Roger k. miller
on Sinclair Lewis’
go east, young man
Sinclair Lewis is one of our most famous novelists, the first American to be awarded (some say undeservedly) the Nobel Prize for literature. Less well-known is that he was also a prolific short story writer. Between 1904 and 1947 Lewis published more than 100 stories in the “slicks,” mass market magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, Redbook and Cosmopolitan. Twelve of them are collected here in “Go East, Young Man”(edited by Sally E. Parry, New American Library Classics, $7.95, 329 pages, paper). This is commercial short fiction, such as we scarcely have anymore, written to the market, which is neither a terrible indictment nor a great revelation. Lewis knew what it was, and in part lamented it, as did his fellow toilers in the mass market vineyards, John P. Marquand, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others.
Only in part, however. For one thing, short stories in the 1920s could bring payments that are not matched in today’s shrunken market, and the writers liked that. For another, they contained fine writing of which they were proud. The stories might be unsubtle — not always, however — and to a degree formulaic, but they could be eloquent in trying to tell as much as the conventions would allow. The stories here reveal something about Lewis that recalls, of all people, George Orwell. Like Orwell, Lewis can’t resist giving you his opinion, so that his fiction is a kind of disguised essay. That may be why the fiction of neither man is high art or high lit, but is compulsively readable.
Whether they also reveal, as the subtitle has it, “Sinclair Lewis on Class in America” is debatable. Certainly, class is a theme in “Land,” whose main character, Sidney Dow, is forced by his parents and his wife into upward mobility against his inclinations. If class is central to the stories, it is expressed through the recurring figure of the domineering or bullying woman. More precisely, women in Lewis’ stories can be both the great social and domestic tyrant, forcing husbands and children into a dull conformity (the socially ambitious and materially acquisitive Mrs. Duke in “Things”), and the frustrated free spirit wishing to be unshackled from conformity and mediocrity (Mrs. Duke’s daughter, Theo, a soul sister to Carol Kennicott of Lewis’ “Main Street”). In her introduction to this volume Sally E. Parry reminds us that Lewis’ second wife, the journalist Dorothy Thompson, said he rebelled all his life against “mediocrity enthroned as the God of Democracy.”
One or two of the stories are just pure fun. “The Hack Driver” is short, funny and sly — a joke that you quickly catch but stay with to see what sort of snap Lewis will put on the ending. It also displays his ambivalent love-hate relationship with the small town. Above all there is Lewis’ trademark satire and ability to dissect society. “The Willow Walk” exposes the disastrous effects of the love of money as well as — quite timely given today’s religion-charged atmosphere — the misanthropic impulses of those who are convinced that God is on their side. Here is his description of a church called the Soul Hope Fraternity: “Theirs was a tiny, tight-minded sect. They asserted that they alone obeyed the scriptural tenets; that they alone were certain to be saved, that all others were damned by unapostolic luxury, that it was wicked to have organs or ministers or any meeting places save plain halls.”
The title story, “Go East, Young Man,” exemplifies the strain running most strongly through all of Lewis’ writing and the conflicting passions in his own breast: both love for and hatred of the boring quotidian mediocrity of American small-town life. If you read enough of and about Lewis it is not hard to conclude that, despite his savage opinions, it was love that won out. So it does in this story, a sparkling satire on the innocent gulled American looking down his nose at his own society (“the United States was the dumbest country that ever existed”) in favor of Europe, as the Europeans have trained him to do. Really, the story is not far off from Henry James’ remark that one of the responsibilities of being an American entails fighting against a superstitious valuation of Europe.
Again, for us today, how apposite is that? More than 40 years ago Mark Schorer, Lewis’ first biographer, concluded, “He was one of the worst writers in modern American literature,” an overly harsh assessment. These stories serve as evidence of the redeeming, second half of Schorer’s assessment, that “without his writing one cannot imagine modern American literature.”
Roger K. Miller, a newspaperman for many years, is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor.