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 first seen as a student in Blodgett College, a denominational school somewhat raw-boned as a setting for her “thin wrists, quince-blossom skin, ingénue eyes, black hair.” But as ever in the most benighted schools there will be a teacher to beam the lights of “general culture” which will give Carol her badge of identity. She goes on to Chicago for a degree in library science and to a position in St. Paul, Minnesota. There she will meet and marry Dr. Will Kennicott of Gopher Prairie, a downright medical practitioner, strong, plausible as a decent, laid-back, conventional fellow without much “taste” and a professional concern with the unpaid bills on his desk.
Gopher Prairie—best to keep going straight on by:
The fields swept up to it, past it. It was unprotected and unprotecting; there was no dignity in it nor any hope of greatness…. The houses on the outskirts were dusky old red mansions with wooden frills, or gaunt frame shelters like grocery boxes, or new bungaloes with concrete foundations imitating stone…the Seventh-Day Adventist Church—a plain clapboard wall of a sour liver color; the ash-pile back of the church; an unpainted stable; and an alley in which a Ford delivery wagon had been stranded.
Carol, whose theme, in the manner of Lewis’s fiction, will be to “turn a prairie town into Georgian houses and Japanese bungaloes,” inspects the streets and business places. The drug- store offers “pawed over heaps of toothbrushes and combs…noxious mixtures of opium and alcohol”; the grocery has “black, overripe bananas and lettuce on which a cat was sleeping”; a clothing store is displaying “ox-blood shade Oxfords with bull-dog toes”; at the general store there are “canvas shoes designed for women with bulging ankles, steel and red glass buttons upon cards with broken edges, a cottony blanket, a granite-wear frying pan reposing on a sun-faded crepe blouse.”
Carol is “sweet” and friendly to the town folk and agreeable at evening parties where a lady recites her specialty, “Old Sweetheart of Mine,” and the men tell Jewish and Irish jokes. When she tries to elevate the conversation by asking businessmen what they think of unions and profit sharing, one gentleman says they ought to hang the agitators and Dr. Kennicott agrees. It’s not quite serious, just men-talk, and the author knows all about it including what’s on the table. Perhaps he is not altogether secure in the refinements of Carol’s redecoration of her husband’s old prairie home: but he lines up the “appointments” as a rebuke to sagging chintz sofas and ottomans for sore feet.
The partition between the front and back parlor is torn out, making a long room
on which she lavished yellow and deep blue; a Japanese obi with an intricacy of gold thread on stiff aquamarine tissue, which she hung on a panel against the maize wall; a couch with pillows of sapphire velvet and gold bands…a square cabinet on which was a squat blue jar between yellow candles.
She gives an evening party in which the locals take off their shoes and put on sheets of paper with designs of lotus blossoms and dragons: “real Chinese masques…from an importing shop in Minnesota. You are to put them on…and turn into mandarins and coolies….” For dinner, “blue bowls of chow mein, with lichee nuts and ginger preserved in syrup.” A divertissement to replace fun evenings of Musical Chairs and Spin the Bottle.
Lewis’s picture of Gopher Prairie and all American small towns:
The other tradition is that the significant features of all villages are whiskers, iron dogs upon lawns, gold bricks, checkers, jars of gilded cat-tails…standardized background, a sluggishness of speech and manners, a rigid ruling of the spirit by the desire to appear respectable…the contentment of the quiet dead…. It is slavery self-sought and self-defended. It is dullness made God.
Carol Kennicott is not a scourge; she wishes to get along, joins the clubs, learns to play bridge badly, but her local uplift is rebuffed at every turn, especially by her enlightened friends. The city hall with “piles of folding chairs” and skeletons of “Fourth of July floats covered with decomposing plaster shields and faded red, white, and blue bunting” she imagines transformed into a “Georgian city hall: with warm brick walls, with white shutters, a fanlight, a wide hall and curving stair.” On her way about town, like a petitioner for the Red Cross, she meets laughter, scorn, and the vivid claims of practicality. Indeed, it’s a misfortune that Carol did not live to read of the pleasures of the “shanty aesthetic.”
