Sinclair Lewis’s great accomplishment was, as E. M. Forster marveled, “to lodge a piece of a continent in our imagination”
Richard Lingeman has set himself a thankless task. A new biography of Sinclair Lewis, whose novels have been regarded as old but not classic for half a century, is decidedly not in demand. Lewis’s dismal reputation stems largely from the trajectory of his career, which concluded with one of the longest and most depressing anticlimaxes in American letters. After a lengthy and unrewarding apprenticeship, during which he wrote five forgettable and forgotten novels, Lewis published Main Street (1920), which his earlier biographer, Mark Schorer, rightly characterized as “the most sensational event in twentieth-century American publishing history.” “That idiot has written a masterpiece,” a stunned H. L. Mencken cabled his Smart Set co-editor, George Jean Nathan, after reading the galley proofs of the novel. Over the next nine years Lewis wrote four more best sellers—Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927), and Dodsworth (1929)—all important books, though none could rival Main Street, and each was worse than the previous one. If only he had then laid down his pen. Instead, until his death, in 1951, he continued to churn out novels, along with plays that never made it to Broadway. Some of the novels, such as Cass Timberlane (1945) and Kingsblood Royal (1947), were commercial successes, but all these works were at best undistinguished, and many were downright terrible.
Although Lewis’s productivity clearly outlasted his talent, that alone can’t account for the literary community’s consistent dismissal of him. Even during the 1920s, when he was at his most gifted, he was out of fashion among self-consciously sophisticated writers, who thought him a hack. (Lewis was understandably stung by the expatriates’ and experimentalists’ Franzenian conviction that, as he put it, “if the damned book [Main Street] has sold so well, I must be rotten.”) Even his champions—E. M. Forster, Rebecca West, and, by far his most influential supporter, Mencken—offered (quite correctly) qualified praise. And then the Nobel Prize, in 1930, finished him off. Lewis was the first American to win the literature prize, but accompanying the announcement, as the critic Ludwig Lewisohn wrote around that time, “something very like a groan went up” among U.S. writers and critics. The literati were convinced—probably rightly so—that Lewis had won the prize only because his scathing, satirical novels confirmed Europeans’ stereotypes of American society as vulgar, hypocritical, and materialistic. (“In crowning Mr. Lewis’s work,” Lewis Mumford protested, “the Swedish Academy has, in the form of a compliment, conveyed a subtle disparagement of the country they honored.”) The prize only intensified disdain for Lewis, and he, and later Pearl S. Buck, would thenceforth provide evidence for those who argue that the award is hollow. Critics who would otherwise have been charitably disposed toward him couldn’t help comparing him unfavorably with those they thought more deserving.
Like Mencken’s, Lewis’s vogue was intense but abbreviated: by the time he won the Nobel, his novels of the 1920s already seemed hopelessly dated to the intellectual tastemakers, whose interests now lay not in diatribes against American provincialism but in political and economic criticism and “proletarian fiction.” By the 1940s and 1950s the aesthetically minded New Critics shunned even his best work as stylistically pedestrian. Thus Time, always a journal to confirm the consensus, declared in its obituary that Lewis “was not a great writer, nor even a very good one,” and ten years later Schorer averred in Lewis’s official biography that “he was one of the worst writers in modern American literature.”
Schorer’s 868-page biography has for forty years been the definitive life of Lewis. Comprehensive and stylishly written, it effectively married the modern doorstop literary biography—in which seemingly the subject’s every journey and quarrel is minutely chronicled, to deadening effect—with a keen if not generous critical assessment (“I must say I never really liked Lewis’s work all that much,” Schorer once told Gore Vidal). Lingeman, who has written an engaging history of small-town America and also a two-volume biography of Theodore Dreiser (a writer perhaps as out of fashion as Lewis), was probably moved to undertake this project by the conviction, shared by Lewis’s remaining admirers, that somehow the novelist deserves better. But Lingeman, an honest and sober biographer, can hardly deliver a full-throated vindication. Moreover, his long book cannot replace Schorer’s even longer and far more thorough study, and Schorer’s archaeological investigation of the Lewis papers neglected no startling episodes for Lingeman to reveal. This leaves him to embrace Lewis, with more enthusiasm than acumen, as a “literary sociologist” who “really cared.”
