This sample Sinclair Lewis Essay is published for informational purposes only. Free essays and research papers, are not written by our writers, they are contributed by users, so we are not responsible for the content of this free sample paper. If you want to buy a high quality essay at affordable price please use our custom essay writing service.
One of the leading American novelists of the 1920s and the first American winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Sinclair Lewis created some of the most effective satires in American literature. Along with the noted critic and essayist H. L. Mencken, he vengefully attacked the dullness, the smug provincialism, and the socially enforced conformity of the American middle class.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Shedding the Small Town for the East Coast
Lewis was born in the small town of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, and was raised to follow the traditions of his middle-class, Protestant hometown. As scholars have observed, throughout his early life Lewis was torn between two conflicting desires. The first was to conform to the standards of sameness, of respectability, and of financial advancement as dictated by his family and by the town. Opposing this desire was Lewis’s need to acknowledge his own nonconformist nature and ambitions: his agnosticism, his literary inclinations, and his general rebellion against the village’s preference for unquestioning adherence to established standards of thought, faith, and aesthetics. After writing news stories and working at various odd jobs in the offices of Sauk Centre’s two newspapers during his teens, Lewis—to the townsfolks’ disapproval—left the Midwest to attend a university in the East. During his years at Yale, which included periods of travel and temporary employment, he read voraciously and published a number of light stories and poems. For a time, Lewis worked as the furnace man at Upton Sinclair’s Helicon Hall, a socialist communal experiment in Englewood, New Jersey, and then went on to graduate from Yale in 1908. He married writer Grace Hegger and drifted about America for the next few years, writing and selling short stories to popular journals. A prolific writer with an abundant imagination, Lewis even sold ideas for stories to American novelist Jack London during London’s final years.
Gaining Popularity and Refusing the Pulitzer Prize
For the most part, Lewis’s early short stories and novels reflect what the author termed the “Sauk-Centricities” of his own nature; they are conventional, optimistic, lightly humorous, and were written for a middle-class audience. In 1920 Lewis published Main Street, the novel he had long intended to write in revolt against the sentimental myth of the American small town.
Main Street set the stage for the cultural awakening of the 1920s, a fertile decade of experimentation in the arts. To many intellectuals and a rebellious younger generation, Lewis’s novel demolished the myth of smalltown America as the locus of “true” American values and showed it for what it really was—the epitome of the provincial, art-hating America they were rebelling against, where standardization reigned, dullness was God, and the
Ford car was the acme of civilization. The success of the novel also reflected the postwar reaction against wartime curbs on free speech and the political repression known as the Red Scare, with its anti-union strike-breaking and wholesale deportation of aliens and radicals. Lewis, a self-styled ”parlor socialist,” blamed the crackdown on the conservative political and business establishments working in league with radical social groups like the Ku Klux Klan, the Fundamentalists, and the local censors to impose ”100% Americanism.” Main Street was a leading voice in the literary protest against what critic H. L. Mencken called Puritanism, denoting the desire to impose a narrow religious morality on the arts.
Readers, part of the new generation fresh from witnessing the mechanized mass-slaughter of World War I, were ready for literature that would reflect its rejection of genteel optimism, blind nationalism, and traditional religion, and it welcomed Lewis’s next two novels as it had earlier embraced Main Street. Of Lewis’s five major satires, Babbitt (1922) and Arrowsmith (1929) are widely considered his most accomplished works. Widely acclaimed as one of America’s most significant voices of the postwar era, Lewis won the 1926 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Arrow-smith, but he refused to accept the award, claiming that it was intended only for champions of American wholesomeness. Evidence from Lewis’s letters suggests that another, less idealistic reason for his refusal was his anger that Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence had been chosen over Main Street as winner of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize.
