On Sinclair Lewis

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Today is the birthday of the great American satirist Sinclair Lewis (1885-1851).  I went through my Sinclair Lewis phase in my early twenties, when I read his best known novels Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927) and Dodsworth (1929).

About a decade later, with my book club I read his 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here (1933), which has a vastly different tone. Whereas his earlier exposes of American small-mindedness and hypocrisy were very much inward-looking and local in scope, It Can’t Happen Here had the recent Nobel-winner (he’d won the prize for literature in 1930) looking to the world stage. In some senses he was prescient in ways that most of his contemporaries were not. The book paints a dystopian picture of what would happen if an American Fascist party gained control of the national government. Again, this was in 1935. Mussolini had been ruling Italy for some time, but Franco was not yet dictator of Spain, and the Nazis had only been in power for two years, with most of their most heinous atrocities still ahead of them. Lewis’s portrait of oppression is thus mild in light of what would happen in later decades, not only in those countries but in Soviet dominated Eastern Europe, Communist China and elsewhere.

Still — he was smart enough, and antinomian enough, and freedom-loving enough (as many apparently were not) that even the relatively mild early Fascist measures were intolerable to him. Of course he would be of that mind   — those novels of the twenties demonstrate that he found even the self-imposed conformity of the bigots and burghers of Zenith (the imaginary mid-western city he usually wrote about) far too stifling. “Keeping up with the Joneses” was its own kind of tyranny to him. And of course there was far worse than that to worry about at home — the Ku Klux Klan, for example. And soon there would be the German American Bund. But, far from “it happening here” those groups were marginalized to virtual extinction — indeed, were always on the fringes. Let’s keep it that way!

Like many humorists, he found his escape not only through the venom of his pen, but also, sadly through the bottle. (Most of the photos I have found of him are disturbing — he looks something like the Phantom of the Opera. The one above was the least unsettling picture I could find.  Was it the booze? Or is that putting the cart before the horse?) Liquor eventually killed him in 1951. It’s too bad — he might have produced some scathing satire during the decade to come, given the material he had to work with!

Here is Burt Lancaster in the film version of Elmer Gantry proving why we need Sinclair Lewis now more than ever:

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