The Man Who Knew Coolidge

by Sinclair Lewis. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co. 1928. 12mo. x+264 pp. $2.00.
A FEW months ago, in one of our well-known magazines, Mr. Lowell Schmaltz — he explained that his name ‘is n’t German at all, but Pennsylvania Dutch, which is almost the same as saying New England Yankee’—rambled through a lengthy monologue that occasionally touched upon the subject of his asserted acquaintance with President Coolidge, and mostly reflected his opinions on prohibition, filing cabinets, night clubs, radios, and kindred topics. The sketch attracted attention. Mr. Schmaltz’s creator set him talking on other themes: poker parties, women, relatives, motor trips, and ‘the basic and fundamental ideals of Christian American citizenship,’all of which furnish opportunity for the satirical portrayal of one of Mr. Babbitt’s fellow citizens, against a background of some of the more glittering and brittle surfaces of contemporary life. These monologues form the book called The Man Who Knew Coolidge.
Be it stated at once that Mr. Lewis has not lost his cunning. As a mere feat of virtuosity the portrait of Lowell Schmaltz exhibits all of the skill evinced in earlier triumphs. The sentences catch the very rhythm and accent and turn of phrase characteristic of hundreds of thousands who hum over our concrete highways, clamor at roadside stands, and hold forth in the smoking compartments of Pullman cars. Their habitual self-complacency, their arrogance and braggadocio toward the weak and their wheedling cowardice in the presence of more powerful men, the emptiness of their minds, their perpetual mouthing of second-hand opinions, their pathetic reliance upon peptonized information, their alcoholic good-fellowship, and their incoherent talk — all are noted with merciless accuracy. Of course the individual is lost in the type, but that is the point of the satire. The man who boasts of his ‘dandy little Italian villa-style bungalow, with a Spanish mission entrance,’ who admires Mr. Coolidge because he is safe, and would not like to live in New York although it is an interesting place to visit, would be indistinguishable’ in a crowd. In his mind the interests and obsessions of the crowd to-day are mirrored: psychoanalysis, community chests, illicit gin, service for profit, scientific efficiency, high-powered salesmanship, and hatred of Bolshevism, atheists, foreigners, radicals, and Germans—‘But same time you got to hand it to ’em—’they certainly have buckled down to work ever since the War. Be a good thing if our workmen worked like that, ’stead of watching the clock and thinking about a raise all the time.’ Mr. Lewis has recorded certain phases of American life and character with astonishing fidelity and gusto.
And yet something is lacking. The criticism of our civilization is not quite convincing — possibly because the book, which in its nickel-plated efficiency is as mechanically perfect as the plumbing that the author scorns, is wanting in the individualism and penetration of art. The methods employed are as standardized as the people that are ridiculed. The heart of the difficulty is revealed when one tests the promise of the subtitle by the performance that follows. The subtitle reads: ‘Being the soul of Lowell Schmaltz, constructive and Nordic citizen.’ But Mr. Schmaltz has no soul. Possibly his creator planned this deficiency as a vital part of the satire. But the conception is none the less inadequate, if intentional. Even the basest citizens, though they be Nordic, have souls; shriveled, it may be, atrophied, but still living, however feebly. That is why they are pathetic. That is why they are worth saving. Mr. Lewis realized this high truth in Babbitt. By failing to attain to it here he has given us undeniably clever but inferior work.