Sinclair Lewis and American Democracy. Steven Michels. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017.
In his 1922 travelogue What I Saw in America, G.K. Chesterton comments briefly on the most popular book of the day, Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street. Chesterton finds it ironic that denizens of Main Streets all over America were reading and praising Lewis’s relentless attack on the mediocrity and stultifying social conformity that define his fictional Gopher Prairie. Chesterton does not share Lewis’s pessimism about small-town America. “The men may be provincials, but they are certainly citizens; they consult on a common basis. . . . [I]n this, after all, they do achieve what many prophets and righteous men have died to achieve. This plain village, fairly prosperous, fairly equal, untaxed by tyrants and untroubled by wars, is after all the place which reformers have regarded as their aim. . . . And the latest modern sensation is a book written to show how wretched it is to live there.”[i]
While some readers might share Chesterton’s dim view of Lewis’s churlishness and ingratitude, Steven Michels, professor of political science at Sacred Heart University, sets out to redeem Lewis by surveying his corpus in search of a positive political vision that might enlighten, rather than merely chasten, American democracy. Michels does so, rather remarkably, by analyzing all twenty-three of Lewis’s published novels in nine chapters organized by theme—included are helpful reflections on individual purpose, business, politics, religion, family, gender equality, urban versus rural life, race, and America versus Europe. The chapters share a basic format, each including a brief introductory framework defined by a few major thinkers in the history of political thought, followed by an exegesis of a handful of novels that serve to situate Lewis within this framework. Some of the lesser known novels appear in only one chapter. More well-known works, such as Arrowsmith and Main Street, are treated in multiple chapters; Babbitt appears in four. What emerges from Michels’s analysis is a Lewis deeply ambivalent about American democracy. On one hand, Lewis admires, and even loves, the American ideals of freedom and equality of opportunity. On the other hand, he deplores the fact that his fellow Americans use their freedom to pursue such meagre ends, and that equality, to the extent that it exists in practice, tends to manifest itself only in a self-satisfied and bland conformism.
Michels goes to some length to prove that Lewis’s is a unique voice, “in that it combines a full range of ancient, modern, and even post-modern perspectives” (xv). Indeed, Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Jefferson, Rousseau, Hegel, Tocqueville, Nietzsche, and Croly are all employed to suggest an almost kaleidoscopic variety in Lewis’s thought. Moreover, Michels portrays Lewis as something of an ideological moderate, suspicious of radicalism in all its guises and cynical about any program of ideological purity. Whatever their merits, these claims obscure the fact that Michels’s Lewis is, in truth, not particularly difficult to categorize. He is in many ways a conventional progressive, though one inspired by an almost Nietzschean ideal of individual freedom.
Lewis’s rather conventional progressivism is evident throughout the book. Like progressives such as Herbert Croly, he rues that fact that the once-heroic spirit of pioneer individualism has decayed into a shallow materialism and narrow selfishness. Small towns like Gopher Prairie are stagnant, backward, and poorly planned (122), while larger cities such as Babbitt’s Zenith are subject to the rule of a self-interested and status-obsessed elite. America’s democratic institutions no longer seem capable of operating for the public good or for the exercise of civic virtue (40); they are instead manipulated to serve the private advantage of the few. Again like Croly, Lewis’s solution to these problems is not a proletarian revolution, but the rational and scientific “rule of elite technocrats” (36). In order to deliver on the promise of democracy, power should be shifted to a more enlightened and managerial class of experts. As seen most clearly in Arrowsmith, Lewis has great faith in the methods and power of science. While he may be most interested in a life of science as a path to individual enlightenment, Lewis is much closer to Bacon than to Rousseau “in seeing science and progress as a great benefit to humankind” (18).
We also see in Michels’s Lewis the progressive reliance on History as a force which invalidates outmoded governing principles and objective standards of right lodged in either revelation or reason. In the chapter on religion, Lewis is shown to share the views of “John Stuart Mill, an atheist, [who] recognizes the benefits a common moral code has meant for civilization, even though he sees it as less and less necessary” (58). In another chapter, a connection to Edmund Burke is made for no other reason than to point out that they share an uneasiness about the status of natural rights. “He [Lewis] would agree with Burke’s rejection of abstract notion of rights, which are not grounded enough to serve as a guide. To call something ‘natural’ is not evidence of its moral or political value” (153). The appeal to Burke is especially curious given that Michels quickly points out that “Lewis would tell Burke that he’s making too much of this tradition business. That something is old might tell us something about when it started, but it offers little in terms of what we should value or how we should live” (153). The major progressive thinkers of Lewis’s day are also suspicious of natural rights, and, unlike Burke, have precious little attraction to “this tradition business.”
Where Lewis might break from a progressive like Herbert Croly, however, is on being unwilling to sacrifice the autonomy of individuals to the collective or national will. For Lewis, the greatest promise of American life lies in the opportunity it affords for an almost Nietzschean project of individual self-creation. His most heroic protagonists, such as Martin Arrowsmith or Ann Vickers, are able to transcend the standards of democratic conformity, pursue their own forms of excellence, and stand on their own. This argument is made most explicitly in the chapter on family life, but in truth it runs throughout the book. Obligations to work, family, and community usually serve to encumber individuals “in a way that expects conformity and encourages dullness” (92). Despite the book’s many references to Tocqueville on majority tyranny, this is a much more Nietzschean strain of thought, as the only relationships that seem worth cultivating are those with adventurous friends who would allow you to be yourself (78-9,82).
In the end, these two main currents of Lewis’s thought—democratic progressivism and Nietzschean individualism—exist in some tension with each other, although we can surely see versions of this synthesis in other thinkers of the era, such as John Dewey. To a great extent, this tension explains Lewis’s deep ambivalence about America. He hoped that a democratic progressivism might make available to all the opportunity for greatness and self-creation. So many of his novels, however, chronicle the ways in which most democratic citizens fall short of this ideal most of the time. The reader suspects that Michels would have Lewis resolve the tension by forgoing the democratic elements of the synthesis. Lewis is described as “democratic in a way that Plato and Nietzsche would find confusing. For all of his attention to its blemishes, Lewis remained a resolute champion of American hopes and ideals—which was the cause of his profound frustration” (164-5).
In writing Sinclair Lewis and American Democracy, Michels has performed a valuable service for two groups of readers. First, students and admirers of Lewis will find the book extremely helpful as a guide to how Lewis’s lesser known works relate to those more commonly read. It is an impressive feat indeed to integrate all twenty-three of Lewis’s novels into the book. The chapter themes are also well chosen to give these readers a synoptic vision of Lewis’s political thought. Second, the book will be of great use for those looking to integrate Lewis into their study of literature and political thought. The text is filled with interesting and suggestive connections between Lewis and the major thinkers in the history of political thought. Many of these connections are worth exploring in more detail and could inspire more work on Lewis. Michels begins his book with the hope that through a study of Lewis we might come “to a fuller understanding of the human condition and become better citizens and better people” (xv). This might well be; at a minimum we might hope to be less wretched than everybody else on Main Street.
[i] G.K. Chesterton, What I Saw in America, collected works, vol. XXI (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 105.
An excerpt of the book is available here.