Sinclair Lewis and American Democracy

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Sinclair Lewis had an ambivalent relationship with America. His Midwestern upbringing perfectly situated him to understand the American experiment, but he found it wanting in many ways. His take on the United States was captured during a 1930 radio interview he gave while in Berlin: “Intellectually I know that America is no better than any other country; emotionally I know she is better than every other country.”[i]

Lewis, we might note, is one of three American authors, along with Hemingway and Faulkner, to appear on the cover of Time twice. These days, there is considerable disagreement about what to make of Lewis and even whether he is worth reading at all. Part of the reason for his low repute lies with Lewis himself, who alternately cared for the quality and the quantity of what he committed to paper. Too much of what we wrote, especially his articles and short stories but also some of his novels, was written for pay or to meet what he perceived was the unquenchable public demand for his writing. He penned several classic novels, but unfortunately they comprise a fraction of his total output.

There is also Mark Schorer’s 1961 biography, which did little to advance Lewis’s reputation as a writer and as a person. It’s generally recognized as deficient, primarily because it’s so thoroughly tainted by its author’s distaste for his subject. Schorer paints the picture of a once-popular but failed and even tragic writer who also happens to be a drunken jerk. Schorer concludes that Lewis is “one of the worst writers.”[ii] Worse still, was Schorer’s misreading of Lewis’s message: “he had no values of his own (not even Mencken’s vague Nietzscheanism) except those of the middle-class that both were lampooning.”[iii] In substance and style, there is little in Lewis worth preserving, Schorer concludes, and if Lewis made a contribution to American literature it was the reaction his books elicited, not the books themselves. Sounding like a character from one of Lewis’s novels, Schorer would later admit that he wrote a book on someone he so thoroughly disliked simply for the money.[iv] The more recent biography, from Richard Lingeman, offers a fairer and more considered view of Lewis, the man and the author.

Lewis, as Schorer’s hit-piece shows, is the recipient of more than his fair share of unfair assessments. Lewis’s shotgun style-earned him many strong reactions, which included politicians, businessmen of nearly every stripe, anyone who ever lived in a small town, the faithful, artists who ever cared about money, and countless others. It’s safe to say that Lewis went after almost everyone—including himself.

A more important debate surrounds Lewis’s aim and vision. Lundquist focuses on Lewis’s romanticism and attempts at moralism but also sees Lewis as “a master of the popular novel,”[v] a circle that is difficult to square, given the breadth of Lewis’s targets. In his original review of Arrowsmith, T. K. Whipple argues that Lewis was a romantic and identifies two separate strains of romanticism in Lewis’s writing—one elitist and another that speaks to the common man. Similarly, Gore Vidal claims Lewis was a romantic, pointing to his early love of poetry and some of the characters in his early writings, which were filled not with self-interested real estate men and dullards on the prairie, but chivalrous knights and fair maidens.[vi] Similarly, Martin Light claims “the backward pull of romance was strong” in Lewis and attributes to him a “Quixotic vision,” the analytical lens he uses to examine Lewis’s writing.[vii] Light approvingly quotes the preface Lewis wrote to his 1937 collection of short stories, when he calls himself a “romantic medievalist of the most incurable sort”—a quote that is taken out of context and rather misleading.[viii] Even so, Light presents Samuel Dodsworth as Lewis’s most important protagonist since he is the one who comes the closest to resolving the romantic tension Light identifies.

Others emphasize Lewis’s realism, of which there is plenty. Mencken views Lewis as a thoroughgoing realist. As Mencken wrote in his review of Babbitt: “I know of no American novel that more accurately presents the real America. It is a social document of a high order.”[ix] For him, the novel is “fiction only by a sort of courtesy.”[x] The same could be said for nearly all of Lewis’s writings; certainly, that could be said of them taken as a whole. John T. Flanagan sees Main Street as the culmination of Lewis’s inevitable “evolution into a realist.”[xi] And as George Killough writes in his introduction to Main Street, “As a realist story, it refuses to stay at the simple level with good guys on one side and bad guys on the other, or with grinding social and economic forces on one side and helpless victims on the other.”[xii]

Others attempt a more mixed view. James Lundquist argues that Lewis went back and forth between realism and romanticism. Lundquist sees Lewis’s novels as “alternately positive or negative to the point of extravagance.”[xiii] Lundquist sees Cass Timberlane as Lewis’s most realized hero, for his combination of eastern education and frontier spirit. Lingeman more thoughtfully identifies both strains.

