Sinclair Lewis Biography

Sinclair Lewis had to deal with cruel treatment throughout most of his life. He was taunted as a child and young man for his somewhat unattractive looks. Perhaps because of that, he developed a critical, satirical voice and wrote mostly about the flaws in American society and capitalism. He started out writing more popular magazine stories but soon turned to realistic novels that quickly won acclaim. In 1920, he finished what was called “the most sensational event in twentieth-century American publishing history"—his novel Main Street. Within a few years, it had sold two million copies and is still read and studied to this day. Although very critical of his own works, he received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1930, the first American novelist ever given the award.

Facts and Trivia

  • Lewis was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1926 for his novel Arrowsmith, but he turned down the award. He didn't feel like he deserved it.
  • His novel Elmer Gantry was banned in Boston and several other cities around the country. This led the way for his later books to be banned as well.
  • One of his most famous quotes is the following: “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”
  • Shortly after graduating from Yale, Lewis made a partial living by selling plots to famous authors, including Jack London.
  • After struggling with alcohol abuse for many years, Lewis died at the age of sixty-six of advanced alcoholism.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2558

Article abstract: The first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Lewis at once painstakingly depicted and satirized previously neglected areas of middle-American life.

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Early Life

The third son of Edwin J. and Emma Kermott Lewis, Harry Sinclair Lewis was born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, on February 7, 1885. His father was a country doctor, as were his maternal grandfather and, later, his older brother Claude. This association with medicine would help him in the writing of Arrowsmith (1925); it would also give him a lifelong inferiority complex for not following his father’s and brother’s profession.

In addition to providing the model for Gopher Prairie in his fiction, Sauk Centre contributed in other ways to Lewis’ literary career. In the town library, he found the works of Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens, two writers who greatly influenced him. From Dickens, he learned to use literature as a means of social protest. Also Dickensian is Lewis’ sense of humor, evident in his choice of names for characters whom he dislikes: Capitola McGurk (Arrowsmith), Lowell Schmaltz (The Man Who Knew Coolidge, 1928), Buzz Windrip (It Can’t Happen Here, 1935). From Scott, he took the element of romance that colors not only his short stories but also his most realistic social commentary. In Sauk Centre, too, Lewis began his career as a writer, serving as president of his high school’s literary society and contributing articles to the town’s two newspapers.

Already in Sauk Centre, Lewis was revealing another trait, that of being an outsider. His voracious reading habits marked him as different from his peers, as did his homely appearance. He was tall and thin, with blue eyes and red hair. Over the years, cancer would disfigure an already plain face, so that his second wife said that he looked as if he “had walked through flame throwers.” Here, too, Lewis showed the wanderlust that would never let him settle down; instead of attending the University of Minnesota, he insisted on going east to college.

At Yale, he was again a misfit. The eighteenth century scholar Chauncey Brewster Tinker, one of Lewis’ few friends there, said that “the conventions and restrictions of good society—especially collegiate society—were offensive to him. His abiding temptation was to undermine them and blow them at the moon.” In 1906, he abruptly left college to work as a janitor at Upton Sinclair’s utopian community, Helicon Hall, near Englewood, New Jersey. After some two months, he abruptly left Helicon Hall.

During this period, Lewis’ literary abilities were as apparent as was his rebelliousness. He was the only freshman in his class to publish in the Yale Literary Magazine. By his junior year, he had earned a spot on the editorial board of the magazine, and he was contributing to the local newspapers as well.

For the seven years after his graduation (1908), Lewis wandered around the country, holding various jobs associated with publishing. During this period, he produced a book for adolescents, Hike and the Aeroplane (1912), and his first serious novels, Our Mr. Wrenn (1914) and The Trail of the Hawk (1915). When he sold four stories to the Saturday Evening Post in quick succession, each earning one thousand dollars, he resigned his editorial position with George H. Doran Company in order to devote himself exclusively to writing.

Life’s Work

The short stories that Lewis contributed to popular magazines and the five early novels gave no hint of what was to follow in the 1920’s. Our Mr. Wrenn ridiculed radical reformers and arty types; its hero is a sales order clerk. The Innocents (1917) was rejected by the Saturday Evening Post as being too sentimental. In The Job (1917), he wrote that business is “that one necessary field of activity to which the egotistical arts and sciences and theologies and military puerilities are but servants.” Free Air (1919) includes a scene in Gopher Prairie, which Lewis praises for its small-town friendliness.

Main Street (1920), a scathing attack on that same village, thus marked a sharp break with Lewis’ previous work. More important, it crystallized a new attitude toward small-town America. Other writers, such as Edgar Lee Masters and Sherwood Anderson, had already begun the revolt from the village by showing that all was not sweetness and light in the Spoon Rivers and Winesburgs of the Midwest. Yet no one before had so clearly diagnosed and described what Lewis called “the village virus”:

It is an unimaginatively standardized background, a sluggishness of speech and manners, a rigid ruling of the spirit by the desire to appear respectable. It is . . . the contentment of the quiet dead. . . . It is slavery self-sought and self-defended.

