November/December 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 6
On November 5 Sinclair Lewis became the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. The novelist had turned the 1920s into his personal hit parade with
To varying degrees, all of Lewis’s major novels pursue this theme, deriding America’s shallowness and philistinism in the author’s characteristically rough-hewn prose. Lewis’s greatest talent was his dead-on ability to mimic the speech patterns of the time, so reading his work today can be like watching grainy film of a 1960s comedian doing an Ed Sullivan impression. To be sure, many of the attitudes that he wrote about still exist, and he could be a decent plotter and a deft delineator of character. Nevertheless, even his best novels now have the fusty air that attaches to most works of art that were considered shocking in their day.
In his acceptance speech, titled “The American Fear of Literature,” Lewis decried “the divorce in America of intellectual life from all authentic standards of importance and reality,” lashed out at the “safe, sane, and incredibly dull provincialism” of American letters, mocked his critics as “jealous spinsters, ex-baseball-reporters, and acid professors,” and complained that “America has never had a Brandes, a Taine, a Goethe, a Croce.” The Europeans in the audience ate it up.
The decision to give Lewis the prize foreshadowed the modern Nobel practice of rewarding critics of the United States in the peace and literature categories even as Americans hog the scientific awards. In contrast, however, to the current tendency to recognize writers near the ends of their careers, Lewis was just 45 when he won the Nobel. He would continue to turn out novels for another two decades, but although no one could have guessed it when he strode to the podium in Stockholm, as a major creative force he was already washed up.
Part of the problem was Lewis’s alcoholism, but a bigger factor was simply the current of the times. In a world sinking ever deeper into depression, sardonic satire was a luxury item that would prove increasingly hard to sell. Moreover, as the years passed, Lewis’s basic approach became more and more of a Jazz Age relic. With the international situation deteriorating into chaos and Europe hurtling toward unspeakable tragedy, America, for all its smugness, small-mindedness, and hypocrisy, eventually came to look pretty good in comparison.