(Harry) Sinclair Lewis

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Date: 2003
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 2,575 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1220L

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About this Person
Born: February 07, 1885 in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, United States
Died: January 10, 1951 in Rome, Italy
Nationality: American
Occupation: Novelist
Other Names: Graham, Tom; Lewis, Harry Sinclair
Full Text: 

(Full name Harry Sinclair Lewis) American novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, dramatist, journalist, and poet.

Introduction

One of the leading American novelists of the 1920s, Lewis created some of the most effective satires in American literature. Along with the noted critic and essayist H. L. Mencken, he vengefully attacked the dullness, the smug provincialism, and the socially enforced conformity of the American middle class. Lewis's fame rests upon five satiric novels published during the 1920s: Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927), and Dodsworth (1929). In these works, he created grotesque yet disturbingly recognizable caricatures of middle-class Americans with a skill for which he is often likened to Charles Dickens. In 1930 Lewis was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, becoming the first American to be so honored.

Lewis was born in the small town of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, and was raised to follow the traditions of his middle-class, Protestant home town. As scholars have observed, throughout his early life Lewis was torn between two conflicting desires. The first was to conform to the standards of sameness, of respectability, and of financial advancement as dictated by his family and by the town. Opposing this desire to be a "Regular Guy" was Lewis's need to acknowledge his own nonconformist nature and ambitions: his agnosticism, his literary inclinations, and his general rebellion against the village's preference for unquestioning adherence to established standards of thought, faith, and aesthetics. After writing news stories and working at various odd jobs in the offices of Sauk Centre's two newspapers during his teens, Lewis—to the townsfolks' disapproval—left the Midwest to attend a university in the East. During his years at Yale, which included periods of travel and temporary employment, he read voraciously and published a number of light stories and poems. For a time Lewis worked as the furnaceman at Upton Sinclair's Helicon Hall, a socialist communal experiment in Englewood, New Jersey, and then went on to graduate from Yale in 1908. He married writer Grace Hegger and drifted about America for the next few years, writing and selling short stories to The Saturday Evening Post and other popular journals. A prolific writer with an abundant imagination, Lewis even sold ideas for stories to novelist Jack London during London's final years.

For the most part, Lewis's early short stories and novels reflect what the author termed the "Sauk-Centricities" of his own nature; they are conventional, optimistic, lightly humorous, and were written for a middle-class audience. Of Lewis's apprentice fiction, critics generally cite two works that foreshadow the skill and themes of the author's novels of the 1920s: The Job (1917), a novel that evidences traces of harsh realism as it tells of a small-town woman's struggle for success as a businesswoman in a large city; and the story "I'm a Stranger Here Myself," which narrates the adventures of a smug, narrow-minded Midwestern couple who condescend to leave "God's Country" for a vacation in Florida. These works marked the first significant sign of Lewis's discontent with writing about what William Dean Howells termed "the more smiling aspects of life, which are the more American." In 1920 Lewis published Main Street, the novel he had long intended to write in revolt against the sentimental myth of the American small town.

With Main Street Lewis assumed the leadership of the movement known as "the revolt from the village" in American literature, culminating a tradition begun by Mark Twain, Harold Frederic, Edgar Lee Masters, and Sherwood Anderson, among others. The partly autobiographical novel portrays the frustrations of Carol Kennicott's idealistic crusades to bring elements of liveliness and culture to her new husband's home town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, an ugly little settlement populated by an appalling collection of blustering, inarticulate oafs and prying, vicious shrews. To Main Street's early readers and critics, the work was perceived as an indictment of traditional nineteenth-century values, which were completely unacceptable in the jaded, sophisticated climate of the Jazz Age. The new generation, fresh from witnessing the mechanized mass-slaughter of World War I, was ready for literature that would reflect its rejection of genteel optimism, blind nationalism, and traditional religion, and it welcomed Lewis's next two novels as it had earlier embraced Main Street. Of Lewis's five major satires, Babbitt and Arrowsmith are widely considered his most accomplished works. In Babbitt, Lewis skewered the loud, hypocritical American businessman as well as members of America's public service organizations and booster clubs, with their endless, vapid speeches and inane rituals. In the character of businessman George F. Babbitt, Lewis created a literary archetype equal in stature to Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Arrowsmith tells of the battles of a humanitarian scientist to conduct medical research against the beckoning forces of fame, commercialism, and material comforts. Widely acclaimed as one of America's most significant voices of the postwar era, Lewis won the 1926 Pulitzer Prize in fiction for Arrowsmith, but refused to accept the award, claiming that it was intended only for champions of American wholesomeness. Evidence from Lewis's letters suggests that another, less idealistic reason for his refusal was his anger that Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence had been chosen over Main Street as winner of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize.

