www.nytimes.com /2021/12/31/books/review/sinclair-lewis-babbitt-main-street.html

The Novelist Who Saw Middle America as It Really Was

Robert Gottlieb 25-32 minutes 12/31/2021
Sinclair Lewis in an undated photograph.

Sinclair Lewis captured the narrow-mindedness and conformity of middle-class America in the first half of the 20th century. On the 100th anniversary of his best-selling novel “Babbitt,” Robert Gottlieb revisits Lewis’s life and career.

Sinclair Lewis in an undated photograph.Credit...Knopf

This is the centenary year of “Babbitt,” Sinclair Lewis’s best — and most misunderstood — novel. He had written five inconsequential books that had received respectable if not excited attention. And in 1920 — at the age of 35 — he had written “Main Street,” the most sensationally successful novel of the century to date: hundreds of thousands of copies sold, and a title that came to stand for the values, both narrow-minded and wholesome, of what we now call Middle America.

The Pulitzer Prize jury chose it as the year’s best novel, but in a scandalous reversal of their decision, the prize’s trustees refused to approve the award and presented it instead to Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence.” A few years later, when the judges chose Lewis’s “Arrowsmith,” he refused to accept the prize — Sinclair Lewis had a thin skin. (Nothing ever changes: When in 1974 the jury unanimously chose Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow,” the prize’s overseers again refused to certify the decision, using words like “turgid” and “obscene” to justify their action.)

At the time of their publication, both “Main Street” and “Babbitt” were generally thought of as satirical novels, America being the object of the satire. Both “Main Street”’s Gopher Prairie, the small town that is the stand-in for Sauk Centre, Minn., where Lewis grew up, and Zenith, the medium-size city where Babbitt conducts his prosperous realty business, are meticulously and convincingly anatomized: Lewis always got the details right.


The boyhood home of Sinclair Lewis in Sauk Centre, Minn.
Credit...Library of Congress

The tremendous success of “Main Street,” and the strong reactions to it, by both its champions and detractors, suggest how close to the bone its truths struck; it was easier to dismiss it or to enjoy it as elitist, anti-American satire than to accept it as a disturbing vision of the realities of home. Lewis himself was clear about his feelings for Gopher Prairie: He recognized it, he deplored it and he loved it.

There was immense anticipation over what he would come up with next, and in 1922 came “Babbitt,” another big best seller whose satirical elements dominated the critical and popular reaction to it. George F. Babbitt — 46 years old, a conventional (conservative) husband, father, householder, golf player, Buick owner, clubman, churchgoer — is living the American dream. “To the eye,” we’re told, he’s “the perfect office-going executive — a well-fed man in a correct brown soft hat and frameless spectacles, smoking a large cigar, driving a good motor along a semi-suburban parkway.” And yet at odd moments he senses that something is missing, that he’s buried his early impulses toward a larger, more meaningful existence: In college he had aspired to becoming a lawyer defending the poor — even running for governor someday.

Instead, he has become an apostle of “Boosterism,” a loud, crass glorification of his middle-class way of life in Zenith, “the Zip City — Zeal, Zest and Zowie — 1,000,000 in 1935.” He cares, in a desultory way, for his bland wife, Myra, and their three children. He enjoys his success, his growing popularity in the local business world, his lunches at the Zenith Athletic Club, whose lobby “was Gothic, the washroom Roman Imperial, the lounge Spanish Mission and the reading-room Chinese Chippendale.” Babbitt is happily climbing. Yet, inexplicably, he has begun drifting away from his automatic conservatism, actually sympathizing with local strikers. To his wife: “Honest, do you think people would think I was too liberal if I just said the strikers were decent?” (Myra’s reply: “Of course they would. But don’t worry, dear; I know you don’t mean a word of it.”) As far as his Zenith world is concerned, though, this apostasy is the first step on the road to that ultimate evil — socialism!

And then he does the clichéd thing: has a fling with an appealing sophisticated widow whose unlikely name is Tanis Judique — where was Lewis’s editor? — and attaches himself to her coterie of cautiously bohemian friends. Whereupon he begins to suffer from the withdrawal of approval by his Athletic Club world. “The independence seeped out of him and he walked the streets alone, afraid of men’s cynical eyes and the incessant hiss of whispering.”

The crisis comes when Myra almost dies from acute appendicitis. Every afternoon for 17 days he visits her in the hospital, “and in their long talks they drifted back to intimacy.” He’s reunited with his old Zenith crowd, and within two weeks no one “was more violent regarding the … crimes of labor unions, the perils of immigration and the delights of golf, morality and bank accounts than was George F. Babbitt.” Babbitt has undergone and survived what we now recognize as his “midlife crisis,” but in 1922 nobody had ever heard of such a thing.

