Sinclair Lewis opened up American fiction in the twentieth century. Before F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), Ernest Hemingway (1899-1960), or William Faulkner (1897-1962), Lewis’s social realism had described the outstanding features of emergent modern American culture, with—in the names he coined—its “Babbitts” and “Elmer Gantrys” walking down its “Main Streets.” The American novel of the twentieth century can be said to have begun with Sinclair Lewis, and Richard Lingeman’s biography gives the background to his books, shows the hard work and sacrifice that went into their creation, and details the critical and psychological consequences that followed them.
Lewis was defined by the Midwest which bred him, and he would never leave it, at least in his best books. Born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota (which would become the “Gopher Prairie” of Lewis’s first important novel, Main Street, in 1920), Lewis was the son of a small-town doctor. The defining moment of his youth was the death of his mother, and his life can be viewed as the attempt to compensate for that loss and to overcome the unattractiveness which early skin problems, his distinctive red hair, and a rough-edged personality caused him. After graduating from Yale, he worked in a number of different jobs, mainly in advertising and publishing, and completed three early, apprentice novels in the first decades of the century.
Main Street was an overnight success and catapulted the thirty-five-year-old novelist into national prominence. This study of small-town life struck a nerve with Americans who—as World War I was ending and the multiple rebellions of the 1920’s just beginning—longed for a simpler, fading nineteenth century world. As the critic Ludwig Lewisohn wrote soon after it was published, “Perhaps no novel since Uncle Tom’s Cabin had struck so deep over so wide a surface of the national life.” H. L. Mencken was even more direct: “By God he has done the job!” Eventually the novel would sell two million copies, and in 1925 Publishers Weekly judged it “to be the best-selling novel—based on booksellers’ reports—for the period 1900 through 1925, making it the book of the century, or at least the first quarter of it.” Before this success had been fully realized, Lewis was on the best-seller lists again with Babbitt (1922), a fictional critique of a small Midwestern city (about the size of Cincinnati) and the boosters who shape and share its commercial values. Even with these two successes under his belt, Lewis hardly slowed his pace. In 1925, he publishedArrowsmith, a novel about the limitations of modern science and medicine, and two years later produced Elmer Gantry, an attack on religion and its irresponsible leaders, capturing even their language and style. Both novels reached the top of the best-seller lists again. He finished the decade with Dodsworth (1929), a study of business and marriage in an international setting.
Lewis had thus written more critical and popular successes in the decade of the 1920’s than any contemporary, and the announcement of his Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930 was not a great surprise. As Lingeman shows, however, it was a controversial choice. Some modernist critics felt that the prize should have gone to Edith Wharton (1862-1937), Ezra Pound (1885- 1972), or another older, more deserving American, while conservative critics felt it should not have been awarded to someone who had satirized so many institutions in American life. (Lewis would later say, “I love America, but I don’t like it.”) His 1930 Nobel Prize address remains a landmark celebration of the generation of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938), just emerging as an international literary force with their “determination to give to the America that is as strange as Russia and as complex as China a literature worthy of her vastness.”
Lewis’s personal life was never as successful as his literary career. Lewis was only happy when he was researching and writing his novels, and his personal insecurities led to an unhappy marriage for most of the 1920’s and increased drinking even when he was working. His divorce from Grace Lewis and marriage to the world famous journalist Dorothy Thompson in 1928 only made his situation worse. Competing with...
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