The Kindly Race of Men
I want to make a modest conservative claim on Sinclair Lewis. What, that Sinclair Lewis? The one who held up small-town America to ridicule in Main Street? Who mocked the vapid pally boosterism of provincial businessmen in Babbitt, and the spiritual claims of canting preachers in Elmer Gantry? The one who poured scorn on all the bourgeois verities of early 20th-century America?
Yes, that one. There is a new biography out by Richard Lingeman, a senior editor on The Nation. It is more sympathetic than the previous authority, Mark Schorer's 1961 biography. But then, it would be, wouldn't it? I mean, The Nation? Sinclair Lewis was of the Left, wasn't he?
Well, he certainly thought he was. A faithful reader of The Nation himself, Lewis worshipped Eugene Debs, the radical organizer, and was enthusiastic about the Bolshevik revolution. In his 1935 novel It Can't Happen Here he warned of a fascist takeover of the United States, while Kingsblood Royal (1947) took on racism in a way that was advanced for its time. Main Street itself was seen in its day as a strong feminist statement, though I doubt many modern feminists would look at it that way. A man of the Left? Surely.
Yet there are lefties and lefties. Was Orwell on the Left? He believed himself to be, with at least as much conviction as Lewis. Was Dickens? (A question that much exercised Orwell — he wrote one of his best essays on it.) Was H.G. Wells? (Lewis's literary hero — he named his son "Wells.") Writers of real imaginative powers are far too spiky and knobby to fit into any narrow ideological slot. Certainly Lewis's tendency was all Left. He never gave up on his ideals of reform and social justice. When his second wife was setting out on a lecture tour he gave her some advice, which she jotted down: "Keep the clear radical line. Awareness of the tawdriness, silliness, immaturity and ruthlessness of this civilization. It is not good enough."
There is, however, Old Left and New Left. As with Orwell (they died within a year of each other), it is a mighty strain on the imagination to try to guess where Lewis might fit on the political spectrum of today, fifty years after his death. Certainly he would have deplored the hate-America crowd, with their endless harping on the wickedness of our ancestors. "I love America," said Lewis, "but I don't like it." As much as he scoffed at the minimalist governments of the 1920s, he would have been staggered by today's trillion-dollar budgets, financing vast projects of doubtful social engineering and imperial-sized military establishments.
Mostly, though, I think he would have hated the conformity and uniformity of today's America, and the gross vulgarity of her popular culture. Like Bob Dylan, he would have mourned the passing of "the old, weird America" in all its insane variety. We are all Babbitts now; and without even the questing, yearning desire of George Babbitt to fit into the world he found himself in. That has collapsed into the preening solipsism of "self-discovery."
The conservative case for Sinclair Lewis, though, is mainly a literary one. Nobody reads his stuff nowadays, of course, not even the novels that made his name. (Lewis was immensely prolific, producing at least 21 novels, countless short stories and a few plays.) Literary taste, even middlebrow literary taste, has gone through at least two revolutions since Main Street was published in 1920. In so far as Lewis is remembered at all, it is as a satirist of American bumptiousness and provincialism.
Yet when you actually read the early novels, this is not the impression you come away with at all. They are filled with what a reviewer in The New Republic called "sympathetic insight." The characters Lewis draws in detail are of basically two types: those who ache with loneliness, as Lewis himself ached all his life, and those who do not. There is always a tendency to draw the un-lonely as thick, cloddish and rather comical (though the tendency is frequently resisted, as in the case of Carol's husband in Main Street); but the lonely are spared none of the loving attention that a writer of first-class gifts can give them.
George Babbitt, for example, far from being the caricature small-town "booster" whose archetype now bears his name, is a fully-formed personality with a complex inner life; and the novel Babbitt is a subtle argument about the relationship of such a soul to the city he loves and dislikes, as his author loved and disliked his America.
Any thoughful, reflective person not entirely consumed by vanity — Sinclair Lewis was certainly not so consumed — is aware of his separation from the bustle and business of ordinary life in a commercial society, and to some degree will respond to that awareness with a yearning to be like his fellow creatures: to care as they care about home, family, money, status, fashion, sex and power. He will, at least some of the time, find himself asking wistfully the question Tennyson's Tithonus asked:
Why should a man desire in any way
To vary from the kindly race of men?