Is Babbitt a comic character? A tragic character? Merely a stock character from what Lewis’s friend and mentor H.L. Mencken labeled “the booboisie”? The triumph of “Babbitt” is that we can’t confidently answer that question. The name Babbitt entered the language — a “Babbitt” was a ridiculous conformist living in a ridiculously small-minded world. Yet Lewis’s Babbitt is, finally, a man we care about — a character rather than a caricature — one of a small group of American fictional creations who, in the early years of the 20th century, stand in their very different ways as landmarks in the story of the social evolution of our country: Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, Wharton’s Lily Bart, Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams, with Gatsby on the horizon.

Sinclair Lewis was born in 1885. His father was a prominent doctor in Sauk Centre, a town of about 2,800 — read all about it in “Main Street.” Fred, the oldest of the doctor’s three sons, became a miller and was never of much consequence within the ambitious Lewis clan. Claude, next oldest, was of considerable consequence: He became a distinguished surgeon, admired and sought after well beyond the city of St. Cloud, where he spent his adult life. When Lewis was 62, he acknowledged that “for 60 years I have tried to impress my brother Claude.”

Sinclair Lewis was never really known as “Sinclair,” his middle name. He was Harry, later Hal, eventually “Red” to everyone who knew him. He was not a physically prepossessing young fellow. “He was nearly six feet tall before he was 16,” his magisterial biographer Mark Schorer writes, “with a short torso set on very long and spindly legs, and weighed only 120 pounds; lank and lean, but with a puffy, acne-ridden face (‘pimples,’ they said), big feet and hands, badly coordinated in his movements, everything about his body hanging and dangling and swinging and lunging and stumbling, and ice-blue eyes (astigmatic) rather protruding, all of this thatched with a carrot-colored wig.”

Nor did he have the happy normal outdoorsy boyhood — skating, swimming, duck-hunting — he later claimed to have had; Schorer makes that clear. “He was a queer boy with only one real friend in a town full of boys, laughed at by girls.” Sports? No. Dances? “As I cannot dance I just went along with Ma to look on.” But a lot of culture passed through town: military bands; the Ski-U-Mah Quartette; the Maharas Minstrels; the Schubert Symphony Club; the Casgrove Company performing with musical glasses, sleigh bells, mandolins and banjos; and itinerant theatrical events, from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to the Jolly Della Pringle Company.

Most important — crucial — there were books. His father had a modest library, and young Harry began acquiring books on his own. (His favorite writers as a boy were Dickens, Scott and Kipling, and he went on reading them throughout his life.) For years he was a rotten student, until late in high school he began to shine. He was a notorious cutup, a mimic and the proud author of “class yells”: “Cooma laca, booma laca,/Bow wow wow —/Chingalaca, chingalaca,/Chow, Chow, Chow.” He had crushes on one girl after another — sometimes two at the same time. He did domestic chores, he had summer jobs. And he submitted flowery poems to various magazines, all, of course, rejected. But he was also getting ready for college, having decided to try for Yale, and after spending some time at Oberlin to sharpen his skills, he was admitted there.

His career in New Haven was checkered. His only distinction was being published regularly in the Yale Literary Magazine, “The Lit” — romantic stories, more flowery poems. Girls? Gauche attempts. Friends? A few. Intimacies? Hardly. The esteemed educator William Lyon Phelps said of him, “He was not disliked in college, but was regarded with amiable tolerance as a freak.” His emotional state? As always, loneliness. Yet he was adventurous: one summer, work as a cattle feeder on a cattle steamer to England; one fall, steerage passage to Panama, in search of work there.

Then a few wander years — a well-known artists’ community in Carmel, a short stretch on a San Francisco newspaper, Upton Sinclair’s utopian colony in New Jersey. Finally, New York, where he lived in Greenwich Village and found sympathetic companions like Edna Ferber and Frances Perkins, who would go on to become F.D.R.’s famous secretary of labor. He was earning a few dollars by selling scraps of things to junky magazines and newspapers, and he was selling plots for stories to established writers: Jack London, for one, who in one transaction paid him $70 for 14 story ideas, and Albert Payson Terhune (“Lad: A Dog”) for another. And he had begun work on his first novel, “Our Mr. Wrenn.”

He was also edging his way into the publishing world, working most effectively for George Doran, who wrote about him: “Lewis pounded out on a typewriter the crispest of American staccato opinion and criticism, literally reams of publicity stunts. He was a dynamo of energy and freshness of thought.”