There is also some question about the extent to which Lewis has a positive thought. Is he just a satirist? Or does his satire come from a place of firm conviction? And if there is more to him than mere satire, is it deliberate and consistent to the point of being valuable? Grebstein’s thesis is that there are “two Sinclair Lewises”; one is a realist and satirist and the other is a romantic yea-sayer. The result is an author “at war with himself.”[xiv] James Hutchisson sees Lewis as a craftsman of satire with a knack for writing popular books, but little more.[xv] In The Rise of Sinclair Lewis, Hutchisson focuses almost exclusively on Lewis’s amazing decade of the 1920s, when he assumed notoriety and wrote five landmark novels.[xvi]

Lewis was particularly vulnerable to Hutchisson’s charge after the success of Main Street and Babbitt, once his voice and popularity were established. But after Babbitt, Lewis told Alfred Harcourt, his publisher and friend, that his next book would not be satirical. It would be “rebellious as ever,” he wrote, “but the central character heroic.”[xvii] The result was Arrowsmith, which has a research scientist as its protagonist. Dooley considers that novel in light of the charge Lewis faced after the publication of Babbitt, namely that he was merely a satirist with no positive message to offer. To the extent that Arrowsmith is that response, however, Dooley argues that Lewis fails. On the one hand, it’s an attack on the barriers to science and progress, he claims, but it’s also a retreat from modernity and maturity. Dooley ranks Arrowsmith high in the Lewis canon but claims that it fails to “give a satisfactory exposition of values.”[xviii] Although I agree that Arrowsmith is Lewis’s most important novel, I disagree with Dooley’s assessment of it. Not only is Lewis successful in his aim, but Arrowsmith offers the fullest and most complete articulation of Lewis’s position as a rationalist and humanist, which is evident in some degree in all of his writings. It’s true that Main Street is where Lewis first asserted his intellectual independence, but Arrowsmith is the height of his positive teaching.

Lewis’s rationalism is the foundation on which he based his satire. Indeed, Lewis’s thoroughgoing rationalism (and the skepticism that goes with it) made him consider all perspectives equally and evaluate the extent to which they shed light on a topic or brought any truth to bare for how we ought to live. Each book serves as a piece of a bigger whole, which explains why it’s so easy for casual readers to overlook his intent. It also explains why some books are more satisfying and successful than others: each has its own purpose and is part of a greater whole.

To the extent that Lewis’s writings consider big questions and capture something universal about human nature and the political world, Lewis’s novels rise to the level of philosophy. In Democracy’s Literature: Politics and Fiction in America, Patrick J. Deneen and Joseph Romance contend that American literature is political in that it is neither overtly partisan nor overly engaged in the political controversies of his day. Lewis fits their model. He is political in the more expansive and more meaningful sense of the term. And like other American philosophers, he sees the novel as the most appropriate means to search for truth. As Deneen and Romance write, “A democratic philosophy…is drawn to the literary form.”[xix] Without a clear set of answers, Lewis provides a range of often-inconsistent perspectives, which more accurately and fully captured his thoughts on any given topic or situation. Taken as a whole they offer powerful lessons about American political and social life.

Life and Literature

Once we establish that Lewis is more than just a snarky critic, we have to resolve the greater question of how novels fit within the scheme of political theory and social science, more generally. If there is a hierarchy, literary fiction might rank rather highly on it. “[A] contemporary novelist with a reasonable degree of competence tells us much more about modern society than volumes of social science analysis,” Leo Strauss remarked. “I don’t question that social science analyses are important, but still, if you want to get a broad view and a deep view you read a novel rather than social science.”[xx] If the common charge against political science is its obsession with method, long-form fiction has more in common with the normative theory and its openness to big questions and the question of the just and good life. Lewis has more in common with Aristotle and Tocqueville than Aristotle and Tocqueville have in common with the American Political Science Review, to put it mildly.

Fiction can sometimes be more problematic in terms of discerning their meaning, but they also are in many ways superior to other forms of political communication, for example the treatise or the essay. As Gideon Rachman puts it, “[f]iction is a route to political truth.”[xxi] In her study of the role of natural right in American literature, Catherine Zuckert observes how little attention is paid to the political import of novels. “Because these novels are works of political thought…they are also political acts of an important kind,” she asserts.[xxii] In that sense, Lewis is a political actor par excellence. In these days of polarization and antagonism, fiction might be the best if not the only way out. Some research has suggested that people who read literature are more inclined toward empathy.[xxiii]

Even if we recognize fiction as a serious or even superior form of political discourse, we must also admit that not all literature is created equal. Consider the most popular literature from the past decade and a half—The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and Twilight. These books, and the movie versions of them, have dominated popular culture without contributing much to our understanding of the good life or the demands of justice. J. K. Rowling has made over a billion dollars with her pulp wizardry, but Harry Potter’s battle against cartoonish villainy has nothing on Holden Caulfield’s struggle against phonies or the Underground Man’s struggle with everything.

