Pilgrim’s Progress

Sinclair Lewis: Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, Dodsworth

edited by Richard Lingeman
Library of America, 1,346 pp., $40.00(to be published in September 2002)
Sinclair Lewis
Sinclair Lewis; drawing by David Levine


Sinclair Lewis, with a crumpled face, red hair, manic zest, and manic writing, came forth from Sauk Centre, Minnesota, the year of his birth, 1885. His father was a doctor and after the death of his mother he had a kind, ambitious, ever-onward stepmother. The young man was not a hick, although he could pose as one when it suited him; nevertheless his gift for the language and the posturings of a country boy lead one to speculate that the tangled roots of provincialism still sprouted within him. On the other hand, he was as mobile as a hardy cormorant who by gluttonous study and preparation made his way to Yale and then off in the blue. After college, he will alight in Greenwich Village; Carmel, California; Washington; and Long Island; later, with his marriage to the famous columnist Dorothy Thompson, he more or less hitched a ride with her to London, Berlin, Vienna, and Moscow.

From the days of his youth, Lewis seems to have been writing, writing in a fevered marathon race. Mark Schorer, in his large, suitably so, biography (1961), prints a checklist that begins with many publications in the Yale Courant and rolls down the page to stories everywhere, especially in The Saturday Evening Post, the editor urging more and more, until later there was a break or a breach apparently owing to Lewis’s intrepid radicalism.

Along with the tornado of short works, the rampaging Sinclair Lewis published six novels before 1921, widely reviewed with the usual mixture of response, but none quite a commercial success. Among the forgotten titles: Trail of the Hawk, The Job, Free Air, and so on. Lewis was early on a professional writer; it was what he did, what he lived on, and with the worldwide success of his first major novel, Main Street, more novels, and some continuing hack work, Sinclair Lewis was famous and rich. He showed a similar energy in spending, buying a handsome old house in Williamstown, Massachusetts, staying in the best hotels in America and Europe, leasing the grandiose Mussolini-style Villa la Costa in Florence, taking on another fascist-period marble and gold flat in Rome, and dying there in a clinic at the age of sixty-six. Perhaps he had a good time and perhaps not since he died of the complications of alcohol, delirium tremens, a bad heart, and bronchial pneumonia. It’s a pilgrim’s progress with many deceivers on the way.

Main Street, for all its popularity, was a strain on Lewis’s rambunctious, aggressive imagination because the figure to be dissected with his knives of disappointment is an airy, misplaced woman, Carol Kennicott, to be dropped down in a Midwestern village bearing the name of Gopher Prairie. A gopher is a large rodent to be found in our western states and the name alone is an affront to Carol’s demure aestheticism. With her bad luck, she is…

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