Sinclair Lewis: The Bard of Discontents

By Allen, Brooke | The Hudson Review, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Sinclair Lewis: The Bard of Discontents


Allen, Brooke, The Hudson Review


SINCLAIR LEWIS, LIKE HIS LITERARY IDOLS Shaw, Wells, and Ibsen, was one of the world's great intellectual liberators. He looked at the institutions that tyrannically ruled American life-the Family, the Protestant Church, Business Interests, Good Fellowship-and made his readers understand that their ascendance was arbitrary and to a large degree baneful. Most important was his message that things did not have to be this way. Institutions could be toppled; conventions could be broken. Wives could walk out of the Doll's House. No Old Testament God had decreed that the world must be just so. Lewis' credo, stated in his 1935 novel It Can't Happen Here, was that "everything that is worth while in the world has been accomplished by the free, inquiring, critical spirit and that the preservation of this spirit is more important than any social system whatsoever."

Lewis' great novels of the 1920s, Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, and Dodsworth, aggressively took on these institutions: the small town, the business oligarchy, the fraud and scam in organized religion.1 In 1930 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Not everyone was pleased with the Swedish committee's decision. The "Paris bunch," led by Ernest Hemingway, resented the apotheosis of an old-fashioned realist and hayseed; the prize, he said, should have gone to Joyce or Pound. More conservative authors, too, were doubtful, but for different reasons: Sherwood Anderson, whom one might have thought a literary ally of Lewis, charged that he had been awarded the Nobel "because his sharp criticism of American life catered to the dislike, distrust and envy which most Europeans feel toward the United States."

Possibly; but anyone who reads Lewis' books with honesty will feel not only his contempt for what he called "America the mediocre" but his helpless love for it as well; it is this love that lifts his books above the level of satire or sociology and makes them great novels. If Lewis' distinguishing characteristic was, as he believed, a hatred of bunk, then Alfred Harcourt's comment that Lewis understood bunk, and didn't hate the persons "but only their bunk performances," is important to keep in mind. "I love America," Lewis admitted, "but I don't like it."

And because Lewis' best books were written at such a high pitch of passion, with rage and affection inextricably woven together, they transcend the particularity of their milieux and have proved, more perhaps than either he or his contemporaries could have predicted, universal. "Every country, of course has its Main Streets," John Galsworthy remarked, and Shaw, hitting the bull's eye as usual, expressed the opinion that Lewis' criticisms applied to other countries as well but that Americans clung to the idea that they were unique in their faults. Carol Kennicott can take her place beside Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina without looking too absurdly provincial in their company; George Follansbee Babbitt has his peers all over the world.

If the Lewis novels transcend their place, they also transcend their time. In spite of the fact that Lewis has crammed his novels with contemporary props and scenes, advertising slogans, commercial products, and cultural ephemera of every type, they are not for that reason dated, writes Lewis' biographer, Richard Lingeman, "any more than the meticulous depictions of homely objects in a Vermeer, a Chardin, though strange to us, are."2

Lingeman is a Midwesterner like Lewis, and the author of an earlier, two-volume biography of Theodore Dreiser. Whether because of a shared background or for other, more profound, reasons, Lingeman has a basic sympathy for Lewis, an important factor in creating a good biography. Mark Schorer's until now definitive biography of Lewis, published in 1961, reflected its period's contempt for Lewis' rather sociological style and a basic dislike for the man himself; and while Schorer acknowledged the emotional power of Lewis' writing, he practically dismissed it as art: "He was one of the worst writers in American literature," Schorer claimed, "but without his writing one cannot imagine modern American literature. …

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