Early reviews praised or condemned Sinclair Lewis (February 7, 1885 – January 10, 1951) for a blend of realism and optimism; indeed, a curious mixture of almost naturalistic realism and a kind of romance characterized Lewis’s fiction throughout his career. He failed to solve the dichotomy in his novels, nor did he ever solve it for himself. If his characters sometimes behave as romantic rebels, so did Lewis, rebelling against a philistine lifestyle in which he was deeply rooted and to which he remained attached all his life. The five novels that made him famous, Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, and Dodsworth, can be read as a series of variations on the same theme. Lewis exposed a United States dominated by business and petty bourgeois mentality. His characters, still full of nostalgia for the excitement of the frontier, persuade themselves that what they have at the present represents the zenith, the summit of human potential. Descendants of pious pioneer Puritans, Lewis’s wealthy Americans of the 1920’s are in desperate need of a civilization they can call their own. This transitory stage of the U.S. experience becomes the theme of Lewis’s writings.
As Van Wyck Brooks described it, America’s coming-of-age in the decade before World War I paved the way for a cultural and moral revolution, heralded by works such as Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology (1915), Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), and Lewis’s Main Street and Babbitt, with its bitter attacks on “boobus Americanus.” Civilization in the U.S. (1921), edited by Harold Stearns, gave a rather bleak picture of the average U.S. citizen during the 1920’s—materialistic, hypocritical, and suffering from emotional and aesthetic starvation. At his best, Lewis portrayed this same world and became himself part of “the revolt from the village.”
There were three distinct stages in Lewis’s career. As a young novelist, he published five novels between 1914 and 1918, probing the problem of escape or the contradiction between easterners and midwesterners, favoring midwestern sincerity to eastern refinement. The 1920’s were highlighted by five novels, extremely successful and ultimately winning Lewis the Nobel Prize in Literature. This glorious decade, however, was followed by a twenty-year period of decline during which he published ten inferior novels. With the passage of time, Lewis became increasingly out of touch with a rapidly changing world. While Lewis was still writing about the period of transition from exciting frontier life to small-town boredom, the United States rapidly proceeded to new phases, to radically different and exciting experiences.
The influences on him were many; he acknowledged a debt to Henry David Thoreau, and among his contemporaries he had much in common with George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells. His ability for mimicry and for detailed observation made him a true “photographer” of life. Indeed, his novels are almost historical documents. He documented a fixed period in American history, the frustrations and disillusionments of one generation. However, Lewis never went beyond documentation; he re-created the symptoms but never analyzed them, never provided any formula for a meaningful life. The pattern in his books is always similar: There is a central character who—at any given moment—realizes the emptiness of his or her life and tries to break out of the mechanical boredom of the suffocating environment. The revolt is short-lived and leads nowhere. The escape ends in an impasse because Lewis himself could never solve the strange paradox of his own dislike of and attachment to Sauk Centre. If he was a loner in his native village, he remained lonely at Yale and in Europe as well. Unlike Mencken, who praised and encouraged him, Lewis was not a true iconoclast; deep down he remained attached to the values he exposed.
Lewis was an extremely hard worker; he did extensive research for each novel, carrying notebooks and drawing plans of streets, houses, furniture. All this made it possible for him to evoke a concrete world. This attention to realistic detail extended to the speech of his characters. More than any novelist of his time, Lewis made a systematic effort to record American speech from all levels of society, collecting examples of usage as if he were a student of linguistics. It is no surprise that Virginia Woolf claimed to have discovered the American language in Lewis’s works. Lewis’s creativity was that of a photographer with an admirable instinct for selecting his subjects but an inability to give a comprehensive evaluation of what he so diligently observed.
In his best novels, Lewis selected the most important issues of American life— villages/small towns in Main Street, business in Babbitt, science in Arrowsmith, religion in Elmer Gantry, politics in It Can’t Happen Here, and finally, after World War II, racism in Kingsblood Royal—yet despite these successes, Lewis was not a great writer. As Lewis Mumford has pointed out, he was well aware of the limitations of his environment, of the lifestyle he depicted, but he lacked the strength and the imagination to overcome those very limitations in himself. The revolt in his fiction is always unsuccessful because it never presents any workable alternatives to the life Lewis opposed; he stopped at faithfully and photographically reproducing spiritual poverty.