As a guide to living, a great deal of what today passes for fiction is simply bankrupt. Their visions of political dystopias and the supernatural say little or nothing about the challenges faced by citizens in a modern democracy. The biggest dilemma from any of these series seemed to be the question of whether we should direct our romantic attention toward vampires or werewolves. The moral demands made on the audience are easily met and therefore they are easily dismissed. This is especially troubling since the readership for the young adult genre seems to be extending to the class and age group that in earlier eras would have been reading authors like Jane Austen, Mark Twain, and Willa Cather.[xxiv] To be clear, the problem is not that such books are enjoyed; it’s when they are read exclusively or replace more demanding books.

Lewis is no easy moralist. His talent lies in presenting the great institutions and most common habits of modern life as moral problems to be faced or solved. The overarching moral of his work is that much of modern life is amoral and rather base. For example, economic development and progress is good, but how much is too much? At what point is success self-defeating? The family is the source of deep love, but it can also be stifling. How can we give of ourselves without losing ourselves? Then there is the choice of where to live. Do we choose a common small town community or an interesting but isolated city? How deliberate are these choices? Do we make them intentionally and affirmatively, or do we, for example, just move through life instinctively and casually, dying where we are born without much effort? Lewis’s characters so often find themselves in unpleasant circumstances because their choices are not supported by either courage or conviction. Life is no easy matter, especially if it’s lived well and with purpose.

Grebstein blames Lewis’s lack of interest in style as a reason for the lack of attention he has received.[xxv] He blames Lewis for not receiving the attention he is due. Lewis was part satirist, part storyteller, Grebstein claims, but his themes were rather superficial and only occasionally did he plumb the depths of human nature or moral issues. He didn’t care enough about literary style and it cost him. But his lack of literary flair is also a great virtue. The dramatic tension in his novels is presented not as some clever contrivance, but mostly between or among characters and the choices they have made. Sometimes it appears in the way of old versus new or between generations, but more often it’s through Lewis’s examination of one person and how he or she achieves and maintains his or her status and the benefits and the costs of doing so. If his stories are sometimes devoid of plot, it’s because they follow too closely the trajectory of most people’s lives, which consist primarily of their interpersonal relations and some of kind job they do to pay the bills. Drama is usually small private things that they do or are done to them, not great things that they accomplish. By foregoing stylistic novelties and tricks, Lewis’s books have remained more, not less, relevant.

Lewis wrote at a time when America was more potential than promise. The country was at a crossroads because it was so undetermined. It had not assumed its place as a global power, nor did such a feat seem likely or even possible. If, as some have claimed, America has lost its purpose or its place, it will be exceptional writers from that era to whom we might look to recalibrate our trajectory and redirect our efforts.

The Scope and Aim of This Book

To discover what Lewis might contribute to modern democratic life, I have grouped his novels into thematic chapters based on their main theme or themes, rather than dividing each novel into each of its themes, many of which are recurring. Each of the nine chapters covers a few or several novels for summary and analysis. The aim is to give a fuller account of each theme without doing any violence to the novels by slicing them up into their constituent parts. Chapters also include comparisons to other relevant short stories and essays, commentary from Lewis’s published letters and notes, and selected secondary literature.

I have also identified for each chapter and theme several key political theorists to frame the discussion. There will of course be regular references to Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton, the thinkers most responsible for founding the American polity. Others include Alexis de Tocqueville, modern democracy’s most astute observer; Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a great champion of freedom and equality who flirts with the opposite; and Aristotle, who understands the demands and the purpose of political life more fully than anyone. My goal is not to describe at length the totality of their teaching, but to place Lewis in the more general history of political philosophy. My reading of these thinkers is not unconventional, but I have included some references to the secondary literature on them as a guide to relevant debates and further reading.

The focus will be on Lewis’s novels, but some of them will be treated at greater length. There is a big difference between Main Street, for example, the concept for which had preoccupied him for nearly a decade and which he spent years researching, drafting, and writing, and a novel like The Man Who Knew Coolidge, which he mostly threw together and which many consider to be a throw-away book. Main Street also marks an important transition for Lewis, in that it made him for all intents and purposes an independent writer and a professional social critic. All of his novels will be given their due, even if that means a few pages.

