- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 20, 2002

One understands almost immediately that this solid but also beautifully written biography of Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) was a labor of love, and so not a labor at all. Richard Lingeman is a senior editor of the Nation magazine. He was born in Crawfordville, Ind. and went to Haverford College in Pennsylvania. His previous books have beem "Small Town America: A Narrative History: 1607 The Present," and "Theodore Dreiser: An American Journey." It occurs to me that every one of these important facts about Mr. Lingeman goes toward explaining the spiritedness with which he goes about the journey of Lewis, from provincial to reformer and anti-bourgeois.
Mr. Lingeman took leave from his post at the Nation to bring this work to fruition. He obviously enjoyed the huge research effort, enjoyed every minute of it, and it shows, throughout. But this book raises some important and searching questions as it invites us to think again about Sinclair Lewis, perhaps after a long time. Do we really need another big biography of Lewis? In l961, Mark Schorer published a mammoth biography, to which Mr. Lingeman pays due respect.
The partial answer there is that Mr. Lingeman has had access to materials of many kinds, and considerable pertinence, including important interviews with younger Lewis relatives not available to Schorer.
But even in 1961, when Schorer's mastadon appeared, the question hung in the air: Is Sinclair Lewis important enough to deserve such a volume? Do we really need to know all this much about him? These were essentially literary judgments about the importance of his novels.
For some years at Dartmouth I offered a very popular course entitled "The American Literature of the 1920s." This course was popular because the writers dealt with present a brilliant galaxy, and were especially attractive to undergraduates. When we considered Lewis' "Babbit" (1922), Ernest Hemingway's "In Our Time" (1925) and F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" (1925), it was manifest that Lewis could not compete with them as a writer of American prose. Nor, for that matter, can he touch William Faulkner.
Of the 1925 Hemingway, Edmund Wilson wrote in the Dial: "[His] prose is of the first distinction … a naivete which serves actually to convey profound emotons and complex states of mind … which has artisticaly justified itself at its best as a limpid shaft into deep waters."
Lionel Trilling said of Fitzgerald's prose that it is "the voice of love without softness."
In Chapter 10, "Faust in Great Neck," of my recent "Smiling Through the Cultural Catestrophe," this chapter dealing with "The Great Gatsby," I try to explore at some length the specific dynamiic compexities of Fitzgerald's prose. Furthermore, the themes of Hemingway and Fitzgerald now seem more important and more lasting to us than those of Lewis.
The prose of Lewis at its best is perhaps serviceable or sometimes even better that that. Consider only the opening pages of "Babbitt." But he also wrote at flank speed, in gushers. As Mr. Lingeman tells us, he poured ot 30,000 words of "Main Street" in very short order. Charles Dickens could get away with that, so could Honore de Balzac, and be immensely important as regards verbal and imaginative depth. Sinclair Lewis could not. In no sense did Lewis explore the possibilities of American prose. His models, in fact, were inferior ones: such American realists as Hamlin Garland, William Dean Howells, Upton Sincair and Frank Norris. Immortality does not in that direction lie. Yet he was more talented than they.
When he was at his best ("Main Street," 1920; "Babbitt," 1922; "Arrowsmith," 1928), Lewis' practice was to do prodigious research, as Mr. Lingeman demonstrates. He would study a milieu similar to the one he would transform into fiction, making fictional small town maps of actual small towns. Where was the cemetery, the Elks' Club, the courthouse? He interviewed extensively actual people who resembled in some or other respect his proposed fictional characters in order to explore the details of their lives. He did this successfully enough that readers, and critics, found his sometimes, though seldom, affectionate satires convincing versions of reality.
Gustave Flaubert once said, "Madame Bovary c'est moi." Sinclair Lewis might similarly have said "George F. Babbitt c'est moi." Because virtually all of novelist Lewis' characters are cliches, not so different in a formal sense from the boosterish cliches of the salesman from Zenith. It therefore seems to me that Lewis belongs not to the history of literature but to the history of culture.
That is, the author belongs to what historians often call "The Revolt Against the Provinces." At about the time of Lewis' maturity, bright and ambitious young men were reversing Horace Greeley, who earlier had said, "Go West, young man." Like many others, Lewis, born in 1885, growing up in Sauk Center , Minn., realized that the opportnity now lay in the East, where the sun rose, and not in the provinces where it set in the West. They looked to New York especially, artistic types to Provincetown and the Village, but also, like Lewis, to publishing midtown.
