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.

On the morning of November 5, 1930, Sinclair Lewis got up very late, and he was wandering about his rented Westport house when the telephone rang and an excited voice with a Swedish accent announced to him that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. The voice was that of a Swedish newspaper correspondent in New York who had managed to track down Lewis for the Swedish Embassy, but Lewis thought that it was the voice of his friend Ferd Reyher, who liked to do imitations and play jokes. “Oh, yeah?” he replied. “You don’t say! Listen, Ferd, I can say that better than you. Your Swedish accent’s no good. I’ll repeat it to you.” And he repeated it, “You haf de Nobel Brize,” and more. The bewildered Swede protested in vain and finally called an American to the telephone to confirm the news. Lewis fell into a chair.

In a few moments the telephone rang again. It was Thomas Costain at the Saturday Evening Post. Lewis had sent him a story that was rather longer than his usual contributions, and Costain wanted to propose an adjustment of his payment. Costain could not seem to make him understand; his voice was faint and blurred. At last he said, “Tom, I have won the Nobel Prize. No one knows. I’ve just been sitting here.” He was most amiable about the adjustment of his word rate.

Then he telephoned his wife. “Dorothy,” he said, breathing heavily, still dazed, “oh, Dorothy!” She thought that he was ill and asked in quick alarm, “What’s the matter?” “Dorothy, I’ve got the Nobel Prize.” “Oh, have you? How nice for you!” she said briskly. “Well, I have the Order of the Garter!”

The telephone kept ringing, but Lewis managed to dress himself at last and get to New York, where Harcourt, Brace and Company had arranged a press conference for that afternoon. He managed, too, to prepare a statement to be distributed at that conference, a statement that answered the two questions that he had been persistently asked on the telephone that morning: what was he going to do with the money, and why was he going to accept this prize when he had not felt, four years earlier, that he could accept the Pulitzer?

The answer to the first question was that he would “use it to support a well-known young American author and his family, and to enable him to continue writing.” (This reply was widely interpreted, especially by the Germans, to mean that he was going to give the money away to some worthy young writing fellow, and hailed as an act of extraordinary magnanimity.)

Lewis’ answer to the second question was more complicated: the Nobel had no strings attached to it, since the Swedish Academy interpreted the clause in the Nobel will, “the most distinguished work of an idealistic tendency,” to mean only that it was not merely commercial work (he did not observe that the clause had been advanced as an argument against a number of candidates, including Ibsen and Hardy), whereas the comparable clause in the Pulitzer will indicates a nonliterary standard of merit. (To demonstrate his point, Lewis listed five American novels, of high distinction in his view, that had not won the Pulitzer; he did not suggest that a large number of Nobel winners, from the first, Sully Prudhomme, on, were of the smallest literary consequence.)

A further difference lay in the fact that the Nobel Prize went to a man for his oeuvre, whereas the Pulitzer went to a single novel, and in any one year, there might be a number of equally fine novels, all but one of which would not be honored. (The Swedish Academy made it clear that the prize to Lewis was determined by the single novel Babbitt.)

Most reporters and editorialists found these arguments disingenuous, and many—most spitefully, Ernest Boyd in the New Freeman—did not hesitate to suggest that Lewis was hoist with his own petard. And from the outset, even before these utterances began to rumble through the press, Lewis was discomfited. The press conference on November 5 was not a vast success. Harcourt, Brace and Company had filled an office with folding chairs rented from a funeral parlor. When Lewis entered the room and sat down at a desk that faced the room, a reporter from the International News Service, Croswell Bowen, more brash than the rest, seized his chair, placed it at the desk, his back to the crowd, said, “I’m Bowen of the INS. Congratulations,” and, his face thrust within two feet of Lewis’, stared intently at him. (The account is H. Allen Smith’s.) Lewis stood up. “Perhaps you’d like to sit in my chair,” he said stiffly.

“Ha!” cried Bowen of the I.N.S. “That’s a good one! No, I’ll stay right where I am. How does it feel?”
“How does what feel?” asked Lewis . . . .
“To win this prize,” said Bowen . . . .
“Well . . .” said Lewis, trying to make the best of an uncomfortable situation, knowing the rest of us were sitting there watching the little drama, realizing that he had to handle himself carefully or run the risk of making an ass of himself. “Well . . . .”
“Listen,” [Bowen] said, leaning even closer to Lewis. “What’re you gonna expose next?”
Lewis glanced appealingly over the room.
“What do you mean, what am I gonna expose next?”
“I mean,” persisted Bowen . . . “what’re you gonna expose next?”
“What have I exposed already?” challenged Lewis.
“Babbitt,” snapped Bowen. . . . “You exposed Babbitt and all the others, and now I wanna know what’s next on the list.”
Lewis was patently irritated.
“Young man,” he said, “I’m not, as you have it, gonna expose nothin’ next. I’m not in the exposin’ business. I’m—”
“Oh yes, you are . . . . I want a yarn out of this about what’s next. Now, come on. What’ll it be next?”
“God damn it,” said Lewis, “I told you I’m not in the business of exposing things. I’m a novelist. I write novels. I don’t go around—”
“A-h-h-h!” said Bowen . . . and, turning to face the rest of us, grinned knowingly and winked, letting us know he was in control of this situation. Then he turned back to the furious winner of the Nobel Prize. “Let’s have it,” he insisted. “What’re you gonna expose next?”
Sinclair Lewis sat and looked at Bowen of the I.N.S. for a long time. Then he got up from his chair, walked around the desk and faced the rest of us.

