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.

There were three weeks, in this charged air, to make preparations and to celebrate, and there was much of celebration. Preparations led Sinclair Lewis to seek out a new skin doctor, Dr. Paul Gross, whom he first saw on November 12. Lewis was sensitive to pain, and Dr. Gross remembers that he would manage to have had quite a few numbing drinks before having to endure the pricks of the electric needle that removed the precancerous growths on his face. But, in at least one recollection, Lewis stayed quite sober during this period of celebration, while his friends, who were speculating on his conduct at the court of King Gustaf, which they assumed would in one way or another be hilariously malapropos, carried on.

The Lewises arrived in Stockholm on a mid-afternoon train on December 9 and were met by the car of the United States legation officer, Edward Savage Crocker, with a formal invitation, in confirmation of an earlier cable, to dine that evening at the legation, and they proceeded to their apartment at the Grand Royal Hotel. Lewis’ address, to be delivered on the twelfth, was finished, and he cabled Harcourt at length about the urgency of his having the exact text for the press since it was certain to “cause repercussions.”

It was the season of the festival of Santa Lucia, when lovely girls crown their heads with seven burning candles and wander about offering coffee to strangers, and it is said in Stockholm still that on the first night that Lewis was in his hotel, such a creature appeared in his room, and, with her mythological appearance, terrified him into screaming. But the festival lent gaiety and fantasy to the more solemn occasions of the Nobel awards. These began on the afternoon of the tenth, when the Lewises, with the three other award winners, gathered with the royal family and certain members of the Swedish Academy at the Concert House. A distinguished international crowd of about two thousand people awaited them when, with a flourish of trumpets, they entered the auditorium, and the orchestra broke into the royal march. The royal family took seats in the front row while the laureates, each with his conductor from the Academy, stepped up on a platform and sat down to be inspected by the King and the crowd. It was a ceremony of nearly two hours, and Lewis, who was the last of the four to be presented, grew fidgety and ruddier of hue as the speeches and the presentations dragged on. “The noted author from Sauk Centre, Minnesota, appeared to be enduring a sort of celestial Minnesota high school graduation exercises,” observed the United Press.

At last his turn came. Erik Karlfeldt, a poet, secretary of the Academy, presented him in a long review of his five major novels. Mrs. Lewis was fearful that he would trip as be came jerkily down the red carpet to King Gustaf. He did not, but he stopped too far from him and bowed more deeply than was necessary, and the King had to motion to him to come closer to shake his hand. Then he received the portfolio with his certificate, gold medal, and bank draft, and students at the back of the platform dipped the American flag.

After the ceremonies, all the great, the honored, and many of the audience proceeded to the City Hall, one of the most beautiful buildings in Europe, where, in the immense Golden Hall, the traditional banquet took place. It began with a toast to the King, who in turn toasted the memory of Alfred Nobel (he had died on this day, in 1896), and after an elaborate dinner, each of the prize winners gave a short speech of gratitude. Then the King led the laureates to a balcony overlooking the Blue Room, where the university students had been enjoying their own banquet. The students saluted and serenaded the King and his fellows, dancing began, liquor flowed, and the party went on for hours.

On the afternoon of the next day, the officers of the American legation presented the Lewises to the full Swedish Cabinet at a tea, a reception that was preliminary to the state dinner in the royal palace. Arriving in a flood of rain at half past seven, the Lewises were led from their taxi by Baron Rudbeck, the Lord High Chamberlain, and Countess Lewenhaupt, the first Lady in Waiting. When the guests were assembled, the silver trumpet sounded again and the King entered. All the ladies of the court were dressed in black, for the Queen of Sweden had been dead only since April 4.

The long table at which the eighty-eight guests were seated was almost buried in roses, and the dinner service was of gold. This time there were no speeches. When the King prepared to smoke, Lewis pulled a cigarette out of his pocket, and when he was told that only the King might smoke, his face showed his democratic disgruntlement. But, on the whole, he conducted himself with utmost punctilio, to the disappointment of friends like George Jean Nathan, who had expected him to rush about bussing the little princesses.

The next afternoon, December 12, in the Stock Exchange, Lewis delivered his famous speech before the members of the Academy and their guests. He had already proved to be the most interesting of the prize winners to his several audiences, and now he won them completely. He had been “as nervous as a college freshman” before he entered the hail, the newspapers said, pacing up and down the corridor, “pressing his chin against his stiff shirtfront, fidgeting with his tie and showing all the symptoms of acute stage fright.” But once on the stage, humming Mendelssohn’s Wedding March under his breath as he walked, according to his wife, and then hearing Erik Karlfeldt again present him, he relaxed. He spoke naturally and easily, with much gesticulation, and his material ranged from broad and insulting satire and witty innuendoes which brought forth great rumbles of laughter to an obviously patriotic exaltation that deeply impressed his audience, and when he had finished, he received what was perhaps the most extended applause that he had ever known.

The speech caused an uproar in the United States. It demonstrated the divorce between the intellectual life in America and any real literary standards, between the theories of the New Humanism and the actualities of American experience, between academic values and those actualities. “Our American professors like their literature clear and cold and pure and very dead,” said Lewis, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters “does not represent literary America of today—it represents only Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.” The fault lies in the prestige of William Dean Howells, Lewis argued, forgetting that Howells had praised Ibsen, Zola, and Hardy, and had risked his own reputation in defense of American writers like Frank Norris and Stephen Crane. (Similarly, to dismiss Emerson as one of our “sentimental reflections of Europe” was to forget that years before Lewis had made this plea for a vital native literature, Emerson had made his in The American Scholar.)

Whatever the preferences of “official” custodians of American culture, Lewis’ own fantastically successful books in the past decade seemed to demonstrate that American readers in general were eager for such stronger fare. Yet, his account of the status of the artist in the United States has much to commend it, and his argument that our material culture has far outstripped our intellectual culture is axiomatic. Naming our major writers in the United States—with his enemies, Dreiser and Anderson, at their forefront—and some of the best younger writers who were just emerging for European audiences, Lewis did call attention to the fact that America had indeed come of age.

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