SINCLAIR LEWIS: REBEL FROM MAIN STREET
By Richard Lingeman
Several years ago a totally unknown novelist from the mid-West wrote an essay in Harper’s asking whatever happened to the “big social novel” in America. It is a question that comes up quite a lot in literary circles, usually in relation to the larger question of what constitutes realism in fiction. Many of the world’s most celebrated authors in the late twentieth century – Marquez, Grass, DeLillo, Murakami – have written big social novels, but they tend toward “magic realism” and the paranoid, fantastic, and supernatural. Their work seems not quite of the world.
Is it realism? The author of the Harper’s piece (yes, that was Jonathan Franzen pre-plugging The Corrections) quotes Philip Roth’s complaint, made in the 1960s, that in America reality has surpassed fiction’s ability to represent it. But Roth’s own work in the 1990s put the lie to that, while journalist-turned-novelist Tom Wolfe has continued to campaign for a literature that will reject fashionable literary trends like postmodernism and magic realism, and go out into the street to deal with life as it is really lived by Americans.
Now Sinclair Lewis, another product of the American mid-West, is one of Tom Wolfe’s heroes . . .
Sinclair Lewis was born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota in 1885, the son of a doctor. After serving an apprenticeship writing short fiction (at a time when you could make a good living writing short fiction), he exploded onto the literary scene with the novel Main Street in 1920. This was followed by a decade of bestsellers taking on different facets of American life and the American character: Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927), and Dodsworth (1929). He made a fortune, and in 1930 capped it all by becoming the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (he rejected the Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith, claiming no prize was worth the subservience of confirming “vague institutions” as final judges of literary excellence).
Most great writers only have around ten years when they are really hot. By the time he won the Nobel, Lewis was pretty much spent as a creative force. The public and critical taste had also moved on, and it wasn’t long before Lewis’s place in the literary pantheon began to slip. Mark Schorer’s 1961 biography concluded that he was “one of the worst writers in modern American literature,” though “without his writing one cannot imagine modern American literature.” The very name Babbitt was once a part of the language, but today few people know what it refers to. In Philip Roth’s The Human Stain the main character complains that America in the 1990s is a country where Babbitt never happened. One can easily get a degree in modern American Literature without having to read a word of Lewis’s work.
Richard Lingeman’s biography is meant to be a restoration project, but it doesn’t have the energy or inspiration to make its subject come to life. The figure Lewis cuts as an alcoholic-workaholic artist, grinding out his novels like a latter day Trollope, working from 9-to-5 at 5,000 words a day, seems almost as out of fashion as his fiction. His dedication and integrity command respect, but Lingeman can’t make the man interesting.
The opportunity was there. Lewis was a strange contradictory character. He was a conflicted rebel, someone who denounced convention while always wanting to belong. Awkward and ugly, he still managed to marry two formidable women, almost total opposites, who are fascinating characters in their own right. With all this, and H. L. Mencken around to provide a bitter chorus, more could have been done.
Lewis is still an important writer because his war on bunk is ongoing. Every writer satirizing America today, from Wolfe to Ellis to Rushdie, follows his lead. It’s just that Babbitt’s boosterism and Gantry’s pious hypocrisy have outgrown their creator’s hand. What once was outrageous now seems tame.
Review first published April 27, 2002.