Sinclair Lewis Biography


"Sinclair Lewis, 1885-1951

Author of Main Street"

The above is the inscription on an unpretentious marker in the cemetery of Sauk Centre, Minnesota. It is the middle stone of three, for the famous son is buried between his father, Dr. E. J. Lewis, and his mother, Emma Kermott Lewis, who died when Harry, as he was then called, was six years old. The surmise that the name Sinclair was assumed later while Lewis was connected with the Utopian schemes of Upton Sinclair is incorrect. Dr. Lewis named his son at birth in honor of a friend, Dr. Sinclair, a New Lisbon, Wisconsin, dentist. In adult life, Lewis was known to his friends as "Red."

Behind the graves is the granite family monument. There is no mention of Sinclair Lewis' other twenty novels or of the fact that he was the first American novelist to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Yet Sauk Centre, scorned by Lewis in his lifetime, now has a Sinclair Lewis Avenue and "The Original Main Street." The library is collecting manuscripts and relics that were not willed, like his library and his Nobel Prize medal, to Yale University. It was at Lewis' own request that his ashes were returned to Sauk Centre after his death in Rome, January 10, 1951.

Main Street began as a story to be called "The Village Virus," a study which was completed in 1905 but never published. Carl Van Doren says that the novel itself was written years later, in Washington D. C. Although the reaction of Sauk Centre toward the book was at first unfavorable, there is no evidence that it was ever banned from the local library. John Steinbeck, about fifteen years younger than Lewis and an admirer of the older writer, tells in Travels With Charley (1960) of trying to find the way to Sauk Centre from St. Paul. A waitress directed him, adding, "They got a sign up. I guess quite a few folks come to see it. It does the town some good." The cook volunteered that he didn't think "what's-his-name" was there any more. Steinbeck had read Main Street when he was in high school, and he remembered "the violent hatred it aroused in the countryside of his (Lewis') nativity." The last time the two authors had met, Lewis had complained to Steinbeck of being "always cold" and had spoken of going to Italy. He never returned alive. "Now he's good for the town," Steinbeck comments. "Brings in some tourists. He's a good writer now."

Sauk Centre was, in the 1880s, a bare, unlovely town only thirty years old, which did not become a city until 1889. The year of Sinclair Lewis' birth, the population of the village and town combined was 2807. Surrounded by prairie farming land dotted with thirty of Minnesota's ten thousand lakes, the town was nevertheless drab and uninviting. In summer, the temperature might rise to 110 degrees; in winter, it could dip to 40 below zero.

An indifferent, poorly adjusted, and awkward youngster, Harry Lewis was seventeenth in a class of eighteen in the eighth grade. At the age of thirteen, when he tried to enlist as a drummer boy in the Spanish-American War, he was promptly apprehended by his father. In high school he improved, taking part in debating and other forms of public speaking. In 1903, when he was in the academy of Oberlin College preparing for Yale, he described himself as "Tall, ugly, thin, red-haired, but not, methinks, especially stupid." He was a misfit at Yale, although he was editor of Literary Magazine and worked on New Haven newspapers. He dropped out of college before graduation.

After more than a year of temporary jobs, which included editing, writing children's verses for magazines, and going to Panama by steerage in search of work on the canal, he returned to Yale in 1907 and received his degree in 1908. Well-read in the English classics and experienced in freelance writing, Lewis during the next four years held positions as editor, reporter, manuscript reader, advertising manager, and reviewer. His first novel, Hike and the Aeroplane, published under the pseudonym of "Tom Graham," appeared in 1912, to be followed by Our Mr. Wrenn in 1914, the year of his marriage to Grace Livingstone Hegger.

This marriage, detailed by the first Mrs. Lewis in Half a Loaf and With Love from Gracie, was to last fourteen years, ending in divorce in 1928. This period of time included the birth and childhood of a son, Wells, born in 1917 and killed by a sniper in Alsace during World War II (1944). These years also embraced Lewis' rise to fame, beginning with the publishing of his earlier novels: The Trail of the Hawk, The Job, The Innocents, and Free Air. Lewis reached a high level in 1920 with the appearance of Main Street. Other successful volumes followed: Babbitt (1922); Arrowsmith (1925); Elmer Gantry (1927); The Man Who Knew Coolidge (1928); and Dodsworth (1929). Lewis declined the Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith, since he did not feel that the book represented the more favorable side of American life and culture. As a realist, he wanted to be free to criticize rather than to flatter.

After his divorce from his first wife, Lewis married Dorothy Thompson, widely known foreign correspondent and newspaper columnist. The next year (1929), Dodsworth was published, and Lewis began research on a labor novel, which was never completed, despite repeated efforts. The year 1930 marked the birth of Lewis' second son, Michael, and the awarding of the coveted Nobel Prize for Literature for Babbitt. This time Lewis accepted the prize, which amounted to nearly $50,000. He had won, whether deservedly or not, over such literary giants as Theodore Dreiser, Joseph Hergesheimer, Upton Sinclair, and two women novelists who were literary artists: Ellen Glasgow, an American, and Rebecca West, of England. Lewis traveled to Stockholm to receive the prize, the first American writer to be thus honored. This was a fitting climax to Lewis' great decade, the 1920s, beginning with Main Street and ending with the highest recognition in the literary world.

The twenties, peak years of the Lewis career, were those of prohibition, jazz, big business, speakeasies, bathtub gin, and general recklessness — an aftermath of World War I. The grand climax was the stock market crash of 1929, followed by the great depression of the 1930s. The year 1933 brought repeal of prohibition, lengthening breadlines, and widespread unemployment. Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president in 1933 and remained in office until his death in 1945. Lewis declined in popularity, although the process was slow.

Ann Vickers appeared in 1933, and It Can't Happen Here, written as a result of his knowledge of conditions abroad, particularly in Germany, was published in 1936. Much of the information used in this novel was acquired from Dorothy Thompson, who was an authority on European affairs. It was also in 1936 that Yale awarded Lewis an honorary degree. In 1938, The Prodigal Parents appeared, as well as a play, Angela Is Twenty-two, in which Lewis himself acted. In 1942, he and Dorothy Thompson were divorced, after a separation of nearly five years. Lewis later became involved with a young actress, Marcella Powers.

Four novels appeared during the 1940s: Gideon Planish (1943); Cass Timberlane (1945); Kingsblood Royal (1947); and The God-Seeker (1949). World So Wide was published posthumously in 1951. Dr. Claude Lewis thought that heavy drinking shortened his brother's life, possibly by ten years. In accordance with his wishes, Lewis' ashes were returned to Sauk Centre for burial. His famous divorced wife, Dorothy Thompson, outlived him by ten years, dying in Lisbon in 1961. A year before her death, she had taken her three-year-old grandson, Gregory Lewis, and his mother to Sauk Centre to visit the grave of the town's most celebrated native, Sinclair Lewis.