Sinclair Lewis, Jack London, Sui Sin Far/Edith Eaton, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Edith Wharton, Kate Chopin, Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Upton Sinclair, Mary Austin, Frank Norris. Were they prophets without honor in their own country?
Back in the mid 20th century, when the world was young and New Criticism ruled, they were all sort of . . . well, political, and everyone “knew” that Art was never Political but a well-wrought urn. The closer to modernism you could get on a sliding scale, the greater you were as an artist. Maybe Crane is sort of like Gertrude Stein! Maybe Wharton is like Henry James!
Dreaming of being Henry James? Nope.
Except that art isn’t disinterested but is always political, as critics since have pointed out. And the works you may have read by them, if you read them at all, were carefully curated to be Art rather than Politics.
This issue comes up now because all of a sudden people are rediscovering Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. But he wrote a lot of other good stuff, too, as did all the writers listed above, all of whom are well known today but often for a few works.
I started this post meaning to talk about them all, but there’s so much to say that this list will be only about Lewis; I will write about the rest later. I’ve read all his novels except The Job, many (Main Street, Babbitt, Dodsworth, Arrowsmith, Ann Vickers, Elmer Gantry, Cass Timberlane) more than once, though I couldn’t honestly tell you much about Gideon Planish or some of the other later ones.
You can also go to the Sinclair Lewis Society site for information: https://english.illinoisstate.edu/sinclairlewis/
Say you want to read or teach a Sinclair Lewis with some social or political relevance. I’m including the film versions, too.
It Can’t Happen Here, about a homegrown fascist takeover of the U. S., is popular right now.
Ann Vickers: Feminist social worker with an honorary doctorate in sociology works in a settlement house, tries to reform a Southern prison, fights capital punishment, has an unhappy love affair and decides to have an abortion, and finally falls in love with a judge and decides to live with him when his wife won’t give him a divorce. Oh, and everyone calls her “Dr. Vickers.” The Pre-Code movie version stars Irene Dunne; you can read a good discussion of it here (the source of the image).
Main Street (1920): The novel about Midwestern small-town America that made Lewis’s reputation, with a dissatisfied heroine who tries to reform a town that thinks she’s the one who needs reforming. It was made into a movie called I Married a Doctor, but the movie doesn’t convey the depth of the book. Image courtesy TCM.
Babbitt (1922): Begins with 24 hours in the life of a real-estate salesman (“Realtor!” I can hear Babbitt yelling) and then shows his growing anomie and disillusionment with conformity. He turns down the right-wing Good Citizens’ League and searches for his idealistic roots, only to–well, you’ll have to read it. Edith Wharton admired this book. The 1934 Warner Brothers movie stars Guy Kibbee as Babbitt.
Elmer Gantry (1927): Popular hypocritical evangelist (character based on Billy Sunday) who preaches what he definitely doesn’t practice and lives very well on the offerings from his flock. The 1960 movie version takes a lot of liberties with the plot but won Burt Lancaster an Academy Award. (Image link)
Arrowsmith (1925): An idealistic doctor-researcher, Martin Arrowsmith, faces incredible pressures from those who don’t believe science is important and discovers a “bacteriophage” to fight a tropical plague. Lewis turned down the Pulitzer Prize he was awarded for this novel. The fine 1931 movie version directed by John Ford and starring Ronald Colman is worth seeing, especially for its portrayal of Arrowsmith’s equal partnership with an African American doctor from Howard University.
Dodsworth (1929). Car manufacturing giant Samuel Dodsworth and his wife, Fran, leave their midwestern city of Zenith (fictional location of many of Lewis’s novels) and travel to Europe, where they try to acquire culture in different ways, Sam through visiting places and reading guidebooks, and Fran by finding men to tell her that she looks and is young.
There’s a lot more to it than this, however, including some discussions of Henry James & W. D. Howells as well as broader meditations on American exceptionalism and expatriate living. Fun facts: Dorothy Parker admired the ending tremendously, though she wasn’t crazy about the rest of it, and Lewis dedicated the novel to Edith Wharton. The 1936 movie adaptation directed by William Wyler, with Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, and Mary Astor, is based on the stage play and is superb.
Kingsblood Royal (1947). The racial dynamics of this are problematic now but were courageous in its day (1947). Neil Kingsblood discovers that he has an African American forebear, a coureur du bois, and defiantly confronts his racist neighbors, culminating in his standing down a white mob.