Our Damaged Nobel Laureate
Literary history is usually not kind, but occasionally it is not even just. Sinclair Lewis is a case in point. Even though we think of the 1920s as the decade that saw the ascendancy of the great modernists--of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner--Sinclair Lewis, a prolific Midwesterner from Sauk Centre, Minn., was the American writer who dominated the decade. “Main Street,” “Babbitt,” “Elmer Gantry,” “Arrowsmith” and “Dodsworth” did more to shape the nation’s perception of itself at the time than did “The Sun Also Rises” or “The Sound and the Fury.” Lewis’ satires of American life added derisive vocabulary to our dictionaries: “main-streeter” for a particular kind of smug provincialism; “babbittry” for tasteless commercial boosterism; “elmer-gantryism” for religious hucksterism. In the 1920s the rest of the world recognized Lewis’ central position too: In 1930 he became the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize.
And then things started to go bad. Maybe Lewis is an example of how we always seem to turn on our success stories, or maybe he was simply the victim of changing fashion. The Midwesterners in his books just seemed dull after the apotheosis of expatriate bohemians in the books of his younger contemporaries. After Freud trickled down into the popular mind, Lewis’ characters--always the understandable products of their environments--might have seemed too flat or too simple. After Joyce, some readers, particularly influential academic critics, began to expect their novels to be as chiseled and as formal as sonnets, certainly not the sprawling sociological surveys Lewis wrote. When the American character became more self-confident after World War II, Lewis’ satires didn’t seem so funny. Maybe we couldn’t even understand them anymore.
As Richard Lingeman points out in “Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street,” the most important reevaluation of Lewis in more than a generation, there is no easy explanation for the decline of Lewis’ reputation. It’s simply too easy to blame it on early success or on his abuse of alcohol, even though the latter does explain Lewis’ physical decline and recurring depression. He continued to work hard after the Nobel, writing books that sold in enormous quantities, books that tackled major themes in interesting ways, novels that could certainly find an audience today if people knew about them. For instance, Lewis published “Ann Vickers,” a significant early feminist novel, in 1933. As late as 1947, just four years before his lonely death in Italy, he published a brave novel about American racism, “Kingsblood Royal.”
He also continued to exercise a noticeable influence on American letters. It is impossible to imagine Richard Wright’s “Native Son"--the “breakout book” of African American literature, first published in 1940--without the example of Lewis. Wright’s willingness to explore class structure and its pervasive presence in American life, and the manner in which he wrote about it, were certainly influenced by the author of “Main Street.” In a very different way and in a very different kind of book, John Updike’s famous Rabbit Angstrom books are obviously an echo of “Babbitt.”
Although Lingeman admits to other causes for the relegation of Lewis to minor status, he casts his greatest blame on the last major biographer of his subject. More than 40 years ago, critic and UC Berkeley professor Mark Schorer published his “Sinclair Lewis: An American Life,” a book of even more exhaustive detail than Lingeman’s already large book, but one often exquisitely written. The Schorer biography has to be one of the oddest major studies in American literature. The author immersed himself in his subject, yet it is impossible to read three or four pages without finding a clause that dismisses or diminishes Lewis. After reading the book, it is hard not to conclude that the biographer didn’t like his subject and wished that he had found some other topic to occupy a decade or so of work. Lingeman convincingly explains Schorer’s attitude as a result of his time, “the silent 1950s, the era of the anticommunist culture war in academe, the heyday of the New Critics, who placed text above social context.”
Lingeman’s prose in his biography is much more workmanlike than Schorer’s. A senior editor at the Nation, Lingeman has a journalist’s reluctance to exercise stylistic flourishes. He is willing to risk dullness rather than intrude on his subject, and at times the reading slows under the weight of detail endlessly recorded. But Lingeman, the author of “Small Town America” and the magisterial two-volume biography of another Midwesterner, “Theodore Dreiser: An American Journey,” has a sympathy and an intimate understanding of Lewis that Schorer never achieved. Lingeman has simply thought longer and more clearly about the role of the Midwest in the national imagination, and he is unwilling to fall into easy and dismissive cliches about a major region of the country or about one of the major authors to rise from that region. The reader is also left with the sense that, despite Lewis’ many shortcomings, Lingeman not only admires the author but also rather likes him.
We seem to be in a period that is reevaluating Lewis. His books are being taught in universities again, and Lingeman’s “Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street” will certainly provide a biographical touchstone for new conversations. But the damaged reputation of our first Nobel laureate will not be restored until readers once again turn to his novels--the big five from the 1920s, and maybe as many as five of the lesser-known books--to hear again the satiric, occasionally bitter, but clearly unmistakable voice of Lewis as it invents and dissects some of our national myths.
From ‘Main Street’
On a hill by the Mississippi where Chippewas camped two generations ago, a girl stood in relief against the cornflower blue of Northern sky. She saw no Indians now; she saw flour-mills and the blinking windows of skyscrapers in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Nor was she thinking of squaws and portages, and the Yankee fur-traders whose shadows were all about her. She was meditating upon walnut fudge, the plays of Brieux, the reasons why heels run over, and the fact that the chemistry instructor had stared at the new coiffure which concealed her ears.
A breeze which had crossed a thousand miles of wheatlands bellied her taffeta skirt in a line so graceful, so full of animation and moving beauty, that the heart of a chance watcher on the lower road tightened to wistfulness over her quality of suspended freedom. She lifted her arms, she leaned back against the wind, her skirt dipped and flared, a lock blew wild. A girl on a hilltop; credulous, plastic, young; drinking the air as she longed to drink life. The eternal aching comedy of expectant youth.
It is Carol Milford, fleeing for an hour from Blodgett College.