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||(Harry) Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951)|
American novelist, playwright, and social critic who gained popularity with satirical novels. Sinclair Lewis won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930, the first given to American. His total output includes 22 novels and three plays. Though Lewis criticized at times the American way of living, his basic view of the "American human comedy" was optimistic.
"His central characters are the pioneer, the doctor, the scientist, the businessman, and the feminist. The appeal of his best fiction lies in the opposition between his idealistic protagonists and an array of fools, charlatans, and scoundrels - evangelists, editorialists, pseudo-artists, cultists, and boosters." (from The Quixotic Vision of Sinclair Lewis by Martin Light, 1975)
Harry Sinclair Lewis was born in Sauk Centre, a prairie village in the heart of Minnesota, as the third son of a country doctor. His mother, who was the daughter of a Canadian physician, died of tuberculosis when Lewis was six years old. His father remarried a year later Isabel Warner. Lewis considered her psychically his own mother. Later Lewis characterized Sauk Center "narrow-minded and socially provincial" and books offered him one way of escape: he had access to the three or four hundred volumes, exclusive of medical books, in his father's library.
Lewis's early life was made miserable by teasing - he was strange-looking with his red hair and very bad skin. At the age of 13 he ran away from home to become a drummer boy in the Spanish-American War, but his father caught up with him at the railroad station, and brought the boy home. Lewis started to write and keep a diary in his youth; he produced romantic poetry, and stories about knights and fair ladies. Before 1921 he had already published six novels.
In 1902 Lewis entered the Oberlin Academy, but then moved to Yale University and started to contribute the Yale Literary Magazine. On one summer vacation Lewis traveled to England on a cattle boat and in another year, dissatisfied with college, he went to Panama in search of a job on the canal. He also worked as a janitor at Upton Sinclair's socialist commune Helicon Hall (1906-07). For a period he tried to earn his living as a free-lance writer in New York. In Yale Lewis met Jack London, and later he sold the elder writer short story plots.
Lewis received his M.A. in 1908 and worked for publishing houses and various magazines in Iowa, Carmel, San Francisco, Washington D.C. and New York City. In Greenwich Village he associated occasionally with such radicals as John Reed and Floyd Dell. For a short time he was a member of the Socialist Party. Lewis's first published book was Hike and the Aeroplane (1912), which came out under the pseudonym Tom Graham. The next work, Our Mr Wrenn (1914) presented a hero, who is innocent, naïve, and who dreams of adventures. After travels abroad he returns to his normal idyllic life. Similar characters populate Lewis's further novels, among them Carol Kennicott from the novel Main Street (1920).
From 1913-14 Lewis produced a syndicated book page, which helped him to gain good reviews of his own works by his fellow writers. In 1914 Lewis married Grace Livingston Hegger, an editor at Vogue. Their son, Wells, was named after the famous British author H.G. Wells, to whose social ideas Lewis was drawn to. For the following two years he worked as an editor and advertising manager at the book publishing firm George H. Doran Company. In 1916 Lewis abandoned his job and traveled with his wife around the country.
After publishing two novels, Lewis devoted himself entirely to writing. He gained fame with Main Street, a study of idealism and reality in a narrow-minded small-town. "Main Street is the continuation of main Streets everywhere." It meant cheap shops, ugly public buildings, and citizens who were bound by rigid conventions. The protagonist, Carol Kennicott, is an emancipated woman, who is in conflict with the conformity of Gopher Prairie - gopher is a large rodent living in the western states of the U.S. Before marrying Dr Will Kennicott of Gopher Prairie, Carol has studied library science in Chicago and worked in St. Paul Minnesota. The town is far from the romantic picture of open and democratic American community. Carol joins the clubs, the Library Board to encourage reading, and learns to play bridge, but she soon finds out that unions and profit sharing are dangerous subjects in conversation. After flirting with a lawyer, she meets a young Swedish sailor, who leaves the town, before they start to do something else than talk and walk together. She leaves her family, and moves to Washington, DC. Erik finds his way to Hollywood, and Carol returns to Gopher Prairie, but without feeling defeated: "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!" The book had parallels with the author's own early life. Carol also has skin problems. Lewis claimed that Main Street was read "with the same masochistic pleasure that one has in sucking an aching tooth."
