By Richard LingemanRandom House, 688 pages, $35.00
Richard Lingeman has set himself a thankless task. A new biography of Sinclair Lewis, whose novels have been regarded as old but not classic for half a century, is decidedly not in demand. Lewis's dismal reputation stems largely from the trajectory of his career, which concluded with one of the longest and most depressing anticlimaxes in American letters. After a lengthy and unrewarding apprenticeship, during which he wrote five forgettable and forgotten novels, Lewis published Main Street (1920), which his earlier biographer, Mark Schorer, rightly characterized as "the most sensational event in twentieth-century American publishing history." "That idiot has written a masterpiece," a stunned H. L. Mencken cabled his Smart Set co-editor, George Jean Nathan, after reading the galley proofs of the novel. Over the next nine years Lewis wrote four more best sellers—Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927), and Dodsworth (1929)—all important books, though none could rival Main Street, and each was worse than the previous one. If only he had then laid down his pen. Instead, until his death, in 1951, he continued to churn out novels, along with plays that never made it to Broadway. Some of the novels, such as Cass Timberlane (1945) and Kingsblood Royal (1947), were commercial successes, but all these works were at best undistinguished, and many were downright terrible.
Although Lewis's productivity clearly outlasted his talent, that alone can't account for the literary community's consistent dismissal of him. Even during the 1920s, when he was at his most gifted, he was out of fashion among self-consciously sophisticated writers, who thought him a hack. (Lewis was understandably stung by the expatriates' and experimentalists' Franzenian conviction that, as he put it, "if the damned book [Main Street] has sold so well, I must be rotten.") Even his champions—E. M. Forster, Rebecca West, and, by far his most influential supporter, Mencken—offered (quite correctly) qualified praise. And then the Nobel Prize, in 1930, finished him off. Lewis was the first American to win the literature prize, but accompanying the announcement, as the critic Ludwig Lewisohn wrote around that time, "something very like a groan went up" among U.S. writers and critics. The literati were convinced—probably rightly so—that Lewis had won the prize only because his scathing, satirical novels confirmed Europeans' stereotypes of American society as vulgar, hypocritical, and materialistic. ("In crowning Mr. Lewis's work," Lewis Mumford protested, "the Swedish Academy has, in the form of a compliment, conveyed a subtle disparagement of the country they honored.") The prize only intensified disdain for Lewis, and he, and later Pearl S. Buck, would thenceforth provide evidence for those who argue that the award is hollow. Critics who would otherwise have been charitably disposed toward him couldn't help comparing him unfavorably with those they thought more deserving.
Like Mencken's, Lewis's vogue was intense but abbreviated: by the time he won the Nobel, his novels of the 1920s already seemed hopelessly dated to the intellectual tastemakers, whose interests now lay not in diatribes against American provincialism but in political and economic criticism and "proletarian fiction." By the 1940s and 1950s the aesthetically minded New Critics shunned even his best work as stylistically pedestrian. Thus Time, always a journal to confirm the consensus, declared in its obituary that Lewis "was not a great writer, nor even a very good one," and ten years later Schorer averred in Lewis's official biography that "he was one of the worst writers in modern American literature."
Schorer's 868-page biography has for forty years been the definitive life of Lewis. Comprehensive and stylishly written, it effectively married the modern doorstop literary biography—in which seemingly the subject's every journey and quarrel is minutely chronicled, to deadening effect—with a keen if not generous critical assessment ("I must say I never really liked Lewis's work all that much," Schorer once told Gore Vidal). Lingeman, who has written an engaging history of small-town America and also a two-volume biography of Theodore Dreiser (a writer perhaps as out of fashion as Lewis), was probably moved to undertake this project by the conviction, shared by Lewis's remaining admirers, that somehow the novelist deserves better. But Lingeman, an honest and sober biographer, can hardly deliver a full-throated vindication. Moreover, his long book cannot replace Schorer's even longer and far more thorough study, and Schorer's archaeological investigation of the Lewis papers neglected no startling episodes for Lingeman to reveal. This leaves him to embrace Lewis, with more enthusiasm than acumen, as a "literary sociologist" who "really cared."
That may be all one can say of Lewis in the end, but a final judgment doesn't do him justice. Lewis can be rightly appreciated only by concentrating on his anomalous book Main Street, the story of a slightly pretentious new bride's frustrating combat with the petty society of Gopher Prairie, a small Minnesota town (modeled after Lewis's home town of Sauk Centre), and with her stodgy and self-satisfied husband. It evoked the directionless struggle of thousands of Americans (especially women in the hinterland, hundreds of whom were convinced that Lewis was writing about them) to live what the protagonist, Carol Kennicott, calls "a more conscious life." Published when, for the first time in the nation's history, more people were living in cities than in the country, the book was in part a satire exposing the idiocy of rural life, so it also resonated with urban sophisticates and with those—like Carol—who aspired to be such. To be sure, Hamlin Garland (Main-Travelled Roads, 1891, Rose of Dutcher's Coolly, 1895) and other novelists had earlier described village life as narrow and dreary, but Main Street was the right book at the right time, and as Lewisohn wrote, "Perhaps no novel since 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' had struck so deep over so wide a surface of the national life." The novel is remembered for its sociological significance and as the epitome of what the critic Carl Van Doren called "the revolt from the village." But today's reader, expecting a satirical indictment, is struck—just as Mencken, Forster, and other astute critics at the time were struck—by the novel's sympathy and nuance.
With a fresh and vigorous photographic method, Lewis introduced readers to Main Street as Carol, just arrived from St. Paul, saw it—building by building, detail by detail. Slowly and relentlessly Lewis focused: on the food-stained tablecloths in the hotel dining room, on the drugstore's greasy marble soda-fountain counter, on the "pictures of coy fat prostitutes" in the tobacco shop. But while the reader is sharing Carol's dismay at the dingy, haphazard ugliness of the town, Lewis reveals the view of another newcomer, Bea Sorenson, who, bored with farm life, has come to Gopher Prairie in hopes of finding work as a hired girl. Carol, looking through the flyspecked windows of the hotel, sees only rickety chairs and cuspidors, but Bea thrills to "the swell traveling man" she spies there, to the "lovely marble" soda fountain, and to all the stores—"one just for tobacco alone." And then, in what Lewis has already established as a four-block downtown, "the roar of the city began to frighten her." The reader knows that Carol's is the more discerning vision, but also that she sneers too easily and that her view of Main Street—and Lewis's—isn't the only perspective.