By:Bill Kauffman | December 03, 2018
From the August 1992 issue of Chronicles.
Late in life, Harry Sinclair Lewis of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, figured something out: he would soon be forgotten. In a mock self-obituary, Lewis foresaw that he would leave "no literary descendants. . . . Whether this is a basic criticism of [Lewis's] pretensions to power and originality, or whether, like another contemporary. Miss Willa Cather, he was an inevitably lone and insulated figure, we have not as yet the perspective to see." Half a century later, the perspective is just fine but Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, has vanished. He is heirless and unread; Mark Schorer, his principal biographer, allowed that Lewis, a truculent acne-ridden boozer, "was one of the worst writers in modern American literature" to boot.
Yes, he was a garrulous drunk and a lousy, inattentive father and possibly a bad husband. (In his defense, his second wife, the newspaper oracle Dorothy Thompson—"the Talking Woman," Lewis called her—was no saintly helpmeet. Alice Roosevelt Longworth called Thompson "the only woman in history who has had her menopause in public and made it pay.") But Sinclair Lewis did write several excellent comic novels about people from the places he knew best: the one-horse towns and bustling small cities of Minnesota. He trained his mordant wit upon them because he loved them—because to Sinclair Lewis, Zenith and Gopher Prairie and Grand Republic were the only places in the world that really mattered. In his declining years he lamented, "my father has never forgiven me for Main Street . . . He can't comprehend the book, much less grasp that it's the greatest tribute I knew how to pay him . . . Main Street condemned me in his eyes as a traitor to my heritage—whereas the truth is, I shall never shed the little, indelible 'Sauk-centricities' that enabled me to write it."
Deliciously, appositely, Sauk Centre is the keeper of the Sinclair Lewis flame. The novelist's boyhood home is a museum; the high school football team is called the Main Streeters. Some find this ironic but I think it's perfect, for Sinclair Lewis was a hayseed of the sort that is found in every crossroads burg: the debunker, the scoffer, the town atheist whose deepest secret (which his neighbors know, which is why they tolerate, even cherish him) is that he loves his village with an ardor that is almost embarrassing.
Harry Sinclair Lewis was born in 1885, the son of a country doctor in a dirt-road, Minnesota town. He had the gift of seeing himself as both of and apart from his surroundings. "While I was a mediocre sportsman in Boytown, I was neither a cripple nor a Sensitive Soul," he remembered with an odd pride that any small-town lad can understand. His memories of childhood were invariably happy, much to the puzzlement of a clerisy that consistently misread his books. A middle-aged Lewis told the Sauk Centre high school yearbook: "I could have been born and reared in no place in the world where I would have had more friendliness . . . It was a good time, a good place and a good preparation for life."
Young Lewis enjoyed reading H. G. Wells and Thomas Hardy, but his imagination was fired by Hamlin Garland's stories of hardscrabble Dakota farms and families. "If I ever succeed in expressing anything of Minnesota and its neighbors, you will be largely responsible," he wrote to Garland in 1915, "for it was in your books that the real romance of that land was first revealed to me."
It takes a keen eye and sympathetic heart to find romance on Garland's plains; I suspect that Lewis was inspirited most by the Son of the Middle Border's 1894 manifesto Crumbling Idols, a full-throated war cry on behalf of an American literature of place. "Each locality must produce its own literary record," Garland exhorted. "Be true to yourself, true to your locality, and true to your time." For all his biliousness and vagaries and venom, Sinclair Lewis kept that faith. He was proudly—defiantly—Midwestern. As a green newsman in 1908, Lewis prophesied in the Waterloo, Iowa, Daily Courier: "The artist capable of the really vital and American play is far more likely to hail from the fresh brightness and unsecured genuineness of the Corn Belt than he is from the New York millions."
Lewis's first vital and American novel was his fifth, Main Street (1920). When the vivacious newlywed Carol Kennicott moved to Gopher Prairie with her stolid husband Will, a country doctor, the Minnesotan Lewis was working within a regional realist field plowed years ago by Garland, Joseph Kirkland, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Edgar Ward Watson Howe, Harold Frederic, and others. What set Main Street apart from its predecessors was its astringent humor; earlier novels had measured the spiritual poverty of frontier villages, but never with Lewis's tartness. Hamlin Garland hated the book for "belittling . . . the descendants of the old frontier."
There are passages of pure vitriol in Main Street, though the bitterest observations are usually attributed to the foolish Carol. She sees in Gopher Prairie "an unimaginatively standardized background, a sluggishness of speech and manners, a rigid ruling of the spirit by the desire to appear respectable. It is contentment . . . the contentment of the quiet dead, who are scornful of the living for their restless walking. It is negation canonized as the one positive virtue. It is the prohibition of happiness. It is slavery self-sought and self-defended. It is dullness made God."