That may be all one can say of Lewis in the end, but a final judgment doesn’t do him justice. Lewis can be rightly appreciated only by concentrating on his anomalous book Main Street, the story of a slightly pretentious new bride’s frustrating combat with the petty society of Gopher Prairie, a small Minnesota town (modeled after Lewis’s home town of Sauk Centre), and with her stodgy and self-satisfied husband. It evoked the directionless struggle of thousands of Americans (especially women in the hinterland, hundreds of whom were convinced that Lewis was writing about them) to live what the protagonist, Carol Kennicott, calls “a more conscious life.” Published when, for the first time in the nation’s history, more people were living in cities than in the country, the book was in part a satire exposing the idiocy of rural life, so it also resonated with urban sophisticates and with those—like Carol—who aspired to be such. To be sure, Hamlin Garland (Main-Travelled Roads, 1891, Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly, 1895) and other novelists had earlier described village life as narrow and dreary, but Main Street was the right book at the right time, and as Lewisohn wrote, “Perhaps no novel since ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ had struck so deep over so wide a surface of the national life.” The novel is remembered for its sociological significance and as the epitome of what the critic Carl Van Doren called “the revolt from the village.” But today’s reader, expecting a satirical indictment, is struck—just as Mencken, Forster, and other astute critics at the time were struck—by the novel’s sympathy and nuance.
With a fresh and vigorous photographic method, Lewis introduced readers to Main Street as Carol, just arrived from St . Paul, saw it—building by building, detail by detail. Slowly and relentlessly Lewis focused: on the food-stained tablecloths in the hotel dining room, on the drugstore’s greasy marble soda-fountain counter, on the “pictures of coy fat prostitutes” in the tobacco shop. But while the reader is sharing Carol’s dismay at the dingy, haphazard ugliness of the town, Lewis reveals the view of another newcomer, Bea Sorenson, who, bored with farm life, has come to Gopher Prairie in hopes of finding work as a hired girl. Carol, looking through the flyspecked windows of the hotel, sees only rickety chairs and cuspidors, but Bea thrills to “the swell traveling man” she spies there, to the “lovely marble” soda fountain, and to all the stores—”one just for tobacco alone.” And then, in what Lewis has already established as a four-block downtown, “the roar of the city began to frighten her.” The reader knows that Carol’s is the more discerning vision, but also that she sneers too easily and that her view of Main Street—and Lewis’s—isn’t the only perspective.
What impressed most readers was the ceaseless, precise detail (“The amount of sheer data in it is amazing,” the young F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was but briefly infatuated with Lewis’s writing, exclaimed in a fan letter). Lewis had captured and catalogued middle-class provincial life—its speech, its houses, its gadgets, its caste marks, its stultifying social rounds. But more important, he had captured the vague stirrings—stymied because they cannot be articulated—of the slightly better than average. By eschewing a main character who would show up the subjects of his satire with clever retorts and sparkling wit, Lewis avoided the trap that ensnares most writers of satirical protest, who use their protagonists to take potshots at buffoons. In fact, though he drew her sympathetically, Lewis made Carol a difficult and shallow young woman, frustrated because she’s smart enough to be discontent with her life and her surroundings but not smart enough, as he later wrote, to have “any clearly defined vision of what she really wants to do or be”—a situation far more common (and moving) than that of the heroically protesting artist or genius.
Above all, Lewis apprehended what Mencken called—in the most penetrating and witty assessment of Lewis’s artistry yet written—”the essential tragedy of American life, and if not the tragedy, then at least the sardonic farce; … the great strangeness that lies between husband and wife.” Lewis empathized with Carol’s feeling of entrapment in her marriage to the obtuse and cloddish Will, and also with Will’s decent but constricted code (“Do your work, care for your family … venerate the flag”) and his “pathetic inability to comprehend the turmoil that goes on within her” (a limitation wrenching to both parties). Lewis’s great achievement, Mencken recognized, was not to take sides in the resultant conflict, not “to turn the thing into a mere harangue against one or the other.”
Above all, he is too intelligent to take the side of Carol, as nine novelists out of ten would have done. He sees clearly what is too often not seen—that her superior culture is, after all, chiefly bogus—that the oafish Kennicott, in more ways than one, is actually better than she is … Her dream of converting a Minnesota prairie town into a sort of Long Island suburb, with overtones of Greenwich Village and the Harvard campus, is quite as absurd as his dream of converting it into a second Minneapolis, with overtones of Gary, Ind., and Paterson, N.J.
