Sinclair Lewis and the Nobel Prize

Novelist, critic, and teacher, one of the moving spirits at the University of California, Mark Schorer has been at work for more than a decade on his big biography of Sinclair Lewis, the October choice of the Book-of-the-Month Club, from which this chapter is taken.

On the morning of November 5, 1930, Sinclair Lewis got up very late, and he was wandering about his rented Westport house when the telephone rang and an excited voice with a Swedish accent announced to him that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. The voice was that of a Swedish newspaper correspondent in New York who had managed to track down Lewis for the Swedish Embassy, but Lewis thought that it was the voice of his friend Ferd Reyher, who liked to do imitations and play jokes. “Oh, yeah?” he replied. “You don’t say! Listen, Ferd, I can say that better than you. Your Swedish accent’s no good. I’ll repeat it to you.” And he repeated it, “You haf de Nobel Brize,” and more. The bewildered Swede protested in vain and finally called an American to the telephone to confirm the news. Lewis fell into a chair.

In a few moments the telephone rang again. It was Thomas Costain at the Saturday Evening Post. Lewis had sent him a story that was rather longer than his usual contributions, and Costain wanted to propose an adjustment of his payment. Costain could not seem to make him understand; his voice was faint and blurred. At last he said, “Tom, I have won the Nobel Prize. No one knows. I’ve just been sitting here.” He was most amiable about the adjustment of his word rate.

Then he telephoned his wife. “Dorothy,” he said, breathing heavily, still dazed, “oh, Dorothy!” She thought that he was ill and asked in quick alarm, “What’s the matter?” “Dorothy, I’ve got the Nobel Prize.” “Oh, have you? How nice for you!” she said briskly. “Well, I have the Order of the Garter!”

The telephone kept ringing, but Lewis managed to dress himself at last and get to New York, where Harcourt, Brace and Company had arranged a press conference for that afternoon. He managed, too, to prepare a statement to be distributed at that conference, a statement that answered the two questions that he had been persistently asked on the telephone that morning: what was he going to do with the money, and why was he going to accept this prize when he had not felt, four years earlier, that he could accept the Pulitzer?

The answer to the first question was that he would “use it to support a well-known young American author and his family, and to enable him to continue writing.” (This reply was widely interpreted, especially by the Germans, to mean that he was going to give the money away to some worthy young writing fellow, and hailed as an act of extraordinary magnanimity.)

Lewis’ answer to the second question was more complicated: the Nobel had no strings attached to it, since the Swedish Academy interpreted the clause in the Nobel will, “the most distinguished work of an idealistic tendency,” to mean only that it was not merely commercial work (he did not observe that the clause had been advanced as an argument against a number of candidates, including Ibsen and Hardy), whereas the comparable clause in the Pulitzer will indicates a nonliterary standard of merit. (To demonstrate his point, Lewis listed five American novels, of high distinction in his view, that had not won the Pulitzer; he did not suggest that a large number of Nobel winners, from the first, Sully Prudhomme, on, were of the smallest literary consequence.)

A further difference lay in the fact that the Nobel Prize went to a man for his oeuvre, whereas the Pulitzer went to a single novel, and in any one year, there might be a number of equally fine novels, all but one of which would not be honored. (The Swedish Academy made it clear that the prize to Lewis was determined by the single novel Babbitt.)

Most reporters and editorialists found these arguments disingenuous, and many—most spitefully, Ernest Boyd in the New Freeman—did not hesitate to suggest that Lewis was hoist with his own petard. And from the outset, even before these utterances began to rumble through the press, Lewis was discomfited. The press conference on November 5 was not a vast success. Harcourt, Brace and Company had filled an office with folding chairs rented from a funeral parlor. When Lewis entered the room and sat down at a desk that faced the room, a reporter from the International News Service, Croswell Bowen, more brash than the rest, seized his chair, placed it at the desk, his back to the crowd, said, “I’m Bowen of the INS. Congratulations,” and, his face thrust within two feet of Lewis’, stared intently at him. (The account is H. Allen Smith’s.) Lewis stood up. “Perhaps you’d like to sit in my chair,” he said stiffly.

“Ha!” cried Bowen of the I.N.S. “That’s a good one! No, I’ll stay right where I am. How does it feel?”
“How does what feel?” asked Lewis . . . .
“To win this prize,” said Bowen . . . .
“Well . . .” said Lewis, trying to make the best of an uncomfortable situation, knowing the rest of us were sitting there watching the little drama, realizing that he had to handle himself carefully or run the risk of making an ass of himself. “Well . . . .”
“Listen,” [Bowen] said, leaning even closer to Lewis. “What’re you gonna expose next?”
Lewis glanced appealingly over the room.
“What do you mean, what am I gonna expose next?”
“I mean,” persisted Bowen . . . “what’re you gonna expose next?”
“What have I exposed already?” challenged Lewis.
“Babbitt,” snapped Bowen. . . . “You exposed Babbitt and all the others, and now I wanna know what’s next on the list.”
Lewis was patently irritated.
“Young man,” he said, “I’m not, as you have it, gonna expose nothin’ next. I’m not in the exposin’ business. I’m—”
“Oh yes, you are . . . . I want a yarn out of this about what’s next. Now, come on. What’ll it be next?”
“God damn it,” said Lewis, “I told you I’m not in the business of exposing things. I’m a novelist. I write novels. I don’t go around—”
“A-h-h-h!” said Bowen . . . and, turning to face the rest of us, grinned knowingly and winked, letting us know he was in control of this situation. Then he turned back to the furious winner of the Nobel Prize. “Let’s have it,” he insisted. “What’re you gonna expose next?”
Sinclair Lewis sat and looked at Bowen of the I.N.S. for a long time. Then he got up from his chair, walked around the desk and faced the rest of us.

