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...
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