Main Street was published in the late autumn and it became a best-seller at the Christmas rush. "A new voice was loosed on the American ear," said one critic. The Pulitzer Prize jury had voted for it but the Columbia University trustees overturned their decision and gave the prize instead to Edith Wharton for The Age of Innocence. Lewis's next novel, Babbitt(1922), was a merciless portrait of a Midwestern businessmen. His hometown, Zenith, is a version of Gopher Prairie, although Zenith is much bigger. George F. Babbitt, forty-six years old, yearns for freedom but in his world art and culture are in the service of business. "To George F. Babbitt, as to most prosperous citizens of Zenith, his motor-car was poetry and tragedy, love and heroism. The office was his pirate ship but the car his perilous excursion ashore." (from Babbitt). His brief period of rebellion starts when his closest friend kills his wife and is sent to prison. All his attempts to live a more "bohemian" life fails and he returns to the fold of his clan of good fellows. "Babbittry" soon became synonymous with conformism and unthinking commercialism. Sherwood Anderson saw Lewis's prose as a "dreary ocean" but "in Babbitt there are moments when the people of whom he writes, with such amazing attention to the outer details of lives, begin to think and feel a little, and with the coming of life into his people a kind of nervous, hurried beauty and life flits, like a lantern carried by a night watchman past the window of a factory as one stands waiting and watching in a grim street on a night of December."
Arrowsmith (1925) depicted the life of a doctor, Martin Arrowsmith, who is caught between his idealism and commercialism. The book was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, which Lewis declined, but in a letter he wrote to his publisher, "Any thoughts on pulling wires for [Arrowsmith] for Nobel Prize?" Lewis explained that because the award was meant for books that celebrate American wholesomeness, his novels, which are critical, should not be awarded the prize. Lewis dedicated his work to Edith Wharton whom he admired and never complained that he did not receive the prize earlier. With the scientific aspects of the story Lewis collaborated with Dr. Paul De Kruif. They spent two months in the Caribbean observing outbeaks of infection and then continued to England. Lewis drank and wrote, while de Kruif took seriously their cooperation. Later Lewis confessed: "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." In the following works Lewis often used experts for technical advice, like Emile Zola had done in France.
John Ford's film version of Arrowsmith from 1931 was produced by Samuel Goldwyn. Ford was faithful to the novel's themes, but he made the Midwestern doctor more pompous than Lewis intended. At Goldwyn's request, Ford promised not to drink during the shooting of the film. However, the director walked off the picture after some troubles and boozed on Catalina Island. Finally he was removed by Goldwyn.
"Every compulsion is put upon writers to become safe, polite, obedient, and sterile. In protest, I declined election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters some years ago, and now I must decline the Pulitzer Prize." (from the author's letter, 1926)
Elmer Gantry (1927), written with angry, sparkling style, was an attack on hypocritical ministers. The book added a swindler after an idealist and a businessman into Lewis's great portrayals of basic American characters. Elmer is a former football player, who is expelled from a theological seminary for drinking, but remanis an energic, ordained Baptist minister. His spectacular temple burns down but he becomes the first preacher to have his own radio show. In Dodsworth (1929) a couple, Sam and Fran, whose marriage collapses, travels in Europe. The Dodsworths separate, Sam marries a an American widow, Fran's mother intervenes when she plans to marry a Viennese man, who has a von in his name. Ann Vickers (1933) examined the corruption of social services. Its idealistic heroine experiences humiliations in love but finally finds a man, with whom she can share her life.
the summer and fall of 1923, Lewis frequented the Montparnasse cafés in
Paris. Once he declared that he could construct characters better than
Flaubert and moreover he was a better stylist than Flaubert too.