In the year when Warren Harding was successfully campaigning for the presidency with the pledge of a “return to normalcy,” Lewis captured the reading public with his Main Street. Stuart Sherman compared the book to Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857), and Mencken praised the central characters, Carol MilfordKennicott and her husband Dr. Will Kennicott as “triumphs of normalcy.” Although there are surface similarities between the plight of Emma Bovary and that of Carol Kennicott, the two characters are very different and the novels even more so. In Flaubert’s novel, the emphasis is on the personal tragedy of the heroine; Lewis, on the other hand, as always, deals with a theme: the “village virus.” In fact, Lewis had originally intended to give this title to the book. The village-virus syndrome was a characteristic of a certain period of U.S. life. Describing it with photographic accuracy, Lewis preserved the atmosphere of a short historical stage in U.S. development. Village novels were no rarity in literature before Lewis, but Lewis’s sharp satirical approach marked a radical departure from that tradition.
Main Street, the most popular book of 1920, is deeply rooted in the author’s life. Gopher Prairie, population three thousand, is modeled on Sauk Centre, Lewis’s birthplace. Dr. William Kennicott is based in part on Lewis’s father and on his brother Claude, who also became a doctor. Carol is partly Lewis himself, the romantic side of him. Born in Minnesota, she is not exactly a village girl when she first appears in the novel. It is 1906 and she is a student at Blodgett College near Minneapolis. Her studies in professional library work take her to Chicago, the center of a poetic revival in the twentieth century. There she is exposed to the benefits of America’s coming-of-age: the Art Institute, classical music, intellectual discussions on Sigmund Freud, Romain Rolland, syndicates, feminism, radically new thinking in philosophy, politics, and art. She has a job at St. Paul’s public library when she meets Dr. Kennicott. The bulk of the novel is about their married life in Gopher Prairie, where Will works as a country doctor; it covers the years 1912 to 1920, from World War I and the United States’ participation in the war to 1920, the cynical decade of the Jazz Age. The United States was passing into a new period in which the political and economic fiber of the country came to be shaped and determined in cities rather than rural communities. Main Street is not so much a chronicle of Carol Kennicott’s life between 1912 and 1920 as it is a documentation of the national phenomenon of the village virus.
The village virus is best described by Gopher Prairie’s frustrated liberal, Guy Pollock. He defines it as a vicious disease menacing ambitious people who stay too long in places such as Gopher Prairie. The small-town atmosphere breeds boredom, dullness, stupidity, complacency, and vulgarity, causing the inhabitants to wither away spiritually and become the living dead. Only a few of the inhabitants see Gopher Prairie as a menace. All the “important” people of the community—Ole Jensen, the grocer; Ezra Stowbody, the banker; Sam Clark, owner of a hardware store—take pride in Main Street. When she first sees Main Street, Carol is terrified by its repulsive ugliness, but to the others it constitutes the “climax of civilization.”
All the people to whom Carol is drawn are outsiders in the community. Except for the resigned Guy Pollock, they all leave, disappointed and frustrated, or else die. Village atheist and political radical Miles Bjornstrom leaves after his wife and child die of typhoid. Before her death, his wife, Bea, formerly Carol’s maid, is Carol’s only confidante in Gopher Prairie. The young, idealistic teacher Fern Mullins is cruelly driven out of town by Mrs. Bogart, the hypocritical watchdog of Puritan morality, and her son Cy Bogart, the village bully. Erik Valborg, an artistically minded eccentric with whom Carol almost engages in a love affair, leaves because of gossip. Those who always triumph are the Bogarts and Stowbodys; they succeed in slowly killing all of Carol’s romantic ambitions.