Harsh, yes, but even the most slobbering Valley of Democracy sentimentalist must recognize the ring of truth. If one really belongs to a village, is a part of the corporate whole, then all sorts of crotchets and queer behavior are permitted ("Aww, that's just Joe; he's like that"). But if, like Carol, one is from outside—and if the outsider is "notional"—then life can be miserable, and the witches of every American Gopher Prairie will sneer: "Who does she think she is?" Lewis claimed that his novel was an act of fealty; he wrote it, he said, from "a love of Main Street, from a belief in Main Street's inherent power." His next novel—Babbitt (1922), Lewis's grandest achievement—validated this claim.
Our guide through the city of Zenith is George Babbitt, real-estate booster and incorrigible joiner, the finest character Lewis ever created. Babbitt is the apostle and the apotheosis of the Standardized American Citizen. He is bully for progress: Zenith has "the finest school-ventilating system in the country," he brags; her outstanding flaw is her slowness in "extending the paving of motor boulevards." He extols the new, the big, the efficient, yet in his truest heart he is loyal to the smallest and homeliest piece of his world: his family and his friends.
With the publication of Babbitt, a critical refrain began to be heard: all of Lewis's Midwestern characters talk alike. That's the highbrow line, and say, maybe fer once them Greenwich Village birds are posolutely, absotively right. Darned if a reg'lar captain of industry like Sam Dodsworth don't talk an awful lot like that dub Lowell Schmaltz and that four-flusher Elmer Gantry and even a real he-American like George Babbitt, yessirree!
Was Lewis lazy, or was there a method to this sameness? In his unpublished introduction to Babbitt, Lewis noted, "Differences [between cities] have for a long time now tended to decrease, so powerful is our faith in standardization . . . Hartford and Milwaukee—the citizens of those two distant cities go to the same offices, speak the same patois on the same telephones, go to the same lunch and the same athletic clubs, etc."
Zenith had joined the mad scramble to imitate the big cities; it was losing its provincialism—and Lewis, contrary to myth, was a provincial of the first water. The disease of universal culture was spreading even to the Gopher Prairies. Small towns "all want to be just like Zenith," Vergil Gunch crowed to George Babbitt over a poker pot. Zenith, in turn, wanted to be just like Chicago . . . which wanted to be just like New York. (Babbitt's original title was Population 300,000; Lewis hoped to inspire rude young bards in Omaha, Rochester, Cincinnati, Louisville. . . . ) Babbitt is a kind of regionalist dystopia. The sons of the pioneers had traded in their buckskins for the drab dress greys of conformity. George is a fool not because he is provincial but because he has bought into the lie of mass culture.
Lewis walked it like he talked it. He used his fame to promote fellow novelists of place. Besides Willa Gather, he whooped it up for Booth Tarkington, the gentleman from Indiana, and Ruth Suckow, with her German Iowa farmers. He urged young writers to stay put and to avoid New York City at all costs. He cracked: "America—the literary map of it, apparently, shows three cities. New York, Chicago and New Orleans; then a stretch inhabited by industrious Swedes who invariably (after an edifying struggle) become college professors or rich farmers; then a noble waste still populated by cowpunchers speaking the purest 1870; finally, a vast domain called Hollywood. But actually there are portions of the United States not included in this favorite chart." America deserved a "literature worthy of her vastness," Lewis declared in his 1930 Nobel acceptance speech. (This fine address was marred by an unfair swipe at William Dean Howells for having "the code of a pious old maid whose greatest delight was to have tea at the vicarage." Funny, but unfair. Howells was Hamlin Garland's mentor and rather an enthusiast for the Midwestern realists so admired by Lewis.)
His vagabondage carried him across the American vastness many times. Although Lewis's happiest adult years were spent on his Vermont farm, he tried to come home to Minnesota in the 1940's. He spoke to numerous civic groups: "Stay West, Young Woman," he urged the University of Minnesota's coeds, and he earnestly promised the citizens of Duluth his "help in setting up a few stones in what may be a new Athens."
He became—no, he always was—a booster par excellence. He memorized Minnesota's 87 counties and county seats, alphabetically, just like the eponymous hero of Cass Timberlane. Lewis's friend, the artist Adolph Dehn, recalled, "He looked at all my Minnesota scenes but wasn't interested in landscapes outside the state, or pictures of anything non-Minnesota." As one appalled Duluth matron said, "The man who wrote Babbitt actually loved Babbitts."
Like other independent American writers (Jack Kerouac the Catholic Taft Republican, Hamlin Garland the Jefferson-Jackson democrat. Gore Vidal the patrician republican), Lewis befuddled the literary mafia with his polities. Dorothy Thompson called him "an old-fashioned populist American radical" with "a deep feeling for tradition," He was a cultural and political America Firster: part Upper Midwest maverick, part George Babbitt Rotary Republican. "Intellectually, I know America is no better than any other country," he wrote in 1930."Emotionally, I know she is better than every other country." A story is told of Lewis attending a magic show in England in 1921. When the magician made a snide crack about America, Lewis stood up and shouted, "Take that back! Take that back!" The flustered thaumaturge apologized and left the stage. He was a welter of contradictions, a caustic sentimentalist.
