One of the greatest American
novelists and playwrights, Sinclair Lewis earned a reputation as being a masterful social critic
whose biting satirical
works criticized many common American attitude
s. Lewis did this mainly by offering a constrasting view between his ideal
s and their counterpart fools, charlatan
s, and sheep followers.
"To recount my life for the Nobel Foundation, I would like to present it as
possessing some romantic quality, some unique character ..."
Sinclair Lewis, 1930
Harry Sinclair Lewis was born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota in 1885; he described it as "that most Scandinavian part of America." He was the third son of a country doctor; his mother died of tuberculosis when Lewis was six. His father quickly remarried a woman named Isabel Warner. Lewis considered her to be his own mother; she read to him and encouraged his love of books. He had access as a young child to his father's library of about three hundred volumes of primarily medical texts. Lewis had a rough childhood, living in a town which he would later criticize for being narrow-minded. His problem was compounded by the unfortunate teasing he experienced for his bright red hair and poor skin, earning the typical nickname "Red" Lewis. He tried running away from home at 13 to become a drummer boy in the Spanish American War, but his father caught up with him before he could make the train and was brought back home.
In 1902, Lewis enrolled at the Oberlin Academy, but he soon transferred to Yale University and began to contribute to the Yale Literary Magazine. After college, he drifted quite a bit, going to Panama in search of a canal job. He worked as a janitor at Upton Sinclair's socialist commune Helicon Hall. Lewis received his M.A. in 1908. He then gained a reporting job in Iowa and then later in San Francisco as a junior editor at a magazine for teachers of the deaf which was supported by Alexander Graham Bell. He drifted to Washington D.C. and New York City as well, becoming associated with John Reed and Floyd Dell; he even was a member of the Socialist Party for a short time.
He married a woman named Grace Hegger in 1914 in New York City but that quickly ended. Their son, Wells, was later killed overseas in World War II. he remarried in 1928 to Dorothy Thompson in England. She was an American who worked for the New York Evening Post. After his marriage, Lewis travelled abroad a lot, visiting Canada, Mexico, England, Scotland, France, Italy, Sweden, Germany, Greece, Switzerland, Spain, and many other European and Central American countries. However, he is noted for having said that his most enjoyable travelling days were spend on a train through some of the rural areas of the United States, talking with citizens about daily matters. It is through these interactions with Americans during his travels that he gathered the material for his books full of typically American characters and their attitudes of "rough teasing, their passion for material advancement and their shy idealism, their interest in all the world and their boastful provincialism the intricate complexities which an American novelist is privileged to portray."
After Lewis' surge of work in the 1920's which remains his greatest period of writing, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930. He was the first American to have done so. From the presentation of the prize by Erik Axel Karlfeldt, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy:
"The new great American literature has started with national self-criticism. It is a sign of health. Sinclair Lewis has the blessed gift of wielding his landclearing implement not only with a firm hand but with a smile on his lips and youth in his heart. He has the manners of a new settler, who akes new land into cultivation. He is a pioneer.
Mr. Sinclair Lewis - I have spoken of you to this assembly in a language which you do not understand. I might have abused the occasion to speak ill of you. I have not done it. I have spoken of you as one of the strong, young chieftains of the great new American literature. Besides, you have a special recommendation to Swedish hearts. You were born among our countrymen in America, and you have mentioned them in friendly terms in your renowned books. We are glad to see you here today and glad that our nation has a laurel of its own to bestow on you. And now I ask you to descend with me and receive it from the hand of our King."
After winning the prize, Lewis settled down at his Vermont farm with Micheal, his new baby, and his wife. However, the marriage to Dorothy Thompson failed twelve years later in 1942. After the breakup of his second marriage, Lewis lived primarily in Europe. He still wrote and maintained an excellent reputation as a writer, but none of them equaled his earlier pieces from the 1920's. After 1939, Lewis was often seen with the young actress Marcella Powers, but she eventually married someone else. During the 1940's, he travelled between Duluth, Minnesota and another home in Massachusetts. In 1950, he left for Europe and he died in Rome in January of 1951 at the age of 67.
The Writings of Sinclair Lewis
Sinclair Lewis' early work is characterized by his satirical look at American life. Main Street was one of his earliest attempts at this. He created a town called Gopher Prairie, Minnesota which closely mirrored his home town. In it, he analyzed the typical small town attitudes of Americans and their monotonous, often hypocritical existences. It was this incisive look at the narrow American small town life that first earned him an international audience of readers curious for perspectives on the emerging world power.
In 1926, he was offered a Pulitizer Prize for Arrowsmith, which he had written the previous year. He declined the prize. He said on May 5th of that year that prizes made writers "safe, polite, obedient and sterile," yet he had no trouble accepting the Nobel four years later.** Arrowsmith is based heavily on the life of his father, who was a medical doctor. It tracks the life of a physician who works to maintain a code of ethics and honor while being surrounded by a world of corruption and pettiness.
Perhaps his other great novel from this period is Babbitt, written in 1922. He creates the central character of George Babbit, who is an ordinary businessman who lives in a regular American town called Zenith a name that acquires a sense of irony after looking at the course of Babbit's life. Babbit is a good, hardworking man who is inspired by the new scientific trends in business. He is restless and seeks fufillment through an affair with an unusual bohemian woman, but the whole experience shocks him into complacency and he returns to his wife. He eventually accepts an ordinary course of life, creating a rather tragic ending. This novel created a new word in the American language, "babbittry," which has come to mean narrow-minded and complacent ways.
Also notable in this period of his writing is Elmer Gantry, which exposes a lot of the issues surrounding revivalist religion in the United States. It was extremely controversial at the time of its publication. It follows the central character of Gantry around the country as he indulges in various sexual and otherwise adventurous experiences. It makes some very interesting observations about the morality of such a life in comparison to a solely religious life.
Perhaps the greatest book of Lewis' later period is Cass Timberlane, which examines the relationship dynamic between an older judge and his young wife. It is a very interesting look at the stresses that can develop in a marriage. Overall, however, Lewis' work after winning the Nobel Prize wasn't as well received as his previous work. Perhaps this is due to the historical developments in America at the time; The Great Depression weighed heavily on Americans as well as World War II later on in Lewis' life.
Sauk Centre, Lewis' birthplace, honors his memory today. They renamed his old boyhood street Sinclair Lewis Avenue and the old two story house that he lived in is preserved just as it was when he lived there. They realized that much of what Lewis wrote about in his books occured in that house; the medical emergencies depicted in Arrowsmith actually happened on the family's front porch on many occasions. Understanding how important his childhood was to his development as a writer, the town is careful about maintaining the house as a historical landmark and a collection of memorabilia of the late author.
It is an odd thing that they would be so vocal in their appreciation for a man who won the Nobel Prize for writing about the narrow-mindedness of their hometown simply for the sake of tourism. Adding to the hilarity of the situation, says one traveller who visited the area:
"'I thought Sinclair Lewis had particular scorn for the kinds of boosters who formed the Chamber of Commerce. How come they built this nice highway rest stop for their most vicious satirist?' I asked the woman running a biographical video.
"'I don't know. I haven't read any of his books.'"
Sources & Further Reading:
*all quotations directly from Lewis http://www.nobel.se/literature/laureates/1930/lewis-autobio.html
*quotation from the tourist through Sauk Centre from http://www.photo.net/samantha/samantha-III
**thanks to C-Dawg for pointing out my lack of an explanation for Lewis' refusal of the prize. Quotation from: http://www.lanset.com/bookfolk/may.htm
http://www.pwpl.org/collections/special/SinclairLewis/ this is a great archive of material on Lewis.