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So Where's Sinclair?

November 29, 2010 | 34 Comments

To the Host:

As a fan of Sinclair Lewis, I am constantly perplexed at how little acknowledgment he receives in his home state of Minnesota. I recently visited my grandson's fifth-grade class in Savage MN and saw a list of famous American authors on the wall. Sinclair Lewis was not on the list. I asked the teacher about this and she had no clue as to who I was talking about.

My wife and I have been listening to PHC for the last 25 years and have never heard Sinclair Lewis's name mentioned once, despite the fact that he was the first American to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.

His novel Elmer Gantry became a big movie. Babbitt and Main Street are quintessentially American expressions.

PHC makes a big deal of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Why is this? Is Sinclair Lewis not glamorous enough?

Ed Kornachuk
Mississauga, CA

Sinclair Lewis has been in eclipse since even before he died sixty years ago, Ed, for the simple reason that he is no longer widely read. His hometown of Sauk Centre, not far from Lake Wobegon, named a street for him and preserved his boyhood home and puts on an annual week-long celebration (July 10-15, 2011), but Sinclair Lewis Days ---- while it includes parades, a queen contest, turtle race, basketball tournament, and ice cream social ---- does not include much public discussion of his books for the simple reason that most people have never read them.

I read the three books you mention when I was in junior high school and liked them a lot, especially Babbitt. "Elmer Gantry" was the first picture I ever went to a movie theater to see; Burt Lancaster was great. But I haven't read anything of Lewis's since then. He was a satirist, Ed, and satire usually fades, and Lewis was not a great stylist, as Fitzgerald was. You put a paragraph of Fitzgerald or Hemingway or Faulkner in front of me, I'm likely to recognize it as their work; a paragraph of Lewis, no. You'd find it hard to parody Lewis, whereas any English major could write a few lines in the style of the Big Three.

I'm glad you love Lewis's work. He did good work and it deserves readers. But people read what they want to read and they don't turn to him. Tom Wolfe is a Lewis fan and maybe he'll write an appreciation of Lewis and start a revival. Meanwhile, the man's stock is low. Not far from where I live in St. Paul is a house that Lewis lived in for a time. Most people in thei neighborhood don't know that. If I were to organize a committee to turn the Sinclair Lewis House into a museum, it'd be awfully awfully hard to raise the cash.

As for the Nobel Prize, sir, it is not a reliable guide to literary immortality. Not so many people read Anatole France these days, nor Carl Friedrich Georg Spittele, nor Romain Rolland or Carl von Heidenstam,

Rudolph Eucken, Frederic Mistral, or Sully Prudhomme. Sic transit gloria mundi. How quickly passes the glory of the world. Thomas aKempis wrote that line and not many people read him anymore either. This is something that we old hack writers would prefer not to think about, Ed. Sorry you had to bring it up. All those books we worked on so hard, that in a few years will be dusty tomes in library sub-basements. Why? why? why? Because people like what they like and not what they don't. Simple as that.


34 Comments


Ed,

My parents have Lewis's Babbitt on their bookshelf. They typically do not read anything outside of the newspaper or travel magazines so, how it got there, I have no idea.

However, your question, and Garrison’s response, has inspired me to give it a read. I often find that it’s the genius of the unpopular that speaks to my soul.

Thanks for the question Ed.

Jim


Hi Garrison,

I couldn't help but notice that your last sentence says:

"Why,why, why? Because people like what they like and not what they don't"

.........as though this is the only answer to the "why?" question that you so abhor.

However.....you had just written several words, sentences and paragraphs that answer specifically why.
I find that interesting.


This fall, I had the delight of reintroducing our youngest to Sinclair's, 'Elmer Gantry',
~via~ the movie. Our older two knew it from a home viewing while they were in their teens. As a Theater/Literature major in college, she was blown away not only by the quality of the film and its actors, but the story line that feels so compellingly contemporary. As an avid reader and I can only hope she follows the movie by exploring Sinclair's other work and encouraging her peers likewise.
I'd love someday to follow Elmer Gantry with Richard Pearce's "Leap of Faith".
May satire never die!
Love these conversations. Thanks especially for this one!


Anatole France wrote one of my favorite lines:
The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.


I like these discussions as well and am recommending this thread to my English Major friends. along this line though, in our small town, we have just started a loosely organized "books you should have read in high school but missed" book club. so far we have read "Huckleberry Finn"; "The Heart of Darkness"; and the US Constitution. Any suggestions??


I'll read Lewis over Hemingway any day. Just because the majority of people read something does not make it great literature. By that measurement, J.K. Rowling is better than Fitzgerald and Faulkner combined, and we all know that is NOT the case.