In 1927 storms both of protest and of acclamation erupted at the appearance of Lewis's "preacher novel," Elmer Gantry. An all-out attack on Fundamentalist Protestantism as practiced by such flamboyant evangelists as Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson, the book was praised by Mencken and several other major critics as a fair-minded expose revealing the essential fraudulence of Christianity and the gullibility of its adherents. The majority of critics, however, have joined Walter Lippmann in judging Elmer Gantry to be a deeply flawed novel, one in which Lewis's satiric intent is crushed beneath his hatred of the faith he had rejected as a young man. A year after the publication of this, the weakest but most controversial of his five major novels, Lewis, who had divorced his first wife, married the distinguished journalist Dorothy Thompson. Thompson was a major influence on Lewis's work and thought for the rest of his life. In 1930 the couple traveled to Stockholm, where Lewis received the Nobel Prize for his literary achievement. In his now-famous acceptance speech, Lewis blasted the entire American literary tradition up until roughly his own era, and then hailed the rising new generation of the nation's writers, praising Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Thomas Wolfe, and several others. Lewis's own artistic stature had reached its zenith with the appearance in 1929 of Dodsworth, a novel in which a harried, disillusioned American businessman seeks peace of mind through travel in Europe. Considered one of the best of Lewis's satires, Dodsworth nonetheless marked the end of his preeminence as a major novelist; he never again wrote with the skill and power exhibited in his landmark satires of the 1920s.

Critics continue to speculate about the reasons for Lewis's literary decline during the last two decades of his life. Of all the theories offered, from his failure to complete a proposed novel on American labor to the possibility of his having strained to compete professionally with his wife, it is fairly certain that the Great Depression had the most damaging effect on his talent; for with much of the American middle class jobless and impoverished, Lewis lost both his reading audience and the target of his satiric jibes. During the rest of his career, Lewis periodically lectured, taught university writing courses, contributed book reviews to various magazines, and turned out a succession of relatively undistinguished novels. Among these, three contain traces of the early satiric skill and have received more favorable critical treatment than the others: they are It Can't Happen Here (1935), which documents a plausible fascist takeover of America from within; Cass Timberlane (1945), a blow aimed at the institution of marriage; and Kingsblood Royal (1947), which attacks racial bigotry. Lewis was living in Italy, where he had just completed World So Wide (1951)—a novel which resurrects businessman Sam Dodsworth of the author's earlier work—when he died of heart disease.

A common concern among critics of Lewis's work is the ambivalent attitude expressed throughout the author's mature fiction toward the American middle class. In a recurrently cited example, Carol Kennicott of Main Street is alternately depicted as a sensitive, intelligent woman and as a pretentious, naive whiner. Her husband Will is likewise portrayed as at once a practical, warm, and loving man and as a bellicose lout. Speaking of Main Street in a conversation with Charles Breasted, Lewis acknowledged his longstanding love/hate relationship with small-town America, admitting that Carol is a portrait of himself: "always groping for something she isn't capable of attaining, always dissatisfied, always restlessly straining to see what lies just over the horizon, intolerant of her surroundings, yet lacking any clearly defined vision of what she really wants to do or to be." Lewis's lack of a clear vision of life and his impatient nature are often noted as crucial to understanding the weakness of his fiction: the occasionally shrill tone, the sometimes overly harsh exaggerations of society's foibles, and the bleak outlook that remains even after the fooleries of the "booboisie" are exposed. In praise of Lewis's ability, critics note his superb skill at caricaturing and mimicking the appearance and speech of the common American. And although Lewis's work is not today the subject of extensive critical discussion, in the author's time he performed the role of American gadfly with a power unequalled except by Thomas Paine, Mark Twain, and H. L. Mencken, according to critic Sheldon Norman Grebstein. His five major satires not only introduced such definitive terms as "Main Street," "Babbitt," and "Babbittry" into common usage, but they also paved the way for much of the self-critical realistic fiction of mid-century American literature. As Lewis's biographer, Mark Schorer, has written: "In any strict literary sense, he was not a great writer, but without his writing one cannot imagine modern American literature."

PERSONAL INFORMATION:

Born February 7, 1885, in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, United States; died of paralysis of the heart, January 10, 1951, in Rome, Italy; cremated, and ashes returned to birthplace; son of Edwin J. (a physician) and Emma (Kermott) Lewis; married Grace Livingstone Hegger, April 15, 1914 (divorced, 1928); married Dorothy Thompson, May 14, 1928 (divorced, 1943); children: (first marriage) Wells; (second marriage) Michael. Education: Yale University, A.B., 1908. Memberships: National Institute of Arts and Letters (vice president, 1944), American Academy of Arts and Letters.

