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Son of Sauk Centre: The literary career of Sinclair Lewis

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Sinclair Lewis

Sauk Centre’s Sinclair Lewis, short story writer, novelist, and playwright, was the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Sinclair Lewis was born on February 7, 1885, in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. He was the youngest of three boys. Their father, Edwin J. Lewis, was the small town’s doctor; their mother, Emma Kermott Lewis, died when Sinclair was six years old. A year later, Lewis’s father married Isabel Warner, who became an important influence in his life.

By all accounts, Lewis was an outsider in his home town. Perhaps because of that, he took comfort in reading as much as he could. He left Sauk Centre in 1902 to attend Oberlin Academy, a college preparatory school. In 1903 he entered Yale, where he began honing his skills as a writer. After taking time away from college to become part of Upton Sinclair’s communal experiment, Helicon Home Colony, Lewis graduated from Yale in 1908.

Lewis’s first book — a young adult adventure novel — was published in 1912 under the pseudonym Tom Graham. During the rest of that decade, Lewis published four, more serious, novels: Our Mr. Wren: The Romantic Adventures of a Gentle Man (1914); The Trail of the Hawk: A Comedy of the Seriousness of Life (1915); The Job (1917); and The Innocents: A Story for Lovers (1917). He also earned a good income selling short stories to magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post.

Lewis married Grace Livingston Hegger on April 15, 1914. He had met her while they were both working in New York; he was reviewing books for the Publishers Newspaper Syndicate, she was an editor at Vogue. The couple had a son, Wells, in 1917, and divorced in 1925. Lewis married again in 1928. His second wife was Dorothy Thompson, a well known newspaper columnist. They, too, had a son, Michael, in 1930. Lewis and Dorothy divorced in 1937. Wells died in World War II and Michael, an actor, died in 1975.

Lewis’s breakthrough as a writer came in 1920 with the publication of Main Street: The Story of Carol Kennicott. The novel takes place in Gopher Prairie (a fictional Sauk Centre) and was loosely based on Lewis’s childhood experiences there; the strong female protagonist was based in part on his stepmother. The novel instantly made Lewis a wealthy man and an international sensation. It sold 180,000 copies in just over six months. It is estimated that two million Americans read it before his next book was published.

The 1920s were extraordinarily successful for Lewis. He followed up Main Street with Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), Mantrap (1926), Elmer Gantry (1927), The Man who Knew Coolidge (1928), and Dodsworth (1929). The decade also saw Hollywood produce five movies based on Lewis’s writings. Lewis won the Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith but he declined the award, objecting to the judging criteria.

Lewis celebrated a career highlight in 1930 when he became the first American to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Swedish Academy especially admired the author’s 1922 novel Babbitt. Lewis’s Nobel Lecture, delivered on December 12, 1930, was titled “The American Fear of Literature” and was quite critical of American letters, stating that “…in America most of us—not readers alone but even writers—are still afraid of literature which is not a glorification of everything American…”.

After his Nobel, Lewis wrote eleven more novels. They are not considered among his best work. Beginning in 1939, Lewis had a significant relationship with Rosemary Marcella Powers, thirty-six years his junior. He also taught, lectured, and continued to struggle with alcoholism. The mid-1940s found the habitual wanderer settled in Duluth, where he worked on Kingsblood Royal (1947), his novel about race in America based in a fictionalized version of his new home city.

Lewis died in Rome on January 10, 1951. He was cremated and his ashes were buried in Sauk Centre. By the time of his death, Lewis’s reputation had fallen, and his 1961 biography by Mark Schorer, though thorough, did not enhance his legacy. Recent scholarship, however, has brought renewed attention to his writing. The 2016 presidential election helped make It Can’t Happen Here, Lewis’s 1935 dystopian novel about fascism coming to America, one of the top ten best-selling books on Amazon.com.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Steve Rose on 03/13/2017 - 09:29 am.

    Fiction

    It comes as no surprise that “It Can’t Happen Here” is popular with people who believe fake news and wild extrapolations; a President that wants to secure the borders of a sovereign nations is therefore a racist. Count President Bill Clinton among such presidents.

  2. Submitted by Jim Roth on 03/13/2017 - 01:50 pm.

    Our Current President

    I think our current President’s words and actions stand on their own without need for wild extrapolations.

  3. Submitted by Dave Simpkins on 03/13/2017 - 02:53 pm.

    Sauk Centre’s Favorite Son

    I appreciated Pat Coleman’s report of Sauk Centre’s favorite son, Sinclair Lewis. Red is Minnesota’s most successful author based on his Nobel Prize for Literature, his three Pulitzer Prize for Literature nominations of which he was turned down for two and turned the third down himself. He was the Babe Ruth of literature in the 1920s with five major best selling novels. Yet he liked to say his biggest accomplishment was having his “Elmer Gantry” out sell Zane Gray in 1927.
    People knew a Sinclair Lewis story would have detail, humor and the high and mighty would be put low. Hardworking, humble and sincere people find love and success. He championed honesty over hypocrisy, frankness over avoidance, welcoming over snobbery, innocence over arrogance and adventure over domesticity. Artsy intellectuals, snobs, self-righteous matrons and crooked automobile mechanics got what was coming to them. We find small town men like himself romancing intelligent, and independent big city woman.
    He comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable.
    We also saw the results of an ailment he called the village virus infecting the American ideal with provincialism, sexism, bigotry, hypocrisy, commercialism and standardization. His novel” It Can’t Happen Here” is one of many of his novels that are so relevant today.
    Sauk Centre is proud of our Sinclair Lewis Park, Sinclair Lewis Avenue, the Gopher Prairie Motel, the Main Streeter high school teams, and the Sinclair Lewis Boyhood Home because our most famous son had something important to say 100 years ago that rings true today.
    You can follow Red at Sinclair Lewis Foundation/Society on Facebook.

  4. Submitted by Jim Roth on 03/17/2017 - 01:24 pm.

    Thanks for your comment and description of the work and values of Sinclair Lewis. It is indeed impressive that a small town boy from the Minnesota prairie accomplished what he did and that his novels have survived the test of time. “It Can’t Happen Here” is not his most widely known novel and in my opinion not his best but it’s a monumental testament to his work that it is timely and relevant today, I agree that he is worthy of an updated look at his life and work.

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