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Sinclair Lewis Got It Exactly Right

May 2024
16min read

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

My first—and last—sight of Sinclair Lewis was in Union Square. Lewis Gannett, the book columnist for the New York Herald Tribune in the 1930s, had somehow contrived to make himself a penthouse of sorts atop a factory there, and one night he gave a party at which Sinclair Lewis was the central fact. From Gannett’s windows you could see down to the grubby commerce that surrounded the square. There was a good view of General Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette enshrined in the park as statues but looking somewhat out of place amid the tumult, for in those days Union Square Park was the favorite staging area for leftists of every shade accusing one another of betraying the revolution.

The guests that night in 1936 included Professor Joseph Wood Krutch (soon to resume his teaching post at Columbia), the biographer and critic Carl Van Doren, and other literary authorities of the 1920s who still figured as authorities in the 1930s. I was just twenty-one, and they seemed terribly mature and important to me. Despite the wholly literary atmosphere, you constantly heard low rumbling from the machinery in the factory below. Since a quarter of the American work force was then unemployed, I was gratified by the sound. But soon I overlooked it. For the real machinery that evening was Sinclair Lewis. It was a night when he was on the wagon. I did not know why this was so dramatic an occasion for his friends, but I could see that the many glasses of iced coffee being served up to Lewis, and the many public references to the fact that “Red” was very fond indeed of iced coffee, were making the evening even more charged than it already was.

Sinclair Lewis, just past his fiftieth birthday, sat glowering in that room like a caged lion. He looked as if he could not decide whether to amuse the spectators, roar at them, commit an obscenity, or bite them. Sinclair Lewis in the flesh incarnated the verbal aggressiveness that went into his books, the extraordinary rush, patter, and hilarity of his style. But the attack he made that night on everyone in the room was hardly what I associated with the full talent and critical wit of the most poised satirist then operating in American literature.

Lewis was often described as our Voltaire. He was the most public and most continually embattled of the American novelists who shaped our attitudes and embodied our view of the national life in the first half of the “modern” century. To be a fan of Sinclair Lewis was to proclaim oneself an independent thinker. Lewis’s greatest creation, George F. Babbitt, gave his name to a whole class and condition of American conventionality. Half a century later we have no such easy category as “He’s a Babbitt.” The wall between those who once thought of themselves as the conscience of American life and those hopelessly sunk in conventional routine is more problematic than it used to be. What was once intellectual war has somehow disappeared, and many a sometime anti-Babbitt is now glad to be “on the team.” Brains and the highest professional skills are no longer a handicap.

In 1936 it was different. Sinclair Lewis had made it different. But nothing that so dependably amused me in the vocal clatter of his novels had prepared me for the uninterruptible mimicry and aggressively bitter monologue that night. Nothing had prepared me for the scarred thin pendant of a face, the lanky body, and the perilously skinny legs that Lewis somehow contrived to twist around it. From deep in his chair he managed to dominate the evening by terrifying it.

Sinclair Lewis was a sardonic and often comic novelist whom I enjoyed as much as I admired. Perhaps I admired him because I so enjoyed reading him. I never thought Lewis as profound a novelist as the Dreiser of An American Tragedy or as perfect an artist as the Hemingway of the short stories. But he was fun to read, easy to agree with. I so much shared his briskly rebellious, familiar, and pleasant point of view—not deep but intellectually virtuous, as I knew all good American writers to be—that I never felt I had anything fresh to learn from it. Unlike Dreiser, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, and the other originals who had made a modern American literature, Lewis had to be admired on his own terms. As a writer he seemed to me—as he still does—an inimitable folk artist, a performer in the best sense of the word.

What Lewis performed in his novels was America in detail, in voice and manner America became material that no one else had caught with such frenetic, breathless accuracy. I used to read him over and over for his “act” as a comic novelist. I never tired of weirdies with names like Zilla Riesling, Vergil Gunch, T. Cholmondeley Frink, Opal Emerson Mudge, Sam Dopplebrau, Barnabus Joy, Dr. Kurt Yavitch, Edward Julius Schwartz, and, of course, “The Man Who Knew Coolidge,” Lowell Schmaltz. “His name is Dr. Gottlieb,” a colleague airily tells Martin Arrowsmith, but he “should have been called God-damn.”