The Preacher and the Prize
He had been planning what he called ”the preacher novel” for nearly a decade, but the spark was the 1925 prosecution of John Scopes by the state of Tennessee for teaching his high-school students about the theory of evolution. Much of the nation followed the trial in the press and on the new medium of radio. The exchanges between the two lawyers representing Scopes and the state, Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, the aging Populist Party hero, encapsulated the theological battle in Protestantism between the Modernists and the Fundamentalists. The former accepted scientific truth and believed that the theory of evolution should be taught in the schools; the latter believed in the literal biblical account of the creation of the world and supported the state ban on teaching the theory. The resulting novel was Elmer Gantry (1927), prompting both protest and praise.
A year after the publication of this, generally considered the weakest but most controversial of his five major novels, Lewis, who had divorced his first wife, married the distinguished journalist Dorothy Thompson. Thompson was a major influence on Lewis’s work and thought for the rest of his life. In 1930 the couple traveled to Stockholm, where Lewis received the Nobel Prize for his literary achievement. In his now-famous acceptance speech, Lewis blasted the entire American literary tradition up until roughly his own era and then hailed the rising new generation of the nation’s writers, praising Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Thomas Wolfe, and several others. Lewis’s own artistic stature had reached its zenith with the appearance in 1929 of Dodsworth, a novel in which a harried, disillusioned American businessman seeks peace of mind through travel in Europe. Considered one of the best of Lewis’s satires, Dodsworth nonetheless marked the end of his preeminence as a major novelist; he never again wrote with the skill and power exhibited in his landmark satires of the 1920s.
Critics continue to speculate about the reasons for Lewis’s literary decline during the last two decades of his life. Of all the theories offered, from his failure to complete a proposed novel on American labor to the possibility of his having strained to compete professionally with his wife, it is fairly certain that the Great Depression, the social and economic downturn as a result of the 1929 stock market crash, had the most damaging effect on his talent; for with much of the American middle class jobless and impoverished, Lewis lost both his reading audience and the target of his satiric jibes. During the rest of his career, Lewis periodically lectured, taught university writing courses, contributed book reviews to various magazines, and turned out a succession of relatively undistinguished novels. Lewis was living in Italy, where he had just completed World So Wide (1951)—a novel that resurrects businessman Sam Dodsworth of the author’s earlier work—when he died of heart disease.
Although Lewis’s work is not today the subject of extensive critical discussion, in the author’s time, he performed the role of American gadfly with a power unequalled except by Thomas Paine, Mark Twain, and H. L. Mencken, according to critic Sheldon Norman Grebstein. His five major satires not only introduced such definitive terms as ”Main Street” and “Babbittry” into common usage, but they also paved the way for much of the self-critical realistic fiction of mid-century American literature.
Works in Literary Context
Revolt from the Village
Historically, Lewis’s novel was in the literary current that Carl Van Doren, books editor for The Nation, called in 1920 ”the revolt from the village.” Other writers, such as Edith Wharton and Willa Cather, had scored the provincialism and dying soul of the American small towns. Lewis joined the so-called revolt from the village by denying the myth of the happy, traditional but progressive small town, and later he would reject the notion of the industrialized but enlightened city. Lewis popularized the revolt in the best-seller Main Street, where the partly autobiographical novel portrays the frustrations of Carol Kennicott’s idealistic crusades to bring elements of liveliness and culture to her new husband’s home town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, an ugly
little settlement populated by an appalling collection of blustering, inarticulate oafs and prying, vicious shrews. Lewis further satirized a tired business culture in Babbitt, explored the thwarted idealism of a scientist in Arrow-smith, exposed the hypocrisy and commercialism of evangelical religion in Elmer Gantry, and depicted the confused values of an American businessman in Europe in Dodsworth. With the possible exception of It Can’t Happen Here (1935), none of his later novels and very few of his short stories equal these confrontations with American culture.