Her home life, her marriage: it is love, off and on, good days swimming in the lake, times when the rude expanse of the prairie is filled with golden light, “red-winged blackbirds chasing a crow.” The landscape is not the murmuring pines she longs for, but she takes heart from “dipping rolling fields bright with wheat.” Will Kennicott and his wife have richly convincing arguments of the Who do you think you are? sort on his side and I’m just a person trying my best on her part. She complains about one man or another smoking a filthy cigar and spitting on her carpet and Will insists he’s the best fellow on earth and I won’t have you snubbing him.
As the novel goes on, for some readers the sympathy will shift to husband Will. He goes out in the dead of night to deliver babies, to save a life by hacking off a bleeding smashed arm; sometimes the snow is so deep and fierce a motorcar can’t get through and the horse and buggy has to be hitched up for him to make a call in the darkness. When Carol mourns the ugliness and mediocrity of Gopher Prairie, Will thinks he’d better go and look after the storm windows.
The novel offers more illustrations, one might call them, of the point; the complacency, the fatuity, the narrow views and general lumpiness of the villagers. Carol: “Damn all of them! Do they think they can make me believe that a display of potatoes at Howland & Gould’s is enough beauty and strangeness?” In the end there is a speed-up, a crash of defiant activity like that of Ibsen’s Nora, except that Carol does not abandon little Hugh, the son who has entered the Kennicott family. She packs up and settles in Washington, the capital, a company town with the sacred monuments splitting the sky like the grain elevators of the Middle West. Carol takes a position with the Bureau of War Risk Insurance; some tedium, but a routine more worthy than “the putative feminine virtues of domesticity, that cooking and cleaning,” which she had done little of with her girl from the country on hand. In Washington’s clean-swept bright streets there is pleasure; there are concerts and museums and the bold activities of the suffragettes. But flee it as she will, Gopher Prairie pursues her still. Southern girls in the office are in no way free from the tyranny of hairdos, boyfriends, inspirational beliefs in the next step, marriage.
Carol is in Washington for almost two years, an unusual abandonment of her husband honored as due cause in divorce cases. But Lewis has in a way abandoned the manly, realistic Will Kennicott, who sends money to his family but seems to fall into a lonely yearning for reconciliation without believing in his claims. Shyly, apologetically, he visits Carol in Washington, fearing to be an imposition. Carol will return to Gopher Prairie, her rather grave independence and refinement defeated. And Dr. Kennicott, bolting wife back in the parlor, can visit his patients, chat on the front porch with his old friends, and polish his fishing rods. Carol’s last thoughts:
But I have won in this. I’ve never excused my failures by sneering at my aspirations, by pretending to have gone beyond them. I do not admit that Main Street is as beautiful as it should be! I do not admit that dish-washing is enough to satisfy all women! I may not have fought the good fight, but I have kept the faith.
Carol Kennicott, trapped in her sentiments, her “aspirations,” is a frail vessel for the muscular, pugilistic talents of Sinclair Lewis. Nevertheless, Main Street was a wild, raging success here and abroad. From England letters of appreciation by: Compton MacKenzie, Hugh Walpole, H.G. Wells, Rebecca West, John Galsworthy, and others. In America, outrage here and there, letters from women who saw themselves like Carol Kennicott a victim of provincial bashing, a sort of opinion policing of the high-minded. More interesting is the aesthetic struggle with Lewis’s fame and ubiquity by his fellow American writers.
F. Scott Fitzgerald: eleven years younger than Lewis, published This Side of Paradise in the same year that Main Street appeared. The younger writer was also a success if by way of a more flamboyant, jazz-age flair than the earnest fictions of Lewis had in mind. On the publication of Main Street he wrote the author:
I want to tell you that Main Street has displaced Theron Ware in my favor as the best American novel. The amount of sheer data in it is amazing! As a writer and a Minnesotan let me swell the chorus—after a third reading.
In 1925, the year of the publication of The Great Gatsby and of the novel Arrowsmith, Fitzgerald wrote to John Peale Bishop: “Is Lewis’s book [Arrowsmith] any good. I imagine that mine [Gatsby] is better.”