Babbitt’s last, famous spiel contains all the real sorrow and heartbreak of being a Zenith businessman in 1920.

Of course such names were attached not to “great” characters, not even to memorable social caricatures, like so many characters in Dickens with farcical names, but to functionaries in American life. The business of these people, indeed of their whole lives, was to do stunts of a peculiarly verbal kind. They were American salesmen who had continually to make a pitch, to appeal to an audience, to take over by presenting a line of talk that revealed to the inarticulate and provincial audience what their values really were. Sinclair Lewis’s understanding of the great American spiel—founded, I discovered at that party almost half a century ago, on uncanny and bizarre powers—was a central feature of his social wisdom, which otherwise was not particularly extensive. In Chapter 14 of Babbitt, published in 1922 and dealing with American life in the microcosm of “Zenith,” Babbitt becomes a favorite of his fellow “realtors” by addressing them in the following wise: “Yes, sir, these other burgs are our true partners in the great game of vital living. But let’s not have any mistake about this. I claim that Zenith is the best partner and the fastest-growing partner of the whole caboodle. I trust I may be pardoned if I give a few statistics to back up my claims. If they are old stuff to any of you, yet the tidings of prosperity, like the good news of the Bible, never become tedious to the ears of a real hustler, no matter how oft the sweet story is told! Every intelligent person knows that Zenith manufactures more condensed milk and evaporated cream, more paper boxes, and more lighting-fixtures, than any other city in the United States, if not in the world. But it is not so universally known that we also stand second in the manufacture of package-butter, sixth in the giant realm of motors and automobiles, and somewhere about third in cheese, leather findings, tar roofing, breakfast food, and overalls!”

The entertainment value that made faintly poignant even characters like Babbitt, imprisoned by his ever-ready patter (by patter Babbitt sold real estate, soothed the wife who bored him and the querulous brats always demanding the car), at the same time made them endearing. Lewis was far from being a radical in any political or cultural sense; but he was a doctor’s son with a great reverence for professionalism, what he called “the capable,” the one class not drowned in moneymaking. (Part of his personal tragedy was that his doctor father disapproved of him. “Harry,” he used to lament, “why can’t you do like any other boy ought to do!”)

Babbitt secretly feels he is a failure because he went into the real estate business instead of law school. His son Ted, Theodore Roosevelt Babbitt, is continually pushed toward a professional career but in the end is forgiven by his father when he marries Eunice Littlefield next door and plans to go into a factory. The famous last spiel of Babbitt contains all the real sorrow and heartbreak of being a Zenith businessman in 1920: “‘Well—’ Babbitt crossed the floor slowly, ponderously, seeming a little old. I've always wanted you to have a college degree.’ He meditatively stamped across the floor again. ‘But I’ve never—Now, for heaven’s sake, don’t repeat this to your mother, or she’d remove what little hair I’ve got left, but practically, I’ve never done a single thing I’ve wanted to in my whole life! I don’t know’s I’ve accomplished anything except just get along… I’ll back you. Take your factory job, if you want to. Don’t be scared of the family. No, nor all of Zenith. Nor of yourself, the way I’ve been.’”

To his publisher, Alfred Harcourt, Lewis termed Babbitt “our American ruler.” Babbitt at the end is too modest: salesmanship like his was endemic to America. “The chief business of the American people,” said Calvin Coolidge, “is business.” Lewis’s meat was the many people who learned to sell themselves along with their product. He was hardly shocked by this, not even very contemptuous. His greatest sympathy was for women with nothing to do, women driven into themselves by the talkiness men learn on the job. Compare Mr. and Mrs. Babbitt: George F. Babbitt “made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry, but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay.” Myra Babbitt “was definitely mature. She had creases from the corners of her mouth to the bottom of her chin, and her plump neck bagged. But the thing that marked her as having passed the line was that she no longer had reticences before her husband, and no longer worried about not having reticences. … She was a good woman, a kind woman, a diligent woman, but no one, save perhaps Tinka her ten-year old, was at all interested in her or entirely aware that she was alive.”

