Babbitt | Study Guide

Sinclair Lewis

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Sinclair Lewis | Biography


Growing Up on Main Street

Harry Sinclair Lewis was born February 7, 1885, in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. He loved and despised the town over the course of his life, eventually transforming it into the fictional town of Gopher Prairie in one of his most popular novels, Main Street. Lewis's father, Edwin, was a country doctor—a hardworking, respectable man known for his cynical sense of humor. Lewis's mother, Emma, died of tuberculosis, a bacterial lung infection, when he was just six. His father married Isabel Warner—a warm, kind woman who was a pillar of the community and an advocate for the immigrants and farmers who lived just outside town. Traits of both Edwin and Emma would eventually be reflected in the characters of Main Street: Dr. Will Kennicott, Carol Kennicott, and other women of the town.

Escape from the Small Town

Lewis's father worried about him, telling the boy's two older brothers they might have to look out for him, because "poor Harry, there's nothing he can do." In 1902 Edwin sent his son for a pre-college year to Oberlin Academy in Ohio, and in 1903 Lewis entered Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. He was poorer than most of the other boys, and he was described as odd and unsophisticated. But during his years at the college, Lewis discovered two writers who changed his life: Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) and Norwegian poet and playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906). Both were considered revolutionary because their works criticized the status quo, attacking society's most sacred institutions: marriage, family, business, church, and government.

Birth of a Writer

Lewis briefly dropped out of Yale in 1907 to become a janitor for a utopian community called Helicon Hall, founded by American author Upton Sinclair (1878–1968). However, he found this perfect community was anything but utopian, and he eventually returned to Yale to graduate in 1908. After traveling around the country for two years as a freelance newspaper reporter, Lewis settled in New York's Greenwich Village, home to many of the country's more progressive and innovative artists and writers. He worked in a publishing house by day and on his own writing at night. His first book, a boy's adventure story, was published in 1912.

In 1914 Lewis married Grace Livingston Hegger, a philanthropist and an editor at Vogue, a popular fashion magazine. Gracie's family had once lived on Park Avenue before a financial setback, and Gracie still tried to maintain an upper-class lifestyle, even affecting an English accent. But she shared Lewis's hatred for narrow-mindedness and intolerance and would eventually become another model for Carol Kennicott in Main Street. She and Lewis moved to Long Island, where Lewis worked at the publishing company George H. Doran and continued to write. After some early successes, he decided to become a full-time novelist.

Writer as Reformer

Over the next few years, Lewis traveled back to Sauk Centre several times with his wife, gathering notes for a novel that had begun to take shape in his mind. Seeing the town through his wife's critical and dismissive eyes helped him capture the provincialism (restricted interests or point of view), ugliness, and small-mindedness of the town. Lewis captured it so well, in fact, that with the publication of Main Street in 1920, he achieved fame. The book shot to the top of the best-seller lists, with over 250,000 copies sold in its first year and millions more in the ensuing years. It eventually became the best-selling novel for the entire period of 1900–25. This may have been because in 1920 most of the country's population had grown up in small towns, and many people were actively trying to escape from these towns. People saw their own lives reflected in the book and took pleasure in the fact that Lewis satirized the smugness of small towns so well.

Critical Reception

Lewis continued writing novels, each one attacking one of the entrenched institutions of the country. Babbitt (1922) describes a businessman whose life remains unfulfilling despite his familial, societal, and material success. In this novel Lewis moved the focus from small-town life to Zenith, a medium-sized midwestern city, which remained the fictitious location in several later novels. Babbitt is the main character, whose business career has not brought him sufficient satisfaction as he struggles to define his role in the family as well as the community. The novel was a huge success and gave rise to the word Babbitry as a term for uninformed and superpatriotic language and behavior that opens a person to satire for exaggerated optimism. As Lewis's biographer Mark Schorer notes, "Main Street and Babbitt had become part of the international vocabulary [and] the United States had become part of the international mind."

Other notable Lewis novels include Arrowsmith (1925), which focuses on an idealistic doctor struggling against the tyranny of a high-powered research institute, and Elmer Gantry (1927), which follows a charismatic evangelist and scam artist and attacks religious hypocrisy. In 1926 Lewis was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith, but he declined it. He explained his decision by quoting the terms of the prize, which said the award should go to the American novel that "shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life." True to his convictions, Lewis said he could not accept an award that seemed based more on obedience to "good form" than on literary merit. Far from presenting the wholesome atmosphere of American life, Lewis was satirizing aspects of it. He also objected to the idea that any committee was competent enough to choose one "best novel" in a given year. However, in 1930 Lewis became the first American to win the Nobel Prize in literature. Interestingly, the award seemed to intimidate him, and he lost confidence that he could equal his previous successes.

Return to Sauk Centre

A few novels followed, but by 1940 Lewis's reputation had declined. His personal life also deteriorated. His marriage, always difficult, finally fell apart not only because of personal incompatibility, but because of Lewis's restlessness and problems with alcohol. After divorcing Gracie in 1928, Lewis married the brilliant journalist Dorothy Thompson (1893–1961), bureau chief for the New York Evening Post. Twelve years later, the marriage ended in divorce, and Lewis spent his last years in Europe, alone and battling alcoholism. He died of a heart attack on January 10, 1951, and was buried in Sauk Centre—the town he had escaped so many years before.

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