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Thread: Sinclair Lewis

  1. #1

    United States Sinclair Lewis

    As far as literature is concerned, Minnesota is popularly known as the birth state of Scott Fitzgerald (St Paul) and, er, Garrison Keillor (Anoka), although Sinclair Lewis (1885—1951) is not as well known. One reason for this is that, although he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1926 (for Arrowsmith (1925)) and the Noble Prize for Literature in 1930, he produced nothing of particular merit from 1930 to his death. But he is noted for his novels of the 1920s, especially Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922). Both novels attack the stultifying conformity of the America of the Midwest in the postwar years, although Main Street is arguably more interesting for its autobiographical content.
     
    Main Street is set almost entirely in the fictional small town of Gopher Prairie, although its protagonist, Carol Kennicott, is anything but that name might suggest: she refuses to toe the line. Born Carol Milford, she was educated in the Twin Cities — and later worked in a library in St Paul — with no knowledge of prairie villages, so when she marries Dr Will Kennicott, who has a medical practice in Gopher Prairie, she is destined for a considerable culture shock.
     
    The superficial similarities between Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Main Street are striking: in both novels, a young woman, preoccupied by reading, marries a boring, conformist medical practitioner from a small town, suffers strongly from boredom, and is tempted to commit adultery. The main differences are that Carol does not commit adultery, and does not kill herself: after spending two years working for the Bureau of War Risk Insurance, in Washington D.C., she returns to the strains of the cultural desert of Gopher Prairie.
     
    But this is not Madame Bovary with a postwar American take: Lewis had a love-hate relationship with the small Midwest town in which he was born and grew up — Sauk Centre, which for some reason is given an English spelling — and his father was a doctor there. In Main Street, Lewis incorporated many of the elements — and many of the characters — he had known in Sauk Centre, and reactions in the town against his satire were very strong.

    Carol Kennicott in many ways expresses Lewis's left-wing views on small town America, and although this is Lewis in full exaggeration mode, the message is clear when he launches into a criticism of the Perrys:
     
    'The Republican Party, the Grand Old Party of Blaine and McKinley, is the agent of the Lord and of the Baptist Church in temporal affairs.
     
    'All socialists ought to be hanged.
     
    'Harold Bell Wright is a lovely writer, and he teaches such good morals in his novels, and folks say he's made prett' near a million dollars out of 'em.
     
    'People who make more than ten thousand a year or less than eight hundred are wicked.
     
    'Europeans are still wickeder.
     
    'It doesn't hurt any to drink a glass of beer on a warm day, but anybody who touches wine is headed straight for hell.
     
    'Virgins are not so virginal as they used to be.
     
    'Nobody needs drug-store ice cream; pie is good enough for anybody.
     
    'The farmers want too much for their wheat.'
     
    The Perrys are by no means an atypical couple — in fact, their ideas are identical to the views of many others in the novel, and, Lewis believed, identical to those of many other identical inhabitants of many other identical small towns in conformist America. Carol dreads catching the 'Village Virus'.
     
    After her (kind of) rebellion in Washington, Will ensnares her back, and five months after a holiday with her husband in Charleston, NC, and Savannah, GA, the pregnant Carol prepares to return to prairie living still an anarchist, but a gentler one:
     
    'And why, she began to ask, did she rage at individuals? Not individuals but institutions are the enemies, and they most afflict the disciples who the most generously serve them. They insinuate their tyranny under a hundred guises and pompous names, such as Polite Society, the Family, the Church, Sound Business, the Party, the Country, the Superior White Race; and the only defense against them, Carol beheld, is unembittered laughter.'
     
    Her vision of the beginning of the 21st century is interesting, as she sees that the real revolution will be carried out by the adults of the future. Before she retires to bed, as she points to her daughter's head, she warns her husband:
     
    'Do you see that object on the pillow? Do you know what it is? It's a bomb to blow up smugness. If you Tories were wise, you wouldn't arrest anarchists; you'd arrest all these children while they're asleep in their cribs. Think what that baby will see and meddle with before she dies in the year 2000! She may see an industrial union of the whole world, she may see aeroplanes going to Mars.'
     
    Sauk Centre has long since forgiven Sinclair Lewis, and has even turned him into the commercial attraction that he'd have hated: his parents' house, in Sinclair Lewis Avenue, is now the Sinclair Lewis Boyhood Home, there's a Sinclair Lewis Interpretation Center in the town, and you can even grab a Sinclair Lewis cheeseburger.

