In many ways, Sinclair Lewis (1885–1951) was the prophet of his generation. In an amazingly productive 10-year period, the 1920s, Lewis produced five classic novels that satirized American society and questioned entrenched American values. He systematically worked his way through the pantheon of American myths, from the piety of the small town to the sanctity of the church, smashing shibboleths left and right and permanently lodging an element of cynicism and doubt in the American imagination. Although Lewis's star began to fall as literary experimentation started to replace old-fashioned narrative, the topics that he tackled with his blend of realism and satire still resonate today. Indeed, he gave the words “Main Street” and “Babbitt” – the titles of his two most important novels – special meanings which they still possess.
He was born Harry Sinclair Lewis in the frontier outpost of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, where his father was a country physician. Lewis got on well with his stepmother (his birth mother had died when he was quite young), but his dreamymindedness and lack of ambition rankled his father, who was something of a conformist. After a lackluster education, Lewis was still bright enough to get into Yale, but he dropped out after one year in order to travel and see the world. For a time, he hooked up with Upton Sinclair and his socialist commune in New Jersey, Helicon Hall; later still, he drifted to Carmel, California, where a group of writers had clustered around Jack London and other bohemian artists. Lewis eventually returned to Yale and graduated, but he never shook his deep-seated wanderlust. For the rest of his life, he never stayed in one place very long but lived to write and experience the world in all its many aspects.
Lewis spent his apprenticeship as a journalist and a publicity agent for New York publishers. By day he cranked out copy, and by night tried his hand at fiction writing. (One early novel, The Trail of the Hawk, he famously wrote standing at the kitchen sink in a cottage on Long Island.) During the 1910s, Lewis produced several novels – Our Mr. Wrenn (1914), The Job (1917b), and Free Air (1919) – that took up social issues of the day, foremost among them the “new woman” and her evolving role in a male-oriented culture.
These would turn out to be dry runs for his most famous book, Main Street, published to huge critical and popular acclaim in 1920. The novel crystallized in Lewis's mind when he returned to Sauk Centre for a visit with his wife, a sophisticated woman with upper-crust tastes who reacted peevishly to the narrow-mindedness and hypocrisy she observed in the so-called wholesome Middle American village in which Lewis had grown up. She (and Lewis's stepmother, whose attitudes she shared) in part became the model for Carol Kennicott, the idealistic young woman who moves from the city to the country and is stifled by small-town life. In Main Street Lewis permanently altered Americans' perceptions; the book became a byword for iconoclasm and the questioning of long-held social attitudes, especially about the American Midwest.
Main Street was a media sensation. Lewis's savvy publisher, Alfred Harcourt, shrewdly assessed the market for such a book and ordered a huge first printing, which sold out almost immediately. Main Street became the number-one-selling novel for the entire period from 1920 to 1925. Small towns across the country, including Sauk Centre, wondered aloud whether they were the “real” Gopher Prairie, the fictional village that Lewis mocked in the novel.
From there, it was a straight shot upward to literary stardom that Lewis sustained for several years to come. Having taken on the small town in Main Street, Lewis next satirized the elastic ethics of the businessman in Babbitt (1922), the portrait of a small-time real estate salesman who worships gizmos and gadgetry but whose inner life is soulless and hollow. In Babbitt, Lewis also proceeded up from the village to describe the medium-sized city, charting out a kind of anatomy of the American landscape. With Babbitt, Lewis also inaugurated what would become his tried-andtrue compositional method. He would visit locales on which he planned to base his setting, interview people who did the kind of work his characters would do, and generally immerse himself in the environment of the novel. Like Emile Zola on his scouting expeditions through the streets of Paris, Lewis was a tireless and meticulous researcher – one reason his books rang so true to life with contemporary readers.
Lewis's next target was the medical industry. Less satirical than his previous novels, Arrowsmith (1925) follows the career of an idealistic young physician who is seduced by the profits of commercial pharmaceutical companies and is torn between wanting to be a servant to the public good and devoting himself to pure research in the laboratory. Arrowsmith's conflicts are Herculean, and his ultimate actions painfully heroic, as he ends up losing his wife to a public health epidemic on a Caribbean island but inventing a vaccine that helps to save everyone else. Like Babbitt, Arrowsmith also struck a chord with American readers who, like the characters in the book, were witness to the passing of the art of old-fashioned medicine and its replacement with a quasi-scientific technocracy that increasingly viewed humans not as people but as chemical machines – another iteration of Lewis's brand of Zolaesque naturalism.
Perhaps because he had toned down the harshness of his satire-laden rhetoric in Arrowsmith, in his next novel Lewis went all out, following the advice of his friend and literary confidant, H. L. Mencken, who had been urging him for years to take on what he thought was the most conspicuous type of American fraud ever – the evangelist. In the heyday of Billy Sunday and other tent-revival preachers, Lewis created the unforgettable Elmer Gantry: an audacious, unrepentant womanizer and drunkard who nonetheless is fantastically successful at bilking his followers of their money and, eventually, their self-esteem. Perpetrating one nefarious scheme after another throughout the book, the fictional Gantry became an almost endless target for religious leaders, editorial writers, and newspaper columnists, who heaped abuse on Lewis for mocking Christianity. Lewis later defended what he had written, saying that it was nothing more than what he had seen on his trips to places like Kansas City and other cities in the Bible Belt, but that did not stop him from being vilified.