When Carol arrives in Gopher Prairie, she is determined to bring about changes for the better. Much of the novel is about her frustrated reform efforts. Again and again she tries to initiate new and fresh ideas and plans, but all of them fail because of the all-pervasive spiritual emptiness of Gopher Prairie. People there are not interested in poetry, theater, or intellectual discussions. Will Kennicott proves to be the gentle husband through all of his wife’s efforts and failures. Though he does not understand Carol’s frustration, he not only stands by her but also tries to help in every way he can.
Carol leaves Gopher Prairie with their son just as the war is ending. Will is there to wave good-bye as the train taking her to Washington, D.C., pulls out of the station. In the nation’s capital, Carol is on her own; she tries to find her identity, tries to become a whole person, not simply a wife. She succeeds and enjoys the opportunity of a new life in which she can be active and in which she can use her brain once again, as she did in her girlhood, but she learns something else too: The radical changes in the behavior and attitudes of the young girls around her shock her as much as her behavior once had shocked a sleepy Gopher Prairie. In the end, she returns with Will to their home and settles down in Gopher Prairie, this time permanently. She still has dreams for her baby girl and likes to picture her as a future feminist or scientist; to the end, Carol remains a dreamer rather than a doer.
The last word in the novel belongs to the pragmatic Will Kennicott. He is Lewis’s real favorite—the simple country doctor who performs acts of quiet heroism and worries about matters such as putting up storm windows. Lewis is unquestionably drawn to this stable, dependable, and reliable man, representing in his view the best of middle-class America. Lewis only halfheartedly endorses Carol’s romantic attempts at beautifying Gopher Prairie because he himself was of divided mind whom to prefer: the artistically minded Carol or the always commonsensical though unsophisticated Will. If the cigarette-smoking modern young girls of the 1920’s shocked Carol, Lewis, too, was unable to catch up with new trends. In this sense, Main Street, a novel about the village virus, is also an autobiography of Sinclair Lewis’s spiritual development or, rather, spiritual stagnation.
The year 1921 was highlighted by an outburst of favorable and unfavorable reactions to this novel. First, there emerged a series of Main Street literature, attacking, burlesquing, and imitating the original, among them Carolyn Wells’s Ptomaine Street, Meredith Nicholson’s Let Main Street Alone, and Donald Ogden Stewart’s A Parody Outline of History. At the same time, dramatized by Harving O’Higgins and Harrier Ford, Main Street was performed at New York’s National Theater.
Even before he finished Main Street, Lewis had started work on Babbitt, a novel about a land speculator. From Main Street, U.S.A., “the climax of civilization,” the novelist moved to an imaginary city in the Middle West, satirically named Zenith, symbolizing the average U.S. city and its status-symbol-oriented population. Set in the boom decade of the 1920’s, the novel concentrates on the new national disease, which came to be called “Babbittry,” after the book’s protagonist. Webster’s dictionary would define a Babbitt as “a seemingly self-satisfied businessman who readily conforms to the norms and ideas of middle-class society.” The term “seemingly” is important; it indicates that even in this realistic, satirical presentation of middle-class America and its business culture, Lewis’s romantic side is present; it finds outlet in Babbitt’s dissatisfaction with his life. Predominantly, though, the almost photographic portrayal of Zenith prevails. While President Warren G. Harding was hoping to plant a Rotary Club in every city and village in the country to ensure the propagation of American ideals, Lewis was provoking the anger of those very Rotary Clubs by holding up a mirror to their Tartuffe-like hypocrisy and their materialistic culture.
Just as Main Street killed the friendly village novel by concentrating on the village virus, so Babbitt undercut the traditional business novel. With Babbitt, Lewis demonstrated that the era of the independent, creative tycoon was over. The tycoon gave way to the joiner, the conformist relying on status symbols and good public relations rather than daring and creative initiative. Babbitt, positively no giant, is almost a pathetic figure in his desperate need for approval. Far from being a tycoon, he lacks any individual ideas. He is a Booster, an Elk, a Presbyterian, a member of the chamber of commerce, a family man—nothing more. Senators of the Republican Party prescribe his political beliefs; national advertisers dictate his preferences in consumer goods. Without all these accessories, he is nobody; Babbitt is spiritually empty. Although he relies on the sham values that make him a “solid citizen,” he becomes a pitiful victim of mechanical gadgets; his identity depends on having a car, the most technologically advanced alarm clock, and a royal bathroom.