In 1912 he was working for a publisher whose offices were on Fourth Avenue, in the same building where Vogue had its offices, and late one evening he was coming downstairs in the freight elevator when in stepped a very pretty young woman who had also been working late. In his typical clumsy way, he managed to bump into her, scattering to the ground the work she was taking home with her. (“Meet cute,” Hollywood calls it.) Her name was Grace Livingstone Hegger, and she was a junior editor and writer at Vogue, elegantly dressed, with a kind of fancy accent that presumably came from her British parents and time she had spent in Europe while growing up. (Her brother did not have this accent.)

Lewis was madly in love, and wooed her ferociously with letters, notes, poems, jokes, the dedication to “Our Mr. Wrenn” and expeditions, including a picnic on the Palisades to which he brought lamb chops and canned peas that he cooked on a portable stove. Eventually Gracie, as he called her, succumbed to his unrelenting pressure and they were married in 1914 — he 29, she 26. She worked hard to sophisticate him, getting him out of his hideous cheap blue suits and into respectable tweeds, refining his Midwestern accent. For a few years they had fun together — roaming around the country in a Model T Ford, settling down in one place, then rushing off to another. And then the fun stopped.

But during these years Lewis’s career as a writer was advancing. More financially rewarding than the five early novels were the short stories he was churning out, conventional fare snapped up by commercial magazines, at least 20 of them by the popular and well-paying Saturday Evening Post.

We know a lot about the Lewis marriage because Gracie would write two books about it (and him), one a novel, the other a memoir. Both books are fond, outspoken and convincing. They’re convincing about him as a father (they had one boy, Wells, named after Lewis’s hero, H.G. Wells). When she gave birth, “Hal was infinitely tender toward me but his care was for me, the baby seemed not to exist for him.” They’re convincing about his sexuality: “He seemed unable to recognize that the sexual act was not important to him, that making love was rather a nuisance, and though he was essentially masculine and abnormalities of any kind were shocking to him, he could not supply the confident and robust elements which make for success in a love affair.” (The tell-all memoir wasn’t invented yesterday.) They’re convincing about their lives together: “Didn’t he — and I — live as much on the surface of life as did most of his characters, superbly as one heard and saw them but whose inwardness was unexplored?”

Of Lewis’s five early novels, “The Job” is the best, a persuasive account of how a poor but determined young woman prevails in the commercial real estate business, a book marred only by a preposterous romantic happy ending. Now, Lewis sensed, was the moment for him to focus on “Main Street,” the novel about small-town America that he had been considering and planning for years. And it, too, would be centered on a young woman: Its subtitle was “The Story of Carol Kennicott.” She’s a smart young professional librarian who’s brought to Gopher Prairie by her young doctor husband. At first she’s certain that she can help change things for the better — ameliorate the crudeness, the small-mindedness, the lack of culture, of beauty. When her efforts are defeated by the kind but impervious local citizenry, she leaves husband and town to find satisfying work and a finer way of life in the Big City.

Yes, this is a feminist story, but one with an inconclusive resolution: Soon enough, she’s back to husband and Gopher Prairie, mortified, but with a growing appreciation of the decencies of its people and the wholesomeness of its life. And despite the humiliating setback, Carol plows on, more tactfully than before, perhaps, but indefatigable. Was she meant to be taken as a high-minded emissary of enlightenment or was she as much an object of Lewis’s satire as Main Street itself? A century has gone by and we’re still not sure.

“Main Street,” published late in 1920, exploded on the consciousness of America. There had never been anything like its instant and sustained literary and commercial success. Within months its sales had rocketed past 150,000 (eventually it would sell in the millions), with praise from such sources as Britain’s leading novelist, John Galsworthy (“altogether a brilliant piece of work and characterization”), and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote to Lewis, “I want to tell you that ‘Main Street’ has displaced ‘Theron Ware’ in my favor as the best American novel.” “Main Street” was an Event, a Phenomenon — a triumph abroad as well. Sinclair Lewis had arrived!

In the 1920s he published not only “Main Street” and “Babbitt” but three other novels that won comparable acclaim: “Arrowsmith,” about an idealistic young doctor-scientist; “Elmer Gantry,” a scathing satirical account of evangelism and religion in America — the top fiction best seller of 1927; and “Dodsworth,” about a retired American businessman searching abroad for what he senses he’s missed out on in his life — to me, his best-written and most affecting book and, later, the basis of William Wyler’s brilliant film. (The maddening Mrs. Dodsworth owes much to Gracie, whom he was more or less amicably divorcing.) And then, in 1930, the crowning moment of his career: He became the first American to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. But he understood the implications: “This is the end of me,” his friend Lillian Gish reports him saying. “This is fatal. I cannot live up to it.”