Having attacked one bastion of American life, Lewis turned his attention to another. His next novel, he said, was to be “the story of the Tired Business Man, of the man in the Pullman smoker, of our American ruler.” Even though George F. Babbitt lives in Zenith, a city of some 400,000, rather than in a small town, he is no less parochial than Juanita Haydocks, no less a conformist than Jim Blauser of Main Street. Like that earlier work, Babbitt (1922) shows the shallowness of American life governed by the quest for status, money, and conformity. Babbitt yearns to escape his stultifying world. He dreams of a fairy-child lover and resists the advances of the Good Citizens League, but at last he concedes, “They’ve licked me, licked me to a finish.” Writers had previously criticized the Rockefellers and the Morgans, but no one had so precisely and devastatingly shown the vacuum that was the daily life of the average businessman.

Always a hard worker, Lewis at once began planning his next novel, which he intended as a celebration of a labor leader. In Chicago to interview the union organizer and Socialist Eugene V. Debs, Lewis happened to meet Paul De Kruif, who had recently been forced to leave the Rockefeller Institute for writing Our Medicine Men (1922), an exposé of the unscientific methods of some of his colleagues. With his own knowledge of medicine and De Kruif’s assistance, Lewis produced Arrowsmith. While the book celebrates scientific curiosity, it attacks the spirit of commercialism and the demand for conformity that isolate Martin Arrowsmith.

This novel earned for Lewis a Pulitzer Prize, which he refused. In 1920, the Pulitzer Prize Committee had selected Main Street for the award, but the trustees had overruled the choice and given the prize to Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1920). Lewis now got his revenge, attacking the whole concept of literary awards as an effort to make American literature “safe, polite, obedient, and sterile.”

Lewis followed one of his best books with one of his worst, Mantrap (1926), based on his eleven-day expedition into the Canadian woods in 1924. With Elmer Gantry (1927), he returned to his hard-hitting criticism of American life, this time attacking religion. He had long been hostile to the established churches; in Main Street, his heroine, Carol Kennicott, observed that “the Christian religion in America [was] as abnormal as Zoroastrianism—without the splendor.” In Babbitt, Lewis had parodied the popular evangelist Billy Sunday in the character Mike Monday. Elmer Gantry expands the satire, showing the hypocrisy and commercialism pervading various denominations.

Following the publication of this novel, Lewis went to Europe to work on his next book. The Man Who Knew Coolidge uses the vapid monologues of Lowell Schmaltz to reveal the follies of the American business class he represents. While in Europe, Lewis met the recently divorced journalist Dorothy Thompson. On April 16, 1928, Lewis divorced his first wife, Grace Livingstone Hegger, and, the following week, announced his engagement to Thompson. They were married on May 14, 1928.

In Dodsworth (1929), Lewis told his version of his first marriage, portraying himself and his first wife as Sam and Fran Dodsworth, Dorothy Thompson as Edith Cortright. Though one of his better novels, and though an attack on American provincialism, it marks a shift in Lewis’ attitude toward middle-class America. The hero is a capitalist and a Republican, whom Lewis seems to prefer to the character’s more sophisticated, arty wife.

Throughout the 1920’s, Lewis’ novels had made complacent and comfortable Americans uneasy. In the Depression decade to follow, he seemed inclined to offer solace to a hard-pressed people. Beginning with Dodsworth, most of his novels might have been written by Babbitt. One reviewer even suggested that Babbitt had killed Lewis and was merely using Lewis’ name for his own books. Ann Vickers (1933) favorably portrays the American small town. The hero of Work of Art (1934) is a self-confessed “smug, complacent, mechanical, ordinary food merchant,” whom Lewis seems to prefer to this man’s writer-brother. The Prodigal Parents (1938) criticizes reformed-minded children, holding up their conservative, hardworking parents as the ideal. In 1930, Lewis had said that “the world is suffering from too many reformers”; in most of his novels thereafter he reduced that number by one.

Eleven days before he made that pronouncement, though, he took aim yet again at American closed-mindedness in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Throughout the 1920’s, his novels had been popular in Europe, and Ann Vickers would be translated into thirteen languages immediately upon publication. Whether the Nobel Prize committee chose Lewis because his books confirmed European views of the United States or they regarded him as a great literary artist, the award, the first to an American writer, confirmed America’s literary coming of age. In “The American Fear of Literature,” Lewis agreed that many fine writers were emerging to give the country “a literature worthy of her vastness,” but he added that they had to combat provincialism and a demand for conformity that came not only from the public but also from academia and more timid fellow authors.