Lewis recreated recognizable elements of American society by mimicking their lifestyles and speech patterns, and did so in order to reveal their shortcomings. He evoked the American social structure, particularly the role of class distinctions, better than most novelists in his time. He brought the American scene to life in readers’ imaginations through his storytelling, his gallery of characters and social types, and his vivid recording of their talk and their habitats. Babbitt, for example, skewers the loud, hypocritical American businessman as well as members of America’s public service organizations and booster clubs, with their endless, vapid speeches and inane rituals. Arrowsmith tells of the battles of a humanitarian scientist to conduct medical research against the beckoning forces of fame, commercialism, and material comforts. The power of Lewis’s satire was in its realistic style; readers could easily identify the social circles to which Lewis refers, and therefore, fully appreciate his larger social commentary.
Works in Critical Context
Lewis was one of the most astute novelistic social observers of his time. He created larger-than-life types and places that entered the language—Babbitt, Elmer Gantry, Main Street. Although a dedicated realist, Lewis used the tools of caricature, irony, and parody to accentuate his criticisms of American society.
Main Street sold more than 414,000 copies in the original hardcover edition and more than two million in cheaper editions. Widely reviewed and discussed, it was the literary sensation of 1920-1921—one of those books, like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), that becomes a social and cultural event. Lewis had touched a sensitive nerve, the moral and cultural divide between urban and rural America. The heroine, Carol Kennicott, reflected the questioning post-World War I mood. People argued either that the book was a libel upon the village or that it was a revelation of the truths about American pettiness and hypocrisy. One way or the other, it gave America ”a new image of itself,” as Mark Schorer says. Perhaps the largest block of readers consisted of married women who identified with Carol’s struggle against the bonds of domestic servitude. The novel sounded a radical feminist note—a call for liberation from the ”gray darkness” of domesticity, which stifled women’s desire to lead a ”more conscious” life.
Reviewers heaped praise on Babbitt when it was published in 1922. Virginia Woolf, writing in the London Saturday Review, calls the novel ”the equal of any novel written in English in the present century.” H. L. Mencken, who had encouraged Lewis since Main Street, announced that the title character ”simply drips with human juices.” Mencken writes in the October 1922 Smart Set that ”There is more than mere humor” in the novel—it ”is a social document of a high order.” A few commentators complained that Lewis lacked artistic detachment from Babbitt: that he held the same materialistic values and could envision nothing better for his hero or his country. There was some truth to that; Lewis always insisted that he loved Babbitt, that he was a fine fellow. As John O’Hara, one of many younger novelists who admired and emulated Lewis, told biographer Mark Schorer, many writers were aware of Babbitt and Babbittry, but Lewis was the only one to make him live in a novel. Babbitt is a true creation, a composite of American men seen and overheard in hotel lobbies and Rotary Club luncheons.
- Bloom, Harold, ed. Sinclair Lewis. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
- Bucco, Martin, ed. Critical Essays on Sinclair Lewis. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986.
- Hilfer, Anthony C. The Revolt from the Village. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1969.
- Lingeman, Richard. Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street. New York: Random House, 2002.
- Kazin, Alfred. ”The New Realism: Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis.” On Native Grounds. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1942, pp. 217-226.
- Lundquist, James. Sinclair Lewis. New York: Ungar, 1973.
- Mencken, H. L. H. L. Mencken’s ”Smart Set” Criticism. Edited by William H. Nolte. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1968.
- Schorer, Mark. Sinclair Lewis: An American Life. New York, Toronto, and London: McGraw-Hill, 1961.
- Woolf, Virginia. The Moment and Other Essays. New York: Harcourt, 1948.
- Manfred, Frederick. ”Sinclair Lewis: A Portrait.” American Scholar 23 (1954): 162-184.
- Thompson, Dorothy. ”The Boy and Man from Sauk Centre.” Atlantic Monthly 206 (1960): 39-48.
Free essays are not written to satisfy your specific instructions. You can use our professional writing services to order a custom essay, research paper, or term paper on any topic and get your high quality paper at affordable price. UniversalEssays is the best choice for those who seek help in essay writing or research paper writing in any field of study.