Sounds, voices, grunts, and gutturals from morning to night in the scheme of Babbitt come down to things that other “realists” from the Midwest—a region especially given to realism—never bothered with. What I never tire of in Lewis is the exact sound of a car in 1910 being cranked alive and Chum Frinkley’s 1920 doggerel—“But when I get that lonely spell,/ I simply seek the best hotel,/ no matter in what town I be—/ St. Paul, Toledo, or K.C.,/ in Washington, Schenectady,/ in Louisville or Albany.” Even in books that were all caricature, like Elmer Gantry (1927), there were homey details about a life vanishing from Midwestern farms and villages, details that caught the “valley of democracy,” as it used to be called, merging with the industrial monolith. An old farm wife lying in bed recalls to her husband just how their horse used to rear up and kick: “My Lord, how that horse could kick!” They fall asleep to the memory.

Obviously Lewis had a great attachment to the things he made fun of. That, I somehow knew, was what made him vivid, gave him his concentration and intensity of style. It took over a man who was no great intellect but who had a writer’s necessary fierceness. Scott Fitzgerald, a generous admirer of Lewis, said as much about himself when he felt he was going under in the mid-thirties, exactly at the time I saw Lewis. Fitzgerald saw “taking things hard” as his prime characteristic from earliest youth. It created what he described as the “stamp that goes into my books so that people can read it blind like Braille.”

I had been too fond of Lewis’s books to be objective about the man. It was a shock to see in action the ugly and tirelessly bitter person I met at the party overlooking Union Square. Ugly is of course a relative term. But unlike the utterly lost, bereft Sinclair Lewis self-exiled to Italy whom Hemingway cruelly portrayed in Across the River and into the Trees (1950), the man I met in 1936 was acting ugly because he felt helpless at the decline of his reputation. Lewis would drink himself to death; he died in delirium tremens. I saw him on the wagon, with his old friends marveling to his face about it. Sobriety did not help him any more than whiskey.

Part of his trouble was his looks. He felt condemned. His leathery skin was pitted with ferocious acne. For much of the evening he slumped in a chair, ostentatiously bored. His long, thin, bony figure altogether rebuffed the sympathy one could have offered. The great photographer Man Ray caught Lewis in 1927 for Vanity Fair in unusual contemplative repose, bringing out all his sadness. What I saw was Lewis as jack-in-the-box. When he sprang up to do one of his imitations, the amount of personal electricity he poured into the Gannett apartment was astonishing. There was a snap, a clatter, a shock—above all, an eruption. Now that I think about it, it reminded me of the storm created by old vaudeville actors who roared onto the stage as if to outshout the orchestra signaling their entrance.

He was specializing that night in literary types. The unbelievable flow from his mouth, the twists he gave chest and back, as the act continued! I had seen something like this from barkers cajoling customers into the tents at Coney Island. But nothing I had enjoyed in vaudeville, amusement parks, or among the silver-voiced snake-oil salesmen who in my youth peddled patent medicines had prepared me for the angry energy of Lewis’s delivery. It was merciless. It left you stunned. He meant to make his point by crushing you. And though he was unforgettable enough springing up to do his act, he capped the evening by the manner in which he took his leave. Grimacing, snapping, biting, hushing only long enough to take more streams of iced coffee, he finally declared that he had to go home. “So that I can write in the morning,” he announced. “And I write so that you,” pointing to a publisher, “can publish it, so that you,” pointing to a professor, “can teach it!” With this he took himself off. Whereupon Joseph Wood Krutch, an old friend, said reflectively: “Poor old Red. He’s certainly getting worse.”

My prime revelation that night was that a novelist can be the most subjective of creatures, at war with himself and the world but still drawing everything out of himself. The fury with which Lewis imitated people in the room to their faces, as well as characters he was meditating about for his next books, demonstrated his ever-ready rehearsal of his material. He acted up for people in order to keep his work going, just as his notebooks gave a life history for each character and a topographical map for each setting. He was all novelist, forever living every point of pressure on his characters before he described them.

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.

