When I called through the fence to Michael Schmidt, visiting Joan McAlister my neighbor and his cousin at 71 Charles, for an article on Sinclair Lewis I was astonished at how fast it came back and at its incredible historic scholarship.

What I did not know until two weeks ago when the New York Times reviewed his book “The Novel – A Biography” and discovered that what he had sent me was a chapter from the massive book.

The premise of the book is simple– who else can pass on the value of a novel better than other novelists? And we get complements and criticism, which at times we suspect are motivated by envy making for a very lively and fresh literary journey.

-George Capsis

From 1910-1913, Sinclair Lewis lived at 69 Charles Street. This article is excerpted from The Novel: a Biography, shortly to be Harvard University Press Belknap book. It is written by Michael Schmidt, a frequent visitor to his cousin, Joan McAllister’s house, just next door at 71 Charles Street.

When Sinclair Lewis was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1930, he rendered the coup de grace to another Village resident, William Dean Howells, in his address The American Fear of Literature. He began in a friendly, patronising voice, almost like Howells’s own, “Mr Howells was one of the gentlest, sweetest, and most honest of men,” and then, to the jugular, “but he had the code of a pious old maid whose greatest delight was to have tea at the vicarage. He abhorred not only profanity and obscenity but all of what H. G. Wells has called the jolly coarsenesses of life.” Only the Great War put an end to his stifling influence on American letters. His greatest achievement was “to tame Mark Twain, perhaps the greatest of our writers, and to put that fiery old savage into an intellectual frock coat and top hat.” His type survived. Lewis’s medicine, magisterially administered, tried to purge the republic of American letters of one of its most persistent types.

Edith Wharton’s pleasure upon receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 for The Age of Innocence was checked when she learned that the judges had voted to give the award to Main Street by the young Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951: though it was his eighth work, he was only thirty-six). Columbia University’s advisory board had over-ridden the judges’ choice (Lewis’s book was not ‘wholesome’ or Howellsian enough) and given her the prize because The Age revealed the “wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” Lewis, an admirer of Wharton, wrote to congratulate her. “When I discovered that I was being rewarded – by one of our leading Universities – for uplifting American morals, I confess I did despair,” she replied: had they actually understood the book at all? Lewis’s letter reassured her, “the first sign I have ever had – literally – that ‘les Jeunes’ at home had ever read a word of me… Some sort of standard is emerging from the welter of cant and sentimentality, and if two or three of us are gathered together, I believe we can still save Fiction in America.” To this pious sentiment she added an invitation to Lewis to visit her in France with his wife. After that visit Lewis asked if he could dedicate his novel Babbitt to her. “No one has ever wanted to dedicate a book to me before and I’m so particularly glad that now it’s happened, the suggestion comes from the author of Main Street.” In 1923 the Pulitzer judges chose Babbitt but again the trustees refused, and Willa Cather’s ‘wholesome’ war novel One of Ours prevailed. (Cather too lived for some time in the Village.) At last, in 1925, when the judges chose Arrowsmith and the trustees reluctantly concurred, Lewis turned the prize down on the grounds that it rewarded Boosterish books, propaganda for America and the American way of life, and his book was not in that category.

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