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.