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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
Of course there was something pathetic in his emphasizing the histrionic in himself. As his work began to lose its old authority as satire, he took to acting in summer theaters. The gift of mimicry, the rapt devotion he showed to any form of verbal monomania, embodied his pride as a performer. He lived for the public, on the public. From the moment in 1920 when Main Street made him famous because it showed the absolute identity—at that moment—between the author and his suddenly skeptical, vaguely rebellious audience, Lewis came in a very real sense to live on his readers. He was gratified to get the right response to Babbitt in 1922 and Arrowsmith in 1925. Rapport between reader and author was getting a little uneasy by the time Lewis got to Elmer Gantry in 1927 and Dodsworth two years later. But Lewis still had reason to believe that as with famous acrobats, movie stars, and opera singers, his audience would remain faithful and enthusiastic.
The audience did more or less remain, though not very enthusiastically. But it was not his readers, disappointed as they may have been with pale stuff like the 1933 Ann Vickers , who changed; it was Sinclair Lewis. He continued to sell, if not always as prodigiously as he had in the great days of the mid-twenties, when he could expect one hundred thousand dollars a year. But the times were out of tune with him. The crowds forever milling around Union Square in 1933 were not congenial to Sinclair Lewis, who tried for many years to write a novel about American labor and could never make a leader like Eugene V. Debs real to himself. “Poor Old Red” in 1936 was an American fixture, seemingly inherent to the national landscape. But in a very real sense the tormented man I saw that year had lost his nerve. And for a novelist drawing everything he writes out of his guts, nerve is everything.
He was nevertheless able to sleep off every alcoholic collapse and come back to the typewriter roaring. A new novel by Sinclair Lewis could be expected every other season or so, like next year’s variation on the American car.
But who now remembers Ann Vickers (1933), Work of Art (1934), It Can’t Happen Here (1935), The Prodigal Parents (1938), Bethel Merriday (1940), Gideon Planish (1943), Cass Timberlane (1945), Kingsblood Royal (1947), The God-Seeker (1949), World So Wide (1951)? Even the titles are unrecognizable except for Lewis’s vain attempt in the day of Huey Long to describe an American fascism in It Can’t Happen Here . The books after Dodsworth (1929), the last Lewis novel that can now even be reread, are not so much inferior as pointless.
What I saw that evening in 1936 was to become the melancholy pattern up to Lewis’s death in Rome, in 1951. Dogged as ever but plainly disheartened, Lewis followed an ever more furious trajectory, abandoning his sons as he abandoned one house after another, running off even from his second wife, Dorothy Thompson, who loved him and was always imploring him to “come home.” He did his little stunts as a college lecturer, took to the stage as an actor. It is easy to say, as Lewis himself said of his Nobel Prize in 1930, “This is fatal. I cannot live up to it.” Easy to say, because it was so obvious that, like many another novelist who rushed across the 1920s like a meteor, Lewis was not up to what followed in the era of depression, war, and permanent world crisis.