Sinclair Lewis was born in 1885 and died in 1951. He was the first American author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930 after a phenomenally productive 1920’s when he produced five classic bestselling novels which helped to create for America and the world a picture of the first modern consumer society: the small towns and rapidly expanding mid West provincial cities peopled by T Model driving, radio owning, movie watching first, second and third generation Americans whose forebears arrived from all over Europe to build their dreams in a land cleared of native Americans.
Lewis was a bestselling author of the 1920’s and Main Street (small town conformity), Babbitt (bourgeois materialist’s mid life crisis), Elmer Gantry (hypocritical preacher) and the later It can’t happen here (US fascism) have become proverbial, in a way that few novels since have done. For all of his success Lewis was not simply a go-go booster of the American way, but rather an incisive researcher and mimic of the world around him. His first wife thought that he had written Main Street straight, but when the world took it as satire he was prepared to play along in his later novels. His 1930 Nobel Prize was a literary peak for Lewis and the quality and relevance of his work declined thereafter and his audience dwindled.
An early biographer helped to bury his work by performing a literary hatchet job on Lewis’ personal and literary failings. By the mid 1980’s he was not even rating a mention in the Norton’s Anthology of American Literature, which is a big comedown from the heights of 1930. It is also some sort of indictment of the compilers of Norton’s Anthology’s judgement.
The estimable Gore Vidal wrote a mainly positive essay about Sinclair Lewis and his post Nobel fall from grace in the American consciousness in which he left the last word to Lewis’ first wife – he influenced public opinion more than he influenced literature. Even the hostile biographer conceded that Americans could not imagine themselves without Lewis’ contribution.
I was inspired to read Elmer Gantry in this, the year of Drumpf, to see how American hypocrisy and pandering to people’s hopes and fears played out a century ago. Elmer Gantry is a somewhat reluctant preacher from America’s Mid West. Sinclair Lewis set many of his novels in the state of Winnemac and its capital Zenith City, located in between New York and Chicago.