With his fame, sales, and productivity, Lewis seemed to take up all the air in the literary landscape. Theodore Dreiser, fourteen years older, had published Sister Carrie (1900) and Jennie Gerhardt (1911) before An American Tragedy in 1925, the same year as The Great Gatsby and Arrowsmith. Dreiser had also published type or situation fictions, somewhat on the order of Lewis’s novels if differing in execution: The Financier (1912), The Titan (1914), and The ‘Genius’ (1915). He was a celebrated novelist and a sore- head not soothed by Lewis’s consistent praise and promotion of his talent. Indeed, Lewis could not, as a writer, imagine the mind and spirit that produced Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy. Nevertheless, when the two were the finalists for the first Nobel Prize to go to an American for literature, it was Sinclair Lewis who won the ultimate medal and for Dreiser there was to be what is lightly known as bitter disappointment.
Lewis, chirpy, friendly, too often a “card” in his antics, was everywhere, like the useful A&P turning up on every corner, big, popular, easy. Edgar Lee Masters and Sherwood Anderson had looked at the lonely and hurt men and women in small towns and unenlightened byways in a mood of tristesse, personal failure. Lewis’s orating reactionaries denying Carol Kennicott are hearty citizens of a different order. What did the millions of readers of Main Street find? Perhaps the thrill of the novel was the detail, the street, the store, the courthouse, the rest room for women in town of a Saturday for the family shopping, moral struggles over “babies, cooks, embroidery stitches, the price of potatoes, and the tastes of husbands in the matter of spinach.” And, perhaps, for the sophisticated here and abroad there was a certain snobbery in enjoying the relentless foolishness and predictability of the response to every challenge to the American way. Dickens and Mrs. Trollope had been there before, never missing a spittoon.
Mark Schorer published his biography of Sinclair Lewis in 1961—800 pages; a new one by Richard Lingeman has just appeared, 2002—659 pages. A biographer might wish for a well-documented life to assess and yet find the mountain of material at hand a threatening climb. Lewis kept a diary in his youth and throughout his life appeared to save every letter; the letters he wrote were saved by the recipient. His actual encounters with publishers, wives, children are remembered by them; many as his fame rose wrote of the impression he made. Later he seemed to have kept a guest book and thus there is a record of the luncheons, visits, the remembrance by a rather shady caretaker that as he was dying he called the doctor “father.” In Austria in 1932, at the Villa Sauerbrunn, we can learn there were many guests, “the Adolphe Menjous among them.” A wisp in the rushing winds of this life.
Schorer, in an athletic audacity, faces the documentation with sacrificial gallantry. It’s an accomplishment as graceful and absorbing as the material allows. Lewis does live, day to day as it were, and also as a whole, an odd American littérateur of surpassing energy, grit, uncertainty, acclaim, and not much solace from his human relationships.
Richard Lingeman’s biography, long as it is, manages a sort of condensation of Schorer’s book. It is readable, sensitive to nuance, and also sensitive to a sort of cost-accounting question of the necessity for a replacement, challenge, revisionary labor in the face of Mark Schorer’s pharaonic memorial:
It remained for Mark Schorer’s 1961 biography to finish him [Lewis] off in eight-hundred plus pages. Not that Schorer did a shoddy or dishonorable job: To the contrary, his book is devotedly and massively researched and written with literary distinction (and invaluable to biographers). Yet it is pervaded by such a tone of disapproval that it left the impression with many readers that Schorer disdained both Lewis himself and his work.
Schorer’ s thoughts:
Brought up in an environment that deplored art and adored success, he managed, in that America, to make a success of “art.” Often and increasingly it was bad art, and the success in many ways was vicious and corrosive…. He loved what he deplored; in his life, he was happiest with the kind of people who might have been models for his own caricatures…. 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…. He gave us a vigorous, perhaps a unique thrust into the imagination of ourselves.
Richard Lingeman’s biography rests upon his view of the permanent value of the fictions created by the rather florid man ever on the run, or so it seems. He will find, for instance, that the catalog of objects in the books are not more dated than objects in Vermeer and Chardin. The frugal artists are not to the point, but it is true that the debris of our common life is rescued with curatorial brio. Decor here, which includes attitude, politics, speech, is fate, hope, and anxiety. Your brown hat and vote for Warren G. Harding are what you are. Lingeman’s last line about Lewis: He really cared. A warm tribute to the quarrelsome, interesting iconoclast, cold offstage, at home.
