It’s the birthday of Sinclair Lewis (books by this author), born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota (1885), author of Main Street(1920)and Babbitt (1922), and the first American to win the Nobel Prize in literature.
He left his hometown in Minnesota as soon as he could. He worked for newspapers and for publishing companies, wrote short stories for magazines, and wrote some potboiler novels and even a few serious novels, but none of his books did very well.
In 1920, H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, who were editing the satirical magazine American Mercury, met up with 35-year-old “tall, skinny, paprika-headed” Sinclair Lewis, who was unknown in the writing world, at a mutual friend’s apartment. Lewis walked up to Mencken and Nathan, put his arms around their shoulders and tightly around their necks, and began yelling at the top of his voice that he was the best writer in the country and that he’d just written the best book in the country, to be published in a week — and being critics, the two of them should duly take note of this. He went on like this at high volume for about half an hour, and when Mencken and Nathan finally escaped, they went to a pub to decompress and concluded that he was an idiot. But Mencken read the book anyway, and was bowled over by it.
The book was Main Street (1920), about a fictional small town in Minnesota called Gopher Prairie, a place inhabited by “a savorless people, gulping tasteless food, and sitting afterward, coatless and thoughtless, in rocking-chairs prickly with inane decorations, listening to mechanical music, saying mechanical things about the excellence of Ford automobiles, and viewing themselves as the greatest race in the world.”
Main Street was a huge sensation. No one had ever written such a scathing satire of small-town American life. Within nine months, it sold about 200,000 copies, and within a few years, the book had sold 2 million copies and he’d become a millionaire. In 1922, he published Babbitt, which was also highly successful. He turned down the Pulitzer Prize that they tried to award him for his 1925 novelArrowsmith, and when the Swedish Academy called to inform him he was being awarded the 1930 Nobel Prize in literature, he thought the phone call was a prank.
Though Sinclair Lewis left Minnesota as a teenager and spent most of his life traveling or living in Washington, D.C., 16 of his 22 novels involved Midwestern towns or Midwestern protagonists. He said he found creative inspiration while “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.”
- Jonathen Franzen: Edith Wharton’s novels of sympathy. (newyorker.com)
- Free Air by Sinclair Lewis (classiclitgeek.wordpress.com)
- The Dead Writers Round-Up: 9th-13th January (onetrackmuse.com)
- Forgotten Writers: The Novels of John P. Marquand (edrants.com)
- H.L. Mencken Not New Yorker Material, Says Unbearable Little Man [Writers] (gawker.com)