“In America most of us - not readers alone but even writers - are still afraid of any literature which is not a glorification of everything American, a glorification of our faults as well as our virtues. To be not only a best seller in America but to be really beloved, a novelist must assert that all American men are tall, handsome, rich, honest, and powerful at golf; that all country towns are filled with neighbors who do nothing from day to day save go about being kind to one another; that although American girls may be wild, they change always into perfect wives and mothers; and that, geographically, America is composed solely of New York, which is inhabited entirely by millionaires; of the West, which keeps unchanged all the boisterous heroism of 1870; and of the South, where everyone lives on a plantation perpetually glossy with moonlight and scented with magnolias.”— Sinclair Lewis, Nobel Prize Lecture, Oslo, Norway, December 12, 1930
Novelist Sinclair Lewis, born on this date in 1885 in Sauk Centre, Minn., was the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. “The American Fear of Literature” that he criticized upon receiving the award in 1930 has changed mightily in recent years. Not only did two countrymen he praised in that address for their refusal to look away from ugliness, Ernest Hemingway and Eugene O’Neill, go on to win the same prize, but our bestseller lists—and certainly current syllabi of American literature at colleges and universities across the country—also reflect Americans’ willingness to ponder hard truths about themselves.
Lewis himself has fared less well through the years. His best novels—Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, and Dodsworth—were already behind him when he won. He died an alcoholic wreck two decades later, producing work that, most critics believed, declined with each effort, and he was unlucky in death to have received, in Mark Schorer, a deeply unsympathetic biographer.
He is worth more than just a second look, however. At his best, he painted extraordinarily vivid pictures of American life that benefited from his in-depth research. Tom Wolfe has made waves in the past 25 years as much for hailing the critically out-of-favor Lewis as for the realistic novel the latter raised to a high plane. Here, in a 2006 interview at an appearance at the National Endowment for the Humanities, Wolfe described Lewis’ painstaking method of collecting information:
“He decided that he wanted to write a novel about the Protestant clergy, which had tremendous power in the 1920s. To prepare for it, he used to fill in for ministers who wanted to take a vacation in the summer and he would give sermons. He would go to Chautauquas. He would go to divinity schools, carrying around his five-by-eight cards, where he would take notes to write Elmer Gantry, which I like the best of all of his books. This was what you did.”
Personally, I also admit to an interest in Lewis because his constant traveling brought him to points where I have been. In his early 20s, for instance, he worked (unhappily) at Helicon Hall, Upton Sinclair’s utopian community in the East Hill section of my hometown, Englewood, NJ (That building was destroyed in a fire after Lewis departed grumpily.)
Then, a little more than a decade ago, while walking down Minnesota’s famous Summit Avenue, I passed by the William Butler House. Lewis leased the house in 1917 and 1918 while working on two projects: a novel about the late railroad magnate James J. Hill (whose own home was located conveniently down the street) and Hobohemia, a play that enjoyed an 11-week run in New York.
When he left Summit Avenue, Lewis was still two years away from the book that would vault him to the forefront of American letters, Main Street. A man a decade his junior who had grown up in the neighborhood would return here for a short stint to work on This Side of Paradise, which also won him notice in 1920: F. Scott Fitzgerald.