The life, about which so much remains in the carefully preserving cloisters of our libraries, is a swamp of remembered incident. In any case, Lewis married Grace Hegger in 1914 at the Society for Ethical Culture, a nondenominational escape from a pastor or a clerk in City Hall. She was almost two years younger, a well-born New Yorker, child of a British mother and a German father who once had an art gallery on Fifth Avenue but did not prosper. At the time of the marriage, Grace was an editor at Vogue and her husband was furiously writing for a few dollars here and there and not much from his early novel Our Mr. Wrenn. They moved about and every step left its tracks. A son was born, named Wells for the British author; a successful child who went to Exeter and graduated with honors from Harvard, only to be killed in World War II. By that time, Lewis had left Grace for Dorothy Thompson and Grace was now a Mrs. Casanova. Lewis showed only a casual interest in Grace’s son and that born to Dorothy Thompson, Michael Lewis. The marriage to the notable political and social commentator lasted some fourteen years and when the legal dissolution came about Lewis said he thought of naming Hitler as the co-respondent. Thus the bare bones of a fat life.
George Babbitt, a monochrome monologuist, commands an expressiveness that would drown another figure of the period, the spare, taciturn Henry Ford, even as they shared a boiling detestation of the unions. Babbitt is forty-six and wakes up, looking for his BVDs, in the middle-sized Midwestern city of Zenith. The town has two country clubs, several movie houses, a residential landscape big enough and small enough to define who you are and thereby create a fog of status anxiety, a pitiful subplot to Babbitt’s bluster. He is more or less successful as the owner of Babbitt-Thompson Realty Company, has a wife, Myra, three children, tends to overeat, wears on his gray suit lapel the Boosters’ Club button, an emblem of importance to him: “his V.C., his Legion of Honor ribbon, his Phi Beta Kappa key.” So, from the first poor Babbitt is a buffoon, human enough to be calculating without the numbers of his existence quite adding up.
The details, details, the minutiae—Babbitt is the supreme example of the author’s genius for the particular: the wounded street, the gloss of hope, the dinner party with the salad in hollowed apples, the evangelists circuit and in Babbitt, houses and their furniture. Babbitt’s own house in Floral Park, right out of “Cheerful Modern Houses for Moderate Incomes,” with plugs, noted, for lamps, electric percolator, and electric toaster. He nervously prepares a speech for a local group and his orotund effusions give him a reputation as a public speaker and he becomes the creator of what is still known as “Babbittry”: grandiose self and local promoting of Zenith. He’s sharp in trades with nervous clients, resents a long-established, quieter firm, growls sentiments on every occasion with his imposing cigar-resonant voice. Babbitt, ever speechifying to the world and to the inner man, reaches his apotheosis at a dinner for the Zenith Real Estate Board. Pages and pages are given to the weighty articulation—the man of ideas, complete, as it were:
“In rising to address you, with my impromptu speech carefully tucked into my vest pocket…let the waves of good fellowship waft them up to the flowery slopes of amity…. I wouldn’t trade a high-class Zenith acreage development for the whole length and breadth of Broadway or State Street…. It’s evident to any one with a head for facts that Zenith is the finest example of American life and prosperity to be found anywhere…. The ideal of American manhood and culture isn’t a lot of cranks sitting around chewing the rag with their Rights and their Wrongs, but a God-fearing, hustling, successful, two-fisted Regular Guy,…who…belongs to the Boosters or the Rotarians or the Kiwanis, to the Elks or Moose or Red Men or Knights of Columbus…. Get out and root for Uncle Samuel, USA!”
Amusing, yes, captured, impaled, by Lewis’s rhythmic assurance, but poor Babbitt brings to mind—laugh, clown, laugh, although your heart is breaking. He’s not a happy fellow but given to lacrimal envy; about his golf club, inevitably not the “first-class” Tonawanda, he clouds his thoughts with “Why, I wouldn’t join the Tonawanda even if—I wouldn’t join it on a bet!” His best friend is a moody fellow with a screeching, nagging wife he is driven to shoot and Babbitt is a faithful jailhouse visitor. Indeed, he himself longs for a girlfriend on the side, the occasion that had brought forth the shooting. Babbitt likes his own mild wife well enough but his efforts for a consoling addition come to nothing; he’s too fat and needy. He is seen throughout the portrayal from the outside, ever gross, exaggerated, the victim, perhaps, of the author’s devotion to types who, met on the street, nodding off to sleep, seldom articulate otherwise than in the language of their obsessive shape.
