Authors: Sinclair Lewis

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American author

February 7, 1885

Sauk Centre, Minnesota

January 10, 1951

Rome, Italy

Biography

The literary decade of the 1920s 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 1902-1903 school year at Oberlin Academy (Ohio) preparing for Yale University, which he entered in 1903. He edited the Yale Literary Magazine and wrote for the school paper, the Courant. He also worked part-time at the New Haven Journal-Courier. Lewis left Yale in 1906 and spent two months as a man-of-all-work at Helicon Hall, Upton Sinclair’s utopian community at Englewood, New Jersey. From late 1906 to 1907, he spent a year living in New York City before traveling to Panama to seek work (unsuccessfully) on building the canal. He then returned to Yale. After graduating from Yale in 1908, Lewis spent many years at all sorts of work, mainly journalism, wandering from California to the East Coast. His first marriage, to Grace Hegger in 1914, ended in divorce in 1925; in 1928, he married the famous newspaper correspondent Dorothy Thompson, from whom he was divorced in 1942.

Lewis, after a period of purely conventional apprenticeship, found his true expression and for a decade produced a series of extremely important novels, only to relapse for the rest of his career into work of no lasting significance. Thus, his earlier and later novels can be disregarded. It was in five books written during the 1920s that he said what he had to say.

Sinclair Lewis

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(Library of Congress)

Before 1920, Lewis had published five novels, all insignificant; then, according to legend, he announced that he was at last going to write a book to please himself. The result was Main Street, which had an immediate and enormous success following its unheralded publication in 1920. Using the knowledge gained during his youth in a typical small town, Lewis shattered forever the sentimental tradition clinging to American village life. Though he located Gopher Prairie in the part of the country that he knew best, Lewis made it clear that his story would have been much the same in any small town in the United States: They are all alike, he implied, in their pettiness, dreariness, and dullness, victims of the “village virus” that destroys initiative and makes the complacent inhabitants intolerant of values other than their own. For such people, Gopher Prairie is the ultimate triumph of civilization.

In Babbitt, his most successfully executed novel, Lewis undertook a more representative theme: the character of the typical businessman, the “go-getter” with his materialistic standards. He is hypnotized by his own slogans of success yet gnawingly aware that his life is somehow empty. Babbitt’s tragicomic revolt is short-lived, but it symbolizes the failure of American middle-class life to bring any real satisfaction to these people who are materially so successful and comfortable.

Arrowsmith did not infuriate so many readers, since its satire of commercialized science did not touch as many individuals and it contained the sympathetic character of Leora, the hero’s first wife. It is a competent novel, with some memorable figures, but it is more limited than the other books Lewis wrote during this period. Yet it was probably his most popular novel and the one for which he was offered the Pulitzer Prize in 1926. He refused the prize.

The next novel, Elmer Gantry, was Lewis’s most slashing attack on any segment of American life, and it was this book that angered the greatest number of people. In it, Lewis satirized with intense bitterness the more fundamentalist sects of American Protestantism. The main character, a clergyman, is a monster of hypocrisy equal to any of the villains of Charles Dickens, yet at the end of the novel, after a temporary reversal, he is poised for further triumphs—a biting comment on American society. Also included was a caricature of a famous evangelist of the period. The novel is naive in some respects, for Lewis knew little about religion, but the attack was badly needed at a time when many church leaders had put the weight of their churches behind Prohibition and similar hypocrisies.

In Dodsworth, Lewis returned to the scenes of Babbitt, dealing now with the very rich members of that world. His aim was to point out that American life, even at this high financial level of ease and security, is an empty thing. Success, so much striven for, does not bring happiness, and the typical American, preoccupied with making money, does not know what to do once the money is made. Complementing this picture is the portrait of Dodsworth’s wife, seeking in a series of affairs, each more hectic than the last, a romantic thrill that she feels she has missed.

Although Lewis wrote ten more novels and, in 1930, became the first American to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, his important work had been completed by the end of the 1920s. He was a typical product of the decade that, with Mencken, he had dominated, and together they accomplished a much-needed task. Their pungent satire successfully punctured the great national complacency; never again, some have said, could Americans regard themselves with the same placid self-satisfaction. The cult of “boosterism” had received a mortal wound.

Even in his best novels, Lewis was an uneven writer, and he apparently lacked the power of self-criticism. His views of social problems were often naïve; he resembled Dickens in his oversimplification of human situations. Yet he also had something of Dickens’s power of creating effective caricatures: Readers may have never known a man exactly like Babbitt, but he is a composite of all the businessmen of their acquaintance. In addition, Lewis possessed an eye for characteristic detail and an ear for actual American speech, which give to his novels a solid reality. In a sense, he was the perfect photographer: Each scene, each speech is authentic and recognizable.

Lewis traveled between his literary career in New York and his hometown in Minnesota. He taught at the University of Wisconsin in 1940 and at the University of Minnesota in 1942. In 1946, he moved near Williamstown, Massachusetts, but when his health began to fail in 1949, he left for Italy. He died of heart disease in Rome on January 10, 1954, and his ashes were returned to Sauk Centre for burial. His last novel, World So Wide, appeared after his death.

