever would, years later, redo this bit of purple most tastefully.
The elephants turn out to be the Bureau of War Risk Insurance, where she does clerical work, and in mythical, magical Washington “she felt that she was no longer one-half of a marriage but the whole of a human being.” She moves among army, navy, minor officialdom. She revels in “the elm valley of Massachusetts Avenue…the marble houses on New Hampshire Avenue…” and the splendors of the restaurant on the roof of the Powhatan Hotel.
Will pays her a call; she is now a whole woman and so able to return to Gopher Prairie; she is, somehow, mysteriously, at peace with its boredom and mean-spiritedness. But she will not be coopted; she will not be a booster. She has another child. She sees Erik again—at the movies, up there on the silver screen; he had found his way to Hollywood. “I may not have fought the good fight,” Carol says at the end to Will, “but I have kept the faith.” On those words of William Jennings Bryan, the book ends.
Babbitt was intended to be the account of a single day in the life of the eponymous protagonist, a realtor in the great city of Zenith, an extension and enlargement of Gopher Prairie, with elements of sultry Duluth where the Lewises had lived for a season and were—what else?—the cynosure of all eyes. The day that Lewis had picked was one in April 1920, and we follow George F. Babbitt from the moment that he awakens with, significantly, a hangover to the end of the day, but by that time Lewis had decided that one day wasn’t going to be enough for him to do his stunts in, so the story continues another year or two, and a Mid-western Bloom was not to be.
Lewis’s eye for detail is, as always, precise. We get an inventory of bathroom and house and sleeping porch, a fad of the day that I have just recalled with the sense of having slipped several notches back in time. There is a long-suffering wife, a son, two daughters—one at Bryn Mawr. Babbitt is forty-six years old. Prohibition has been in place for a year, so everyone drinks too much. There is talk of the coming election, and the great shadow of Warren Gamaliel Harding is already darkening the land and his famous injunction, “Don’t knock, boost,” is on every Zenith businessman’s lip. Babbitt himself is vaguely unhappy; “the Babbitt house,” apparently, “was not a home.” But all the latest gadgets are on display. There is chintz, but no heart. The real estate business is booming.
Even so, he dreams of “a fairy child,” a recurring dream that somehow underscores Lewis’s uneasiness with sex, mature or otherwise. Babbitt has been true to his wife, Myra, since he married her, something that is hard for us plague-ridden fin-de-siècle types to fathom. As a result, he lusts for other women in his heart and, sooner or later, lust must be served. This gives the story what small impetus it has: How—and for whom—will he fall, and what kind of mess will he make?
As in Main Street there is no plot, only set scenes. Lewis notes the class divisions. There is the class above Babbitt that belongs to the Union Club as best emblemized by Charles McKelvey; then there is the Athletic Club where Babbitt and his fellow boosters hang out and denounce socialism and labor unions and anarchists. Meanwhile, at the wheel of his new car, a “perilous excursion,” Babbitt daydreams enroute to his office, the “pirate ship.” He has had his first conversation of the day with a neighbor, and they have talked of the weather in great detail and though their exchange should be as tedious as the real thing, Lewis is a master of those grace notes of boring speech that put one in mind of Bach. “There was still snow at Tiflis, Montana, yesterday,” said the neighboring Bore; then goes for a crescendo: “Two years ago we had a snow-squall right here in Zenith on the twenty-fifth of April.”
Next, a loving description of Zenith—skyscrapers now—and old houses, movie billboards, drugstores, factory suburbs, a proper city where once the Chippewas roamed. At the office there is a young partner, a secretary—Babbitt’s father-in-law is senior partner, and seldom seen. Babbitt is having what now would be called a midlife crisis of a sexual nature: “In twenty-three years of married life he had peered uneasily at every graceful ankle, every soft shoulder; in thought he had treasured them; but not once had he hazarded respectability by adventuring.” Plainly, Lewis is not drawing on autobiography. Although he preferred drink to sex, he had, at least once, in Italy, cheated on Grace, and one does not suppose him to have been pure premarriage. What is interesting about Lewis’s description of Babbitt’s sex life is whether he is distorting it deliberately to give American readers, a high-toned, censorious, prudish lot, a picture of an average American businessman, true as steel to the little lady, or whether he has some arcane knowledge of how Zenith males denied themselves. It is hard to know what to think. Even in the Gopher Prairie of Springfield, Illinois, in the 1840s there were girls to be rented by young lawyers like A. Lincoln and J. Speed. Yet in 1920 Babbitt has only masturbatory images, and the recurring mawkish dream of the “fairy girl.”
Babbitt has only one actual friend, even though he himself is a prototypical gregarious regular fellow and very well liked. But he had been at a school with Paul Riesling, who had wanted to be a musician; instead Paul married a virago (whom he will later shoot but not, alas, kill—he does serve time). Paul and Babbitt revert to adolescence when together. They romanticize their common past. Babbitt was to have been a powerful tribune of the common man and Paul a world-class violinist. But since neither is articulate, when they are together they can only tell jokes, as they try, rather wistfully, to go back in time to where they had been, if nothing else, real. They dream now of going off together on a hunting trip.
