SINCLAIR LEWIS was two years out of college and earning thirty dollars a week as a publisher’s apprentice when in the fall of 1912 he bumped into Grace Hogger, who was to be his first wife. They met. in a freight elevator; she had been working late reading proofs in the office of Vogue, and he had lingered over a manuscript by James Branch Cabell, The Soul of Melicent, a love story which he was eager for his boss to accept. Weary and vulnerable they made the descent together at seven in the evening, and so began their own romance. “The Sinclair Lewis I met that day in the freight elevator remained unchanged to the time of his death in 1951,” writes Grace Hogger Lewis in her remarkably candid book, With Love from Gracie (Harcourt, Brace, $5.75). “ He never lost his uninhibited way of picking up strangers who happened to catch his fancy or provide material for his writing needs.” And with these words she sets the tone for her loving portrait of one of the most prophetic and provocative novelists of our time.
One comes into this book through an embarrassing vestibule. Calflove is always mawkish to read about, and the Lewises’ courtship was no exception. At Yale, Red Lewis had been scornful of athletics, too nonconformist for the fraternities, too prickly for many friends. He came down to New York eager for recognition, crammed with reading, fertile with ideas the was soon selling plots for short stories to Jack London and Albert Payson Terhune), and hungry for affection. His boyhood in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, had provided him with none of the social amenities, and Grace Hegger with her English accent (her mother was English), her chic clothes, and her taste for music, nice food, candlelight, and gentility, seemed to him as desirable as she was superior. He courted her with sentimental verses and with troubadour phrases reminiscent of Cabell (she was Lady Galahad, he Lonely Toby or, more usually, Hal); he took heron picnics with a German rucksack and an army blanket strapped to his back; and together they saw Man and Superman and Tristan and Isolde. As they fell in love, they indulged, as many couples do, in a private baby-talk which does not read well in print.
The book really gets in stride after their honeymoon when they settle into the little brown bungalow at Port Washington. They had been married on the promise of his first novel, Our Mr. Wrenn, and now as a commuter on the Long Island Railroad Lewis worked openly on the manuscript of his second. The Trail of the Hawk:. The Hawk was completed in snatched-at time, and then Grace urged him to try short stories for a change. “He said he didn’t think he had the short story mind, that he needed more room to turn round but when George Horace Lorimer accepted his first offering, “Nature, Incorporated,” with a fee of five hundred dollars, Lewis went back to his notebooks in earnest, and it was the sudden success of his short fiction which dared him to set out as a free lance. The brown bungalow was sublet, and they headed south and then west, writing as they went.
Lewis had the idea of making a transcontinental tour in a Model T Ford with a tent and sleeping bags so that they could camp out — “daventuring” was their pet word for it — on the Dakota plains or in Yellowstone, but first he wanted to introduce Grace to his family and show her his home town. “As we neared Sauk Centre in an early evening of brilliant prairie sunset I could see that Hal was nervous,” writes Grace, and well he might be, for the town was small, his father’s house modest and iron-ruled, and Dr. E. J. Lewis as overbearing and critical a host as could be imagined. Father and son had long been at odds, and Grace’s presence was one more exasperation. But this homecoming with all its friction was enormously important, for Lewis saw the town through the eyes of a New York woman and sized up his memories against the often tart observation of an outsider. In an empty room over Rowe’s Hardware Store, with a borrowed table and chair, he began typing three to five thousand words a day, and the stories which he finished at that time were of much less importance than the source material which he was beginning to assemble for Main Street. The yeast for that novel was already in mind before they set forth on their western tour.
Candor and self-analysis are in this book. At the outset Grace sounds naïve, as when she speaks of “an innocence which seems never to have left me”; but as the difficulties of living with Hal are multiplied by success, and as his increasing restlessness, his necessity to be always on the move for fresh experience, destroys time and again their chance for home life with their young son Wells (named in respect for H.G.), her evaluation of them both goes deep and true. Her judgments apply to both the man and his writing: “Hal, questing, challenging, denouncing, steaming up for the battle of life”; he was “utterly sincere, quick to disagree, and easily hurt”; he was “embarrassed before sex and always would be”; he was “never at ease with the language of young people, of young love.” He had “hung upon me the placard ‘lady’ and his early letters show his eagerness to adopt the good manners which grease the wheels of any social machinery. . . . From Mr. Wrenn to Dodsworth his heroes either married ‘ladies’ or made efforts to adjust themselves to the social standards of the ladies they admired.” Hal himself made efforts, strenuous efforts, but more and more frequently they ended in explosions. When Grace took refuge in silence or in sarcasm he was hurt and showed it. “When I am with her I am always afraid I’ll do the wrong thing” — this indictment, which he unwittingly expressed in the eagerness of his courtship, grew with experience. And Grace certainly had her difficulties: his swelling egotism, his bouts of drinking, his coldshouldering of Wells, would have strained any woman’s endurance.
The book is altogether fascinating, both for the outpouring of Lewis’s most intimate prose and for the revelation of his craftsmanship: the origin of Main Street; the assimilation of detail for Babbitt; the collaboration with Dr. Paul de Kruif which finally led to Arrowsmith; the struggles to get ahead with the labor novel. “I have been Union Laboring hard,” he wrote after a series of enthusiastic meetings with Eugene Debs. “Gene really is a Christ spirit. He is infinitely wise, kind, forgiving — yet the devil of a fighter. His face ... is molded of bronze by the powerful hands of a great & sure sculptor. And his hands — after 50 years of leading causes — live by themselves.” By thus piecing together her letters and her memories Mrs. Lewis has produced an unforgettable picture of a great novelist’s productive years.