 
CAREER:

Helicon Home (Upton Sinclair's socialist community), Englewood, NJ, janitor, 1906-07;Transatlantic Tales, New York City, assistant editor, 1907; Daily Courier, Waterloo, IA, reporter, 1908; worked for a charity organization in New York City, 1908; secretary to Alice MacGowan and Grace MacGowan Cooke in Carmel, CA, 1909; Evening Bulletin, San Francisco, CA, staff writer, 1909; Associated Press, San Francisco, staff writer, 1909-1910; Volta Review, Washington, D.C., staff member, 1910, Frederick A. Stokes (publisher), New York City, manuscript reader, 1910-12; Adventure, New York City, assistant editor, 1912; Publisher's Newspaper Syndicate, New York City, editor, 1913-14; George H. Doran (publisher), New York City, editorial assistant and advertising manager, 1914-15; full-time writer, 1916-51. Writer in residence, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1942. Acted in several plays, including his own It Can't Happen Here and Angela is Twenty-Two.

 
AWARDS:

Pulitzer Prize, 1926, for Arrowsmith (declined); Nobel Prize for Literature, 1930; Litt.D., Yale University, 1936; award from Ebony magazine for promoting racial understanding in his novel, Kingsblood Royal.

 
WORKS:

Novels

  • (Under pseudonym Tom Graham) Hike and the Airplane (juvenile), Stokes Publishing, 1912.
  • Our Mr. Wrenn: The Romantic Adventures of a Gentle Man, Harper, 1914, reprinted, Crowell, 1951, also available online: Text at Wiretap, 1997.
  • The Trail of the Hawk: A Comedy of the Seriousness of Life, Harper, 1915.
  • The Job: An American Novel, Harper, 1917, reprinted, University of Nebraska Press, 1994.
  • The Innocents: A Story for Lovers, Harper, 1917.
  • Free Air, Harcourt, 1919, reprinted, Scholarly Press, 1970.
  • Main Street: The Story of Carol Kennicott (also see below), Harcourt, 1920, reprinted, 1989, reprinted, Penguin, 1995, reprinted, Prometheus, 1996, reprinted, Carroll & Graf, 1996.
  • Babbitt (also see below), Harcourt, 1922, reprinted, 1989, introduction and notes by James M. Hutchisson, Penguin, 1996.
  • Arrowsmith (also see below), Harcourt, 1925, reprinted, Buccaneer, 1982 (published in England as Martin Arrowsmith, J. Cape, 1925, reprinted, 1957).
  • Mantrap, Harcourt, 1926.
  • Elmer Gantry, Harcourt, 1927, reprinted, New American Library, 1980.
  • The Man Who Knew Coolidge: Being the Soul of Lowell Schmaltz, Constructive and Nordic Citizen, Harcourt, 1928.
  • Dodsworth, Harcourt, 1929, reprinted, New American Library, 1972.
  • Ann Vickers, Doubleday, Doran, 1933, reprinted, Dell, 1962, reprinted, University of Nebraska Press, 1994.
  • Work of Art, Doubleday, Doran, 1934, reprinted, Popular Library, 1962.
  • It Can't Happen Here (also see below), Doubleday, Doran, 1935, reprinted, New American Library, 1970.
  • The Prodigal Parents, Doubleday, Doran, 1938.
  • Bethel Merriday, Doubleday, Doran, 1940, reprinted, Popular Library, c. 1965.
  • Gideon Planish, Random House, 1943, reprinted, Manor Books, 1974.
  • Cass Timberlane: A Novel of Husbands and Wives, Random House, 1945, reprinted, Buccaneer, 1982.
  • Kingsblood Royal, Random House, 1947.
  • The God-Seeker, Random House, 1949, reprinted, Manor Books, 1975.
  • World So Wide, Random House, 1951, reprinted, Manor Books, 1974.

Plays

  • Hobohemia, first produced in New York at Greenwich Village Theatre, February 8, 1919.
  • (With Lloyd Lewis) Jayhawker: A Play in Three Acts (first produced in New York at Cort Theatre, November 5, 1934), Doubleday, Doran, 1935.
  • (With John C. Moffitt) It Can't Happen Here (first produced in New York at Adelphi Theatre, October 27, 1936), Dramatists Play Service, 1938.
  • (With Fay Wray) Angela Is Twenty-Two, first produced in Columbus, Ohio, December 20, 1938.