Lewis worked very hard on this novel, which some critics consider his best. He prepared detailed maps of Zenith, plans of the decoration and furniture of Babbitt’s house. The mimicry of language is superb, culminating in Babbitt’s famous address at the meeting of the Zenith Real Estate Board. In his speech, Babbitt pours scorn on moth-eaten, old-fashioned Europe and glorifies the city of Success, known “wherever condensed milk and paste-board cartons are known.” The pitiful, empty world of Zenith is presented in loosely connected episodes, the sequence of which could almost be changed, and that are held together only by the presence of Babbitt. These episodes take the reader through the most important aspects of middle-class life: politics, leisure, clubs, class, labor, religion, and family.
This apparent contentment, however, is one side of the novel; Babbitt is only “seemingly” satisfied. In reality, this prosperous real estate agent passionately desires something more and different from mere material success. This desire leads to his unsuccessful, vague, romantic rebellion against the Zenith world. Closely linked to his desire for escape is his longstanding friendship with Paul Riesling. Paul is one of those lonely, out-of-the-ordinary characters who emerge in all Lewis novels— creative, individualistic, nonconformist. With Paul, Babbitt escapes to Maine, but the escape does not help; his frustration remains.
Amid this frustration, crisis enters Babbitt’s life. Paul is condemned to three years in prison for shooting his wife in what is described as temporary insanity. Without Paul, life seems impossible for Babbitt to bear; he tries to leave Zenith again but very soon returns. Zenith is the only thing in the world he knows; without it he is empty, a nobody. Like Lewis, who could never get rid of Sauk Centre, Babbitt takes Zenith with him wherever he goes. For a while, he tries to outrage Zenith society by drinking heavily and by associating with the wrong people—with the adventuress Tanis Judique and her bohemian friends, called the Bunch. At the same time, Vergil Gunch, one of the exemplary solid citizens, is organizing the Good Citizens’ League. Babbitt shocks all his former friends and associates by defying Vergil’s request to join their antilabor vigilante organization.
In Main Street, Lewis made Carol Kennicott return to Gopher Prairie. In a similar spirit of compromise, he finds a convenient way for Babbitt to give up his empty rebellion. His wife, Myra, has to undergo emergency surgery; her hospitalization pulls Babbitt back to his duties as a solid citizen. To seal his return to normalcy, he joins the Good Citizens’ League. At the end of the novel, he is taken by surprise by his younger son; Ted drops out of school and elopes. In a private, man-to-man talk with his son, Babbitt acknowledges that he admires him for doing what he wants. He, Babbitt, never did that in all his life. In Main Street, Carol Kennicott’s rebellion dwindles to romantic dreams for her daughter; all that remains of Babbitt’s rebellion is his pleasure in his son’s defiance and an encouragement not to let himself be bullied by Zenith. At the moment, however, Ted does not hold out much promise; rather than going to college he wants to be a mechanic at a factory.
Although Babbitt outraged certain sectors of the business community, the novel became an international success. Europeans loved it even more than Main Street. They enjoyed seeing the United States portrayed as they believed it was: materialistic, vulgar, standardized, and hopelessly without culture. They enjoyed the language; the British edition even added a glossary of 125 “American” terms. It is interesting to note that even while the novel was being angrily attacked, a number of midwestern cities claimed to have been the model for Zenith. Without offering any cure, simply by diagnosing and photographically reproducing symptoms of a national phenomenon, Lewis promoted self-awareness among his many readers.