In the next decade, Lewis generally retreated from such reformist positions as he took in this address. In 1935, he even accepted membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters, which he had specifically named in his speech as having a deleterious effect on innovative writing. Yet he could still lash out occasionally, as he demonstrated in It Can’t Happen Here.

Dorothy Thompson had interviewed Adolf Hitler, and, in I Saw Hitler (1932), she speculated on what he might do if he were in the United States. With such demagogues as Huey Long, Charles E. Townsend, and Gerald L. K. Smith, the United States seemed threatened with the same Fascism that was overrunning Europe. It Can’t Happen Here was Lewis’ response to these would-be dictators, showing what could happen if one of them gained control of the government. Charles and Mary Beard called the book the best portrait of “the ideals of democracy pitted against the tyranny of the demogogic dictator.” Against mass culture, big business, and conformity, Lewis poses his spokesman, Doremus Jessup, who champions “the free, inquiring, critical spirit” as the only creative force in the world.

Such powerful writing was all too rare in Lewis’ last years. In Cass Timberlane (1945), he wrote, “Whether Germany and France can live as neighbors is insignificant compared with whether Johann and Maria or Jean and Marie can live as lovers.” Only once after It Can’t Happen Here did Lewis address a contemporary social issue. The attack, in Kingsblood Royal (1947), on racism earned Ebony magazine’s praise for its contribution to racial understanding. Increasingly, though, Lewis retreated into alcoholism, solitude, and romance. His second marriage ended in 1942, and he died in Rome on January 10, 1951, as a lonely exile.

Summary

Shortly before his death, Lewis remarked that he loved America but did not like it. Both the love and the dislike are evident in his best works, most of which appeared in the 1920’s. In his dissection of the middle class, he followed such nineteenth century critics of American materialism as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, showing, in the latter’s words, “We are provincial . . . because we are warped and narrowed by an exclusive devotion to trade and commerce and manufacture and agriculture and the like.” Like the Transcendentalists, Lewis preached the sanctity of the individual against the masses. In works such as Babbitt and It Can’t Happen Here, he showed the terrible price conformity exacts, while in Arrowsmith, he pointed out the rewards of, as well as the challenges to, independent thought.

In his criticism of middle America, Lewis introduced a new region and a new type of figure to literature. E. M. Forster said that Lewis had lodged “a piece of the continent in our imagination.” He was among the first, and certainly the best, to describe the daily life of the upper Midwest and the small businessmen and farmers who lived there. Lewis, though, was not simply a latter-day local colorist. He recognized that in this area and these characters he was capturing the American spirit. What F. Scott Fitzgerald did for the few who were rich in the 1920’s, Lewis did for the many who were simply comfortable.

While exposing the faults of the middle class, Lewis also recognized its potential. Sam Dodsworth and Doremus Jessup represent the best that the country has to offer, as Elmer Gantry and Lowell Schmaltz show the worst. Lewis’ finest writing presents the alternatives available at the same time that it reveals how often Americans make the wrong choice.

All too frequently after 1930, Lewis himself succumbed to mediocrity and retreated from the central issues confronting the country, and his later works have damaged his reputation in the years since his death. Still, when he assumed the role of realist and reformer, he served as the conscience of his country, the symbol at home and abroad of an America that, knowing its weaknesses and its potential, was striving to free the human spirit from the shackles of prejudice and greed. For that role he will always be remembered.

Bibliography

Dooley, D. J. The Art of Sinclair Lewis. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967. Intended as an introduction to Lewis, Dooley’s book presents a biographical as well as critical study. The biography relies heavily on earlier works, but Dooley does seek to refute Mark Schorer’s judgment that Lewis was “one of the worst writers in modern American literature.”

Grebstein, Sheldon Norman. Sinclair Lewis. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1962. An introductory overview that combines critical study of Lewis’ works with a brief account of his life. Especially strong on Lewis’ work in the 1920’s.

Light, Martin. The Quixotic Vision of Sinclair Lewis. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1975. Notes the romantic aspects that recur in Lewis’ fiction and that sometimes clash and sometimes support the realistic, reformist tendencies.

Lundquist, James. Sinclair Lewis. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1973. Begins with a biography and then treats Lewis as moralist, artist, and essayist. Claims that despite artistic flaws, Lewis’ work will survive because of its social criticism.

O’Connor, Richard. Sinclair Lewis. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1971. Treats both the life and the works and stresses Lewis’ contribution to the development of American fiction.

Parrington, Vernon Louis. Sinclair Lewis: Our Own Diogenes. Seattle: University of Washington Book Store, 1927. Though dated, Parrington’s work remains useful for pointing out Lewis’ strengths—his acute social criticism and his photographic (and phonographic) ability to record American life.

Schorer, Mark. Sinclair Lewis: An American Life. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1961. The definitive biography. Relates Lewis to the culture and history of his time and place, so that it shows both the man and his era.

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