I've read Lewis and Fitzgerald. Sinclair Lewis is a better story-teller. Fitzgerald is hyped by English professors and literati because of the nebulous symbolism in his stories. Give me Arrowsmith or Elmer Gantry over anything by Fitzgerald.


note to carole h. I like the idea of your book club. I wish I had been an english major. does your book club invite new members? sf


yes Sylvia, I forgot to mention that it is open to anyone who wants to participate. I post a notice in the paper of the book and the time and place to meet about a month ahead. we have had 6-10 people at each meeting so far. I am not an english major myself but am lucky to know several. (I am a Nurse) We have a high school history teacher, retired, as a draw for the discussion as well. thanks for asking.


Carole, whatever you do, don't put Theodore Dreisler on your list. Titles like 'An American Tragedy' sound promising, but don't. :-)


Popularity is not a good criteria for great art, and literature, like everything else, is subjected to fashion. If we go by what is considered to be currently in "fashion," everything would have a shelf life of about five seconds. Great art is often not recognized at the time of it's creation by society, and great recognition is not a sign of great art. Today, people want musicals, not drama. Today, people want "Dancing with the Stars" or some retread of something else. Schools are having trouble teaching critical thinking skills in a society that prefers to run on knee-jerk emotion. The real criteria in thinking about Sinclair Lewis should be whether or not he is still relevant. Not everything boils down to style.


As I was reading Mr. Keillor's (excellent)response, I thought of my long-time prime example of the author-now-out-of fashion--Anatole France--and there he suddenly was at least in passing. About a year ago, out of curiosity, I dug out my old copy of (in translation) for a read. Like most books of satire, it's lost most of its impact, but certainly not all. Bigguy's quote above reflects a lot of France's occasional ability to be very pithy. The last few chapters are scarily prophetic. On a very similar note, my wife took a friend up to Sauk Center a couple of years back to visit the Sincalir Lewis House. She brought back a copy of the little-known later work, . Mr. Keillor is certainly right about Lewis' being no stylist, but he can tell a story and talk about "scarily prophetic!" I recommend it to Mr. Keillor and anyone else looking for a pretty good read from a pretty good Minnesotan writer.


I heartily agree Jon - I love Sinclair Lewis far more than Fitzgerald or Hemingway, and as a transplant from "out east", he is my favorite Minnesota writer by far. I can't say he was as memorable in his later years ("Kingsblood Royal" was pretty forgettable), but I could read "Babbit", "Main Street" and "Arrowsmith" over and over without tiring of them.


That's funny about the author of sic transit going unread.

Because literature suffers from fads as much as do the width of ties and the length of skirts, that's just another reason for those of us in the bidness to try to write what we are meant to write, regardless of whether we become prom queen.


Hi, Garrison!
Thank you so much for your straightforward critique of Sinclair Lewis.

My dear mother, who learned English as a second-language, wanted me to read Shakespear, Pearl S. Buck and Sinclair Lewis. These and the San Francisco newspapers were her favorites.

My dear dad, monolingual, wanted me to read Jack London, Mark Twain, Shakespeare and A. Dumas.

In 1986 I started to study a master's, then did my BA, which I just finished this year. So I have been reading research and textbooks for almost 15 years. I recently picked up "Main Street" by S. Lewis my first novel since 1986.

For me, the Nobel Prize for Literature is a recognition of a style of writing that is not thwarted by marketing strategies.

Enjoy! "Tell me what you read, and I'll tell you who you are!"


Just a point of word order, Garrison, but when you chastened Ed for reminding you of all "those books we worked on so hard" why not "All those books we worked so hard on"?


@Peter, Garrison's word order choice is correct. To split "worked" and "on" you split up the words acting as the verb. Any book editor would have chosen his wording and fixed the other. It's not how we talk, but it is correct.

@Carole, I've been doing a blog for the past year called The Books I Should Have Read. There are a number on there you may want to add to your list. After this interesting thread, I will add Lewis's books, as I read exactly zero of them in high school or college, despite being an English major!

Thanks, Garrison, for your thoguhtful comments.


Sinclair Lewis is a significant American author whose books should always be read. Babbit and Elmer Gantry have messages that are as timely today as they were in the early 20th century. Besides, they poke fun of two things you love to satirize - the church and suburban life.

As a Divinity School student, my friends and I always jokingly nominate each other for being the most like Elmer (insincere and opportunistic.)

VIVAT LEWIS!


Meaning Matters

If what you wrote is not what you meant to say, let the editors have their day.

If what you wrote is what you said, let the readers eat it up instead.


My favorite Sinclair Lewis novel is the anti-fascist alarm It Can't Happen Here (1935). Some of the social observations are dated, and it contains some stereotyped characters, but it's still a powerful warning against complacency and complicity.

Particularly interesting (to me, anyway) is how Lewis allocates the qualities of courage, compassion and generosity among his characters, so that their deployment in crisis shows how little reliance can be placed on social conformity and conventional morality as guides to goodness and evil in human nature.

Come to think of it, that's a theme in most of Lewis' novels. When I look around me it seems pretty relevant, still.


I have always been a big fan of Elmer Gantry. He's nuts.. Wait, maybe that's Elmer Fudd. I'm old I get confused easily.