Babbitt has lunch at the Athletic Club. Lewis delights in reproducing the banalities of the Joshers, Good Fellows, Regular Guys. Kidding, chaffing, “stunts”—all these pass for communication and the fact that Lewis could reproduce this sort of conversational filler delighted those who went in for it, which was most Americans, while British book reviewers acknowledged that Lewis’s Joshers confirmed their worst fears about the collective cretinism of the separated cousinage. I cannot think how the French took Lewis’s dialogue in translation. Bouvard and Pécuchet are like figures from Racine when compared with the Boosters of the Athletic Club. In any case, Lewis had somehow struck a universal class nerve and, for a time, everyone was delighted by his hyper-realism. Even so, Edith Wharton struck a warning note. She was, she wrote, duly grateful for the dedication to herself of Babbitt but she saw fit to make one suggestion: “In your next book, you should use slang in dialogue more sparingly. I believe the real art in this respect is to use just enough to colour your dialogue, not so much that in a few years it will be almost incomprehensible.” She admired his “irony,” wondering how much of it Americans got.
I suspect they got none; the book was taken as just like life and Lewis was hardly more critical of Americans and their values than his readers were. They, too, hankered after fairy girls in dreamland as well as magic casements elsewhere, preferably in Europe, through which they might, like Alice, step into Wonderland. The secret of Lewis and his public was that he was as one with them. Grace thought that the crown of ironist he had been mistakenly awarded by those who read Main Street obliged him to go for the real diadem in Babbitt. But I think he just kept on recording.
The story proceeds with random events. Babbitt becomes an orator for the realtors; he takes part in the election of a Republican mayor; tries to move up socially and fails; he drinks more and more, the most vivid description in the book is the way booze was sold clandestinely at an ex-saloon, a sordid place, “giving that impression of forming a large crowd which two men always give in a saloon.”
Lewis makes an odd obeisance to Howells, whom he will dismiss, so foolishly, at the Nobel Prize ceremony of 1930. Lewis calls the state capital Galop de Vache, in memoriam of the hometown of the journalist-hero of that Florentine tale Indian Summer, who hailed from Des Vaches, Indiana.
Babbitt is essentially a roman fleuve despite its snappy scenes and bright “stunts.” In due course, the river deposits Babbitt on the not-so-wild shore of love. He meets a demimondaine lady of a certain age, Mrs. Tanis Judique. She is arty; she has a salon of marginal types. Tactfully, Myra Babbitt has retreated, temporarily, to her family and so Babbitt is able to conduct his love affair in relative peace while drinking more and more in the company of the feckless young. Business is affected: deals are lost. He falls in with the town radical, Seneca Doan, another variation on the original Dorion, with a bit of Upton Sinclair thrown in. Doan has been defeated for mayor. He now supports a local strike. Babbitt falls under his spell for a time (they had known each other in college). Then the town turns on Babbitt. Adultery does not disturb the boosters so much as Babbitt’s timid support of the strikers. In a series of confrontations almost as terrible as the one at the end of The Age of Innocence Zenith threatens to destroy him; and Babbitt caves in. He has not fought the good fight, and he has not kept much of any faith to anything but, at the end, he will “‘start something’: he vowed, and he tried to make it valiant.” Meanwhile, happy ending. Tanis and Seneca slink away; wife comes home. Valiant.
March 26, 1925, Lewis wrote his publisher, “Any thoughts on pulling wires for [Arrowsmith] for Nobel Prize?” There were such thoughts, there were such wires. By 1930 the Swedes were at last ready to pick an American. Earlier, Henry James had been airily dismissed in favor of Maurice Maeterlinck, the Belgian bee-master. The choice was now between Dreiser and Lewis and, as these things are ordered in the land of the great white night, Lewis was inevitably chosen. Mark Schorer writes of all this with distinct sadness. Even the President of the United States, a New England wit called Calvin Coolidge, broke his usual silence—he was a school of Buster Keaton comic—to declare, “No necessity exists for becoming excited.”
Lewis lived for twenty-one more years. He produced a great amount of work. He turned to the theater; even acted on stage. He married the splendid journalist Dorothy Thompson, who never stopped talking either. They opposed America’s entry onto World War Two, a war in which his son Wells was killed. It is painful to read of Lewis’s last days as recorded by Schorer. Drink had estranged him from most people; and so he was obliged to hire young secretaries to play chess with him and keep him company; among those paid companions were the writers-to-be Barnaby Conrad and John Hersey, who has prepared the exemplary Library of America Sinclair Lewis.
Mr. Schorer, enraged to the end, notes, finally, “He was one of the worst writers in modern American literature, but without his writing one cannot imagine modern American literature. That is because, without his writing, we can hardly imagine ourselves.” This is not a left-handed compliment so much as a rabbit-punch. Whatever Lewis’s faults as a writer he never knowingly wrote a bad book or, indeed, one on any subject that he could not at least identify with in imagination. Curiously enough, his ex-wife, Grace Hegger, is more generous (and writes rather better prose) than the biographer:
Even though Lewis’s first successful novels can be recognized as written by him, it is significant that he created no school of writing as have Hemingway and Faulkner, Henry James and Flaubert. He influenced public thinking rather than public writing.
Surely, that is something. As for the man, after his ashes were returned to Sauk Centre, she writes, “Dear, dear Minnesota Tumbleweed, driven by the winds of your own blowing, rootless to the day when your ashes were returned to the soil which had never received your living roots, I offer you these memories. With love from Gracie.”
October 8, 1992
Sinclair Lewis: An American Life (McGraw-Hill, 1961). ↩
For a brilliant analysis of Cather’s sexual and social confusions read Claude J. Summer’s Gay Fictions (Continuum, 1980): he believes that in “Paul’s Case” Cather was reacting fiercely against the aestheticism of Oscar Wilde (condemned ten years earlier); for her, the young Paul is a Wilde in ovo, and doomed. She herself liked men to be men, and women to be men, too. She seemed unaware of the paradox. ↩