The focus throughout will remain on the political meanings and lessons of his books. I do not expect that readers will be familiar with all 23 of Lewis’s novels, so I might spend a bit more time summarizing their plot than would be warranted with a novel firmly in the canon. That said, we will avoid extensive literary analysis of Lewis’s novels—that is, the success or failure of the plot and story, the depth of character development, the effectiveness of its style and prose. Such analysis is simply beyond the scope of the present treatment. Although we may consider key biographical and historical background to the extent that it confirms our analysis, the focus will be on the text. We will see the novels as authoritative and complete documents unto themselves. Simply put, they will not be deconstructed. We will assume that Lewis knew what he was doing and attempt to understand the novels as they are.

The virtue of Lewis’s novels comes from their immersion in reality and the realistic portrayal of the people who look like us or people we know and who have familiar hopes and face challenges not too dissimilar from our own. Meeting these characters and following their lives gives us models about how to navigate our social, political, or professional lives, such that by the end we have come to a fuller understanding of the human condition and how we can be better citizens and better people.

 

Notes

[i] “Lewis Holds Books Do Not Prevent War,” The New York Times, December 30, 1930, 5.

[ii] Mark Schorer, Sinclair Lewis: An American Life (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1961), 813.

[iii] Schorer, 29.

[iv] Gore Vidal, “The Romance of Sinclair Lewis,” The New York Review of Books, October 8, 1992.

[v] James Lundquist, Sinclair Lewis (New York, NY: Frederick Unger, 1973), 85.

[vi] Vidal.

[vii] Martin Light, “The Quixotic Motifs of Main Street,” on Sinclair Lewis, ed. Martin Bucco (Boston, MA: G. K. Hall, 1986), 174—appeared originally in The Quixotic Vision of Sinclair Lewis (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University, 1975).

[viii] Sinclair Lewis, Selected Short Stories (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1937), x.

[ix] H. L. Mencken, “Portrait of an American Citizen,” Bloom’s Major Literary Characters: George Babbitt, ed. Harold Bloom (Philadelphia, PA: Chelsea House, 2004), 10.

[x] Mencken, 8.

[xi] John T. Flanagan, “A Long Way to Gopher Prairie: Sinclair Lewis’s Apprenticeship,” Critical Essays on Sinclair Lewis, ed. Martin Bucco (Boston, MA: G. K. Hall, 1986), 95.

[xii] George Killough, “Introduction,” Main Street (New York, NY: New American Library, 2008), 8.

[xiii] Lundquist, 128.

[xiv] Sheldon Grebstein, Sinclair Lewis (New York, NY: Twayne, 1962), 20.

[xv] James M. Hutchisson, The Rise of Sinclair Lewis, 1920-30 (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University, 1996).

[xvi] Hutchisson.

[xvii] “Lewis to Alfred Harcourt, December 13 1921,” From Main Street to Stockholm: Letters of Sinclair Lewis, 1919-1930, ed. Harrison Smith (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace, 1952), 90.

[xviii] J. D. Dooley, Critical Essays on Sinclair Lewis, ed. Martin Bucco (Boston, MA: G. K. Hall, 1986), 148—appeared originally as The Art of Sinclair Lewis (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska, 1967).

[xix] Patrick J. Deneen and Joseph Romance, “Introduction,” Democracy’s Literature:

Politics and Fiction in America, eds. Patrick J. Deneen and Joseph Romance (New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), 4.

[xx] Leo Strauss on Plato’s Symposium, ed. Seth Benardete (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 2003) 7.

[xxi] Gideon Rachman, “Fiction is a route to political truth,” Financial Times, March 7, 2011.

[xxii] Catherine H. Zuckert, Natural Right and the American Imagination: Political Philosophy in Novel Form (Savage, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1990), ix.

[xxiii] David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,” Science 342/6156 (October 2013) 377-380. On the relationship between literature and empathy, also see Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined (New York, NY: Penguin 2008), 177.

[xxiv] “New Study: 55% of YA Bought by Young Adults,” Publisher’s Weekly, Sep. 13. 2012.

[xxv] Grebstein, 8.

Steven Michels

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Steven Michels is a Professor of Political Science at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut. He is author of The Case against Democracy (Praeger, 2013) and Sinclair Lewis and American Democracy (Lexington Books, 2017).