Critics who wondered whether Lewis himself was Babbitt, lacking all spiritual ideals, were surprised by Arrowsmith, which featured an idealistic hero with spiritual values. In 1922, while gathering material in Chicago for a labor novel, Lewis met Paul de Kruif, a University of Michigan teacher of bacteriology experienced in immunology research. They became friends, and Lewis changed his plans; assisted by Paul de Kruif’s expertise, he decided to write a novel on the medical profession. Lewis had some personal experience on which to draw; his father, his brother Claude, an uncle, and a grandfather were doctors. He needed help, however, in the field of scientific research; that is what de Kruif provided. Because a plague in the West Indies was to be an important part of the novel, they took a tour in the Caribbean together. De Kruif stayed with Lewis in England while he was working on Arrowsmith, a wellresearched novel and his best-plotted one.
Arrowsmith was an instant success, being the first American novel about a medical researcher. The central character, Martin Arrowsmith, is a real hero with a purpose: He is wholly dedicated to pure science. The plot develops around the dramatic conflict between Martin, a few others of the same mind, and a society based on profit. Arrowsmith, Gottlieb, Sondelius, and Terry Wickett are akin to earlier idealists in Lewis’s fiction, to Eric Valborg in Main Street and Paul Riesling in Babbitt, but there is a significant difference. Eric and Paul are lonely figures; Martin and his associates are not alone and they do not give up; they put up a fight against the commercial standards of a society that does not understand their ideals.
Martin Arrowsmith is introduced on the first page of the novel as a fourteen-yearold boy sitting in a country doctor’s office. From his hometown of Elk Mills, the hero moves on to college to pursue his dreams; he regards himself as a “seeker of truth.” At the University of Winnemac, young Martin associates with two kinds of people who symbolize the opposing forces of material versus purely scientific values. On one hand, there are the people involved in fraternity life; on the other, there is the German-born biologist, Max Gottlieb, modeled on Jacques Loeb, who allows Martin to work in his lab. Two events disrupt the smooth course of young Martin’s drive to achieve his goal. First, he meets a nurse, Leora Tozer, and they fall in love; then, an irritable Gottlieb dismisses him from the laboratory. Martin and Leora marry, and, after an internship in Zenith General Hospital, they settle down in Wheatsylvania, North Dakota, responding to pressure from Leora’s family.
As a country practitioner, Martin finds himself in a situation well known to Lewis. The young idealist who hopes to become another Robert Koch is increasingly in the position of a businessman in rivalry with other country doctors. At the same time, Martin’s idol Gottlieb is undergoing a similar experience. After his defeat at Winnemac, he is faced with a new crisis in Pittsburgh when he refuses the request of a large pharmaceutical firm to have his antitoxin patented. Finally, a frustrated Martin escapes to Nautilus, Iowa, another Zenith, and then to the Rouncefield Clinic in Chicago. One of his articles catches the attention of Gottlieb, now associated with the McGurk Institute of Biology in New York, and the two are reunited. Martin even finds a new kindred spirit in Terry Wickett. Life at the Rouncefield Clinic and then at the McGurk Institute provides ample occasion for Lewis to describe the internal rivalry in such institutions, the pressures from outside and the search for power and fame.
When a severe plague erupts in the West Indies, Martin’s recent discovery catches the attention of the outside world; this is the most dramatic part of the novel. Gottlieb’s approach is not philanthropic but scientific. He wants Martin to use the antitoxin only with half of the patients so that its true value can be tested, but on the islands Martin is faced with real people. His faithful assistant Sondelius dies, and so does Leora. He initially intends to be a scientist and not a sentimentalist, but in the end he gives in, hoping to save more lives. On his return to New York, he finds changes at the institute; Gottlieb is pensioned, and the new director is all for “practicalness.” The frustrated Martin marries a wealthy socialite, Joyce Lanyon, and they have a baby; however, Martin and his friend Terry find themselves out of place in the institute under the new direction, and Martin does not find in Joyce the companion he had in Leora. The two friends escape to Vermont to fish and to pursue their drive for pure science. While commercial society in Washington and elsewhere continues in its Babbitt-Zenith ways, Martin and Terry discuss quinine research in their boat.
