In 1930, Sinclair Lewis became the first American to receive the Nobel Prize for literature, beating out such notable literary figures as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Langston Hughes, who were all published authors at the time. Within a few years, critics began to speculate that Lewis’s great decade, which spanned from the publication of Main Street in 1920 until the time he received the Nobel, was at an end. He wrote until his death in 1951, but, with few exceptions, he never received the critical praise that he had in the twenties. Lewis’s career is generally viewed in three parts, made up of his early novels, the novels of the 1920s (which are, in general, the only ones that any but a literary scholar would read today), and those that came after 1930.
Before Main Street was published, critics scarcely paid any attention to Lewis’s work. Of the six novels that he published between 1914 and 1919, only one, The Job, gave much consideration to the social setting that surrounded it. Of the others, as Sheldon Norman Grebstein wrote in 1962:
These books do contain flashes of satire, considerable authenticity of fact and detail, some realistic characters and situations, and even statements of indignation at social injustice—factors which all reveal Lewis’s capacity for seriousness; but in the main they are the work of Lewis the romancer, cheerful, buoyant, reassuring.
Main Street marked the emergence of Lewis as a novelist, both in critical and in economic terms. Readers swarmed to it, and within months it became the best-selling novel of the twentieth century up to that point. Critics saw its flaws but also recognized that they were far outpaced by the significant advancement it represented in the country’s quest to come to know itself. Still, the book’s huge success and unorthodox method of storytelling made them hold back with some reservation about what they thought. With the publication of Babbitt two years later, a pattern began to form, confirming that Main Street was not just a fluke. As H. L. Mencken explained after reading Babbitt:
The theory lately held in Greenwich Village that the merit and success of Main Street constituted a sort of double-headed accident . . . blows up with a frightful roar toward the middle of Babbitt. The plain truth is, indeed, that Babbitt is at least twice as good a novel as Main Street was—that it avoids all the most obvious faults of that celebrated work, and shows a number of virtues that are quite new.
In short, critics found that Lewis had more than just one great book in him.
As his career marched forward, Arrowsmith in 1925 and Elmer Gantry in 1927 continued to impress, although the decade did include some lesser efforts, such as Mantrap in 1926 and The Man Who Knew Coolidge in 1928. Dodsworth, published in 1929, has a mixed reputation: some critics categorize it as one of Lewis’s great novels, whereas others consider it to be the first step in his decline.
It was not long after the Nobel Prize that critics began to suspect that Lewis’s greatest days might already be over. A 1933 biographical sketch of the novelist by Carl Van Doren notes that many doubted his ability even then. “His decade, they have pointed out, is dead,” Van Doren wrote. “The ten years which began with Main Street in 1920 ended in 1930 with the award of the Nobel Prize. Historians have filed him away with the classics, arguing about the shelf on which he belonged.” Even though Van Doren’s point was that such critics were shortsighted, the critics that he was trying to refute proved to be eerily prophetic. Lewis spent the rest of his career, like the time before the twenties, writing books that had occasional flashes of inspiration lost amid hundreds of pages of mediocre work.
By the 1940s, critics took for granted that Sinclair Lewis would always come out with new novels, finding little to get excited about with each one. When Edmund Wilson...
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