Babbitt, intimations of mortality upon him, questions his life, but, with a sigh, there it is. In a reunion with his son, whom he has aggressively criticized, he says: “Don’t be scared of the family. No, nor all of Zenith. Nor of yourself, the way I’ve been….” And, arm and arm, the two Babbitt men join the family. George Babbitt is singular, not a plausible portrait of the American businessman, if that is what was intended. Still, the unrelenting caricature lives on, not as a fiction, but as a mythical native son, like Johnny Appleseed.
Elmer Gantry was drunk: our introduction to a scurrilous portrait of an evangelical preacher, the sort still sanctifying, still ranting and passing the collection plate today. Elmer, known as Hell-cat, is a football player at Terwillinger College, a Baptist institution in Gritzmacher Springs, Kansas. He’s a brawler, dumb, brought up by a patient Christian mother. When he thinks about the faith, he lazily decides there must be something to it with so many going on about it. For himself, he’s not about to go into the ministry, the aim of the college; he’s not thinking to give up chasing girls, drinking and smoking and not making any money from some tightwad, whistle-stop congregation. He grouses about all the Christers nagging at him, little pipsqueaks like one Eddie Fislinger in particular. So Elmer’s inner life goes on in growls and grunts and general cussedness.
Fate, or God, put Elmer, far from sober, on the street one night when the detested Eddie was preaching and saving souls. A heckler came after Eddie, and Elmer, seeing the opportunity for a fight, knocked him down, going to the defense, as it were, of his fellow divinity student. In that way, Elmer became a new kind of celebrity, off the football field and now a candidate for salvation.
Lewis, in his fiction, gives his dominating figures a counter-figure as a friend. As Babbitt had the moody, violin-playing college friend who was in desperation led to shoot his wife, Elmer Gantry has one true friendship in his life, an unlikely one. Jim Lefferts, agnostic, intelligent, learned, has found himself in the denominational college because it was cheap and his father, a doctor, practiced in the next village. The father also thought it interesting to put his son in a position to “stir up the fretful complacency of the saints.” Jim is aware that Elmer is not a spirit informed by Darwinism, German biblical criticism, or even a temptation to reflection beyond the mundane bothers of the moment. In addition, Elmer is a creature bred on Sunday School, baby Jesus in the manger, baptism by immersion more than once, and his own baritone singing: “Draw me nearer, blessed Lord, to Thy precious bleeding side.” And now that he has defended Eddie, Elmer is seen throughout the school as a candidate for salvation yet another time at the Annual College YMCA Week of Prayer.
He goes to the event, his imposing, football-star bulk noticeable as he takes a seat down front and sees that his mother has come for the special service. To be saved, converted, by the pleading of the visiting preacher, Judson Roberts, who had been a football player at the University of Chicago, known as the Praying Fullback—it’s too much for Elmer and he confesses his sinful soul and with the congregation saying, “Thank God!” and “Praise the Lord!” Elmer takes the first step on the road to stardom, with many pitfalls and reverses, as the great preacher who will make “the United States a moral nation!”
Elmer is not thoughtful enough to doubt or to believe. He’s a Christian in the same way he’s six foot one, “handsome as a Great Dane” and, it must be said, horny. Elmer, football star, brawny protector of the street preacher, is a trump card for the faith and urged to give a speech. Compositional anxiety and fretting, but on stage he turns out to have the volume and resonance of a fire truck. On to the Mizpah Theological Seminary to get a Doctor of Divinity degree in the Baptist faith. In his senior year he is expelled for drinking, but remains an ordained Baptist minister, if not a Doctor of Divinity.
Elmer can at last give up drinking and smoking, but he cannot give up sex, the snake in the valley for clerics from Henry Ward Beecher to Jimmy Swaggart and to some of the boy-smitten Catholic priesthood. Elmer, defrocked as it were, is two years on the road as a salesman for the Pequot Farm Implement Company. Out west he will encounter the evangelist Sharon Falconer, a performing phenomenon on the order of Aimee Semple McPherson and Billy Sunday.
This interlude, a set piece perhaps, is vivid, emotionally complicated, rich in the usual documentation, but here useful as a fictional ornamentation of character and drama. After a bedazzled evening with the ethereal Sharon in her white and gold robes, Elmer manages to trap her on the way out and to announce himself as a Baptist preacher, at present without a church. Sharon says: “What’s the trouble this time? Booze or women?” and passes on.
