Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 850
Sinclair Lewis was born into the American middle class, and his novels suggest that he both loved and detested his own kind, a crucial fact in understanding the unevenness of his satirical portraits. The critic Alfred Kazin views Lewis, together with Sherwood Anderson, as new realists—post-World War I reporters freed by the war into a struggle for “freedom of conduct” in middle America. Both writers, liberating forces in American literature of the 1920’s, made “transcriptions of average experience,” sometimes reproducing it and sometimes parodying it, but always participating in the native culture in the course of revealing its shortcomings. A typical Lewis novel reflects a mixture of scorn and compassion for its characters.
Although Lewis published more than twenty novels, a play, short stories, and sketches between 1914 and his death in 1951, his reputation as an artist eventually came to rest on four novels of the 1920’s: Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), and Dodsworth (1929). The protagonists of these works continue to generate interest and empathy because Lewis’s feeling for the characters as human beings overrode his abiding skepticism. As a result, these characters are memorable, living individuals whose natures and problems transcend caricature and the topical.
Dodsworth, whose working title was Exile, was written in Europe, where Lewis had journeyed in the aftermath of his ruined marriage. While there he found or imagined that he found a culture superior to that of America’s half-educated, anti-intellectual boosters. Lewis’s strong if troubled vision of middle America appears to have come from a deep sense of his own inferiority. Although he was the first American to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, he later remarked that it ruined him; he could not “live up to it.” This sense of native inferiority and resulting attempts to ensure self-respect and love are duplicated in Sam Dodsworth’s experiences in Europe. Lewis blends autobiography with fiction in a well-controlled third-person narrative technique in Dodsworth, focusing primarily on the protagonist and creating a fully realistic account of Sam’s travels that simultaneously documents the journeys and reasserts Sam’s value as a human being.
Lewis sees Sam idealistically, for the most part, but so skillfully that the romantic and nostalgic are veiled by the realistic surface of events. Sam is the post-Victorian embodiment of American virtue. He is essentially honest, doggedly willing to remain open to new experience, boyish in his sincere if awed appreciation of femininity and womanliness, but reluctant to be henpecked forever. His restrained physical courtship of Edith Cortright entails only kissing her hands. He is reserved, well-mannered, and admirably dignified for an American, even while clutching his Baedeker. By contrast, most other American male characters are presented as inferior if not nefarious. Arnold Israel engages in questionable financial pursuits and is sensual and more European than the Europeans. Tubby Pearson is the perennial adolescent whose idea of humor is to address French waiters as “Goosepeppy” and to ask for fricassée of birds’ nests. Brent, the Dodsworths’ son, decides to live by selling bonds, hoping to reach the “hundred and fifty thousand a year class.”
Most significant in the characterization of Sam, however, is his devotion to a work ethic of substance, which proves to be his salvation. Sam slowly but persistently weighs his values against those of older cultures: England, France, Italy, Spain, and Germany. Europeans know wine, history, women, politics, and are not afraid of things theoretical, even socialism. Therefore, they can just “be,” that is, rest in the self-confidence of their familial and cultural heritage. Americans, however, Sam dimly realizes, are born apostles and practitioners of technology. They must “do.” Forces beyond their knowledge and control harness their dreams and energies. Their destiny is to build more and better autos, plumbing, and electrical appliances. Sam and Edith decide to return to Zenith to work but not on what Sam calls “kitchy banalities.”
Lewis uses architecture as the symbol of Sam’s new life and work. In Europe, Sam, becoming absorbed in architecture, observes and sketches bridges, towers, and doorways. He is impressed by their lines, their strength, their beauty, but he recognizes that they are European. Rather than return to Zenith to build a phony pastiche of villas and chalets in the San Souci development, Sam and Edith talk of building homes for Americans, native to the soil and spirit. Optimistically, Edith cries that the American skyscraper is the only new thing in architecture since the Gothic cathedral. Working together, their future promises to be a sharp contrast to that of the pitiful Fran, to whom all culture was interesting as “social adornment.”
Occasionally, Lewis abandons the detached third-person narrative technique to speak directly to the reader, indulge in satirical comments about travelers, and provide a series of descriptions of American tourists complete with names in the comedy of humors tradition. Evident also are some forced metaphors, a few poorly integrated references to “morality hounds” in America or to the absurdities of Prohibition. Nevertheless, Lewis endows the novel with its power basically by making Sam a sympathetic, authentic American whose life matters to him and to the reader.