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    Last edited by lionel; 10-Dec-2009 at 10:45.

  2. #2

    Default Re: Sinclair Lewis

    In another generation, of course, Revolutionary Road owes a lot to Main Street. Different post-wars too, but...

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  3. #3
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    Default Re: Sinclair Lewis

    Quote Originally Posted by lionel View Post
    In another generation, of course, Revolutionary Road owes a lot to Main Street. Different post-wars too, but...

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    An interesting comparison that had never occurred to me. Has Lewis become a forgotten author in America? Seems to me Babbitt should be on high school reading lists there.
    I re-read some late Lewis as I do late Patrick Hamilton or James Cain, as a rather guilty pleasure. Books like Lewis's Work of Art and Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse by Hamilton are flawed and replete with silliness, but golly, they're great fun.
    I once knew a man who'd grown up in Sauk Center in the 1930s; at the time Lewis was reviled by the townspeople. Interesting to see he's been, if not forgiven, accepted as a draw for tourists.
    the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on the dissecting table. . .

  4. #4

    Default Re: Sinclair Lewis

    Quote Originally Posted by accidie View Post
    An interesting comparison that had never occurred to me. Has Lewis become a forgotten author in America?
    No. I don't speak from direct experience, though, as I'm English, but far prefer American literature - past or present - to the stuff published in England, and I escape to the States at any available opportunity.

    Quote Originally Posted by accidie View Post
    Seems to me Babbitt should be on high school reading lists there.
    If Babbitt is in Spark Notes, then I guess he must be taught in a number of places: SparkNotes: Babbitt

    Patrick Hamilton is a wonderful writer, but sadly forgotten and underrated. Hey, I'll drink to that remark of mine!

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    Last edited by lionel; 16-Dec-2009 at 22:45.

  5. #5

    Default Re: Sinclair Lewis

    It's only just registered, accidie. Connemara! The early Sinclair Lewis was a socialist, Patrick Hamilton was a kind of Marxist, and Carl Sandburg was a socialist. And what was the name of Sandburg's farm in Flat Rock, North Carolina? Yes, take a look at the lovely Connemara.

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    Default Re: Sinclair Lewis

    Quote Originally Posted by lionel View Post
    It's only just registered, accidie. Connemara! The early Sinclair Lewis was a socialist, Patrick Hamilton was a kind of Marxist, and Carl Sandburg was a socialist. And what was the name of Sandburg's farm in Flat Rock, North Carolina? Yes, take a look at the lovely Connemara.

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    Yes, you've found me out. I read only left-wing writers who are not quite of the first rank and who, preferably, are alcoholic. (Interesting that the Sparks thingy refers to Lewis's becoming ill-tempered because of literary fashion without mentioning his alcoholism. Protecting the Yank kiddies, presumably.)
    Of the first two, Hamilton seems less limited to me. Don't know whether it's simply because he was more glib or because in his writing at least he was capable of showing some portion of empathy. Lewis seems to me more constrained, as if he lacked a sort of social imagination.
    Why? (Americans not British, that is.)
    the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on the dissecting table. . .

  7. #7

    Default Re: Sinclair Lewis

    Quote Originally Posted by accidie View Post
    Of the first two, Hamilton seems less limited to me. Don't know whether it's simply because he was more glib or because in his writing at least he was capable of showing some portion of empathy. Lewis seems to me more constrained, as if he lacked a sort of social imagination.
    Why? (Americans not British, that is.)
    I've read most of Hamilton's novels and always had a mental vision of him sitting at a pub table writing down notes of the conversations he heard, which of course is what he did. The Midnight Bell has to be the one I prefer, as no one could write about binge drinking quite like him. But in probably every book, he hammers home points about the way people exploit others through psychological ploys. Pretty creepy.

    I think Lewis was just out of luck because he was writing in a rather old-fashioned style when writers like Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway, and Faulkner were bringing a much fresher approach to American literature.

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  8. #8
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    Default Re: Sinclair Lewis

    It's been interesting to see how Donald Trump and the Republican sweeps in the 2016 election have to some extent brought Sinclair Lewis back into American public conscious. A couple different bookstores I've been into lately have had piles of his books right at the front of the store and it seems newer editions of It Can't Happen Here and Free Air have been printed since the election.

    The cheap, small Signet Classics edition of it Can't Happen Here has always been around but recently I've been seeing a larger, higher quality paperback version in stores.

    I suppose to some extent Babbit's flip-flopping bullshit on politics and be seen as Trump-esque.

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