Indeed, from this peak there was only one way to go: down. And down he went, although there was almost uninterrupted commercial success. The highlights were “Ann Vickers” — another account of a high-achieving woman and another novel undermined by its improbable last-minute romantic ending — and the far from subtle “It Can’t Happen Here,” a dystopian take on the career of the rabble-rousing demagogue Huey Long, effective propaganda but hardly Nobel Prize material.


Sinclair Lewis and Dorothy Thompson on their wedding day in May 1928.
Credit...Smith Archive/Alamy

The main event of the 1930s in the life of Sinclair Lewis was his marriage to the famous journalist Dorothy Thompson. They first encountered each other in 1927, at a journalists’ gathering in Berlin. She invited him to her birthday dinner the following night, at which he cornered her and asked her to marry him, and when she turned him down, swore to pursue her until she changed her mind. (That involved trailing her relentlessly around Europe. Arriving in Moscow, where she was covering the 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, he was asked by reporters why he had come to Russia. “To see Dorothy,” he said.) When she finally said yes, they were married in London and spent their honeymoon touring England in an automobile trailer.

What was Dorothy Thompson like? A 1940 profile in The Saturday Evening Post said: “She is one of the most extroverted of humans, aggressively gregarious and tireless in debate. For combined intellectual, physical and emotional energy, she has no known equal, male or female.” She was also unflagging at her job, and her fame and influence grew as she used her journalist’s pulpit to try to awaken America to the growing dangers of fascism and Stalinism. She had interviewed Hitler before the Nazis took control and published a violent attack on him called “I Saw Hitler.” When he came to power, he expelled her from Germany — she had only a day or two to pick up and get out of town — creating a furor that elevated her from Star to Heroine.

Soon she began writing her syndicated column “On the Record,” which appeared twice a week for 22 years, earning her a national readership of 10 million people with her impassioned political views and her focus on women’s lives. (The famously witty Alice Roosevelt Longworth: “Dorothy is the only woman in history who has had her menopause in public and made it pay.”) She was also writing a column for Ladies’ Home Journal and whirling around the country on endless lecture tours. At the height of her fame, Time named her one of the two most admired women in America. The other was Eleanor Roosevelt.

She was also trying to be a wife and mother — she and Lewis had one son, Michael, an extraordinarily difficult child she both adored and couldn’t deal with. (She also adored Gracie’s son, Wells, and was devastated when he was killed by a sniper in France not long before the end of World War II.) Lewis was as terrible a father to Michael as he had been to Wells; Dorothy exhausted herself trying to get him to pay attention to the boy, but it never happened. There were two houses on the beautiful land the Lewises bought in Vermont. Momma and Poppa lived in one, and little Michael (plus nurse and attendants) lived in the other. When he was a child, Michael announced, “I think when I grow up I am going to kill my daddy.”

Meanwhile Lewis’s drinking grew worse and worse. It was now conceded by both husband and wife that he was an alcoholic. His behavior grew worse, too. When there were people around he would launch into brilliant, and endless, monologues, wielding his superb gift of mimicry — sometimes the speeches went on for an hour or more, until his audience fled, enraging him. When drunk (which was much of the time), he would insult people, abuse Dorothy, fire assistants, only to rehire them the next day with effusive apologies. (One of them was the young John Hersey, years before “Hiroshima,” who would later say, “I must have been too young to recognize the bitterness of an exhausted gift, and of course I was ignorant of the drinking history.”) He would also abuse students whom he had agreed to teach and people who had come to hear him speak. At a lecture at Wesleyan College, he asked the students, “How many of you want to write?” Most of them raised their hands. “Good,” he said. “Go home and write,” and he left the stage.

The Lewis marriage was eroding beyond repair. Dorothy drove him crazy with her incessant talk of the situation in Europe. (“If I ever divorce Dorothy, I’ll name Adolf Hitler as co-respondent.”) Whereas he would call her by his own name, while impersonating his father: “Harry Lewis! Harry Lewis! Get your lazy bones out of that chair and see to the wood! … How many times do I have to tell you? And it’s past 8 o’clock, Harry Lewis, do you hear me?” “When I first became Harry Lewis,” Dorothy was to recall, “I really did not know whether I was or not.”

Yet there were happy times in Vermont. Dorothy’s sister, Peggy, told their intimate friend the journalist Vincent Sheean that “she can remember hardly anything but gaiety and good will from all of those years.” And Dorothy’s diaries and letters to Red were filled with love, even passion. Dorothy and Red always did better with each other when they were apart.