Someone shouted, "Sit down, you're just a best seller!". Lewis was
In 1925 Lewis divorced from his first wife and married three
years later Dorothy Thompson, a newspaper correspondent. "My first wife
longed for social place / She trashed about with scarlet face / To get
the chance to meet a prince," Lewis wrote later in a
poem. With Dorothy Thompson he traveled to London,
Berlin, Vienna, and Moscow. At that time Lewis was drinking heavily,
and managed to offend most of his friends. His penuriousness became
legendary. Theodore Dreiser, the other
American finalist for the Nobel Prize, was bitterly disappointed, when Lewis won the award. Hemingway said that the
have gone to
Ezra Pound or James Joyce. While staying in Paris in mid-June 1927, he
persuaded the mistress of a London friend to move in with him in his
rue de Varize flat. Most of his time he spent with a variety of friends
like Marc Connelly, Stephen Vincent Benét, George Slocombe, and William
During the 1930s Lewis devoted considerable attention to the
theater. His last major work, It Can't Happen Here (1935),
portrayed a fascist coup d'état in America. In the novel, Roosevelt
fails to win the Democratic nomination; it goes to Berzelius "Buzz"
Windrip, modelled on Senator Huey Long. Buzz is "vulgar, almost
illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and his "ideas" almost
idiotic." Yet he wins the presidential election. Critics praised the book, its first
printing sold over 94,000 copies, and Sinclair's play based on his work
was produced in 1936 in 18 cities. It Can't Happen Here examined a central fear of the age: that the frustration of the "little man" and
the appeal of mass movements could pave a way to the downfall of
democracy. Following the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President
of the United States, Lewis's
dystopia acquired a new topicality.
In the next decade Lewis's writing habits remained unchanged: he wrote his book in a month and then did everything else until he was ready to start another one. He loved beautiful surroundings, he had a handsome old house in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and stayed at the best hotels in America and Europe. Once in Florence he leased a grandiose Mussolini-style villa.
Although Lewis continued to publish books at regular rate for the next twenty years, only occasionally did his novels capture large audiences. Among Lewis's later works are the highly conservative The Prodigal Parents (1938), Cass Timberlane (1945), and Kingbloods Royal (1947), which deals with racial prejudice.
At the age of 54, Lewis met Marcella Powers, an eighteen-year-old aspiring actress at the Provincetown Theater on Cape Cod. She had dark hair, a narrow oval face with a sharp nose, soft, full lips, and she alwayes dressed in a "baby doll dress," as the publicist Margaret Carson recalled. Lewis fell in love with her; he called her "Princess Panda" and in public introduced her as his niece. H.L. Mencken noted that Lewis's "eyes were seldom off her, and when she spoke, though what she had to say was usually nothing, he listened with close attention." Together they acted in various summer theaters in New England. Lewis marriage ended in divorce in 1942. His son Wells was killed in 1944 in World War II combat in France.
His final years Lewis spent in Europe, suffering from failing health after a life of heavy drinking and a serious skin disease which irritated his already short temper. During the last period of his life Lewis hired secretaries to play chess with him and keep him company. His British secretary, Alexander Manson, watered his wine. Lewis died of the effects of advanced alcoholism on January 10, 1951, in Rome. The official cause of death was "paralysis of the heart." His last novel, World So Wide, about rootlessness and sexual disappointments, was published posthumously. Sam Dodsworth appeared briefly in the story. He advices the hero, Hayden Chart, to return home from Europe, where he has come to find out who he really is.
For further reading: With Love from Gracie by G.H. Lewis (1955); Sinclair Lewis: An American Life by M. Schorer (1961); Sinclair Lewis by N. Grebstein (1962); Dorothy and Red by V. Sheean (1963); Letters from Jack London, Containing an Unpublished Correspondence between London and Sinclair Lewis, edited by King Hendricks and Irving Shepard (1965); Sinclair Lewis by R. O'Connor (1971); The Art of Sinclair Lewis by D.J. Dooley (1971); Sinclair Lewis by J. Lundqvist (1973); The Quixotic Vision of Sinclair Lewis by Martin Light (1975); Sinclair Lewis by H. Smith (1977): Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt, ed. by P. Fish (1985); Critical Essays on Sinclair Lewis by M. Bucco (1986); Sinclair Lewis, ed. by H. Bloom (1987); Sinclair Lewis' Arrowsmith, ed. by H. Bloom (1988); The Rise of Sinclair Lewis, 1920-1930 by James Hutchisson (1996); Sinclair Lewis: New Essays in Criticism, ed. by James Hutchisson (1997); Sinclair Lewis: Rebel From Main Street by Richard Lingeman (2002); Sinclair Lewis Remembered, edited by Gary Scharnhorst and Matthew Hofer (2012); 'Buzz Can Happen Here: Sinclair Lewis and the New American Fascism' by Michael Mark Cohen, in New Ohio Review, Fall Issue #20 (2016); Sinclair Lewis and American Democracy by Steven Michels (2017) - Other depictions of small-town life: Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio (1919); Edgar Lee Master's Spoon River Anthology (1916), Thornton Wilder's Our Town (1938)