The poignant thing about his compulsiveness, his voluminous notes for each character and each locale, is that while he was forever on the lookout, rehearsing his stuff, America imperially evolved beyond the old provincialism and passed him by. Intensity was not enough to keep him going. What happened after the twenties is not that his gift for satire was unemployable but that the attachment to his material, always behind his satire, became uncertain. His one point of view, mimicry with gentle contempt directed at American provincialism and commercialism from the superior stance of “the capable,” did not allow for any great subtlety of inquiry into the realities. What Lewis had and keeps alive in a book like Babbitt is his love of detail, of classification, the anatomy of the social structure—the daily life of the home, the street, the office, the business lunch, the happy hour, the summer vacation—all the grinding of the domestic wheels. More than forty years ago, disappointed with Lewis but fascinated by his knowledge of routine, the compulsions of every day, I wrote in On Native Grounds that “it is impossible to look back at Lewis himself without seeing how deeply he has always depended on the common life he satirized.… There is indeed more significant terror of a kind in Lewis’s novels that in a writer like Faulkner or the hard-boiled novelists, for it is the terror immanent in the commonplace, the terror that arises out of the repressions, the meannesses, the hard jokes of the world Lewis had soaked into his pores.”

Where today can one find the commonplace truths of American life rendered with so much verve as Lewis once did? Who among our novelists now gives us back our own lives so that we feel the identification with ourselves? The obvious parallel, which would not have been obvious a few years ago, is with John Updike. Updike used to laugh at literary critics forever bringing “society” into the superior realm of art. But in a novel like Rabbit Is Rich (1981), Updike, describing lives totally pressured by inflation and the oil crisis of the late seventies, seems to be writing a sequel to Babbitt. He deliberately brings Lewis’s novel into his own.

Updike, born ten years after Babbitt appeared, is classy, subtle, a man of ideas, a brilliant critic, a stylist in more colors than Lewis would have dreamed possible. With the same relentless productivity as Lewis, Updike has been able to perform a variety of subjects in a colorful array of literary manners and choices.

“Rabbit,” Harry Angstrom, is a more tragic character than George F. Babbitt; Lewis would never have been able to handle his plight. All values are inflated like the value of our money. There is no authority to rebel against. Rabbit is a Toyota dealer in a middle-sized town (like Babbitt’s Zenith) smirking over “an average gross mark-up of eight hundred dollars per sale. Rabbit is rich.” But he is marred and damaged in his love life, and spiritually—another theme Lewis would not have handled—he feels disgraced. In a previous Rabbit novel his wife accidentally drowned their baby in the bathtub; she was drunk. Rabbit has taken his wife back after this and after his wife’s affair with a salesman right in his own shop. But though they are active in bed, they are not really together.

Nobody in Zenith, in the early twenties, would ever have been suspected of such damage to one’s soul. But then, nobody would have expected oil sheiks in Arabia to make beggars out of American motorists.

The details in Updike’s brilliant performance spatter like a hard rain on the windshield: “Fast-food huts in eye-catching shapes and retail outlets of everything from bridal outfits to plaster birdbaths have widened the aspect of this, the old Weisertown Pike, with their parking lots, leaving the odd surviving house and its stump of a front lawn sticking out painfully. Competitors—Pike Porsche and Renault, Diefendorfer Volkswagen, Old Red Barn Mazda and BMW, Diamond County Automotive Imports—flicker their FUEL ECONOMY banners while the gasoline stations intermixed with their beckoning have shrouded pumps and tow trucks parked across the lanes where automobiles once glided in, were filled, and glided on. An effect of hostile barricade, late in the day. Where did the shrouds come from? Some of them quite smartly tailored, in squared-off crimson canvas. A new industry, gas pump shrouds. Among bitter lakes of asphalt a few small stands offer strawberries and early peas.”

By now a lot of us no longer remember the shrouds covering the empty gas pumps of 1979. But every detail about Japanese cars, the pumps, open marriage, the competing sexual preferences of married partners, even the once exotic daiquiri Rabbit’s father drinks at the blue-collar saloon, is prime stuff. Updike’s keen young eyes have not missed a thing. American novelists have for more than a century now been so quick on the trigger giving the stuff of our lives back to ourselves that we never tire even when we read the artfully stylized duplications of reporting in Time and Newsweek.

“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.

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