On January 10, 1951, Sinclair Lewis died in a clinic on the outskirts of Rome, less than a month before his sixty-sixth birthday. In thirty-seven years, he had written twenty-one novels, many short stories, a few plays, and some poetry on varied themes.
Best known for his novels, Lewis wrote several unsuccessful ones, including Our Mr. Wrenn, The Trail of the Hawk, The Job, The Innocents, and Free Air, before attaining national recognition with Main Street, published in October 1920. This story of Carol Kennicott and her reaction to Gopher Prairie and its inhabitants stabilized Lewis’ reputation as a writer of realistic fiction and a portrayer of the American scene. Main Street was followed two years later by Babbitt, whose name became a symbol for the conformist and non-idealistic businessman. Arrowsmith, published in 1925, marked the peak of Lewis’ career.
Sinclair Lewis’ birthplace is Sauk Centre, Minnesota. On February 7, 1885, the third son of Dr. Edwin J. Lewis and Emma Kermott Lewis was born there. Mrs. Lewis was of Canadian and English descent. The Lewis ancestors came from New York state, being descended from Welsh miners and Yorkshiremen. Dr. Lewis’ mother, Emiline Johnson, was reputedly a direct descendant of Peregrine White, first white child born in New England (1620-1704) of Mayflower and Plymouth Plantation stock. Of the three sons in Dr. Lewis’ family, only the eldest, Fred, did not attain distinction. Dr. Claude Lewis, the second son, was an eminent surgeon, and his younger brother, Harry Sinclair, later known as “Red,” received world-wide acclaim for his writing of fiction.
When young Harry was six years old, his mother died. He had inherited her facial features and apparently a good deal of her temperament. He did not take kindly to his stepmother, Isabel Warner Lewis, who he felt treated him like a child.
Sauk Centre, Minnesota, was in the 1880s a bare, unlovely town only thirty years old, which did not become a city until 1889. The year of Sinclair Lewis’ birth, the population of the village and town combined was 2807. Surrounded by prairie farming land dotted with thirty of Minnesota’s ten thousand lakes, the town was nevertheless drab and uninviting. In summer, the temperature might rise to 110 degrees; in winter, it might dip to 40 below zero.
An indifferent, poorly adjusted, and awkward youngster, Harry Lewis was seventeenth in a class of eighteen in the eighth grade. At the age of thirteen, he tried to enlist as a drummer boy in the Spanish-American War but was promptly apprehended by his father. In high school he improved, taking part in debating and other forms of public speaking. In 1903, when he was in the academy of Oberlin College preparing for Yale, he described himself as “Tall, ugly, thin, red-haired, but not, methinks, especially stupid.” He was a misfit at Yale, although he was editor of Literary Magazine and worked on New Haven newspapers. He dropped out of college before graduation.
After more than a year of temporary jobs, including editing, writing children’s verses for magazines, and going to Panama by steerage in search of work on the canal, he returned to Yale in 1907 and received his degree in 1908. Well-read in the English classics and experienced in freelance writing, Lewis held during the next four years positions as editor, reporter, manuscript reader, advertising manager, and reviewer. His first novel, Hike and the Aeroplane, published under the pseudonym of “Tom Graham,” appeared in 1912, to be followed in 1914 by Our Mr. Wrenn, the year of his marriage to Grace Livingstone Hegger.
This marriage, detailed by the first Mrs. Lewis in Half a Loaf and With Love from Gracie, was to last fourteen years, until the divorce in 1928. This period of time included the birth of a son, Wells, born in 1917 and killed by a sniper in Alsace during World War II (1944). These years also embraced Lewis’ rise to fame, beginning with the publishing of his earlier novels, The Trail of the Hawk, The Job, The Innocents, and Free Air, and reaching a high level in 1920 with the appearance of Main Street. Other successful volumes followed: Babbitt (1922); Arrowsmith (1925); Elmer Gantry (1927); The Man Who Knew Coolidge (1928); and Dodsworth (1929). Lewis declined the Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith, as he did not feel that it represented the more favorable side of American life and culture. Being a realist, he wanted to be free to criticize rather than to flatter.
After his divorce from his first wife, Lewis married Dorothy Thompson, widely known foreign correspondent and newspaper columnist. The next year (1929) Dodsworth was published, and Lewis began research on a labor novel, which was never to be completed, despite repeated efforts. The year 1930 marked the birth of Lewis’ second son, Michael, and the awarding of the coveted Nobel Prize for Literature for Babbitt. This time Lewis accepted the prize, which amounted to almost $50,000. He had won, whether deservedly or not, over such literary giants as Theodore Dreiser, Joseph Hergesheimer, Upton Sinclair, and two women novelists who were literary artists: Ellen Glasgow, an American, and Rebecca West, of England. Lewis traveled to Stockholm to receive the prize, the first American writer to be thus honored. The next was to be Eugene O’Neill, whose dramas won it six years later. This was a fitting climax to Lewis’ great decade, the 1920s, beginning with Main Street and ending with the highest recognition in the literary world.
Lewis’ excesses, including heavy drinking, shortened his life, according to his brother, Dr. Claude Lewis, but apparently they did not affect his writing. The twenties, peak years of the Lewis career, were an era of prohibition, jazz, big business, speakeasies, bathtub gin, and general recklessness — an aftermath of World War I. The grand climax was the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent great depression of the 1930s. The year 1933 brought repeal of prohibition, breadlines, and joblessness, when Boston Common was black with the recumbent bodies of unemployed men. Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president in 1933 and remained in office until his death in 1945. Lewis declined in popularity, although the process was slow.
Ann Vickers appeared in 1933, and It Can’t Happen Here, written as a result of his knowledge of conditions abroad, particularly in Germany, on which his wife, Dorothy Thompson, was an authority, was published in 1936. That year, Sinclair Lewis was also awarded an honorary degree at Yale. In 1938, The Prodigal Parents appeared and a play, Angela Is Twenty-two, in which Lewis himself acted. In 1942, he and Dorothy Thompson were divorced, after a separation of nearly five years. Lewis later became involved with a young actress, Marcella Powers.
Lewis continued to write novels throughout the 1940s: Gideon Planish (1943); Cass Timberlane (1945); Kingsblood Royal (1947); The God-seeker (1949); and World So Wide (1951), the year of his death. His ashes were returned for burial at Sauk Centre. His famous divorced wife, Dorothy Thompson, outlived him by ten years, dying in Lisbon in 1961.