Lewis was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Arrowsmith. True to form, Lewis used the occasion to criticize the whole enterprise of literary prizes and other false symbols of “prestige.” He refused to accept the honor. He did, however, in 1930 accept the Nobel Prize in Literature, becoming the first American ever to win the award. Lewis rounded out his remarkable decade with Dodsworth (1929), like Arrowsmith a more introspective novel in which satire is tempered with sympathy for his protagonist. Sam Dodsworth is a purer and more intelligent version of Babbitt, an industrialist who has spent his life making money but in late middle age realizes that he has ignored the higher ideals of education and travel. In the novel, Lewis places his character in the familiar paradigm of the American in Europe, coming to terms with his wins and losses, assessing his life against the backdrop of art and literature, history and philosophy. He succeeds where Babbitt fails. Dodsworth does something to heal his soul before it's too late.
Lewis's sphere of influence and his skills as a writer began, perhaps justifiably, to wane after becoming America's first Nobel laureate. The exhaustive research and writing he undertook during the 1920s definitely had tired him, and he could not always sustain the level of impact he had had during the boom years, when America had seemed unthinkingly obsessed with progress. Lewis still took on controversial subjects and he was still both the target and the subject of the media everywhere he went, but his later books were not as finely wrought as novels like Babbitt and Elmer Gantry. In Ann Vickers (1933), Lewis explored penal reform and addressed the daring subject matter of lesbianism. In It Can't Happen Here (1935), perhaps his most prescient analysis of the American character, he penned a dystopian farce in which fascism took the reins of the federal government (an all-too-real possibility in the era of Hitler and Mussolini). And in Kingsblood Royal (1947), Lewis wrote a fascinating example of the black “passing” novel, accurately predicting the political struggles of the near future: African Americans' demands for civil rights and equal treatment under the law.
However, Lewis was no modernist. He paid little heed to developments in rhetoric and style; he eschewed stream-of-consciousness and experimentation with narrative in general. He still wrote novels “about” things – hotels, universities, and the generation gap – and so held less and less appeal to audiences being taught new ways of thinking and seeing by the avant garde techniques of Hemingway, Stein, Dos Passos, and E. E. Cummings.
He was, however, the conscience of a whole generation of Americans and one of the most acute analysts of the American character ever to put pen to paper. Babbittry and small-town life are known for what they are today because of the works of Sinclair Lewis.
SEE ALSO: Modernist Fiction (AF); Naturalist Fiction (AF); Social-Realist Fiction (AF); Utopian and Dystopian Fiction (AF)
- Introduction. In Di Renzo, A. (ed.), If I Were Boss: The Early Business Stories of Sinclair Lewis. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. (1997).
- Babbitt as Veblenian Critique of Manliness. American Studies, 34(2), 5-23. (1993).
- The Rise of Sinclair Lewis, 1920–1930. University Park: Penn State University Press. (1996).
- Hutchisson, J. M. (ed.) (1997). Sinclair Lewis: New Essays in Criticism. Troy, NY: Whitston.
- The Innocents. New York: Harper. (1917a).
- The Job. New York: Harper. (1917b).
- Free Air. New York: Harcourt. (1919).
- Main Street. New York: Harcourt. (1920).
- Babbitt. New York: Harcourt. (1922).
- Arrowsmith. New York: Harcourt. (1925).
- Mantrap. New York: Harcourt. (1926).
- Elmer Gantry. New York: Harcourt. (1927).
- The Man Who Knew Coolidge. New York: Harcourt. (1928).
- Dodsworth. New York: Harcourt. (1929).
- Ann Vickers. New York: Doubleday. (1933).
- Work of Art. New York: Doubleday. (1934).
- It Can't Happen Here. New York: Doubleday. (1935).
- Cass Timberlane. New York: Random House. (1945).
- Kingsblood Royal. New York: Random House. (1947).
- The God-Seeker. New York: Random House. (1949).
- World So Wide. New York: Random House. (1951).
- From Main Street to Stockholm: Letters of Sinclair Lewis, 1919–1930 (ed. Smith, H. ). New York: Random House. (1952).
- The Man From Main Street: A Sinclair Lewis Reader: Selected Essays and Other Writings 1904–1950 (ed. Maule, H. E. ; Cane, M. H. , asst. Friedman, P. A. ). New York: Random House. (1953).
- Minnesota Diary, 1942–46 (ed. Killough, G. ). Moscow: University of Idaho Press. (2000).
- Go East, Young Man: Sinclair Lewis on Class in America (ed. Parry, S. E. ). New York: Signet Classics. (2005).
- Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street. New York: Random House. (2002).
- New Pioneering on Prairies: Nature, Progress, and the Individual in the Novels of Sinclair Lewis. American Quarterly, 25, 558-77. (1973).
- The Mimic as Artist: Sinclair Lewis. In Martin, E. A. , H. L. Mencken and the Debunkers. Athens: University of Georgia Press, pp. 115-38. (1984).
- The Changing Faces of Sinclair Lewis’ Wives. Studies in American Fiction, 17(1), 65-79. (1989).
- Gopher Prairie, Zenith, and the Grand Republic: Nice Places to Visit, but Would Even Sinclair Lewis Want to Live There? Midwestern Miscellany, 20, 15-27. (1992).
- Sinclair Lewis: An American Life. New York: McGraw-Hill. (1961).
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