Other

  • John Dos Passos' "Manhattan Transfer," Harper, 1926, reprinted, Norwood, 1977.
  • Cheap and Contented Labor: The Picture of a Southern Mill Town in 1929, United Feature Syndicate, 1929.
  • Selected Short Stories, Doubleday, Doran, 1935, reprinted as Selected Short Stories of Sinclair Lewis, I. R. Dee, 1990.
  • From Main Street to Stockholm: Letters of Sinclair Lewis, 1919-1930,edited by Harrison Smith, Harcourt, 1952.
  • The Man from Main Street; A Sinclair Lewis Reader: Selected Essays and Other Writings, 1904-1950, edited by Harry E. Maule and Melville H. Cane, Random House, 1953.
  • Moths in the Arc Light [and] The Cat of the Stars, edited by Densaku Midorikawa, Taishukan (Tokyo), 1960.
  • Lewis at Zenith; A Three-Novel Omnibus: Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Harcourt, 1961.
  • I'm a Stranger Here Myself and Other Stories, edited by Mark Schorer, Dell, 1962.
  • (With Dore Schary) Storm in the West (screenplay), Stein & Day, 1963, revised edition, 1981.
  • To Toby, limited edition, Macalester College, 1967.
  • If I Were Boss: The Early Business Stories of Sinclair Lewis, Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale, IL), 1997.
  • Also author of The American Fear of Literature, 1931. Author of column, "Book Week," Newsweek, 1937-38; columnist, Esquire, 1945. The majority of Lewis's manuscripts are kept at Yale University; another large collection is at the University of Texas at Austin.

Adaptations

  • Samuel Goldwyn filmed Arrowsmith in 1931 and Dodsworth in 1936; Sidney Howard also wrote a play adaptation of Dodsworth that opened in New York at the Shubert Theatre, February 24, 1934; Elmer Gantry was adapted as a 1960 United Artists film starring Burt Lancaster; a sound recording of Lewis's short story, "Young Man Axelbrod," was produced by American Forces Radio and Television Services, 1972; a sound recording was made of Arrowsmith by American Forces Radio and Television Service, 1973; LP recordings of It Can't Happen Here and Babbitt, with text read by Michael Lewis, were produced in 1973 and 1974, respectively.

 
FURTHER READINGS:

