Although Harry Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) was the most celebrated American literary figure of the 1920s, his popular, mildly satirical novels today are valued mainly for their sociohistorical relevance.
In his best work Sinclair Lewis wrote with infectious exuberance, and his visual detail and sensitive dialogue provide a striking, though superficial, verisimilitude. He lacked the insight into social complexities characteristic of the naturalistic authors of the next generation, but Lewis's satire of the smugness, hypocrisy, and puritanism of American small-town life served as a needed contrast to the sentimental literary traditions that had enshrined so much of provincial America. The importance of this achievement, however, should not obscure Lewis's artistic failings: a commonplace world view, little literary imagination, and a style that often failed to rise above journalism.
Born in Sauk Centre, Minn., the son of a small-town physician, Lewis was a lonely, awkward, introspective boy. He first left his provincial environment to study at Yale, briefly interrupting his education in 1907 to work at Upton Sinclair's socialist colony in New Jersey. After his graduation in 1908, Lewis spent several years doing newspaper and editorial work in various sections of the United States. His first four novels were all unsuccessful and insignificant, containing little indication of the satire and realism to follow.
Main Street and Babbitt
In 1920 Lewis achieved instant worldwide recognition with the publication of Main Street, which, according to Lewis's biographer Mark Schorer, "was the most sensational event in 20th-century American publishing history." It is the story of a gifted young girl, married to a dull, considerably older village doctor, and her futile attempts to bring culture and imagination to vapid small-town life. "This is America," wrote Lewis, "a town of a few thousand in a region of wheat and corn and dairies and little groves. The town is, in our tale, called Gopher Prairie, Minn. But its Main Street is the continuation of Main Streets everywhere." Lewis's satire on smug provincial complacency, though devastating and admirable for its cultural criticism at the time, seems curiously naive today.
Lewis next focused on the American businessman in Babbitt (1922), perhaps his major work and the novel more likely to retain its impact. The reason for Babbitt's success is that Lewis, never a master of literary realism despite his reportorial skills, deliberately wrote in a fantastic, almost surrealistic style. Abandoning formal plot development or structure, the work achieves a quality of improvisational spontaneity. The prose, consistently energetic, often rises to such Dickensian flourishes as, "His shoes were black lace boots, good boots, honest boots, standard boots, extraordinarily uninteresting boots," and "Babbitt loved his mother, and sometimes he rather liked her." The creation of George F. Babbitt—whose name has become synonymous with bourgeois mediocrity—an intellectually empty, emotionally immature man of dubious morals who nevertheless remains a lovable comicstrip figure, is Lewis's greatest accomplishment. The ineffectiveness of the satire is attributable less to the obviousness of the attack and the author's lack of ingenious wit than to the irony that Lewis himself embodied the Philistinism which he derided. But to fault the satirical impotence of the novel appears superfluous for, as one critic has remarked, "If Babbitt could write, he would write like Sinclair Lewis."
Later Novels and Nobel Prize
Lewis's next popular novel, Arrowsmith (1925), returns to the conventional form of Main Street to portray a young doctor's battle to maintain his integrity in a world of pettiness, dishonesty, and commercialism. Despite its often simplistic treatment of the dedication of pure scientists as a means of spiritual salvation, Arrowsmith was offered the Pulitzer Prize. Lewis, however, immediately refused it, because the terms of the award require that it be given not for literary merit, but for the outstanding presentation of "the wholesome atmosphere of American Life."
Elmer Gantry (1927), an extremely emotional assault on religious hypocrisy, seems more concerned with the main character's degeneracy than with the failings of organized religion. Dodsworth (1929), a sympathetic portrait of a wealthy retired manufacturer seeking happiness in Europe, is more successful. Here Lewis makes little effort to conceal his liking of, and even admiration for, the values of Babbittry. In 1930 Sinclair Lewis became the first American to win the Nobel Prize, but this distinction brought little personal happiness.
The large quantity of writing Lewis produced in the following years is almost without interest. To the earlier superficiality of his fiction was now added a fatal dullness. Ann Vickers (1933) traces the career of a neurotic woman who starts as a social worker and ends as the mistress of a politician; It Can't Happen Here (1935) warns of the possibility of a fascist takeover of the United States; Gideon Planish (1943) is an expose of organized philanthropy; Cass Timberlane (1945) deals with an unhappy marriage between a middle-aged judge and his loving wife; Kingsblood Royal (1947) takes on the subject of racial prejudice; and The God-Seeker (1949) tells the story of a New England missionary's attempts to convert the Indians of Minnesota in the 1840s.
Lewis spent his last years traveling throughout Europe, unable to find publishers for his work and poignantly aware that his place in American literature was far less significant than his early admirers had led him to believe. Writing before the reputations of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner were established, and at a time when Theodore Dreiser was encountering critical and public hostility over the uncouth nature of his genius and assault on conventional traditions, Lewis by the nature of his talent and intellectual limitations had been able to fill the literary vacuum. But later critics accused him of depriving the stronger novelist Dreiser of the Nobel Prize in 1930. Married and divorced twice, Lewis retreated into almost total solitude. Increasingly sensitive to his physical deterioration, he was reluctant to be seen even by his few friends. He died on Jan. 10, 1951, of heart seizure, in an obscure small-town clinic just outside Rome.
Lewis's unique place in American literary history is perhaps best expressed by Mark Schorer: "He was one of the worst writers in modern American literature, but without his writing one cannot imagine modern American literature. That is because, without his writing, we can hardly imagine ourselves."
Further Reading on Harry Sinclair Lewis
The definitive biography of Lewis is Mark Schorer, Sinclair Lewis: An American Life (1961). For early critical estimates of Lewis's work see sections in Carl Van Doren, The American Novel (1921; rev. ed. 1955); Walter Lippmann, Men of Destiny (1927); and James Branch Cabell, Some of Us (1930). In addition, note Vernon L. Parrington's short study, Sinclair Lewis: Our Own Diogenes (1927). Later estimates include Robert Cantwell's "Sinclair Lewis" in Malcolm Cowley, ed., After the Genteel Tradition: American Writers since 1910 (1937); Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds (1942; abr. 1956); sections in Maxwell Geismar, The Last of the Provincials (1947); and Frederick J. Hoffman, The Twenties: American Writing in the Postwar Decade (1955; rev. ed. 1962).