Sharon is an astute businesswoman with a large staff, a choir, pianist, violinist, children’s preacher, press agent, travel agent, sharp attention to pledges and collections. Elmer presses his case as a preacher, helper, assistant and Sharon takes him on because he’s “so completely brazen, so completely unscrupulous and so beautifully ignorant.” Much is to follow: making love to Sharon, building a spectacular new temple, a detour into faith healing, a specialty with its own catechism. Elmer’s energy, his commanding braying at the altar will overcome the flock and the shrewd Sharon; he rolls over her life like a plow in an open field. The ambitious temple and the gifted salvation entrepreneur, the famous lady evangelist, are destroyed in a fire. Elmer escapes the conflagration, only to face the threats to his professional standing ignited by one Hettie Dowler and her husband, who set him up for an alienation of affections lawsuit that will cost him a considerable amount of money. Elmer is not run out of town in a barrel, but free to trudge on in the gospel trip and to become the first preacher to have his own radio show.
Elmer Gantry offended the clergy, was banned in Boston, was selected by the Book-of-the-Month-Club, and sold well in Kansas. As a character, Elmer Gantry has the consistency of his unremitting disrepute; examples ever at hand by way of the author’s inclination to repetition and padding. It’s an infidel story, hostile not only to religious scoundrels but to the claims of Christianity itself, or at least to Protestantism, high and low. A lot of crazy, unbelievable things happen in the Scriptures, a compendium Lewis knows well and can present as troubling some of his characters. Elmer Gantry is the dark side of Babbitt, two Americans with something to sell.
Arrowsmith, a more traditional novel, appeared after Babbitt and before Elmer Gantry. Here Lewis, with his inclination to think of fiction as a topic, ventured into medical science, abandoning labor as a topic with Eugene V. Debs as the hero. With Martin Arrowsmith to end his journey looking at a strain of Bacillus lepisepticus under his microscope the author will need a lot of help. And there is Dr. Max Gottlieb, a German Jew and renowned bacteriologist by unkind fate landing in the medical school of a Midwestern university, Arrowsmith’s idol and mentor—a difficult case. In Dr. Paul de Kruif, to publish the popular Microbe Hunters a year after Arrowsmith, Lewis indeed found a “collaborator” curiously like himself in many ways, the cloning to be a bit comic and finally troublesome. The alliance is told in both the Lingeman and Schorer biographies.
De Kruif, with a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in bacteriology, worked in research at the Rockefeller Institute in New York, found it not to his liking except for the vision and example of the dedicated professor of physiology Jacques Loeb. The director of the institute, Dr. Simon Flexner, and the institute were denounced as a fraud, ever seeking publicity and money by pushing discoveries into the market without adequate testing. The anonymous article was traced to de Kruif and he was fired. De Kruif agreed to work with Lewis and a contract was drawn up with Lewis to get 75 percent and de Kruif 25 percent. They spent two months together in the Caribbean observing outbreaks of infection and then on to England, Lewis all the while writing the novel, drinking heavily with the doctor going along in a convivial manner moderately, at least by comparison with the novelist, now his student in the matter of medicine.
On the publication of Arrowsmith, Doctor de Kruif thought he should be rightly acknowledged as coauthor, or if not that, have acknowledgment as collaborator. The settlement was an acknowledgment, more specific than thanks to “my agent” or “to my wife, without whom this book could not have been written.” Lewis wrote: “I am indebted not only for most of the bacteriological and medical material in this tale but equally for his suggestions in the planning of the fable itself—for his realization of the characters as living people, for his philosophy as a scientist.” And there the matter and the friendship ended.
Martin Arrowsmith, an attractive son of an unlikely place called Elk Mills, starts his distinguished life in the office of a drunken country doctor who keeps his first appendectomy preserved in a bottle. Martin is fourteen then and is somehow inspired to prepare for medical school at the state university of Winnemac, where the cranky, celebrated Max Gottlieb (de Kruif’s Jacob Loeb?) is a professor, the light from his laboratory shining on after midnight. Martin tries to enter his lab but is turned away as too young and so he goes on with his courses, frat life, falling for a girl named Madeline, a summer job installing telephone poles in Montana. The hero’s true love is the dedication of Max Gottlieb, but he is established as an American young man, not too different from others except in his early attraction to laboratory science. Madeline, a sleek girl with the soul of a debutante even in the unpromising hinterland, rejects him and the Martin Arrowsmith history unfolds as it will in fiction’s capsule. He is accepted in Gottlieb’s laboratory, does his internship in Zenith Hospital, and marries a young nurse named Leora.