One of their final engagements took place onscreen in the first of the famous Hepburn-Tracy marital comedies, “Woman of the Year,” which appeared in 1942. (It was an open secret that the Lewises were the originals.) But by 1981, when a musical based on the movie was a Broadway hit, people were interested only in its star, Lauren Bacall. No one by then was interested in Dorothy Thompson, or, for that matter, in Sinclair Lewis.

Their marriage was over long before they officially divorced. Lewis, who had always been drawn to the theater, was writing (bad) plays, and in 1939 he fell madly in love with an 18-year-old aspiring actress named Marcella Powers. (He was in his 50s.) Naturally she was flattered by this attention from a world-famous man, and she genuinely liked him, but she was wise enough — or wary enough — not to marry him. He plied her with gifts, paid her expenses, wrote plays for her, but she wanted to act, not be Mrs. Sinclair Lewis. It was all very public, and not very seemly. When Powers wouldn’t tag along with him on his travels, he would take her pleasant, passive mother in her place to look after him and provide some kind of undemanding companionship — anything rather than be alone. Eventually Powers married an appropriate young man, and Lewis behaved well, but he understood that his emotional life had ended. Along the way, he himself took up acting, performing such parts as the Stage Manager in “Our Town” and the George M. Cohan role in Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!” in a variety of summer and regional theaters.

As for his later novels, they range from mediocre to terrible. Only two stand out in any way. The best-selling “Cass Timberlane” (1945) is about an attractive youngish judge who falls in love with the very young, exciting Jinny, who marries him, leaves him for a sexier man and returns to him repentant. Jinny, of course, is a fictionalized Marcella Powers, played in the hit MGM movie version by Lana Turner, opposite Spencer Tracy as the judge.

The other is the preposterous “Kingsblood Royal” (1947). Lewis, determined to strike a blow against racism, scoured the country interviewing Black Americans, from servants and manual laborers to ministers and educators. Then he invented a young, successful (and white) banker with a perfect wife and family, who somehow discovers that he is — are you ready? — one thirty-second “Negro.” He’s shocked, fascinated and determined: He must divulge this terrible secret to the world. You would have thought that a sophisticated postwar Midwestern city would absorb this “scandal” without a murmur, but no, his life is shattered. Fortunately, his wife is true blue and stands by him as he takes his place in the Black world. This farrago of nonsense was ridiculed by critics, yet was a considerable best seller, his last. Two feeble novels were to follow, but after a quarter of a century as America’s leading novelist, his effective career was over.

His life petered out into a sad, isolated existence, this quintessential American dying in 1951 in a hospital outside Rome, with only an anonymous Franciscan nun in attendance. Despite his substantial achievements, he still saw himself as ugly and unlovable. And he was, at the end, the thing he had always most feared being: alone — and lonely.

It’s all too easy to focus on the peculiar and unpleasant aspects of Lewis’s life. Attention must also be paid to his remarkable capabilities and his large generosity. He never stopped encouraging and helping young writers: He just loved talent wherever he spotted it. He may well have been the most widely and deeply read person of his era — and what he read, he remembered. (He could, and did, spew forth pages of his favorite authors, Dickens above all others.) His superb Nobel Prize speech is mostly a paean to American writers, first and foremost Dreiser, with whom he had had a violent altercation but whom he now credited with liberating American writing from the gentilities of William Dean Howells. He also extols Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Carl Sandburg, Ring Lardner, Thomas Wolfe, O’Neill, Hemingway, Dos Passos and Faulkner, among others.

As for his writing, he was never a stylist. His books are almost without a voice of their own, lacking both power and lyricism. But they are superbly constructed, and they keep you reading. Certainly they are convincing in their presentation of the surface of things, and it is this all-consuming attention to the surfaces of American life that makes him unique in American letters.

From the start he was watching, absorbing, cataloging. His friend Anna Louise Strong, who later became America’s leading sympathizer with Communist China, wrote of him when he came to Seattle in 1916: “He showed me notebooks full of descriptions. He went, for instance, to the docks in Seattle and wrote down lists of what he saw … the size of packages, what was in them, how they were loaded or unloaded, where they came from, what everything looked like on those docks. … He did this everywhere he went, across the country.”

In a sketch of himself never published in America, he wrote, “My real traveling has been sitting in Pullman smoking cars, in a Minnesota village, on a Vermont farm, in a hotel in Kansas City or Savannah, listening to the normal daily drone of what are to me the most fascinating and exotic people in the world — the Average Citizens of the United States.”

You could say that Sinclair Lewis spent his life taking an inventory of America.

Robert Gottlieb’s latest book, “Garbo,” was published in December.

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