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Sinclair Lewis Got It Exactly Right
He re-created with perfect pitch every tone of voice, every creak and rattle of an America that was disintegrating even as it gave birth to the country we inhabit today
October/november 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 6
My first—and last—sight of Sinclair Lewis was in Union Square. Lewis Gannett, the book columnist for the New York Herald Tribune in the 1930s, had somehow contrived to make himself a penthouse of sorts atop a factory there, and one night he gave a party at which Sinclair Lewis was the central fact. From Gannett’s windows you could see down to the grubby commerce that surrounded the square. There was a good view of General Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette enshrined in the park as statues but looking somewhat out of place amid the tumult, for in those days Union Square Park was the favorite staging area for leftists of every shade accusing one another of betraying the revolution.
The guests that night in 1936 included Professor Joseph Wood Krutch (soon to resume his teaching post at Columbia), the biographer and critic Carl Van Doren, and other literary authorities of the 1920s who still figured as authorities in the 1930s. I was just twenty-one, and they seemed terribly mature and important to me. Despite the wholly literary atmosphere, you constantly heard low rumbling from the machinery in the factory below. Since a quarter of the American work force was then unemployed, I was gratified by the sound. But soon I overlooked it. For the real machinery that evening was Sinclair Lewis. It was a night when he was on the wagon. I did not know why this was so dramatic an occasion for his friends, but I could see that the many glasses of iced coffee being served up to Lewis, and the many public references to the fact that “Red” was very fond indeed of iced coffee, were making the evening even more charged than it already was.
Sinclair Lewis, just past his fiftieth birthday, sat glowering in that room like a caged lion. He looked as if he could not decide whether to amuse the spectators, roar at them, commit an obscenity, or bite them. Sinclair Lewis in the flesh incarnated the verbal aggressiveness that went into his books, the extraordinary rush, patter, and hilarity of his style. But the attack he made that night on everyone in the room was hardly what I associated with the full talent and critical wit of the most poised satirist then operating in American literature.
Lewis was often described as our Voltaire. He was the most public and most continually embattled of the American novelists who shaped our attitudes and embodied our view of the national life in the first half of the “modern” century. To be a fan of Sinclair Lewis was to proclaim oneself an independent thinker. Lewis’s greatest creation, George F. Babbitt, gave his name to a whole class and condition of American conventionality. Half a century later we have no such easy category as “He’s a Babbitt.” The wall between those who once thought of themselves as the conscience of American life and those hopelessly sunk in conventional routine is more problematic than it used to be. What was once intellectual war has somehow disappeared, and many a sometime anti-Babbitt is now glad to be “on the team.” Brains and the highest professional skills are no longer a handicap.
In 1936 it was different. Sinclair Lewis had made it different. But nothing that so dependably amused me in the vocal clatter of his novels had prepared me for the uninterruptible mimicry and aggressively bitter monologue that night. Nothing had prepared me for the scarred thin pendant of a face, the lanky body, and the perilously skinny legs that Lewis somehow contrived to twist around it. From deep in his chair he managed to dominate the evening by terrifying it.
Sinclair Lewis was a sardonic and often comic novelist whom I enjoyed as much as I admired. Perhaps I admired him because I so enjoyed reading him. I never thought Lewis as profound a novelist as the Dreiser of An American Tragedy or as perfect an artist as the Hemingway of the short stories. But he was fun to read, easy to agree with. I so much shared his briskly rebellious, familiar, and pleasant point of view—not deep but intellectually virtuous, as I knew all good American writers to be—that I never felt I had anything fresh to learn from it. Unlike Dreiser, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, and the other originals who had made a modern American literature, Lewis had to be admired on his own terms. As a writer he seemed to me—as he still does—an inimitable folk artist, a performer in the best sense of the word.
What Lewis performed in his novels was America in detail, in voice and manner America became material that no one else had caught with such frenetic, breathless accuracy. I used to read him over and over for his “act” as a comic novelist. I never tired of weirdies with names like Zilla Riesling, Vergil Gunch, T. Cholmondeley Frink, Opal Emerson Mudge, Sam Dopplebrau, Barnabus Joy, Dr. Kurt Yavitch, Edward Julius Schwartz, and, of course, “The Man Who Knew Coolidge,” Lowell Schmaltz. “His name is Dr. Gottlieb,” a colleague airily tells Martin Arrowsmith, but he “should have been called God-damn.”