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So Where's Sinclair?
November 29, 2010 |
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?
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.