Someone drew Bowen aside, and the others took over. “It was pretty dull, too, after Bowen dropped out.” But Lewis was irked. To one question, he named the American novelists whom, “beside myself,” he considered great; it was the usual list - Dreiser, Cahell, Hergesheimer, Cather, Wharton, with Thomas Wolfe now added. To another question he snapped, “I don’t know what the hell this country needs.”

Before that conference was over, the office of Harcourt, Brace and Company was being flooded with congratulatory telegrams. Word came from his former wife: “The one thing that you wanted I cried with happiness when I heard.” (The next week, she petitioned the court that her alimony be returned to $1000 per month.) There were wires from friends, of course, from publishers, and from reviewers; but the interesting list is made up of the writers who were impelled to congratulate: from France, only Paul Morand; from Germany, only Lion Feuchtwanger; from the United States, Louis Bromfield, Lynn Montross, Owen Johnson (a Barnard neighbor), Vincent Sheean, Carl Van Vechten, W. E. Woodward, Wallace Irwin, William Seabrook (all friends), Eugene O’Neill, René Fülöp-Miller (a Westport neighbor); from England, none. There followed, of course, letters of congratulation, some from unknown persons, many from friends, the prominent among these: Frank B. Kellogg, William G. McAdoo, John Haynes Holmes, Francis Perkins, the President of Wesleyan University at Middletown, William Green, Sidney Hillman. There was a moving letter from a Viennese doctor, a friend of Dorothy Thompson’s: “Ich fange an, an die Welt zu glauben,” and wishing that young Michael “hatte ein so heisses Herz, einen so starken Verstand und ein so bewegliches Mundwerk wie seim Vater.” There was a charming letter from the infirmary of Phillips Academy, Andover:

Dear Father,
I couldn’t write yesterday because I had both eyes closed with poison ivy. Its wonderful wonderful wonderful about the Nobel prize. The only one you wanted. Oh how proud and happy I am.
Love and love and love and lots of love
from Wells

Another interesting list is made up of the names of writers who chose to praise him: Cabell and Sinclair and Hergesheimer; Waldo Frank; Willa Cather, who, while she could not honestly say that she was happy that he, rather than she, had won the prize, would rather see him win it than anyone else; Morley Callaghan; and William Lyon Phelps (“It’s too gorgeous for words”). In thanking Phelps, Lewis wrote, “It is, by the way, absolutely the only word I have had as yet from Yale.” Within a week, however, he had official greetings from the secretary of his class (“The fellows were awfully pleased”); this letter contained the jolly admonition that Lewis must not again let himself appear in the newsreels.

Only two British writers chose to tell him of their pleasure: Hugh Walpole, predictably, and E. M. Forster, most engagingly:

I want to add one letter more to the thousands that are encumbering your desk, and to tell you how delighted I am about the Nobel award. It was a splendid decision—they have done themselves proud—and I hope that you two are pleased about it, and realize that, through you, many a fellow writer of yours feels that he has himself been honoured.

Lewis’ desk was not encumbered with thousands of letters, and it had been made all too clear to him that few writers felt themselves honored through the international glamour that had been thrown upon him.

Rebecca West, looking back, says that most British writers were outraged by the award, but the British press in general viewed the choice of the Swedish Academy with approval. The New Statesman was rather exceptional in its harsh view that “Previously none of the awards has been noticeably ridiculous.” Critics and commentators on the Continent were, in general, satisfied, and most were enthusiastic. But in the United States, “Something very like a groan went up,” said Ludwig Lewisohn, from most writers and critics. The mood that Lewis had briefly exemplified more emphatically than anyone else was over, and Lewis was generally thought of as finished. The aggressively enlightened had, of course, almost never taken him seriously. The experimentalists and the expatriates thought of him as a commercial hack. The academic critics, whether simple literary historians like Fred Lewis Pattee, or dogmatic authoritarians like Professor Babbitt and his followers in the New Humanism, or old-fashioned conservatives like Henry Van Dyke in the American Academy, were united in their displeasure. Young radicals found Lewis politically illiterate. Older writers of no particular allegiance, like Sherwood Anderson, spoke out against him on the grounds of art. A younger writer, Ernest Hemingway, writing to a friend, called the award a “filthy business” whose only merit was that it had eliminated the “Dreiser menace.”

Dreiser sulked in his tent. Lewis could hardly have been unaware of this giant nursing his wounds; the fact was one more barb, repeatedly thrown by the press, to prick Lewis’ pleasure, and there could have been little balm in such an immediate request, for example, as that of Vrest Orton, founder of the Colobhon and a publisher and a fine printer in Vermont, that he be allowed to compile his bibliography. Vacillating between humility and arrogance, between graciousness to his fellow writers and snappish irritation with reporters, holding at last all that he had wanted, but deprived somehow of all its deepest satisfactions, Sinclair Lewis was not a triumphant man. W. E. Woodward later said that the Nobel Prize had cured him of his feelings of inferiority; he could hardly have been more mistaken. More accurately, Ludwig Lewisohn observed in understatement that he “did not bear the glory that had come to him with equanimity or ease.”

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