Sinclair Lewis in the Village
When Sinclair Lewis accepted his Nobel Prize in 1930, the first American novelist to receive the honor, he disparaged his early writing for the literary magazine at Yale,then a college boy fresh from Sauk Center, Minnesota, as all about troubadours and jesters, “reeking with a banal romanticism.” That description of Lewis the writer was to drastically change, due in part to the great fortune of living in the Village between the years 1910 and 1913, an exciting and transformative time that undoubtedly played a role in his own literary transformation. Lewis lived at 69 Charles Street along with two other Yale men, one of them a brother of his good friend Steven Vincent Benet, and there he spent his days as a $15-a-week editor at a book publisherand wrote fiction and poetry late into the night. In between, he joined the Technicolor circus of the Village in that era.
From Saloons to Salons
The bland, all-white, bread-and-potatoes Midwestern culture he grew up in was a stark contrast to theworld outside his front door—a polyglot of ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity never before experienced.One of his first social events was the Anarchist’s Ball, where he met radicals ofevery stripe—Marxists, Wobblies, feminist activists, unionists, free love advocates—after which Lewis declared himself a Socialist and a Suffragette. At Mable Dodge’s salons he befriended a number of new-wave painters, writers, poets, and playwrights, some of them famous, others yet to be, and came to the happy realization that he was no longer out of step with his times.
Always fond of the bottle, he also frequented The Black Cat, The Green Cup, the Golden Swan (a.k.a. the Hell Hole) and other notorious saloons in the vice zone under the Sixth Avenue el, where more outrageous behaviorwent on—artists looking for local color, slumming aristocrats, prostitutes, members of the local gangsters and purveyors of cocaine called the Hudson Dusters, and a racial and ethnic mingling unimaginable in his Minnesota days.
After his salary was raised to $25 a week, Lewis frequented the upscale haute cuisine restaurant at the Brevoort Hotel on Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street for late breakfasts with friends. Back home, breakfast was at the crack of dawn—unthinkable to his new life style, for which Lewis coined a new word—“brunch.”
Lewis wrote his first published novel, Our Mr. Wrenn, while living at 69 Charles (deemed “rather whimsical” by TheNew York Times) but by the publication of Main Street in 1920, the company he kept and the events he had witnessed during his Village years, followed by the death of romantic idealism in the aftermath of the First World War, had forever changed his world view and writing style—from whimsy to outraged condemnation—always tempered with an acerbic wit that peeled off the veneer of small-town arrogance and hypocrisy, wherever it existed.
The mythical town of Gopher Prairie in his most famous book was the death knell of the idea of the joys of small-town life. Here it was portrayed as a place filled with “savorless people, gulping tasteless food…thoughtless in rocking chairs prickly with inane decorations, listening to mechanical music, saying mechanical things.” No wonder his scorching prose prompted literary critic H. L. Mencken to dub him “the red-haired tornado from the Minnesota wilds.”
The 1920s were Lewis’s golden years. Two more exposes on aspects of American life he found loathsome quickly followed:Babbitt, about materialism and the “thingification” of a life (once again, deftly making up a new word to serve his purpose);and Elmer Gantry, about the excesses of evangelism. “I love America,” he once said while living abroad, “but I don’t like it.” After a while, literary critics started returning the favor. While living in Paris in 1935, he wroteIt Can’t Happen Here, his last well-known book about the rise of fascism. In it he prophesied that “the struggle was befogged by the fact that the worst fascists were those who disowned the word ‘fascism’ and preached enslavement to capitalism,” an opinion bound to make him unpopular in his own country, which had yet to become aware of the nightmare to come. As the years went by, little by little, Lewis dropped from favor.
A Man of His Times, and Ours
Sinclair Lewis was once a towering figure, the conscience of a decade that worshipped glitz and glamor, and even today the titles of his most famous books are household names, but hardly anyone reads what’s inside except in a course in 20th Century American literature. Now he is said to be pedantic, out of fashion, and even humorless (!). Rather than attempting to defend him against these charges, here are some favorite passages straight from his books that reveal how contemporary (and funny) he still is.
On Gopher Prairie respectability:“The outhouse was so overly modestly masked with vines and lattice that it was not concealed at all.”
On materialism: “The men who had broken down immediately after making their $20,000 were hustling to catch trains, to hustle through their vacations which the hustling doctors had ordered.”
On conformity:“Having won freedom, for a bleak eternity he lay awake, shivering, reduced to primitive terror, wondering what he could do with anything so unknown and so embarrassing as freedom.”
On business:“Mr. Bingham, and may he fry in his own cooking oil, was assistant treasurer of theFlaver-Saver Company.”
On religion: “The maker of the universe with stars 100,000 light years apart was interested, furious, and very personal about if a small boy played baseball on Sunday afternoon.”
“Pious Widow Bogart never cracks a smile while the preacher is favoring us with his misinformation on evolution.”
Does that sound out of fashion to you?