Arrowsmith finds the field of medicine and many of the doctors practicing the art of healing a rich soil for frauds, “tonsil-snatchers,” fools, opportunities for a cool, white masquerade of competence. And again for oratory on “The Art and Science of Furnishing the Doctor’s Office”:
And from a scientific standpoint, don’t overlook the fact that the impression of properly remunerative competence which you make on a patient is of just as much importance,…as the drugs you get into him or the operations he lets you get away with…. Have your potted palms and handsome pictures—to the practical physician they are as necessary a part of his working equipment as a sterilizer or a Baumanometer. But so far as possible have everything in sanitary-looking white—and think of the color-schemes you can evolve, or the good wife for you…. Rich golden or red cushions, in a Morris chair enameled in the purest white…. Recent and unspotted numbers of expensive magazines, with art covers, lying on a white table!
Laboratory science, slow, lonely, prone to the disappointment of false leads, is the heroic endeavor in this somewhat strange novel, itself heroically researched by Sinclair Lewis. And money is the demon. Arrowsmith practices medicine out west to be with his wife as she nurses her ailing mother. This is seen as honorable enough, but not following the gleam. At the famous institute in New York, poor Max Gottlieb gets in trouble for denouncing the staff and will end up ignominiously working for a pharmaceutical company ever anxious to bring “discovery” to market. Martin Arrowsmith will discover the bacterial cause in certain illnesses, hesitate, with Gottlieb’s insistent command, and when at last ready to submit his paper for publication will find that French scientists have just come out with a similar discovery. Don’t despair, Gottlieb tells him, write a paper of corroboration. And so the arcane field with its treacheries and glories is the topic of Arrowsmith.
Martin Arrowsmith has lost his amiable, practical, and devoted wife, Leora, to the bubonic plague her husband was studying in the Caribbean. His remarriage and the fame of his discovery bring an interlude the novelist might have foregone. The new wife is seriously rich and so it’s to be mansions, butlers, a luxe trip to Europe which the shaggy, quiet, obsessed scientist must suffer until there is a separation. Martin retreats with a fellow scientist to a lab in the Vermont woods, there to be himself and contented. The idealism of Martin Arrowsmith is served by his plainness, crankiness, short temper at times, and by the boyish remnant of a lad born in Elk Mills. He is not a fixed point like the admirable Max Gottlieb; there is still something in him of the prairie, the son of the owner of that village’s New York Clothing Bazaar, his father.
Arrowsmith won the Pulitzer Prize. Great acclaim and publicity, not for the choice, but for Sinclair Lewis’s refusal of the award. His letter, mulled over, questioned the phrase in the prize that mentioned that the honored novel should “present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” He also doubted the judges’ claim to authority in the matter of literature.
Mark Schorer’s biography somewhat cattily observes that Main Street had previously been under consideration and passed over for Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence. And if that footnote were not sufficient for subterranean motive in an artistic rejection, bibliographical leavings indicate that Sinclair Lewis had his thoughts elsewhere—in Stockholm.
No matter. Arrowsmith is Sinclair Lewis’s most careful and thoughtful novel. The pages are filled with cranks and jackals and clowns, like the memorable Dr. Pickerbaugh who writes execrable jingles performed by his daughters, known as the Healthette Octet. The scheme, the theme, is freely unfair to doctors making their rounds and fateful decisions in order to elevate the laboratory. And yet, like the hero’s conquest of what is called the X principle, Arrowsmith is a sort of gold star for a steady workman.
