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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
Sounds, voices, grunts, and gutturals from morning to night in the scheme of Babbitt come down to things that other “realists” from the Midwest—a region especially given to realism—never bothered with. What I never tire of in Lewis is the exact sound of a car in 1910 being cranked alive and Chum Frinkley’s 1920 doggerel—“But when I get that lonely spell,/ I simply seek the best hotel,/ no matter in what town I be—/ St. Paul, Toledo, or K.C.,/ in Washington, Schenectady,/ in Louisville or Albany.” Even in books that were all caricature, like Elmer Gantry (1927), there were homey details about a life vanishing from Midwestern farms and villages, details that caught the “valley of democracy,” as it used to be called, merging with the industrial monolith. An old farm wife lying in bed recalls to her husband just how their horse used to rear up and kick: “My Lord, how that horse could kick!” They fall asleep to the memory.
Obviously Lewis had a great attachment to the things he made fun of. That, I somehow knew, was what made him vivid, gave him his concentration and intensity of style. It took over a man who was no great intellect but who had a writer’s necessary fierceness. Scott Fitzgerald, a generous admirer of Lewis, said as much about himself when he felt he was going under in the mid-thirties, exactly at the time I saw Lewis. Fitzgerald saw “taking things hard” as his prime characteristic from earliest youth. It created what he described as the “stamp that goes into my books so that people can read it blind like Braille.”
I had been too fond of Lewis’s books to be objective about the man. It was a shock to see in action the ugly and tirelessly bitter person I met at the party overlooking Union Square. Ugly is of course a relative term. But unlike the utterly lost, bereft Sinclair Lewis self-exiled to Italy whom Hemingway cruelly portrayed in Across the River and into the Trees (1950), the man I met in 1936 was acting ugly because he felt helpless at the decline of his reputation. Lewis would drink himself to death; he died in delirium tremens. I saw him on the wagon, with his old friends marveling to his face about it. Sobriety did not help him any more than whiskey.
Part of his trouble was his looks. He felt condemned. His leathery skin was pitted with ferocious acne. For much of the evening he slumped in a chair, ostentatiously bored. His long, thin, bony figure altogether rebuffed the sympathy one could have offered. The great photographer Man Ray caught Lewis in 1927 for Vanity Fair in unusual contemplative repose, bringing out all his sadness. What I saw was Lewis as jack-in-the-box. When he sprang up to do one of his imitations, the amount of personal electricity he poured into the Gannett apartment was astonishing. There was a snap, a clatter, a shock—above all, an eruption. Now that I think about it, it reminded me of the storm created by old vaudeville actors who roared onto the stage as if to outshout the orchestra signaling their entrance.
He was specializing that night in literary types. The unbelievable flow from his mouth, the twists he gave chest and back, as the act continued! I had seen something like this from barkers cajoling customers into the tents at Coney Island. But nothing I had enjoyed in vaudeville, amusement parks, or among the silver-voiced snake-oil salesmen who in my youth peddled patent medicines had prepared me for the angry energy of Lewis’s delivery. It was merciless. It left you stunned. He meant to make his point by crushing you. And though he was unforgettable enough springing up to do his act, he capped the evening by the manner in which he took his leave. Grimacing, snapping, biting, hushing only long enough to take more streams of iced coffee, he finally declared that he had to go home. “So that I can write in the morning,” he announced. “And I write so that you,” pointing to a publisher, “can publish it, so that you,” pointing to a professor, “can teach it!” With this he took himself off. Whereupon Joseph Wood Krutch, an old friend, said reflectively: “Poor old Red. He’s certainly getting worse.”
My prime revelation that night was that a novelist can be the most subjective of creatures, at war with himself and the world but still drawing everything out of himself. The fury with which Lewis imitated people in the room to their faces, as well as characters he was meditating about for his next books, demonstrated his ever-ready rehearsal of his material. He acted up for people in order to keep his work going, just as his notebooks gave a life history for each character and a topographical map for each setting. He was all novelist, forever living every point of pressure on his characters before he described them.