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.

Most Swedish newspapers, like newspapers all over Europe, were delighted with his address, and on December 13 the New York Times correspondent cabled, “Sinclair Lewis became the hero of all Stockholm today.” There was a whole round of visits to the Lewises’ rooms, luncheon with Academy people, and in the afternoon, a series of receptions. That evening they had invitations to five balls and tried to go to several; one was an entrancing affair staged by the United Societies—Swedish-American and Swedish-Austrian. It snowed that night, and on Sunday Lewis was able to see Stockholm as he had hoped, covered with white. On Monday they were to be entertained at a Foreign Press Association dinner, with the entire diplomatic corps in attendance. Mrs. Lewis, who had not been feeling well, did not attend.

Every day there were small, private affairs arranged by Academy members, and on Tuesday he interspersed these with a radio address in which he talked about his life as a Minnesota country boy and his wish that he might have met and come to know some of the country people of Sweden, and, in the evening, with a dinner in his honor given by his Swedish publisher, Thorsten Laurin. Wednesday he saw a little more of Stockholm and spent the afternoon at the villa of Prince Eugene, looking at his collection of pictures. Thursday he left for Gothenburg, where he had agreed to speak before the. Anglo-Swedish Society, stayed there through Friday, and returned to Stockholm on Saturday. On Sunday, December 21, the Lewises left for Berlin and arrived there next day, only to become the center of a whole new round of festivities arranged by their eager newspaper friends the Knickerbockers, the Mowrers, and others. They were to stay in Berlin through New Year’s Day and then leave for Copenhagen, where Lewis had promised to speak on January 3. Then Mrs. Lewis was going to Russia and Lewis to London, to wait for her.

On Christmas night, the Knickerbockers were giving a very gay dinner for ten people, including the Lewises, at their house in the country. Hilarity mounted. Lewis did an impersonation of a Nobel Prize winner accepting the honor in Norwegian. They worked out her Russian itinerary for Mrs. Lewis, and almost decided that they would all get on a train for Vienna at once. That plan subsided, and at two o’clock, when taxicabs arrived to take the guests back into the city, Mrs. Lewis complained of a stomach-ache. At the Adlon, she awoke between three and four with sharper pains; the house physician was called; he called a specialist; the specialist summoned an ambulance; and at six o’clock, Mrs. Lewis underwent an urgent appendectomy. Lewis was frantic. In midmorning he got a few minutes’ sleep and then dashed back to the hospital, and he was dashing in and out all day until, finally, late that night, he went to bed. She was in satisfactory condition next day. He canceled his Copenhagen engagement and some less important ones. Mrs. Lewis was to be in the Mommsen Sanatorium for ten days.

It was the depth of winter in Berlin when Mrs. Lewis came out of the hospital. Her husband wanted her to rest comfortably (and he was in need of rest as well as she), and they went for ten days to the Thuringian Mountains, away from telephones and newspapers, where he pretended to ski. They had reorganized their plans. Mrs. Lewis would not go to Russia; there was a good deal of material for a newspaperwoman in the Germany of 1931. Back in Berlin, Lewis said over the wireless that, in spite of all the ties that bound him to Europe, he felt himself to be one hundred per cent American. And then he went off to England.

In London, Lewis took his old Bury Street rooms in St. James. His best friend, Lord Thomson, had been killed in an airplane accident some months before, and his absence left a melancholy gap. Melancholy, too, was the break that Lewis had made with Harcourt, Brace and Company just before he left Berlin. For a long time, he wrote Alfred Harcourt, he had felt that the firm had lost real interest in his books, and the failure of the firm to rise to the occasion of the Nobel Prize made its indifference all too clear. With proper advertising, all the novels would have leaped into soaring sales figures again. Worse than that, Harcourt had done nothing, even though he had the whole European press at his disposal, to counteract the supercilious and denigrating remarks about Lewis in the American press. “If you haven’t used this opportunity to push my books energetically and to support my prestige intelligently, you never will do so, because I can never give you again such a moment.” Harcourt had promised to bring out a Nobel Prize edition of all the novels and had failed to do so. And he added, absurdly, that Harcourt’s “lack of confidence is most important, because it is keeping me from starting work on a new novel.”

Harcourt’s reply came to him in London. It did not trouble to answer Lewis’ charges. It did not even trouble to point out that the Nobel Prize edition of the novels had been published on January 28. It was civil and friendly and moderately regretful, and it returned the canceled contracts for two unwritten books that Lewis had requested. “If I’ve lost an author, you haven’t lost either a friend or a devoted reader.” But it was the end of another friendship, in fact, and this time, probably, of the most important friendship in Lewis’ life.

When Lewis saw Harcourt in New York in March, he said, “Alf, why—if my books did mean anything to you—why didn’t you get on a boat and come to London and ask me to stay?” Apart from the fact that such a gesture was not in the character of Alfred Harcourt, he may very well have felt that the separation came at a logical time. The decade through which Harcourt, Brace and Company had helped to make Sinclair Lewis an international reputation, and in the course of which Lewis’ novels had helped to make of Harcourt, Brace and Company a substantial firm, was over.

Throughout that decade Lewis had promulgated his version of the American reality, and his effort had been brought to a climax with a great honor. But the decade was over, and Lewis’ sense of reality was no longer central to American history. He would never be able to change that sense, but history had already changed and would continue to change in his time, leaving him uneasily behind.Lewis’ own discomfited sense of the change and of his inability to cope with current history as confidently as he had coped with the past may very well have been the major ingredient of his dissatisfaction with his publisher. His novels would continue to make money, but they would never again bring distinction to a publisher’s list as, in a succession of five smashing titles, they had brought to Harcourt, Brace and Company.

When Lewis had Harcourt’s reply, he wrote to his wife in Germany:

So I can’t go back on the Europa with you. I have been thinking a lot of doing so. I don’t merely miss you: I feel downright lonely without [you]. Perhaps I wouldn’t have felt SO lonely if I had been working hard, but I have been rather loafing—looking at myself to see what I’m like. . . . Moods. But I am coming out of them now, beginning to work. I would like to go with you. But I had better not. . . . But I adore you.
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