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80 years after Nobel Prize, Sauk Centre remembers Sinclair Lewis

The boyhood home of Sinclair Lewis in Sauk Centre.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
The boyhood home of Sinclair Lewis in Sauk Centre.

SAUK CENTRE — The grave marker, a rectangular stone now stained and graying, lies under a clear morning sun in Greenwood Cemetery. There are no flowers. No wreaths. No scribbled notes from adoring fans.

And that might not have surprised the man it honors: Harry Sinclair Lewis.

It's been nearly a century since Lewis, through the biting satire of his novels, began exposing the underbelly — and raising the ire — of small towns, business, religion and other revered American institutions. Though he accepted the criticism and alienation that came with it, he claimed his goal was to create a heightened consciousness about modern life.

"He was critical of American life, but he loved it at the same time," said Prof. Sally Parry, a Lewis scholar from Illinois State University who runs the Sinclair Lewis Society.
 
A conference held here this week marked two important anniversaries for the author — the 1920 publication of "Main Street," the book that made him famous, and his 1930 Nobel Prize for Literature — and gave this town on the Minnesota prairie a chance, all these years later, to reconsider the legacy of their favorite son.
 
"His observations about American life are still so dead-on," said Parry, who participated in a Thursday morning forum about Lewis' novels at City Hall. "Little towns can be very welcoming, but they can also be imprisoning. Even today, some of my students from small towns tell me that."

The boyhood Congregational church of Sinclair Lewis, now called First United Church.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
The boyhood Congregational church of Sinclair Lewis, now called First United Church.

A screening and a premiere
Besides the forum and other events, the three-day conference — which coincided with the city's annual Sinclair Lewis Days — included a screening of the 1933 film "Ann Vickers," which was based on a Lewis novel, and the premiere of a play based on the Lewis book "Kingsblood Royal." The Sauk Centre Herald also published a special section dubbed the Gopher Prairie Gazette.

In his Nobel lecture on Dec. 12, 1930, in Stockholm, Lewis argued that his critics read too much into his barbs, saying that his "most anarchistic assertion has been that America, with all her wealth and power, has not yet produced a civilization good enough to satisfy the deepest wants of human creatures."

Lewis was the first American author to win the award.

Sinclair Lewis pictured in Berlin in 1930 after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Sauk Centre Herald
Sinclair Lewis pictured in Berlin in 1930 after winning the Nobel Prize.

Sauk Centre, the town immortalized as Gopher Prairie in "Main Street," is now larger (the population has more than tripled, to 4,200), more diverse (with a small Hispanic population), and far more connected to the broader world than it was in the author's day.
 
Yet it remains a quintessential small American town, with churches (including the Congregational church Lewis grew up attending) and early 20th century homes dotting the neighborhoods. 
 
'Hey, there goes Sinclair Lewis!'
At the Palmer House, a hotel and restaurant that serves the Sinclair Lewis Cheeseburger, Tony Felling, who is 79, remembered once seeing the author on one of his visits home. Felling, who still works as a barber in downtown Sauk Centre, said he was walking down the street one day when he was 10 years old or so when someone called out, "Hey, there goes Sinclair Lewis!"
 
"A lot of people still know about him around here, sure, but that is about all," Felling said. "I don't think a lot of people have read his work or even know what was in it. A lot of time has gone by."

Tony Felling, left, of Sauk Centre, and Alvin Thull of rural Sauk Centre visit at the Palmer House in Sauk Centre.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
Tony Felling, left, of Sauk Centre, and Alvin Thull of rural Sauk Centre visit at the Palmer House in Sauk Centre.

Lewis, who satirized the business world's movers-and-shakers in "Babbitt," would have recognized the irony in an ongoing effort to close the Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Center, which sits on city land near Interstate 94, and replace it with a store or restaurant. Plans call for the center to be relocated.

The City Council recently voted to sell the property, though no buyers have come forward.
 
"That property is extremely valuable, and with our city, like many others, in financial straits, we wanted to look at putting it back on the tax rolls," Mayor Brad Kirckof explained.
 
As for the Lewis center, he said: "That is a valuable asset to the community, too; we just think it could be in a different location."

Humphrey attended dedication
Alvin Thull, a former City Council member who drank coffee with Felling at the Palmer House, recalled that U.S. Sen. Hubert Humphrey came for the dedication of the Lewis center, which opened in 1975.

Store fronts in Sauk Centre honor Sinclair Lewis, including the Main Street Theater.
MinnPost/Gregg Aamot
Store fronts in Sauk Centre honor Sinclair Lewis, including the Main Street Theater.

Asked about the current move to close and move the center, he shrugged: "It's a different generation now. Cities need money. If you tried that 30 years ago, you'd get run out of town. But things are different now."

Lewis remained ambivalent about his homeland his entire life. As he also said in his Nobel lecture, America is "the most contradictory, the most depressing, the most stirring, of any land in the world today."

Returned often
Even so, he returned to Minnesota often during his life and lived in Duluth for a time after World War II. And after he died of heart failure in Italy on Jan. 10, 1951, his cremated remains were returned to Sauk Centre and buried in the cemetery on the east edge of town.

Greenwood Cemetery was quiet and empty Thursday morning. Lewis' grave lies next to his father's and his mother's, and a light-colored pillar stands nearby as the family marker.

The inscription on the author's stone says, simply:

SINCLAIR LEWIS
1885 — 1951
Author of "Main Street"

Sinclair Lewis's gravestone in Greenwood Cemetery, Sauk Centre.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
Sinclair Lewis's gravestone in Greenwood Cemetery, Sauk Centre.

Gregg Aamot is a former newsman for The Associated Press and the author of "The New Minnesotans: Stories of Immigrants and Refugees." He is a journalism and English instructor at Ridgewater College.

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Comments (3)

Hey Gregg,

Great article! Our book group at the Lakeville Library read "Main Street" a number of years ago when the play was also on at the Park Theatre, which we went to see. After having lived on a farm near Elmore for 30 years, I certainly understood what he was talking about and know that not all that much has changed. He was so spot on on so many things.

I really enjoyed this piece. Thanks, Greg.

This story brings back memories of one I wrote for the Tribune some 30 or more years ago. I think the occasion was a ceremony making the Lewis home a national monument.

I caused a bit of a flap by quoting the mayor as saying that he'd never read "Main Street" and doubted whether many people in town had. As punishment for that indiscretion, a waggish City Council sentenced him to read the book and submit a report on it by their next meeting.

I was a stringer for Newsweek at the time and alerted them to a possible story. They were so interested that they bypassed me and contacted the mayor, who understandably got cold feet at the thought of national publicity.

He did write the report, however, and sent me a copy. I'd have given it a B or B+ if I'd been an English teacher. It was quite well-written. Maybe he had help. I don't know.