- Historic Sites
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
When he was at home alone or with his family, he slouched around in carpet slippers and an old bathrobe or a tattered cardigan; but he also had developed starched notions of elegance which made him conspicuously well dressed when he dressed. He was briefly tolerant of many people and sharply impatient, trigger-tempered, with a few—those closest to him. His wife annoyed him almost all the time; but at this point, although frequent short periods of freedom were essential, he could not yet conceive of living for long without her. His son did not interest him, and when the child required attention that the father thought might better be paid to himself, the little boy was a simple nuisance at least, or an object that aroused a petulant jealousy. He drank, but not yet in excess, or at least not often. He could be as delightful as he was distraught. Except for a few weeks of mild and unnecessary economic anxiety just before and after the publication of Main Street, he would never be poor again. He was well-launched at last, the great lover of Thoreau, upon his life of noisy desperation.
Reports vary on his response to his sudden success. Waldo Frank, in 1925, recorded—almost certainly in error—that it disturbed Lewis, that he had hoped only for outrage on all sides; and Gilbert Seldes, that it shook Lewis’ faith in Main Street as a work of art. Dr. Peyton Rous and his wife, who were seeing the Lewises in these years, remember that it frightened him. “This will change us. This will change me. This will change everything! ” they recall as his lamentation. (Later, surely, except for one brief moment, he took his success lightly, quite as his due, beyond astonishment.)
At another extreme are stories of arrogance and a new accession of rudeness. In Washington, where he was then living, society in that winter of 1920–21 paid some attention to the Lewises, and one story has it—it is probably apocryphal, almost certainly heightened, but reported by John Marquand as current at that time—that one day Lewis waited on Mrs. Bainbridge Colby, the wife of the new Secretary of State, at a moment when she was being briefed by the protocol man. Lewis, still gauche in many ways, did not particularly put her at ease, and she was already uneasy about the expectations of her conduct, more so in the presence of the protocol man. At last she said, “Mr. Lewis, I think Main Street is a very interesting book. You are surely one of the most promising young writers in the United States.” He looked at her, laughed at her, and said, “You go to hell.” Gasps, stiffnesses, and, “Really, Mr. Lewis …” And Mrs. Lewis, too, became the subject of anecdotes. One story has it that on some occasion when she was introduced as Mrs. Lewis, she turned and exclaimed, “Please, Mrs. Sinclair Lewis! Even my dentist says, ‘Mrs. Sinclair Lewis, spit!’ ” And it is true enough that she sometimes signed her letters “Grace Sinclair Lewis.” And Hendrik Van Loon supposedly put a sign on the second floor of his house that read, “It is forbidden to gossip over three minutes about Grace.” They had moved into mythology.
And why not? The title Main Street was being spoken everywhere. Before the middle of November, Alfred Harcourt had submitted the novel to the secretary of Columbia University as a logical aspirant for a Pulitzer prize. The jury chairman was Robert Morss Lovett, and his fellow members were Stuart Pratt Sherman and Hamlin Garland. As late as March, 1921, Hamlin Garland had not read a novel of the previous year that he felt he could endorse, but already in February he had invited Lewis to tea (Lewis was in Cincinnati and could not accept), and he voted with his fellows that the prize should go to Main Street. In May the trustees of Columbia University overruled the jury and awarded the prize to Edith Wharton for The Age of Innocence. On June 22, in the New Republic appeared the jury’s public protest, signed by the chairman and including Sherman’s open letter to the trustees. Then Alfred Harcourt, just before the appearance of Babbitt, commissioned Stuart Sherman to write his little booklet on Lewis’ “significance,” which was to claim that Lewis was the superior of all his contemporaries—Cabell, Hergesheimer, Dreiser—and of such younger writers as Waldo Frank who were the “lunatic fringe.” In January of 1921, before some of these events, which were both to cloud the sun and to heighten the excitement, had taken place, Sinclair Lewis was writing Harcourt urgently suggesting that he find Scandinavian translators and publishers for the book, because there was, after all, the Nobel prize, too....