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date: 14 March 2018

Lewis, Sinclair

Sinclair Lewis, conceivably the most famous American novelist of the 1920s, was as well a leading figure in the literary renaissance of that decade, a critical realist whose novels achieved national and international popularity. The 1920s was his “great decade” in which his most acclaimed and enduring novels appeared: Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927), and Dodsworth (1929). And in 1930 he crowned his 1920s achievements by becoming the first American author to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Although his luster dimmed during the 1930s, he showed remarkable staying power, issuing provocative and popular novels through the 1940s and remaining one of the best-known American authors.

Writers from the Midwest dominated America's literary flowering in the 1910s and 1920s, and Lewis was by birth and sensibility a small-town Midwesterner. Harry Sinclair Lewis was born on 7 February 1885 in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, a market town of 1,200 souls set amid rolling wheat country and platted only thirty years earlier.

His father, Edwin J. Lewis, was a traditional country doctor who performed surgery in farmhouses by lamplight. Taciturn, emotionally aloof, a transplanted New Englander of steady habits, dollar-wise but not miserly, Dr. Lewis loved his son in his gruff fashion but despaired of understanding why he could not “do as any other boy ought to do.” Harry grew into a gawky, red-haired adolescent—a dreamy book addict unqualified for normal boyhood pursuits like athletics and hunting. His brothers, Fred and Claude, were ten and seven years older than he. Fred lived out his days in Sauk Centre, working in the flour mill. Claude was his father's pride, an athlete and duck hunter who became a prosperous surgeon in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

The crucial event of Lewis's childhood was the death of his mother, Emma Kermott Lewis, when he was six. He barely remembered her, he said later, but her absence may have left a void of tenderness, a sense of objectless anger and loss buried deep in his subconscious.

Fortunately, Lewis's father soon remarried; his new wife was a plain, motherly spinster named Isabel Warner, who, Lewis later said, was more a real mother than a stepmother. Yet when he was angry with her, he called her “stepmother”—with all the negative connotations of the word. She was active in civic affairs and good works, such as building a rest center for farmers' wives, and she patiently drew him out of his shell, reading to him and encouraging his literary interests: by age fifteen he was sending whimsical poems to Eastern magazines. Books and imaginary realms were Harry's refuge from small-town dullness. Of lasting influence on him were the novels of Charles Dickens; as a young man he aspired to transplant Dickens's broad caricatures and evocative names to the American scene.

Go East, Young Man

Sauk Centre gave Lewis a sense of place and of roots, but in 1903 he was glad to escape it and enter Yale as a gawky, red-haired, acne-scarred freshman, an outlandish apparition to the sleek products of Eastern prep schools. A social failure, Lewis channeled his energies into his literary work, and became the first in his class to make the Yale Literary Magazine. In his junior year, bored with his studies, he and a classmate, Allan Updegraff, dropped out and joined the novelist Upton Sinclair's socialist colony, Helicon Hall. Soon wearying of their assigned janitorial work, the lapsed Yalies fled to New York with the idea of becoming real garret-dwelling poets. Updegraff placed none of his serious verse; Lewis sold humorous doggerel to children's magazines; both worked on Transatlantic Tales, translating articles by German authors. After an ill-conceived junket to Panama, Lewis returned to Yale, where he concentrated on English courses. He made up the necessary credits in a semester and graduated in 1908 as a member of the class of 1907.

There followed a period of Wanderjahre—a Bohemian interlude in Carmel, California, experimenting with short stories, and failed attempts at journalism in Iowa, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. In October 1910, Lewis returned to New York and over the next years worked energetically and, with increasing success, in book publishing.

He lived in Greenwich Village for a time, converting to socialism and feminism, but he was too provincial and puritanical to immerse himself in the free-love Bohemian culture. On 15 April 1914 he married Grace Livingston Hegger, a junior editor at the upper-class fashion magazine Vogue. She was a smart, elegant woman with a British accent that Lewis's friends found affected. Her father had owned a Fifth Avenue gallery, and she retained the airs and sense of entitlement of her childhood, though she had a saving sense of humor and critical self-awareness. After Frank Hegger died, the family slipped into genteel poverty, and Grace became the breadwinner and faced spinsterhood until this adoring, voluble Midwesterner, so painfully eager to please her, offered a way out.

Apprenticeship

By the time he met Grace, Lewis had a good job as managing editor at a publishing house, but he was growing restive with office routine and touting mediocre authors. He yearned to write full-time and managed to complete a boys' book, Hike and the Aeroplane, which appeared under the pseudonym Tom Graham in 1912. His first novel, Our Mr. Wrenn (1914), was published two years later, in the same month he was married. This maiden effort was much influenced by H. G. Wells's The History of Mr. Polly (1909), a tale about the rebellion of a “little man.” Mr. Wrenn dreams of exotic foreign climes and finally, with an inheritance, packs in his boring job and sails to England, where he has some mild and comical adventures. Upon his return he is able to stand up to the boss and win a promotion, then marry his pretty shopgirl, Nellie. There are glimmers of social comment, uneasily wedded with whimsy and sentiment, but an abundance of energy prompted indulgent reviewers to foresee a future for the author.