Author Works Long Fiction: Our Mr. Wrenn: The Romantic Adventures of a Gentle Man, 1914 The Trail of the Hawk: A Comedy of the Seriousness of Life, 1915 The Innocents: A Story for Lovers, 1917 The Job: An American Novel, 1917 Free Air, 1919 Main Street: The Story of Carol Kennicott, 1920 Babbitt, 1922 Arrowsmith, 1925 Mantrap, 1926 Elmer Gantry, 1927 The Man Who Knew Coolidge: Being the Soul of Lowell Schmaltz, Constructive and Nordic Citizen, 1928 Dodsworth, 1929 Ann Vickers, 1933 Work of Art, 1934 It Can’t Happen Here, 1935 The Prodigal Parents, 1938 Bethel Merriday, 1940 Gideon Planish, 1943 Cass Timberlane: A Novel of Husbands and Wives, 1945 Kingsblood Royal, 1947 The God-Seeker, 1949 World So Wide, 1951 Short Fiction: Selected Short Stories of Sinclair Lewis, 1935 Go East, Young Man: Sinclair Lewis on Class in America, 2005 (Sally E. Parry, editor) The Minnesota Stories of Sinclair Lewis, 2005 (Sally E. Parry, editor) The Short Stories of Sinclair Lewis (1904–1949), 2007 (Samuel J. Rogal, editor) Drama: Hobohemia, 1919 Jayhawker: A Play in Three Acts, 1934 (with Lloyd Lewis) It Can't Happen Here, 1936 (with John C. Moffitt) Angela Is Twenty-Two, 1938 (with Fay Wray) Nonfiction: From Main Street to Stockholm: Letters of Sinclair Lewis, 1919–1930, 1952 (Harrison Smith, editor) The Man from Main Street: Selected Essays and Other Writings, 1904–1950, 1953 (Harry E. Maule and Melville H. Crane, editors) Minnesota Diary, 1942–46, 2000 (George Killough, editor) Bibliography Bloom, Harold, ed. Sinclair Lewis. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Bloom has gathered together an excellent spread of criticism on Lewis. Essays range from an analysis of Arrowsmith to discussion on the tension between romanticism and realism in his work. Bloom’s introduction comments on the irony that the satirist Lewis should be remembered for the “idealizing romance” of Arrowsmith. Bucco, Martin, ed. Critical Essays on Sinclair Lewis. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. Divided into two large sections of contemporary reviews of Lewis’s novels and essay-length studies. The essays deal with the quality of the novels, Lewis’s use of humor, his treatment of art and artists and of American businesses and philistinism. Bucco provides an introduction but no bibliography. Bucco, Martin, ed. “Main Street”: The Revolt of Carol Kennicott. New York: Twayne, 1993. One of Twayne’s masterwork studies, this work explores closely the characterization in Main Street and its effects on literature. DiRenzo, Anthony. If I Were Boss: The Early Business Stories of Sinclair Lewis. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1997. The introduction provides an excellent overview of Lewis’s work in journalism, advertising, and public relations and shows how he developed in his early short fiction the themes that would distinguish his mature novels. The rest of the book makes available stories that have been out of print since their first publication. Fleming, Robert E., and Esther Fleming. Sinclair Lewis: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980. A useful bibliography. Hutchisson, James M. The Rise of Sinclair Lewis, 1920-1930. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. A study of the literary career of Sinclair Lewis during the period of his greatest achievement, the 1920s. Koblas, John J. Sinclair Lewis: Home at Last. Bloomington, Minn.: Voyageur Press, 1981. A look at Lewis’s life and his midwestern roots, from which he tried to remove himself but to which he continually returned in his fiction. A valuable study, with much insight into the author and the places that were meaningful to him. Light, Martin. The Quixotic Vision of Sinclair Lewis. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1975. A respected critic of Lewis, Light examines the conflict of realism and romance, which he terms the quixotic element, in Lewis’s work. An invaluable and perceptive critical study of Lewis. Lingeman, Richard R. Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street. New York: Random House, 2002. A critical biography that analyzes the novels which made Lewis one of the most important American writers in the twentieth century. Lingeman describes in detail the life that made the novelist so unhappy. Love, Glen A. Babbitt: An American Life. New York: Twayne, 1993. Another in Twayne’s Masterwork Studies, this volume examines Babbitt and its importance in U.S. society. Parrington, Vernon Louis. Sinclair Lewis: Our Own Diogenes. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1927. Reprint. New York: Haskell House, 1973. An essay on Lewis that discusses his role as the “bad boy of letters.” Looks at Lewis’s disillusionment through his novels Babbitt and Arrowsmith. A good example of critical thinking of the 1920s. Schorer, Mark. Sinclair Lewis: An American Life. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961. The definitive biography. Schorer, Mark, ed. Sinclair Lewis: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. A compilation of criticism from H. L. Mencken’s “Consolation” (1922) to Geoffrey Moore’s “Sinclair Lewis: A Lost Romantic” (1959). A useful complement to the more current criticism available in Bloom’s volume.

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