Extravagant claims cannot be made for the novel. Lewis’s grasp of the psychological complexities and moral ambiguities of the human condition at the heart of great fiction was unsteady in Main Street, as is evident when the novel is compared with the one that beat it for the 1921 Pulitzer Prize—Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Nevertheless, the novel was and remains an astonishing accomplishment, and Lewis, then thirty-five, seemed to be a first-rate—perhaps had the makings of a great—novelist. But his ambitions lay elsewhere, and he also led himself astray. Two years after Main Street, Lewis published Babbitt, and the modulated satire in the former had coarsened and intensified in the latter. Lewis was a natural mimic, and starting with Babbitt he played for easy laughs. In fact, his satire was increasingly so pat and merciless that by 1927, when Elmer Gantry appeared, it had become clinical and unrelievedly hard. Attempting to be generous, critics have hailed what Schorer called Lewis’s “gift for imitating the speaking American [midwestern] voice.” This is patronizing. Lewis brilliantly rendered the forced jocularity of the speech of middle-class midwestern business and social life, but he lacked Ring Lardner’s subtlety and sharp ear, and his mimicry contained far more burlesque than wit. (Babbitt’s famously braying, boosting oration to the Zenith Real Estate Board was remarkable—but Lewis hit the same note for eleven pages.) One senses that Lewis had self-indulgently stopped listening to the subjects he was aurally dissecting, and hence his mimicry lapsed into dated mockery. Malcolm Cowley justifiably complained that in Lewis’s final novel his characters sounded “like survivors from a vanished world, like people just emerging from orphanages and prisons, where they had listened for thirty years to nothing but tape recordings of Lewis novels.”
Yet if in his reliance on mimicry Lewis took the easy way, in Babbitt, Arrowsmith, and Elmer Gantry he also set for himself an arduous and serious plan of work—one that guaranteed, however, that artistic greatness would elude him. In Main Street and these, his other best novels, Lewis meticulously chronicled the life of the new middle class, in Dakota villages and in the Cincinnatis and the Minneapolises (what Lewis defined as “transitional metropolises,” the “cities from 200,000 to 500,000”), in university towns and at third-rate Bible colleges, among salesmen in Pullman cars and smokers, merchants’ wives at amateur theatricals, advertising men and real-estate developers at the Athletic Club, public-health bureaucrats in an Iowa city and liberal Methodist ministers in the Corn Belt. Lewis researched compulsively: he spent months collecting material for Elmer Gantry in Kansas City, where he held a weekly seminar with a cross section of the city’s clergymen; he filled notebooks with phrases and jargon he’d gathered from his colloquies with salesmen; he drew maps of the composite state and city he created for his novels, noting the kinds and colors of the dogs and which streets they were walked on, and sketched the floor plans of the houses, including types and arrangement of furniture. Lewis’s absorption in this milieu made him able, as Forster marveled, “to lodge a piece of a continent in our imagination.”
Through his accumulation of detail Lewis painted the most vivid and comprehensive picture we have of the middle-class heartland as it was being fully subsumed by a national economy and a consumer culture—an event that historians now recognize as one of the most far-reaching social transformations in American history. These novels are much less successful as explorations of character and motivation than they are, to paraphrase Lingeman, as works of literary sociology, and fiction was perhaps not the most appropriate vehicle with which to impart the world Lewis observed. Fitzgerald, for one, was indisputably a far greater novelist. Even so, Lewis’s first wife, Grace, asked and answered an important question: “Were the 1920s really the Jazz Age except for a few? Most Americans at that time lived more like Sinclair Lewis characters.” Moreover, the novels remain more compelling than the great contemporary sociological work that explored the same ground: Middletown (1929), Robert and Helen Lynd’s exhaustive examination of the middle class of Muncie, Indiana. The novels work on the reader with an unspectacular, cumulative, absorbing power, which is perhaps why Edmund Wilson commented that “you have to read the whole of a novel of Lewis to find out that there is anything remarkable about it.”
Nevertheless, to praise those novels is to acknowledge that after writing his one truly spectacular book, Lewis abjured literature for what Forster called “photography.” And in what would prove an astonishingly prophetic assessment (and also the only analysis of Lewis’s work I’ve come across that addresses what would seem the obvious question provoked by an examination of his career), Forster explained in 1929 that Lewis’s work was henceforth “bound to be disappointing,” because “photography is a pursuit for the young.” “So long as a writer has the freshness of youth on him,” Forster wrote, “he can work the snapshot method, but when it passes he has nothing to fall back upon.” As Lewis’s mimicry became broad, so his observations became flabby. The “sheer data” that he had used to delineate minute yet telling social distinctions was now too often just so much stuff.
But the consolation Forster offered continues to be the best reason—aside from Main Street, the only reason—to read Lewis: “The historian of our future will cease to worry over this, will pick up the earlier and brighter volumes … and will find there not only genius, but a record of our age.”