Someone drew Bowen aside, and the others took over. “It was pretty dull, too, after Bowen dropped out.” But Lewis was irked. To one question, he named the American novelists whom, “beside myself,” he considered great; it was the usual list - Dreiser, Cahell, Hergesheimer, Cather, Wharton, with Thomas Wolfe now added. To another question he snapped, “I don’t know what the hell this country needs.”

Before that conference was over, the office of Harcourt, Brace and Company was being flooded with congratulatory telegrams. Word came from his former wife: “The one thing that you wanted I cried with happiness when I heard.” (The next week, she petitioned the court that her alimony be returned to $1000 per month.) There were wires from friends, of course, from publishers, and from reviewers; but the interesting list is made up of the writers who were impelled to congratulate: from France, only Paul Morand; from Germany, only Lion Feuchtwanger; from the United States, Louis Bromfield, Lynn Montross, Owen Johnson (a Barnard neighbor), Vincent Sheean, Carl Van Vechten, W. E. Woodward, Wallace Irwin, William Seabrook (all friends), Eugene O’Neill, René Fülöp-Miller (a Westport neighbor); from England, none. There followed, of course, letters of congratulation, some from unknown persons, many from friends, the prominent among these: Frank B. Kellogg, William G. McAdoo, John Haynes Holmes, Francis Perkins, the President of Wesleyan University at Middletown, William Green, Sidney Hillman. There was a moving letter from a Viennese doctor, a friend of Dorothy Thompson’s: “Ich fange an, an die Welt zu glauben,” and wishing that young Michael “hatte ein so heisses Herz, einen so starken Verstand und ein so bewegliches Mundwerk wie seim Vater.” There was a charming letter from the infirmary of Phillips Academy, Andover:

Dear Father,
I couldn’t write yesterday because I had both eyes closed with poison ivy. Its wonderful wonderful wonderful about the Nobel prize. The only one you wanted. Oh how proud and happy I am.
Love and love and love and lots of love
from Wells

Another interesting list is made up of the names of writers who chose to praise him: Cabell and Sinclair and Hergesheimer; Waldo Frank; Willa Cather, who, while she could not honestly say that she was happy that he, rather than she, had won the prize, would rather see him win it than anyone else; Morley Callaghan; and William Lyon Phelps (“It’s too gorgeous for words”). In thanking Phelps, Lewis wrote, “It is, by the way, absolutely the only word I have had as yet from Yale.” Within a week, however, he had official greetings from the secretary of his class (“The fellows were awfully pleased”); this letter contained the jolly admonition that Lewis must not again let himself appear in the newsreels.

Only two British writers chose to tell him of their pleasure: Hugh Walpole, predictably, and E. M. Forster, most engagingly:

I want to add one letter more to the thousands that are encumbering your desk, and to tell you how delighted I am about the Nobel award. It was a splendid decision—they have done themselves proud—and I hope that you two are pleased about it, and realize that, through you, many a fellow writer of yours feels that he has himself been honoured.

Lewis’ desk was not encumbered with thousands of letters, and it had been made all too clear to him that few writers felt themselves honored through the international glamour that had been thrown upon him.

Rebecca West, looking back, says that most British writers were outraged by the award, but the British press in general viewed the choice of the Swedish Academy with approval. The New Statesman was rather exceptional in its harsh view that “Previously none of the awards has been noticeably ridiculous.” Critics and commentators on the Continent were, in general, satisfied, and most were enthusiastic. But in the United States, “Something very like a groan went up,” said Ludwig Lewisohn, from most writers and critics. The mood that Lewis had briefly exemplified more emphatically than anyone else was over, and Lewis was generally thought of as finished. The aggressively enlightened had, of course, almost never taken him seriously. The experimentalists and the expatriates thought of him as a commercial hack. The academic critics, whether simple literary historians like Fred Lewis Pattee, or dogmatic authoritarians like Professor Babbitt and his followers in the New Humanism, or old-fashioned conservatives like Henry Van Dyke in the American Academy, were united in their displeasure. Young radicals found Lewis politically illiterate. Older writers of no particular allegiance, like Sherwood Anderson, spoke out against him on the grounds of art. A younger writer, Ernest Hemingway, writing to a friend, called the award a “filthy business” whose only merit was that it had eliminated the “Dreiser menace.”

Dreiser sulked in his tent. Lewis could hardly have been unaware of this giant nursing his wounds; the fact was one more barb, repeatedly thrown by the press, to prick Lewis’ pleasure, and there could have been little balm in such an immediate request, for example, as that of Vrest Orton, founder of the Colobhon and a publisher and a fine printer in Vermont, that he be allowed to compile his bibliography. Vacillating between humility and arrogance, between graciousness to his fellow writers and snappish irritation with reporters, holding at last all that he had wanted, but deprived somehow of all its deepest satisfactions, Sinclair Lewis was not a triumphant man. W. E. Woodward later said that the Nobel Prize had cured him of his feelings of inferiority; he could hardly have been more mistaken. More accurately, Ludwig Lewisohn observed in understatement that he “did not bear the glory that had come to him with equanimity or ease.”

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.

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.