"He mocked the cruder manifestations of Yankee Imperialism because he was, at heart, a fanatic American," the novelist wrote of himself. He kidded George Babbitt for his indifference to Europe and turned around and joined the America First Committee. When The Nation asked Lewis, a La Follette man, to return to Gopher Prairie and cover the 1924 election, he submitted a piece in which the Coolidge supporter, Doc Kennicott, gets off all the best lines.
He was a devotee of Henry David Thoreau, although Lewis's Walden included a mansion and servants. His most poignant characters, whether Sam Dodsworth or George Babbitt or Fred Cornplow of The Prodigal Parents, long to ignore the crowd and follow the inner light. "Why is it that nobody ever does do any of the things that he's free to do?" is the Thoreauvian question that recurs in almost every Lewis novel. Babbitt would flower if he just had the confidence to be his hick self.
Much as his friend H. L. Mencken committed public suicide with his anti-New Deal polemics, so did Sinclair Lewis slit his throat in 1938 with the publication of The Prodigal Parents. This unjustly obscure novel—in some ways a rewrite of 'Babbitt—features a wholly sympathetic upstate New York auto dealer named Fred Cornplow, self-declared president of the "Mind Your Own Business Association." Fred's children are spoiled lotus-eating Reds: when not cadging money from Pop, Fred's son drones at the dinner table: "Dad, did you realize that in the past year . . . the growth in production in heavy industry in the Ural section of Russia has been two hundred and seventeen percent?"
Slowly it dawns on Fred that his family is not atypical: America is being remade, and the Cornplows—the small independent businessmen, backbones of the quondam republic—are an endangered species. The Communists will bury him, the brain trusters jeer at him, a New York City psychiatrist wants to put him away (only a crazy man, the shrink reasons, could enjoy a middleclass life in dowdy Sachem Falls, New York). The country has passed to the likes of Fred's son, who dad thinks would "make a first-rate coat holder for some posthole digger on a WPA project that ain't started yet."
The Prodigal Parents contains more laughs per page than any of Lewis's post-Babbitt novels, but the author was roasted for its homely slant. Lewis had tipped his hand; the heretic had been a Main Streeter all along. He infuriated reviewers with passages such as this: "From Fred Cornplow's family, between B. G. 1937 and A. D. 1937, there came, despite an occasional aristocratic Byron or an infrequent proletarian John Bunyan, nearly all the medical researchers, the discoverers of better varieties of wheat, the poets, the builders, the singers, the captains of great ships. Sometimes his name has been pronounced Babbitt; sometimes it has been called Ben Franklin . . . He is the eternal bourgeois, the bourjoyce, the burgher, the Middle Glass, whom the Bolsheviks hate and imitate, whom the English love and deprecate, and who is most of the population worth considering in France and Germany and these United States." (These independent freeholders—farmers, shopkeepers, printers—are the bulwark of Vermont's resistance to a fascist takeover in Lewis's crude cautionary novel It Can't Happen Here.)
After The Prodigal Parents, it was open season on Sinclair Lewis. His last novels, with the exception of Cass Timberlane, were anemic. Like Mencken, he was dismissed as a young radical grown crusty and conservative. Main Street and Babbitt, once wrongly praised as exposes of the barrenness of Middle America, were now condemned (by Mark Schorer) for "sugar-coating [the] loneliness, monotony, and boorishness" of small towns. The village atheist was discovered kneeling in the church, and for this sin of Main Street devotion he has never been forgiven.
To the end, Lewis stayed true to his time and his locality. He insisted, despite the naysaying of the folks who run things in this country, on the romance of the "Average Citizens of the United States." His crime, it seems, was that he liked them. Lie thought them funny and tragic and worthy of a lifetime's work.
In a preface to the ludicrous race novel Kingsblood Royal (1947), he wrote: "The Knights of the Crusade no more sang poetry about themselves than does my hero, the young banker of Grand Republic, Minnesota. It is only centuries later that the epic poet comes along and finds them elevated and given to speaking in blank verse . . . Some future Mr. Homer or Milton (born in North Dakota) . . . will make ringing heroic couplets out of him. The ring and the heroism are there all right, and I hope they are implicit in my own sardonic cataloguing."
Lewis was not the sophisticate mocking the bumpkins. (Compare his affectionate treatment of his fire-and-brimstone scoundrel Elmer Gantry with Mencken's vicious requiem for William Jennings Bryan.) Lewis loved the Bryans and the Babbitts, the Gantrys and the Kennicotts. He died alone in Italy in 1951, but the long arm of the small town reached out and brought him back to Sauk Centre, where he belonged. The funeral took place on a blustery day, and Sinclair Lewis's ashes were scattered, accidentally, all over his native ground. The prodigal son was home at last.