The conclusion is rather romantic, sentimental, and unsatisfactory, but despite this flaw and some misgivings on the part of the medical community, Arrowsmith was universally acclaimed. Even the Pulitzer Prize, so far denied Lewis, was his, but he refused to accept it at that time. The retreat to Vermont in Arrowsmith was no real solution to the dilemma, but once again Lewis had presented, and called attention to, a genuine problem in American society. Arrowsmith celebrates an unwillingness to compromise and a dedication to ideals, which give this novel a heroic dimension missing in all other Lewis novels.
Lewis dedicated Elmer Gantry “with profound admiration” to Mencken, and rightly so, because in this novel the romantic side of the novelist is overshadowed by a brutal, iconoclastic, almost fanatical satire. From his idealistic excursion in Arrowsmith, Lewis returned to his former mood, except that this time he created in the central character a complete villain. Elmer Gantry is the American Tartuffe. The reader can feel compassion for Carol Kennicott and pity toward Babbitt, but there is absolutely no saving grace for Elmer Gantry, the fundamentalist preacher in Lewis’s novel.
Elmer Gantry was probably Lewis’s most thoroughly researched novel. In 1922, a preacher named William Stidger suggested to Lewis that he write a novel on the subject of religion. In the anti-Puritan 1920’s, religious life was in disarray in America. When Lewis finally decided to write a novel on the topic, he went to Kansas City in search of Stidger, living there for a considerable time in order to prepare material for Elmer Gantry. In Kansas City, he visited churches, preached himself, and investigated and worked with a group of fifteen clergymen of various denominations in what he called “Sinclair Lewis’s Sunday Work Class.” There were tragic events in his own life while he was working on the novel: His father died, his marriage with Grace broke up, and he was literally drunk when writing the final pages in New York.
The most obvious characteristic of the novel is its brutality; there is no trace of that sympathy that mitigated the dark picture in Main Street or Babbitt; there is no trace of a love/hate relationship with Elmer Gantry. Neither he nor the novel’s other major characters have many redeeming qualities. The novel, indeed, is an uncompromising indictment of American religious practices in the early century. This most devastating of Lewis’s satires is similar to Babbitt in that it is loosely structured and episodic. Its three main parts concern Elmer Gantry’s involvement with three different women. In no other Lewis novel is the sexual element as important as in this one; it is Gantry’s sexual desire that threatens his rise in religious circles.
The young Elmer Gantry attends a Baptist college and is ordained a minister. As soon as he receives his first pulpit, he becomes sexually involved with a young girl. He gets rid of Lulu by casting doubt on her character, revealing the depths of falsehood and villainy of which he is capable. In the second phase of his religious career, he becomes an evangelist, the partner (religious and sexual) of the female evangelist Sharon Falcon. They are two of a kind who never consider “their converts as human beings”; they regard them as a surgeon regards his patients or as a fisherman regards trout. Sharon dies in a fire, and Elmer Gantry’s adventures take him to the Methodist denomination. There, he rises quickly and is promoted to pastorates in larger and larger communities. He is made a doctor of divinity, marries, becomes the first preacher whose sermons are broadcast, and tours Europe. Suddenly his fame and position are almost destroyed by a new love affair. Hettie and her convict husband try to outwit Gantry; they set a trap for him. For a short time he is frightened, but influential and clever friends come to his rescue, and he bounces back. At the end of the novel, he is leading his congregation in prayer, determined “to make these United States a moral nation.” Like all true hypocrites, Gantry convinces himself of his sincerity.
Understandably, the novel outraged members of churches all over the United States. Some clergy even called Lewis “Satan’s cohort,” but the book sold 175,000 copies in fewer than six weeks, and an Academy Award-winning motion picture was made of the novel in 1960.
