By Sally E. Parry
Sinclair Lewis moved to New York City in the fall of 1910, after completing a Bachelor’s degree at Yale University. He had taken a break from his studies to work as a janitor at novelist Upton Sinclair’s utopian community of Helicon Hall in New Jersey, and had traveled some—twice to England, to work on a cattle boat, and once to Panama for adventure and to learn Spanish. Lewis had published a few pieces—some poems, including children’s verse; a couple of short stories; and some translations from French and German for the American publication Transatlantic Tales. He also worked as a newspaper reporter, a part-time secretary to two writers in California, and sold plots to author Jack London.
In October 1910, Lewis started working as a manuscript reader for the New York publishing firm of Frederick A. Stokes Company, a job that put him in contact with many of the rising intellectuals of the time: novelist Floyd Dell, dramatist Susan Glaspell, civic reformer Frances Perkins, and the social revolutionaries John Reed and Louise Bryant. Lewis joined the Socialist Party, attended the Anarchists’ Ball, and supported women’s suffrage.
While living at 69 Charles Street (which was Van Nest Place at the time), Lewis shared the house with Harry Kemp, later known as the “Hobo Poet;” George Soule, writer and book reviewer; and William Rose Benét, founder and editor of the Saturday Review of Literature and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1942 for The Dust Which Is God. It was here that Lewis wrote Hike and the Aeroplane, a boys’ adventure story, under the pseudonym of Tom Graham; he sold it to his employer, the Frederick A. Stokes Company, in 1912. Lewis was given a two-month leave in order to work on Our Mr. Wrenn: The Romantic Adventures of a Gentle Man, his first adult novel and the first under his own name. Our Mr. Wrenn shows much of the writing style that Lewis would develop in his later novels. Bill Wrenn is in many ways a stand-in for the young Sinclair Lewis of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, who romanticized far-off places, and eventually travelled to some of them.
When Lewis left the Village, he married and moved to Long Island, but the ideas about social reform that he encountered here affected much of his later writing. For example, a novel published in 1917, The Job, provided a sympathetic but not sentimental look at the women who were becoming increasingly important in offices across the City. This all gave rise to E. M. Forster’s oft-quoted statement that Lewis was able “to lodge a piece of the continent in our imagination.”
In his obituary on Lewis, J. Donald Adams observed, “both in his life and in his work, he was American. So many of our national characteristics were magnificent in him—our restlessness, our energy, our impatience, our quick friendliness, our idealism. He was bone of our bone.”