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With the publication of his acid-etched but enormously popular portrait of the American small town, Sinclair Lewis emerged as the spokesman for a new literary generation
October 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 6
The book seemed, above all, to be American; and that, at a time when most American fiction was imitative of the already faint provincial fiction of Great Britain, was another element in its great success. Many of its readers had never been exposed to a novel that was so uncompromisingly American both in its seeming truthfulness to the native scene and in the language that communicated it. in spite of novelists like Norris, Dreiser, Gather, and Anderson, American fiction until the war still labored under the shadow of England, and publishers in New York still treated novelists like Galsworthy, Bennett, and Walpole as superior to even our most impressive American talent in fiction. Ironically again, it was the native quality of Main Street that appealed to British writers quite as much—and probably more, since they had no stake in the matter—as to writers in the United States.
Lewis was inundated with letters of praise from his fellows. Not only because of the efforts of Alfred Harcourt, but often independently and always out of genuine enthusiasm, English letters came from, among others, Compton Mackenzie, Hugh Walpole, John Drinkwater, H. G. Wells, Rebecca West, John Galsworthy. American congratulations came from every quarter: Rupert Hughes, Zona Gale, Hendrik Van Loon, Fannie Hurst, Hamlin Garland, Vachel Lindsay —these were a few of them.
A number of letters have special interest. One of nonliterary source, for example, came from a nearly legendary figure in Pinehurst, North Carolina:
Dear Sir I want to thank you very much for using my name in your wonderful story Main Street—every one here who has read the book say it is wonderful. Just now there is none on sale at news stand so I am loaning mine to friends. Again thank you I am very truly yours Annie Oakley
A more solemn letter from a young writer, also enjoying his first great success in 1920, is as follows:
I want to tell you that Main Street has displaced Theron Ware in my favor as the best American novel. The amount of sheer data is amazing! As a writer and a Minnesotan let me swell the chorus—alter a third reading.
With the utmost admiration F. Scott Fitzgerald
The reference to their common state almost forces the contrast upon us—Fitzgerald moving with such apparent ease from Minnesota into the life of Princeton, enjoying so immediately his fantastic success, heir to all that glamour that Lewis was never to know, let alone embody, moving so easily into “that real Parisian bunch” that always shut Lewis out, writing two great books of subtle charm and beauty and pathos, and one of them a perfect work of art and socially important as well—how different! Yet Lewis troubled Fitzgerald. In 1925 he wrote John Peale Bishop to ask, “Is Lewis’ new book [ Arrowsmith ] any good. I imagine that mine [ Gatsby ] is infinitely better …” And there is an ironical similarity in the biographical line: the waste of life in alcohol, the disintegration of marriage, the crack-up, the pretty young mistress to be educated, the final isolation and despair.
But Lewis now, like Fitzgerald, was living in the very blaze of noon, as every letter served to remind him. There were letters, of course, from the faithful Yale professors, Chauncey Tinker and William Lyon Phelps. Phelps, whose salutation read “Dear Sin,” wrote, “I call you Sin because you are as original as sin,” and assured him that Main Street was “a novel of high magnitude.” Writing from The Nation, Carl Van Doren told him that “at Columbia University everybody seems to be reading the book, and one of my colleagues there recently argued with a whole gang of men at luncheon that your book is the most truthful novel ever written.”
There were letters, of course, from the two novelists to whom Lewis had dedicated his book. James Branch Cabell was prompt and effusive, Joseph Hergesheimer slower and more stately. From Theodore Dreiser there was no word, but from Dreiser’s doughty champion, H. L. Mencken, there was; and with that began the most influential literary relationship that Lewis was to experience. Mencken loomed large for Lewis. On October 37, Lewis received an enthusiastic letter from John Peter Toohey, a theatrical press agent, who had “written Harry Mencken to go out and grab a copy instanter,” and for once, Lewis did not urge Harcourt immediately to follow up this lead for a possible blurb (“Mencken we’d better let alone—he’ll be getting touchy”). Before the thirtieth, another letter from Toohey told him that Mencken had already read it with “great joy,” and on the thirtieth, “a voluntary letter” came from Mencken himself, calling Main Street “the best thing of its sort that has been done so far,” and promising to review it in the January Smart Set, “the first issue still open.”