Seeing with the heart
The life of Ned Sheldon is the story of a prodigy, an impenetrable mystery, and a saintly legend. An undergraduate of radiant charm, Edward Sheldon, of a wealthy Chicago family, came to Broadway in 1910 with the sketches of three plays to show his agent. She encouraged him to concentrate on Salvation Nell, with electrifying results; he wrote six plays in the next four years and four of them were hits. Then in his early thirties he was immobilized in his penthouse by arthritis. For a time he continued to produce— The Jest, which he wrote for Jack Barrymore, was one of his last good plays — but when in 1930 blindness set in he sank into what he once termed his “submerged period,” and when later he “came up for air” it was with an adjusted philosophy. Now he was intent on giving rather than doing; as immobile as a carved crusader, with a black mask over his eyes, he lay on his pedestal, entertaining, dictating, counseling, a living legend and the most powerful stimulator in the American theatre. Children who came to see him thought of him as an enchanted prince, and it is the nature of that enchantment which Eric Wollencott Barnes examines in his sensitive and affectionate biography, The Man Who Lived Twice (Scribners, $5.00).
Sheldon’s plays were romantic dramas with a realistic setting. He knew Europe in its Edwardian splendor before the First World War, and his summers there reinforced his natural bent toward the romantic. But he was striving for a new realism. “Your Salvation Nell, along with the work of the Irish Players on their first trip over here, was what first opened my eyes to the existence of a real theatre,” wrote Eugene O’Neill. Sheldon lost ground with Princess Zim-Zim and Egypt, but more than retrieved it with The High Road, with Mrs. Fiske starring as “A Woman with a Past.”
Romance, which he wrote for Doris Keane, was the most successful blend of his talents, and here enters the mystery. Miss Keane was the light of his life; they were deeply in love, yet for undisclosed reasons their engagement was broken in the autumn of 1912. Was there in his puritanical nature a struggle deeper than he knew between his mother and his leading lady? Did his renunciation — Miss Keane implied that the break came from him — add the paralysis of the psychosomatic to his malady?
Whatever the cause, the part he cast for himself as a cripple was ennobling and greater than any he ever wrote. There was no surrender in his regime, as Mr. Barnes relates in absorbing detail; his powers of assimilation were incredible, the accuracy of his memory uncanny. He would lie motionless listening while Thornton Wilder read aloud the first version of Our Town, and then put his finger unerringly on the passages needing revision. Robert Sherwood turned to him before the new script was shown to the Playwrights’ Company; Ruth Draper, Helen Howe, and Cornelia Otis Skinner tried out their monologues; actors and actresses beyond number consulted him about their parts. When toward the end there was a threat that he might also lose his hearing, “That would really be a handicap,” he confided to Ruth Gordon.
Mr. Barnes’s book is a most appealing study in hero worship. It is lively and self-effacing, though not always accurate (for instance, it was at Harvard, not at New Haven, that Professor Baker produced his bright galaxy of young playwrights). It is discreet, as in the telling of the last sad years of Jack Barrymore, and truly memorable in the passages where we see Sheldon working so creatively with people. I think, for instance, of his disarming remark to a sixteen-year-old schoolboy who had lost his sight and was bitterly rebellious. The guest who had brought the youngster caught these words as she softly closed the door: “. . . and we have one great advantage over sighted people; no one can ever fool us with expressions or gestures they want us to see, or with remarks they want us to believe. We learn to see the person exactly as he is.”
A literary flowering
David Garnett, who was born in 1892, took naturally to letters. His father, Edward Garnett, was the most highly regarded publisher’s reader in London, and a close friend of Joseph Conrad. His mother Constance won renown for her translations of Dostoevsky and Chekhov. Science, painting, literature, all appealed to David, and in 1919 with his friend Francis Birrell, he set up a bookshop in Soho; he sold books and he wrote them, and his original, polished short novels, Lady into Fox and A Man in the Zoo, established his early fame. Now, in his maturity, he is devoting himself to a fourvolume literary autobiography, Volume One. The Golden Echo, carried him through his adolescence; Volume Two, The Flowers of the Forest (Harcourt, Brace, $4.50), begins in 1914 when he was twenty-two. “The four years of war which followed,’' he writes, “were the flowering of my youth — years in which I overcame the shyness and diffidence of adolescence and gained the courage and self-confidence of a man.”
This is a very frank, intimate, and quizzical book. For Garnett, as evidently for his parents, the War was a time of intense bitterness. He would not join his friend Rupert Brooke, who pressed him to enlist in the Naval Division; for conscientious reasons he refused to sign up, and the work which he did for the Friends War Victims Relief did not make amends with the most patriotic. But he held to his belief, and found consolation in other friends and, shy as he was, in loves which seemingly came for the asking. He did his literary burgeoning in a lively company which included Roger Fry and Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant and Lady Ottoline Morrell, Vanessa Bell and Lytton Strachey, Katherine Mansfield, Middleton Murry, Virginia Woolf, Frieda and D. H. Lawrence. His character drawings of them are delightfully acute. What they wore and where they lived, their likes and dislikes, their impetuosities, political opinions, and love affairs are set down with a dry, scrupulous fidelity. I wish one heard more of their banter; I wish that the itinerary of dinners and visits held a little more of the spirit of the occasion. What I like best is his recapture of the political tension, his remarks about Russia, and the forays in painting and literature of an eager, independent spirit.