I believe the library at St. Cloud State University has the largest archive of materials written by Lewis. Among the documents are personal letters Lewis sent to Marcella Powers and family papers that chronicle his life. The papers can be viewed and enjoyed by the public. Fun note: I'm writing this post from the SCSU Library!


Really? The correct structure is 'those books on which we worked so hard;' neither of the others is correct.


Ed - I *love* Sinclair Lewis, by coincidence bought Gideon Planish and It Can't Happen Here last week, and am 33 years old. He'll get a renaissance, you'll see, even if I have to make it happen myself.

Long Live The Author of Arrowsmith!!

See Garrison, people DO read him !!!!!!!

Paul Daniel

Feel free to email me, Sinclair Lewis fans - frisco2007@yahoo.com !!!!!!


I love 1930s movie 'Dodsworth', starring Walter Huston, based on the Sinclair Lewis novel. The story, at least on screen, is told with more of a light touch than my memories of 'Babbit' or 'Main Street'.


I am surprised that none of you mentioned the other personal vein to Lewis' unpopularity. My dad grew up in the Sauk Centre area and he told me that when Lewis was first published, many felt that his 'Main Street' was too personal. They felt that he was deliberately criticizing the people of his home town and developed a grudge against his work as a result. That kind of feeling gets passed down from generation to generation even when you don't intend to do so. No matter how festive that week in July may be, I feel that the lack of actual readership of Lewis' works speaks more loudly of those undertones of hurt from so many years ago.
Or am I sadly mistaken in it all? I am just a young lady who did not go to college nor did I read Lewis in high school. Pity.


Many years ago, say around 1977-78 or so, I saw a very powerful, moving play on Broadway.

It was Bruce Dern playing Sinclair Lewis. I can't recall the exact name of the play, only that it was very well done, but unfortunately had a relatively short shelf-life.

I can only hope that somewhere there's a video of this incredible show.

I was so taken by that show, that I subsequently read a few of his novels.

Without drifting too much from the subject, there's another one of my favorite American Authors - Damon Runyon who is also frequently overlooked, but everyone knows about Guys & Dolls!


Sinclair Lewis still seems pretty popular, at least here at the Minnesota Historical Society.

I work in the digital maps department, and our copy of a pictorial map depicting places from his novels is our 2nd most popular online map.

http://content.mnhs.org/maps/items/show/269

Sinclair Lewis is also part of the big MN 150 People Places and Things that Shape our State Exhibit, which came from nominations from the public.



Count me among those who consider Sinclair Lewis among the greatest of American writers. I re-read his work every other year or so just to search for nuances I previously overlooked, and I always discover something. It Can't Happen Here is brilliant, and in this age of the misnamed Tea Party, is a tome that should be read by many. Long live Sinclair Lewis!


I will always be grateful that my mom put me onto Sinclair Lewis; I think he is far more than a parody could handle. He told simple truths about that period of our history, and I agree that everyone interested in politics today should read It Can't Happen Here.


Is this synchronicity or what? Just pulled out the laptop to play some old PHC episodes to listen to as I go through stacks of stuff piled on my bedroom floor. Couldn't resist reading the PHC home page and saw the post about the late, great Sinclair Lewis. This made me dig out "The Minnesota Stories of Sinclair Lewis" edited by Sally E. Parry book from one of the many piles and set it on my nightstand to read again! If you enjoy Sinclair Lewis, get your hands on this little gem... stories are short which is a plus when trying to cram everything into a busy day with kids, work and all. Lewis' wit and observations are especially real and relevant today.


When I moved to the midwest from the east coast in the 80s by sheer coincidence one of the first novels I read was "Main Street." I saw many similarities to my own experiences in my new small community that was likewise very big on itself. Human nature doesn't change much over decades. I have re-read it at least 3 times since and enjoyed it every time. Women in particular should embrace this novel as many of us will identify with the loneliness and isolation felt by Carol Milford. I think it stands the test of time.


Hi,I live in this wonderful town of Sauk Centre,moved here in 1955. I have always been proud of our town. But very sad that in the year 2011. That the Tourism in Sauk Centre is pretty dead....So I am getting involved to change that. I have asked people from City Hall to the Chamber to the Sinclair Lewis Foundation...Where are the People? How come in the Year 2011 Sinclair Lewis is not Minnesota's National Monument? and Why don't we have a half million people visit us a year. (the corn palace in Mitchell,SD., does and they have a building made out of corn and wheat).They could not give me a answer. So now that I AM UPSET with their response. or lack of interest. I plan on taking Sinclair Lewis off the shelf dust him off and bring him into the homes across the world. Sauk Centre has a Gold Mine in Sinclair Lewis and they don't even know how to mine it. Well I plan on giving it a shot....I can use all of your support..
Thanks,
Jo Glinnon


To Garrison,
I would like to enlighten you that Sauk Centre has a Sinclair Lewis Museum at the Interpretive Center off of I94 & Hwy 71.
Thanks
Jo Glinnon

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