Dodsworth is Sinclair Lewis afloat, all over the place as he indeed was. The biographies are dizzy with his travels, his houses, his visits to country homes, his vast acquaintance. Around the time his publishers were bringing out Elmer Gantry, “he telephoned Lady Sybil Colefax who invited them to tea.” Grace Hegger Lewis was still about then. Hemingway and his then wife Martha Gellhorn met Lewis in Key West and they went on to share a woodcock dinner, shot by the sportsman. Some years later the two writers are at the Gritti Palace in Venice and in the stifling documentation we can learn that Mary Hemingway dined with Lewis at Harry’s Bar. Pleasant enough, until Hemingway’s correspondence with Maxwell Perkins uncovers the muddy side of the welcome mat. “The poor Baedeker peering bastard…defiling Venice with his pock marked curiosity and lack of understanding.” Snippets in a cyclonic international whirl of restlessness, celebrity, and, strangely, not one bit of the debris lost to history.
Sam Dodsworth is a man of business, but he is not Babbitt scanning the for-sale ads in the morning paper. Dodsworth, in Zenith, has designed a cheap, practical motorcar, named the Revekation, which “became the sensation for a season and one of its best-selling cars for a score of years.” At the age of fifty, his company is sold out and his share of the stock makes him a rich man. He is also married to Fran, daughter of a prominent, well-to-do local family, children grown, and so it’s time for a vacation in Europe where Fran as a girl has been to school. However, her theme in life and in the manner of Lewis’s fictional bricks of character is given straight off and never to be forsaken:
She had a high art of deflating him, of enfeebling him, with one quick, innocent-sounding phrase. By the most careless comment on his bulky new overcoat she could make him feel like a lout in it…. She could make him feel so unintelligent that he would be silent all evening. The easy self-confidence which weeks of industrial triumphs had built up in him she could flatten in five seconds. She was, in fact, a genius at planting in him an assurance of his inferiority.
That is the novel Dodsworth, Sam and Fran in London, Paris, Madrid, Florence, Venice, Vienna, and, at last, Berlin. They quarrel, somehow meet as many lords and ladies and duchesses and crass, ignorant American tourists as Lewis himself certainly ran into. Fran is very pretty, flirtatious with all men except her husband, whom she continues to torment in a strong, villainous expertise, rather more like a boxer than the frail, elegant, still young in her forties, little American wife would call to mind.
Sam Dodsworth himself is a manly, credible husband of a virago with considerable perfumed charm. He’s not a supine victim, but she’s his wife and they are not in Zenith, but in Europe, with the great cities a challenge to his ways and experience. Lewis is not subtle; Fran, who has superficial culture, a bit of French, is shown to be incurious, dead to the beauties of the ancient cities, awkwardly sluttish in a provincial way. Dodsworth will not become a connoisseur of art, but is sensitive to the byways, the shops, the working people, the sidewalk cafés, the interesting “foreignness” of it all. He remains a robust American, a defender, as it were, since throughout the travels his country and its people are the objects of ridicule, not least by Fran who cringes at the sight of an “American tourist” running around with guidebooks and awful accents.
There’s a sentimental roundup in the frantic corral of trains and hotels and alliances formed in restaurants and by letters of introduction. The Dodsworths separate; Fran is to be married to a Viennese fellow with a von in his name but his mother intervenes and Fran is abandoned to slink back to Zenith in bad shape. Sam marries a fine widow, American, who since her husband’s death had lived in Venice, but is happy to go back home with her nice new husband and help him build some sensible, well-designed houses in a new development. The book is a clot, a swelling of tourism, stop by weary stop. But old Dodsworth, a husband, survives and fights the indignities of marriage with the patient attention of a man who had struggled with wheels and axles.
Sinclair Lewis is a prodigy, something like a local star who can play cadenzas faster than anyone else. But, as a writer, the rousing creator is also lazy. His gift is not for drama; his inspiration is variations on a theme. Babbitt cannot walk down the street without expressing his babbittry in disquisitions short and very long. Elmer Gantry, once in the groove, would preach in the grocery store while buying altar candles. Doctors in the basement cafeteria chat about fees; Fran Dodsworth, packing or worrying about the rate of exchange, will ever dismiss her husband for delinquencies and tackiness.
Repetition, padding, and insistence are the enemies of the author’s original inspiration in creating the vivid characters still standing over the American landscape like the Statue of Liberty. The country itself is a dour spread, a conspiracy of dollar worship, mediocrity, vapid conformity. Idealism is isolating; individuality, difference, and dissent are the mark of losers—for all except the extraordinary Sinclair Lewis himself.
June 27, 2002