A great many went all the way to Montmartre, where the sun was also rising, and where there was no Prohibition. Fitzgerald came East in a big way, from St. Paul to Princeton, Manhattan, Great Neck and the French Riviera. Hemingway came East from Oak Park, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. H.L. Mencken savagely mocked the "boobosie" of the flatlands, and scourged the culturally vacant South in "The Sahara of the Bozart." Of course he treated William Jennings Bryan, the evagelist politician, as a buffoon.
This cultural moment, lasting from about 1910 until the Crash, provides much of the excitement that lies behind Mr. Lingeman's completely convincing portrait of "Red" Lewis. Goodbye, Sauk Center. Hello, Yale, New York, fame, fortune, loves, London, Paris, and Nobel Prize (1930). And there is wonderful gossip along the way.
"We poets," reflected Wordsworth, "in our youth begin in gladness;/ But come in the end to despondency and madness." This is a too-often-told tale.
Lewis' youth at Yale was miserable. Though he made the board of the Lit, and contributed acres of prose, he was socially disdained as a bumpkin, and probably further disdained because of his skin-diseased and pocked ugliness. Perhaps ironically, or maybe not, most of his early targets, and sucessful ones, were from Bumpkinland. That is, the assumed standpoint of the satirist from Sauk Center is that of his cosmopolitan tormenters at … Yale and in New York. The satirist writes as a … Cosmopolitan.
The satires on Main Street, Babbitt, the evangelist Elmer Gantry and so forth were music to the ears of others fleeing Bumpkinland, made possible by the Calvin Coolidge boom, as well as to the ears of those born in New York or Connecticut, who read Harold Ross' recently launched New Yorker and, unlike Lewis, were embraced by Yale. On the early edge of his extreme success, Lewis married one Gracie Hegger, a union happy at first, but which disintegrated by 1928 because of Lewis' touchy insecurity and his increasingly pathological drinking.
Mr. Lingeman offers a representative incident from this period, a relatively mild one at that:
"In mid March, Lewis again made headlines around the country, this time at a literary banquet given by Cosmopolitan editor Ray Long in honor of a visiting Russian author, Boris Pillniak. Theodore Dreiser was one of the guests. Lewis, who had lectured that afternoon at Town Hall, arrived dandling a fifth of whiskey. During dinner, Long invited the distinguished litterateurs to speak. When Lewis' turn came, he struggled to his feet and deposed as follows: 'I feel disinclined to say anything in the presence of the son of a bitch who stole three thousand words from my wife's book, and before two sage critics who publicly lamented my receiving the Nobel Prize.'"
An embarassed silence descended on the company. Everyone knew the son of a bitch was Theodore Dreiser.
After he divorced Gracie, who seems not to have ceased loving him, Lewis in l928 married Dorothy Thompson, the formidable anti-facist columnist, by then an international presence who had interviewed Adolf Hitler and found him unimpressive. The marriage was a disaster.
After he won the Nobel Prize in 1930, the quality of Lewis' work went steadily down, his consumption of alcohol drastically up, resulting in hospitalizations. He had screaming matches with Dorothy. Once she escaped him by hiding in the servants' quarters at the Barnard mansion.
The targets Lewis picked in his later books were, as usual, easy ones (fascism, "It Can't Happen Here (1935)"; racial prejudice, "Kingsblood Royal" (1947}, but his great popular theme of the 1920s, the escape from the awful and boring provinces based on his own experience had no traction during the 1930s and '40s. If his works were to prevail, they had to prevail as literature, and this they were not.
About "Kingsblood Royal" (1947), Mr. Lingeman writes this:
"Lewis was widely criticized for making the whites in the novel stereotypes and caricatures unredeemed racists, foulmouthed, callously cruel, or viciously respectable. But white racism is the collective villain in the story, and what the white characters say reflects attitudes prevalent at the time… . To complain that Lewis' whites were uniformly evil was a valid aesthetic comment, but it was also a form of denial of race prejudice. [Italics added]."
Sorry, that last sentence is a non-sequitur. And the aesthetics here is Herblockian. Bad art cannot be effective as propaganda. An effective way to attack racial prejudice would be to show a sympathetic character flawed by it Woodrow Wilson, say, assuming that you like him.
I am delighted to report, however, that though Mr. Lingeman is a senior editor of the Nation, I find here not a whiff of the rancor and alienation that pervade that magazine. I must add that one minor flaw does occur here among Mr. Lingeman's otherwise apt epigraphs, a statement by Theodor Adorno, the communoid sage of the Frankfurt school of social analysis: "It is part of morality not to be at home in one's home." In other words, it is part of morality to be perpetually discontented. "What rot," as Lady Brett would say, "what rot."

Jeffrey Hart is a nationally syndicated columnist.




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