Sinclair Lewis Biography

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.


(History of the World: The 20th Century)
ph_0111200562-Lewis_S.jpg Sinclair Lewis. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.

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...

(The entire section is 2558 words.)

Sinclair Lewis Biography

(Novels for Students)

On February 7, 1885, Lewis was born in the prairie town of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, where he spent a childhood biographers have described as...

(The entire section is 321 words.)

Sinclair Lewis Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Although since Lewis’s works were first published there have been some marked changes in the style of popular novels, his books retain their place in American literature. Not only do they present a picture of an era, the 1920’s, but they also make it uncomfortably obvious that, in some unpleasant ways, American society has not changed very much. Materialism and hucksterism still reign supreme. Prejudice has not been eliminated. Outward show is accepted in place of inward substance. Lewis’s satirical style points up some serious faults, and the passage of time has done little to correct them.

(The entire section is 99 words.)

Sinclair Lewis Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Harry Sinclair Lewis was born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, on February 7, 1885. His father, Edwin J. Lewis, and his mother, Emma F. Kermorr, were schoolteachers, but Edwin Lewis took a two-year medical course in Chicago and practiced as a country doctor, first in Wisconsin and later in Sauk Centre, a small town with a population of twenty-five hundred. The young Sinclair, nicknamed Red because of the color of his hair, was the third of three sons. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was three years old. Edwin Lewis remarried shortly after her death. The future novelist was an awkward, rather ugly, lonely child with little aptitude for sports or any type of physical exercise. He soon became an ardent reader, and at an early age,...

(The entire section is 735 words.)

Sinclair Lewis Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Sinclair Lewis was the son of a conservative, highly respected physician in the small town of Sauk Centre, Minnesota. His birthplace had not too long before been wild prairie populated by pioneers and native American tribes and retained the wooden sidewalks and hitching posts of that era. The heroic individualism of the pioneers would always be a standard by which he would judge the small-minded conformity into which he felt his town and the country had descended.

An imaginative child, Lewis was also influenced by tales of medieval Camelot and the Holy Grail, which offered another vantage point by which to judge the staid Sauk Centre. Lewis felt like an outsider in a town that valued the sports and popularity over...

(The entire section is 383 words.)

Sinclair Lewis Biography

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Author Profile

A prolific and provocative writer of newspaper editorials, magazine articles, and novels, Sinclair Lewis joined such literary contemporaries as H. L. Mencken and Sherwood Anderson in condemning the “village virus” affecting small towns throughout America. Lewis’ novel Main Street (1920) established his reputation as a social satirist with its meticulous depiction of a stifling and reactionary small town in Minnesota. His cynical dissatisfaction with post-World War I American life seemed even stronger in Babbitt (1922), a portrait of a corrupt real estate agent which exposes the pomposity, materialism, and vulgarity beneath the pretenses of American business.


(The entire section is 941 words.)

Sinclair Lewis Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The literary decade of the 1920’s was dominated by two figures: H. L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis, who, more than any other writers, gave to that era of “debunking” its special tone. Harry Sinclair Lewis was born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota (fictionalized by Lewis as “Gopher Prairie”), on February 7, 1885, the third son of Dr. Emmet J. Lewis, who furnished him with part of the character of Arrowsmith. Lewis attended Sauk Centre public schools from 1890 to 1902. (In 1898, he left home to enlist as a drummer boy in the Spanish-American War, but his father apprehended him.) From 1901 to 1903, he held odd jobs as typesetter and minor newswriter for two Sauk Centre newspapers, the Herald and Avalanche. He spent...

(The entire section is 1126 words.)

Sinclair Lewis Biography

(Novels for Students)

Harry Sinclair Lewis, best known as Sinclair Lewis, was born on February 7, 1885, in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. His father was a physician. In...

(The entire section is 362 words.)

Sinclair Lewis Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Harry Sinclair Lewis was born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, on February 7, 1885, the youngest of three sons of a country doctor, Edwin J. Lewis. One year after the death of Harry’s tubercular mother, Emma, in 1891, his father married Isabel Warner, whom Lewis felt was psychically his own mother. Unlike his older brother, Claude, Harry cared nothing for sports, was not popular in school, and received little praise from his father. So, like so many lonely children, he found solace in books, read voraciously, and began writing regularly in diaries which he kept throughout his life.

Fred, the eldest son, dropped out of school and worked as a miller all of his life. Claude, however, was a constant success and an example...

(The entire section is 1112 words.)

Sinclair Lewis Biography

(Novels for Students)

Harry Sinclair Lewis was born in 1885 in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, a small town on the Central Plains that provided the inspiration for Main...

(The entire section is 482 words.)