With Dodsworth, Lewis returned to Zenith. At the beginning of the novel, Sam Dodsworth, a successful businessman in his forties, undergoes a crisis similar to Babbitt’s, but there the similarities end. Sam, a Yale graduate, is much better educated than Babbitt and is receptive to the arts. A self-made man, he builds his own company, but, following the prevailing trend in America, his small business is bought by a conglomerate. This causes the active, enterprising Sam to believe himself to be a useless part of a big bureaucratic machine and provides an opportunity for his snobbish wife, Fran, to persuade him to go with her on a long European tour. This trip takes up the major part of the novel, which is a rather shallow treatment of Henry James’s “international theme.”
Sam Dodsworth does not know how to spend his wealth or his leisure time meaningfully; also, he is painfully gauche. In spite of these flaws, the author’s sympathies are with him. Sam is trying hard to please his empty-headed wife. In her utter stupidity, Fran tries to imitate the worst symptoms of the decaying European aristocracy. At the end, she takes a lover and proposes divorce to Sam in hope of an exciting marriage. These plans fail, and Sam is there to rescue her, but their marriage cannot be saved. Lewis condemns the superficiality of European high society, but he is far from criticizing European culture; his satire is concentrated on Fran. Finally, Sam finds an understanding companion in a widow, Edith Cortright, who appreciates his honesty and integrity, likes him for what he is, and does not want to change him into something else. At the end of the novel, they are in Paris discussing marriage, but they are planning to return to the United States, where they know they belong.
Significantly, Lewis always turned back to the middle class for his subject matter. In It Can’t Happen Here, inspired by Dorothy Thompson’s antifascist stand, Lewis exposed the danger inherent in right-wing extremism in the United States; however, at the end of the 1930’s, when the new left-wing writers hoped to see him write a proletarian novel, the essentially middle-class Lewis could not accommodate them.
During the long and painful years of his decline, Lewis tried to continue to focus on issues of importance—the career woman (Ann Vickers); organized philanthropy (Gideon Planish); American marriage (Cass Timberlane). American life was changing too rapidly for Lewis, however; he was never able to catch up with the changes. He did hit upon an important theme in Kingsblood Royal, but by that time his greatest ability—to re-create the world around him in photographic detail—seemed to have abandoned him.
Lewis’s aesthetic shortcomings are obvious, but so are his merits. A writer of international reputation, he made American literature acceptable in Europe, becoming the first American winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. His Main Street was one of the most sensational successes in U.S. publishing history. His biographer, Mark Schorer, describes him as a major force in the liberating of twentieth century American literature. Yet, by the turn of the twenty-first century, he was virtually ignored by critics. A well-balanced, objective evaluation of this controversial novelist is long overdue; the necessary distance in time should soon make it possible.
Long fiction: Our Mr. Wrenn: The Romantic Adventures of a Gentle Man, 1914; The Trail of the Hawk: A Comedy of the Seriousness of Life, 1915; The Innocents: A Story for Lovers, 1917; The Job: An American Novel, 1917; Free Air, 1919; Main Street: The Story of Carol Kennicott, 1920; Babbitt, 1922; Arrowsmith, 1925; Mantrap, 1926; Elmer Gantry, 1927; The Man Who Knew Coolidge: Being the Soul of Lowell Schmaltz, Constructive and Nordic Citizen, 1928; Dodsworth, 1929; Ann Vickers, 1933; Work of Art, 1934; It Can’t Happen Here, 1935; The Prodigal Parents, 1938; Bethel Merriday, 1940; Gideon Planish, 1943; Cass Timberlane: A Novel of Husbands and Wives, 1945; Kingsblood Royal, 1947; The God-Seeker, 1949; World So Wide, 1951.
Short fiction: Selected Short Stories of Sinclair Lewis, 1935. play: Jayhawker: A Play in Three Acts, pr. 1934 (with Lloyd Lewis).
Nonfiction: From Main Street to Stockholm: Letters of Sinclair Lewis, 1919-1930, 1952 (Harrison Smith, editor); The Man from Main Street: Selected Essays and Other Writings, 1904-1950, 1953 (Harry E. Maule and Melville H. Crane, editors); Minnesota Diary, 1942-1946, 2000 (George Killough, editor).
Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.