Sinclair Lewis writes really well. And for Minnesotans, he’s One of Us, so that makes him an even better writer. Here’s how Main Street starts:
On a hill by the Mississippi where Chippewas camped two generations ago, a girl stood in relief against the cornflower blue of Northern sky. She saw no Indians now; she saw flour-mills and the blinking windows of skyscrapers in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Nor was she thinking of squaws and portages, and the Yankee fur-traders whose shadows were all about her. She was meditating upon walnut fudge, the plays of Brieux, the reasons why heels run over, and the fact that the chemistry instructor had stared at the new coiffure which concealed her ears.
That’s good frickin’ stuff. It’s pretty good when you read it the first time, at the start of the book, and then it turns really good when you read it again after you’re done with the book. So started the really good part of Sinclair Lewis’s career.
He won the Pulitzer for Arrowsmith and then gave one of the all-time great anti-fist pumps in his refusal letter. Here’s a snippet that would be sour grapes from a Pulitzer runner-up, but is just plain mighty from a winner:
The seekers for prizes tend to labor not for inherent excellence but for alien rewards: they tend to write this, or timorously to avoid writing that, in order to tickle the prejudices of a haphazard committee. And the Pulitzer Prize for novels is peculiarly objectionable because the terms of it have been constantly and grievously misrepresented.
He was the first American to earn the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930. Lewis’s Nobel Lecture is really funny because he takes some shots at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, but he also won’t say America is hopeless. It’s worth reading the whole thing.
It might be answered that, after all, the Academy is limited to fifty members; that, naturally, it cannot include every one of merit. But the fact is that while most of our few giants are excluded, the Academy does have room to include three extraordinarily bad poets, two very melodramatic and insignificant playwrights, two gentlemen who are known only because they are university presidents, a man who was thirty years ago known as a rather clever, humorous draughtsman, and several gentlemen of whom – I sadly confess my ignorance – I have never heard.
It is my fate in this paper to swing constantly from optimism to pessimism and back, but so is it the fate of anyone who writes or speaks of anything in America – the most contradictory, the most depressing, the most stirring, of any land in the world today.
Here was the Nobel presentation speech given by Erik Axel Karlfeldt:
Yes, Sinclair Lewis is an American. He writes the new language – American – as one of the representatives of 120,000,000 souls. He asks us to consider that this nation is not yet finished or melted down; that it is still in the turbulent years of adolescence.
Which brings us to the point of this post–America in its adolescence, but an adolescence that hasn’t ended. The genius of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street is that the almost 100-year-old conversations from Gopher Prairie, MN are still being repeated on every Main Street in the country. Think back to your Christmas conversations of a few weeks ago. Pretty similar to the conversations from Thanksgiving the month before and Christmas ’07 and Thanksgiving ’07 and Christmas ’06… And another genius of Lewis and Main Street is in the realization that the idealists–the ones reading and thinking and typing away in their dark basements–aren’t any better or worse than the Main Street realists who don’t care about Broadway plays and different educational systems and sprucing up the town.
Lewis was so perceptive of the qualities and values that would endure in Americans, and not just in Main Street. How about this line from the main character in his political satire It Can’t Happen Here (1935):
Remember our war hysteria, when we called sauerkraut ‘Liberty cabbage’ and somebody actually proposed calling German measles ‘Liberty measles’?
Freedom Fries aside, the book itself is eerie in it’s description of a “common man” president with a behind-the-scenes secretary who runs the fascist show.
Is it a case of Groundhog Day, and every day is essentially the same as the last, is it a repeating loop that we need to watch for every century or so, or is it Jack Nicholson walking out of the therapist’s office and saying, “What if this is as good as it gets?” Probably all three.
Ponder that as you go to work tomorrow and Monday and Tuesday or talk about the weather or fill up the gas tank or listen to a talking head explain the similarities between today and the Great Depression. But most importantly, go find a Sinclair Lewis book, read it or reread it, and cherish the brilliance that Sauk Center, MN helped inspire.