Books

  • Bechhofer, C. E., The Literary Renaissance in America, William Heinemann, 1923.
  • Bode, Carl, editor, The Young Rebel in American Literature, Heinemann, 1959, pp. 51-76.
  • Boynton, Percy, More Contemporary Americans, University of Chicago Press, 1927.
  • Bradbury, Malcolm, and David Palmer, editors, The American Novel and the Nineteen Twenties, Arnold, 1971, pp. 85-105.
  • Cabell, James Branch, Some of Us: An Essay in Epitaphs, Robert M. McBride, 1930.
  • Cohen, Hennig, editor, Landmarks of American Writing, Basic Books, 1969, pp. 315-27.
  • Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography: The Twenties, 1917-1929, Gale, 1989.
  • Cowley, Malcolm, editor, After the Genteel Tradition, Southern Illinois University Press, 1964, pp. 92-102.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 9: American Novelists, 1910-1945, Gale, 1981.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Volume 1, Gale, 1982.
  • Fleming, Robert E., and Esther Fleming, Sinclair Lewis: A Reference Guide, G. K. Hall, 1980.
  • Forster, E. M., Abinger Harvest, Harcourt, 1936.
  • Frank, Waldo, Salvos: An Informal Book about Books and Plays, Boni & Liveright, 1924.
  • Geismar, Maxwell, The Last of the Provincials: The American Novel, 1915-1925, Houghton, 1947, pp. 69-150.
  • Geismar, Maxwell, American Moderns: From Rebellion to Conformity, Hill & Wang, 1958, pp. 107-18.
  • Grebstein, Sheldon Norman, Sinclair Lewis, Twayne, 1962.
  • Griffin, Robert J., editor, Twentieth Century Interpretations of "Arrowsmith," Prentice-Hall, 1968.
  • Hatcher, Harlan, Creating the Modern American Novel, Farrar & Rinehart, 1935.
  • Hicks, Granville, The Great Tradition: An Interpretation of American Literature Since the Civil War, Macmillan, 1935.
  • Hilfer, Anthony Channell, The Revolt from the Village: 1915-1930, University of North Carolina Press, 1969, pp. 158-92.
  • Hoffman, Frederick J., The Twenties: American Writing in the Postwar Decade, Free Press, 1962, pp. 408-15.
  • Hutchisson, James M., The Rise of Sinclair Lewis, 1920-1930, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.
  • Kazin, Alfred, On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature, Reynal & Hitchcock, 1942, pp. 217-26.
  • Lewis, Grace H., With Love from Gracie: Sinclair Lewis, 1912-1925, Harcourt Brace, 1955.
  • Light, Martin, The Quixotic Vision of Sinclair Lewis, Purdue University Press, 1975.
  • Light, Martin, editor, Studies in "Babbit," Charles E. Merrill, 1971.
  • Lippmann, Walter, Men of Destiny, Macmillan, 1927.
  • Lundquist, James, Sinclair Lewis, Ungar, 1973.
  • Mencken, H. L., H. L. Mencken's "Smart Set" Criticism, edited by William H. Nolte, Cornell University Press, 1968.
  • Prescott, Orville, In My Opinion: An Inquiry into the Contemporary Novel, Bobbs-Merrill, 1952.
  • Priestly, J. B., Literature and Western Man, Harper, 1960.
  • Rourke, Constance, American Humor: A Study of the National Character, Harcourt, 1931.
  • Rubin, Louis D., Jr., editor, The Comic Imagination in American Literature, Rutgers University Press, 1973, pp. 247-58.
  • Schorer, Mark, Lewis: An American Life, University of Minnesota Press, 1961.
  • Schorer, Mark, editor, Sinclair Lewis: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1962.
  • Schorer, Mark, Sinclair Lewis, University of Minnesota Press, 1963.
  • Schorer, Mark, editor, Society and Self in the Novel, English Institute Essays, Columbia University Press, 1956, pp. 117-44.
  • Sheean, Vincent, Dorothy and Red, Houghton Mifflin, 1963.
  • Sherman, Stuart P., The Significance of Sinclair Lewis, Harcourt, 1922.
  • Spindler, Michael, American Literature and Social Change: William Dean Howells to Arthur Miller, Indiana University Press, 1983.
  • Stegner, Wallace, editor, The American Novel: From James Fenimore Cooper to William Faulkner, Basic Books, 1965, pp. 166-79.
  • Twentieth Century Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 4, 1981; Volume 13, 1984; Volume 23, 1987; Volume 39, 1991.
  • Tuttleton, James W. The Novel of Manners in America, University of North Carolina Press, 1972, pp. 141-61.
  • Watkins, Floyd C., In Time and Place: Some Origins of American Fiction, University of Georgia Press, 1977.
  • West, Rebecca, The Strange Necessity, Doubleday, Doran, 1928, pp. 295-308.
  • Whipple, T. K., Spokesmen: Modern Writers and American Life, D. Appleton, 1928, pp. 208-29.
  • Woolf, Virginia, The Moment and Other Essays, Harcourt, 1948.

Periodicals

  • American Literature, November, 1970, pp. 348-62.
  • American Mercury, August, 1930.
  • American Quarterly, December, 1973, pp. 558-77.
  • American Scholar, spring, 1954, pp. 162-84.
  • Atlantic, October, 1945; April, 1951, pp. 30-4, November, 1960, pp. 39-48.
  • Bookman, January, 1921.
  • College English, February, 1943; January, 1948, pp. 173-80.
  • Commonweal, November 22, 1935; November 13, 1936; June 6, 1947.
  • Gentlemen's Quarterly, November, 1992.
  • Literature in Transition, No. 5, 1962, pp. 1-20.
  • MidAmerica, Volume 8, 1981.
  • Modern Fiction Studies, Autumn, 1985.
  • Modern Language Quarterly, December, 1971, pp. 401-08.
  • Nation, March 12, 1914; November 10, 1920; April 3, 1929; February 24, 1951; May 22, 1972, pp. 661-62.
  • New Republic, March 24, 1917; December 1, 1920; April 15, 1925.
  • New Yorker, April 7, 1928; May 24, 1947; April 28, 1951; May 17, 1993.
  • New York Herald Tribune Books, March 8, 1925.
  • New York Review of Books, October 8, 1992.
  • New York Times Book Review, November 14, 1920; May 29, 1921 (interview); September 24, 1922; October 1, 1961; May 10, 1987.
  • New York Times Magazine, February 5, 1950 (interview).
  • North Dakota Quarterly, No. 40, 1972, pp. 7-14.
  • Outlook, May 2, 1914.
  • Prairie Schooner, Winter, 1970, pp. 338-48.
  • Renascence, Winter, 1966.
  • Saturday Review of Literature, August 1, 1925.
  • Scribner's Magazine, July, 1930.
  • Smart Set, January, 1921; October, 1922.
  • Southwest Review, autumn, 1947, pp. 403-13.
  • Yale Review, Winter, 1987.

Obituaries and Other Sources

Periodicals

  • Time, January 22, 1951.

 
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Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ2101100644