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.
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.
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.)