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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
“Poor Old Red” was an American fixture in 1936, but in a very real sense the tormented man I saw that year had lost his nerve.
Obviously we are the most spectacular society in the world. We must be, to judge from the excitement with which we write and read about ourselves, high and low and middle, all over our culture. News! Americans are forever news! Ezra Pound, like Lewis, born in 1885 in the great American West, said something different: “Literature is news that stays news.” And it may be that books like Updike’s Rabbit Is Rich will stay news as Lewis’s Babbitt has remained so for sixty-three years. It had the power to influence a brilliant young novelist born ten years after it came out.
But if I ask myself why Babbitt remains news, it is because there was a rebellion of sorts described in the book, even if it never got off the ground. The yearning, the wistfulness openly in Babbitt’s mouth as he sees his son go the same route as himself, belong to an age and type of innocence peculiarly Midwestern early in this century. Lewis tried several times to return to his native Minnesota but regularly fled. All Midwestern writers used to flee. As Mark Schorer said in his brilliantly unsympathetic biography, Lewis was part of “a culture just becoming aware that it could not tolerate what it had made of itself.” Alienation was in the air; everything was provincial, half-finished, still dogged by the philistines, the anti-Saloon preachers and their dogma.
Obviously we have changed—or have we? Disbelief is so much deeper among writers now that terms like alienation and rebellion seem archaic. But Babbitt has remained news, and this is at a time when so many novels become facts on file. I come back to the unutterably lonely man I saw amusing and cursing his friends above a factory in Union Square almost fifty years ago. Everything passes when one is not involved, when our relation to it is so circumstantial as American life is always trying to be. We are more and more detached. Technology, communications, the very glut of subjects and the nature of our skills, makes this possible. And detached we want to be. But “poor old Red” was involved. He involved himself all the way and to some terrible cost. He was a tumultuously living example of the American condition he was always writing about. But he knew himself for an example. Because he wanted to be one.