Lewis had no home, and could settle nowhere; yet he knew that human beings need homes, and that a healthy society is rooted in that need. He had done a good deal of office work, and found that he detested the hierarchy and routines of it; yet he had sense enough to know that the world could not go on without such work, and sufficient human sympathy to see that, as ill as it may have suited him, it suited most other people very well.
The one organ indispensable to a social novelist — much more so than, for example, a brain — is the Cold Eye: the ability to see one's characters in all their folly and self-absorption, from a detached point of view — and yet with cynicism kept always at bay by some tenderness and a little envy. In that respect, at least, Sinclair Lewis was a great social novelist, which is of course a much higher thing than a mere satirist. The Cold Eye is everywhere in his books: he could not be sentimental if he wanted to — which, of course, he didn't.
The passage I always remember in Main Street is the one where Carol decides that:
[I]n the history of the pioneers was the panacea for Gopher Prairie, for all of America. We have lost their sturdiness, she told herself. We must restore the last of the veterans to power and follow them on the backward path to the integrity of Lincoln, to the gaiety of settlers dancing in a saw-mill … This smug in-between town, which had exchanged 'Money Musk' for phonographs grinding out ragtime, it was neither the heroic old nor the sophisticated new. Couldn't she somehow, some yet unimagined how, turn it back to simplicity?
She therefore seeks out the Perrys, elderly survivors from the pioneer days when the town was founded.
Their heroism and simplicity, however, seen up close, repel her. The Perrys are, in fact, narrow-minded fundamentalists who believe that: "What we need is to get back to the true Word of God, and a good sound belief in hell, like we used to have it preached to us … All socialists ought to be hanged … People who make more than ten thousand a year or less than eight hundred are wicked …"
Carol's hero-worship dwindled to polite nodding, and the nodding dwindled to a desire to escape, and she went home with a headache.
There is endless scope for sentimentality in a passage like that one: sentimentality of all sorts, from Old Left romanticizing of the hardihood and courage of common folk to New Left tongue-clicking about the wickedness of white Christians pushing aside colorful, soulful aborigines. Lewis succumbs to none of the available temptations. He shows the pioneers as they undoubtedly were, and sends his sentimental heroine home with a headache.
As a child of the Midwest himself, Lewis knew of course that the nation could not have been made without the dull-witted, slightly fanatical sturdiness of the pioneers. He lets you know it, too. This is the America that is, that we must somehow come to terms with, as Carol eventually comes to terms, somehow, with her town and her marriage, as George Babbitt comes to terms with his city and his work. For those of us who think that wishful thinking is the defining characteristic of the Left, Sinclair Lewis is a friendly spirit.
His life was fairly awful. He was very ugly, with the scars of youthful acne further embellished by epitheliomas that he periodically had removed by painful treatments. (Ernest Hemingway mocked Lewis's appearance cruelly in Across the River and into the Trees, comparing the face to that of Joseph Goebbels with third-degree burns.) His sex life was blighted by premature ejaculation. He struggled with alcoholism and endured two divorces. He lived long enough to see his early successes fall from fashion, his insights derided as trivial, his style dismissed as flat and magaziney, his Nobel Prize as a joke in poor taste.
He confessed he had "little talent" for friendship. His son, whom he loved dearly, was killed in WW2. He wandered aimlessly all his life, calling nowhere home, and died at last in Rome, from the cumulative effects of drink and barbiturates, after a massive heart attack. Said the attending doctor: "Fear and terror, experienced in the unknown, broke his heart." Lewis was well equipped to write about quiet desperation.
Like his hero H.G. Wells, whose last book had the title Mind at the End of Its Tether, Lewis was a creature of the earnest, hopeful world before the great wars, before irony and despair took their toll on the spirit of western civilization. Born twenty years earlier, he would have been a happier man, with a more solid literary reputation: perhaps as the writer who did for the lower-middle classes what Edith Wharton (an admirer: imagine being admired by Edith Wharton!) did for their betters.
His work is there, though, to be discovered and admired by anyone who loves the Cold Eye; and how well it reads, compared with the silly, gassy, pretentious, sentimental "literary fiction" of our own time!