Published only five years before Sinclair Lewis’s death, Cass Timberlane is one of two late works (the other being Kingsblood Royal, 1947) that compare favorably with his five major novels of the 1920’s. As in earlier novels such as Babbitt (1922) and Elmer Gantry (1927), Lewis uses a memorable character to dramatize a particular social problem.
Lewis’s subtitle, A Novel of Husbands and Wives, reveals the major theme and basic structural pattern of Cass Timberlane. The novel examines the institution of marriage through numerous comparisons and contrasts. Interrupting the main narrative of Cass and Jinny are fifteen brief accounts of other husbands and wives. Some are friends of the Timberlanes; others are residents of Grand Republic who have little or no connection with the main plot. In some cases, these accounts—labeled collectively “An Assemblage of Husbands and Wives”—are character sketches with little action. Others are narratives with economical but well-developed plots.
Among the marriages portrayed by Lewis, no more than five are successful. The others range from quietly desperate to violently destructive. For example, Nestor and Fanny Purdwin have been married for fifty years, but their time together has been as monotonous as the unvaried breakfasts of porridge they have eaten every morning for all those years. Roy and Lillian Drover are considered one of the happiest couples in Grand Republic, but Roy is repeatedly unfaithful, Lillian considers suicide, and their two sons enjoy killing things. To escape from a truly vicious wife, Allan Cedar attempts suicide, but she defeats him even in this grim effort. In response to his marital problems, Vincent Osprey becomes a drunk and eventually succeeds in jumping to his death from a hotel window.
By recent standards, Lewis’s depiction of sexuality is modest, but he documents the power of passion and displays a range of behaviors without resorting to graphic details. He alludes at times to the ideas of Sigmund Freud and Richard von Krafft-Ebing, and some of the accounts of husbands and wives sound like case studies of psychosexual problems. In George Hame’s case, incestuous desire for his own daughter threatens his marriage. Sabine Grossenwahn is a nymphomaniac who spends part of her wedding night with a man other than her husband. Norton Trock calls his mother “sweetheart” from the age of three and later discovers that his homoerotic attraction to his chauffeur far surpasses the sexual allure of his wife.
Although these relationships are glimpsed in passing, that of the Timberlanes is developed in detail. The pairing of Jinny and Cass is not exactly a May-December romance, but at the ages of twenty-three and forty-one, respectively, they could almost be daughter and father. This disparity in age leads to two motifs in Lewis’s main narrative. For the disillusioned older man, the romance leads to spiritual awakening. For the inexperienced younger woman, the courtship and subsequent marriage lead to education and maturing.
As the novel begins, Cass is clearly in a state of stagnation. After his divorce from Blanche, he is briefly a vagabond and an alcoholic. Now he is a responsible judge, but he battles sleep in the courtroom just as he struggles against lethargy in life. The dramatic appearance of Jinny Marshland as a witness in a minor case is the first step in his gradual reawakening. When he meets her young friends at the boardinghouse, he experiences the concerns of a new generation and a different social class.
In plotting Jinny’s education, Lewis uses many standard devices, some of which parallel those used in developing the character of Carol Kennicott in Main Street (1920). By traveling away from her provincial environment, Jinny learns about her place in the larger world. Taking part in amateur theatrical productions enables her to explore new roles, on the stage and in real life. In hunting for a new house, she searches for a new identity. Suffering from diabetes, she plunges into a coma but awakens with a more mature vision of reality.
Although the main focus of Cass Timberlane is an examination of marriage, Lewis includes much incidental satire of provincial smugness and hypocrisy. He pokes fun at those who consider the Reader’s Digest to be highly intellectual literature. At one point, Lewis includes a reference to his own novel Main Street, but the character who mentions this title to appear learned has never read it and thinks the author is Upton Sinclair. Lewis satirizes local organizations such as the Junior Chamber of Commerce, whose members routinely eat together at six o’clock, listen placidly to an invited speaker at seven-fifteen, and return home to their families by eight-thirty. In passages that recall Babbitt, Lewis portrays the local Rotarians as slightly higher in social rank but equally vacuous.
In this satire of Grand Republic, Lewis intends to point out the superficiality of an entire culture. Grand Republic sounds more like the name of a country than that of a city, and Lewis says that this midwestern metropolis is interchangeable with at least thirty other U.S. cities. The role of Cass in the context of satire of provincial narrowness is ambiguous. Like Lewis himself, Cass is both attracted to and repelled by the values and behavior of his hometown. This ambiguity is demonstrated best in Cass’s attitude toward Bradd Criley. Bradd has been Cass’s best friend since childhood but becomes Jinny’s seducer. Cass condemns Bradd’s immoral behavior but still treasures him as a friend. Cass similarly deplores the hypocrisy and shallowness of Grand Republic but continues to embrace those who blatantly display those qualities.
The conclusion of Cass Timberlane is somewhat contrived, but in the return to Grand Republic from New York City, Lewis proclaims the triumph of midwestern values over those of the effete East. At the same time, he suggests that the Timberlane marriage, having been tested in both the provincial town and the big city, can survive further trials and achieve success.