In This Article Sinclair Lewis

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Biographies
  • Personal Reminiscences
  • Journals
  • Reception
  • Criticism
  • Collections
  • Main Street
  • Babbitt
  • Arrowsmith
  • Elmer Gantry
  • It Can’t Happen Here
  • Lewis and Other Writers
  • Women in Lewis’s Works
  • Religion, Race, and Ethnicity

American Literature Sinclair Lewis
by
Sally Parry
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0190

Introduction

Harry Sinclair Lewis (b. 1885–d. 1951) was an astute critic of American society and the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Born in the prairie town of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, Lewis was eager to experience life beyond his hometown. He graduated from Yale University and punctuated his education by trips to England and Panama, as well as work as a janitor at Upton Sinclair’s artistic colony Helicon Hall. Following graduation, he was a newspaperman, a creator of plots for Jack London, and a translator of poetry from the French and German; he also worked for the publishing firms of Frederick Stokes and George H. Doran. Lewis’s first novel, the boy’s adventure tale, Hike and the Aeroplane (1912), was written under a pseudonym. During his lifetime, he wrote over 100 short stories and twenty-three Novels. His first adult novel was the romantic adventure Our Mr. Wrenn (1914). Other novels in this decade included The Trail of the Hawk (1915), about a young pilot; The Job (1917), notable for its portrayal of a successful young businesswoman; and Free Air (1919), an early road novel. Lewis’s life changed forever with the publication of his hugely popular Main Street (1920), a novel that critiqued small-town life. Lewis wrote four other best-selling novels in the 1920s. Babbitt (1922) examined the culture of business, and Arrowsmith (1925) delved into the world of medicine, a tribute to his father and brother, who were both doctors. Lewis was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith, but famously declined it, saying that he didn’t believe in literary competition. Elmer Gantry (1927) took on corruption in evangelical religion, while Dodsworth (1929) sent a retired businessman to Europe to reevaluate his life. Lewis’s winning of the Nobel Prize in 1930 was controversial in America, where many felt he was too critical of the United States. However, Lewis’s critiques of American society continued in the second half of his career with such novels as Ann Vickers (1933), which examined women’s suffrage and penal reform, and Cass Timberlane (1945), a meditation on the state of marriage. His two most controversial novels post-1930 were It Can’t Happen Here (1935), about a fascist who is elected president, and Kingsblood Royal (1947), about a veteran who discovers that he has a black ancestor, and becomes ostracized from his middle-class life. Biographer Richard Lingeman said of Lewis, “He wrote with a real moral passion. He really cared.”

General Overviews

There are a growing number of critical and scholarly works on Lewis, but few comprehensive studies. More of the general overviews of Lewis’s work are prior to Lingeman 2002 and like Grebstein 1962 and Lundquist 1973 reflect a somewhat dismissive attitude toward the post-1930s, beginning with Schorer 1961. Light 1975 reads Lewis as a quixotic romantic, Bucco 2004 surveys Lewis’s aesthetics, and Michels 2017 breaks new ground in examining Lewis’s work through a sociopolitical lens.

  • Bucco, Martin. Sinclair Lewis as Reader and Critic. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2004.

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    Offers a biographical overview of Lewis’s reading and Criticism, his references to authors from Homer to Norman Mailer, his insight into his readers, his reflections on writing, and his attitudes toward literary critics and criticism.

  • Grebstein, Sheldon Norman. Sinclair Lewis. New York: Twayne, 1962.

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    Formal overview of Lewis’s work that was in process before Schorer’s biography was published, although Grebstein used some of the same structure in his critique of the Novels, giving short shrift to the novels after 1930. Views Lewis’s writing in the same vein as Thoreau’s and Twain’s, railing against “the insidious effects of mass culture and the standardization of manners and ideas” (p. 19).

  • Light, Martin. The Quixotic Vision of Sinclair Lewis. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1975.

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    One of the first full-length critical studies of Lewis’s work, analyzing it in terms of quixotism and also the perennial conflict between romance and realism. Finds this tension represented best in characters such as Carol Kennicott and Samuel Dodsworth, and uses it to explain “the duality of his nature and his fiction, and the duality of critical responses to them” (p. viii).

  • Lingeman, Richard. Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street. New York: Random House, 2002.

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    Presentation of Lewis’s life and work that is well balanced and well written. Incorporates historical context, critical reception, and analysis of Lewis’s work.

  • Lundquist, James. Sinclair Lewis. Modern Literature Monographs. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1973.

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    Written by the editor of the first Sinclair Lewis Newsletter, the first book since Grebstein 1962 to provide a career-long assessment of Lewis’s writing, offering a corrective to Schorer’s “melodramatic” description of Lewis’s early life. Focuses on Lewis’s upbringing, his satire and irony, and the lasting value of his novels. Lewis’s Minnesota heritage is used as a touchstone for understanding him as man and author.

  • Michels, Steven. Sinclair Lewis and American Democracy. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017.

    E-mail Citation »

    New approach to Lewis’s work that examines his novels through the lens of political theory, focusing on key themes of political thought and democracy, including materialism, nationalism, and race.

  • Schorer, Mark. Sinclair Lewis: An American Life. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961.

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    The first major biography of Lewis and still valuable to Lewis scholars. Schorer was able to interview many people who knew Lewis and provides much detail on Lewis’s life. He structured the biography as a Greek tragedy with a rise and fall narrative arc, which hurt Lewis’s reputation, especially regarding the work after he won the Nobel Prize.

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