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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
George Jean Nathan’s account of how he and Mencken first met Lewis is otherwise questionable, but it presents Lewis at his most dreadful precisely on an occasion when he was courting the opinion for which he most cared. Mencken and Nathan, the story goes, were urged one evening by T. R. Smith, then managing editor of the Century magazine, to drop by at his apartment for a drink.
When we got there, we found with Smith a tall, skinny, paprika-headed stranger to whom we were introduced as one Lewis …
Barely had we taken off our hats and coats … when the tall, skinny, paprika-headed stranger simultaneously coiled one long arm around Mencken’s neck and the other around mine, well nigh strangling us and putting resistance out of the question, and—yelling at the top of his lungs—began: “So you guys are critics, arc you? Well, let me tell you something. I’m the best writer in this here gottdamn country and if you, Georgie, and you, Hank, don’t know it now, you’ll know it gottdamn soon. Say, I’ve just finished a book that’ll be published in a week or two and its the gottdamn best book of its kind that this here gottdamn country has had and don’t you guys forget it! I worked a year on the gottdamn thing and it’s the goods. I’m atelling you! Listen, when it comes to writing a novel, I’m so far ahead of most of the men you two think are good that I’ll he gottdamned if it doesn’t make me sick to think of it! Just wait till you read the gottdamn thing. You’ve got a treat coming, Georgie and Hank, and don’t you boys make no mistake that! ”
Projected from Smith’s flat by the self-endorsing uproar—it kept up for fully half an hour longer—Mencken and I jumped into a taxicab, directed the driver to speed us posthaste to a tavern where we might in some peace recover our equilibrium and our ear-drums, and looked at each other. “Of all the idiots I’ve ever laid eyes on, that fellow is the worst!” groaned Mencken, gasping for breath. Regaining my own breath some moments later, all that I could add was that if any such numskull could ever write anything worth reading, maybe there was something in Christian Science too.
Three days later I got the following letter from Mencken, who had returned to Baltimore:
Dear George: Grab hold of the bar-rail, steady yourself, and prepare yourself for a terrible shock! I’ve just read the advance sheets of the book of that Lump we met at Schmidt’s and, by God, he has done the job! It’s a genuinely excellent piece of work. Get it as soon as you can and take a look. I begin to believe that perhaps there isn’t a God after all. There is no justice in the world. Yours in Xt., M.
By the time Mencken’s review appeared in Smart Set the book was, of course, already made. The boom began with three prepublication encomiums from F. P. A. in his “Conning Tower,” and with Heywood Broun’s enthusiastic review in the New York Tribune for October 20, which praised the truthfulness of the novel’s re-creation of the life of an entire community and, more especially, of the dialogue. “He hears even better than he sees. I can’t think of anybody who has been so unerringly right in reproducing talk. He is right to a degree that is deeper than phonographic exactness.”
If, two days after his first review, Broun reconsidered, and announced now that Carol Kennicott was “puerile” and that Lewis’ method was unselective beyond necessity and the book’s best interest, Mencken, when he came to the novel in January, 1921, found its virtue in the brilliantly packed accumulation of detail no less than in its verisimilitude of speech, at the same time that he assumed the puerility of Carol. He defended what he took to be the author’s conception of the character, assuming that Lewis had meant to show that her “superior culture is, after all, chiefly bogus.” But Lewis meant no such thing. He wrote to Harcourt of Carol as “sensitive and articulate.” in the inscription in his wife’s copy, he had written, “To Gracie, who is all the good part of Carol”; but Carol was also a large part of him. The other part was Will Kennicott, the downright. The struggle was between the halves of his divided being. The two stories together are his, and the combination of these qualities, his, too.
Sinclair Lewis was now beyond poverty and for the time being was feeling no pain. He could now, when he wished, control his native brashness, gaucherie, and social clumsiness. He had now, when he wished to exercise them, charm and graciousness. “A Mercutio from the prairies,” Clifton Fadiman would one day call him. His talk could be entrancingly and, finally, exhaustingly lively; and his impersonations entertaining and, presently, tiresome—his talk, for he had no conversation. His mind could not stay with an idea any longer than his body could stay in a chair, but leapt from point to point, from sense to extravagance, from the mundane to the earnest to the arch to the whimsical to the fantastic and, at last, to the boring, the irrelevant, the merely demanding. he seldom sat, but often slouched, long thin shanks folding and unfolding, hands always plucking at lace—nose, ears, cheek, chin—much jumping up, prancing, slouching again, smoking, smoking.