Commuting to his job in the city from a Long Island suburb, Lewis snatched moments on the train to write his second novel, The Trail of the Hawk (1915), about an aviator from the Midwest. He had met flyers in California and on Long Island, and acquired from them a solid grounding in the colorful early days of aviation, which he effectively uses as background. As far back as Yale he had declared himself a “realist,” and in Hawk he attempted to give an unromanticized picture of the aviator's life without excessive plot contrivances, and an honest portrait of the conflicts of a modern marriage. While the construction is ramshackle—there seem to be three novels rattling around—the title character, a young American technocrat who bears a prophetic resemblance to Charles Lindbergh, is appealing.

In 1915 Lewis began selling stories to the Saturday Evening Post, and when he had collected $2,000 for four of them, he quit his job, believing he could make a good living by freelancing. He wrote prosperously for the Post between 1915 and 1920, becoming a favored contributor of the autocratic editor, George Horace Lorimer. His stories were never shoddy or meretricious—as honest as he could make them within the bounds of Lorimer's taboos. Writing for the Post was a valuable apprenticeship, teaching him the hard discipline that remained with him all his writing life.

Back to Main Street

A visit with his wife to Sauk Centre in 1916 so that she could meet Dr. and Mrs. Lewis revived the idea of a truthful novel about the spiritual stultification of small-town life called “The Village Virus,” which he had conceived during an idle college vacation. Grace's reactions to Sauk Centre, along with his own fresh perceptions of the town, gave Lewis the idea for a new central character with an outsider's point of view, and he began planning an uncompromising, well-documented work of realism. He already had a working title—“Main Street.”

With the idea of seeing America generally and small-town America in particular, Lewis and Grace headed west over often rough roads in a new Ford Model T. During their tour, Lewis filled his ever-handy notebook with observations, data, statistics, scraps of conversation in the American vernacular, slang words, and other material. His hometown would remain the principal model for the fictional Gopher Prairie, but comparisons to other places gave it universality, making it representative of small towns everywhere.

During his stay in Sauk Centre, Lewis had completed what he considered his most uncompromisingly realistic novel yet, The Job, published in 1917 by Harper's. It is the story of Una Golden, a small-town woman who escapes with her helpless widowed mother to New York City. Drawing on his own observations of the white-collar “salariat,” in H. G. Wells's word, as well as Grace's and other feminist friends' experiences, Lewis constructed a strongly veristic picture of the office and the life of a working woman. Una is shown as a cog in a machine designed by efficiency experts. Lonely, tired of dead-end secretarial work, she makes a desperate grab at marriage to a slick-talking traveling salesman, who turns out to be a drunk and a philanderer. Rather than submit to her domestic fate, as contemporary mores demanded, Una leaves him and returns to the job world. Rising on her merits, inspired along the way by a successful female mentor, and helped by a Jewish boss (whom Lewis describes in attractive terms, counter to the stereotypes of Jews in fiction of that day), Una becomes a successful real estate executive. Lewis tacked on a happy ending—marriage to a cynical, glib coworker (a portrait obviously based on himself)—that injected a falsely sentimental note, nearly undermining the well-documented, gritty realism of the remainder of the novel. Nevertheless, despite didactic patches, The Job remains an impressive performance that has been rediscovered by feminist scholars.

The Spirit of the Times

Although hungering to write Main Street, Lewis felt trapped on a golden treadmill. He had become a father of a son, Wells, in 1918, and with an expensive wife and her retinue to support, he needed the ever-higher fees Lorimer deigned to pay him. After banking a goodly sum from a popular romantic serial about a small-town mechanic who woos a society girl on a cross-country motor trip (published as Free Air in 1919), he took Grace and Wells to Washington, D.C., and devoted all his waking hours to writing Main Street.

After eight months of intense labor Lewis completed his breakthrough novel in the summer of 1920. He had a new publisher now, Alfred Harcourt, a friend from his publishing days who had been encouraging him to write Main Street, and who had founded the house of Harcourt, Brace and Howe the previous year. He called Lewis's new novel the truest book he had ever read and enthusiastically predicted a sale of perhaps 20,000 copies. Lewis, pessimistic about he fate of realistic small-town novels, guessed 10,000.

In the event, Main Street sold more than 414,000 copies in the original hardcover. Widely reviewed and discussed, it was a literary sensation that rivaled Uncle Tom's Cabin, though it did not deal with such a profound issue as slavery. Rather, Lewis probed the sensitive spots along the moral and cultural divide between urban and rural America. The novel's heroine, Carol Kennicott, embodies the rebellious post–World War I mood and the values of a rootless, urban America. She is pitted against the old-time mores of rural and small-town America embodied by Gopher Prairie. The book's buyers included Main Streeters living in the cities who were nostalgic for the hometowns they had fled as too constraining. Perhaps the most numerous block of readers comprised married women who identified with Carol's struggle against the bonds of domestic servitude.

To the intelligentsia and a rebellious younger generation, Main Street sounded reveille for the great cultural awakening of the 1920s, a raucous decade of rebellion, iconoclasm, and artistic experimentation. Lewis's novel depicted small-town America, traditional locus of the “true” American values of folksiness, neighborliness, and democracy, as a synecdoche of the conformist, Puritanical, art-hating America that so many of the young were rebelling against.

The novel was packed with subtle dynamite as well, a veiled protest against the postwar repression known as the Red Scare—race riots, strikebreaking, wholesale imprisonment and deportation of aliens and radicals. These actions, coming on the heels of wartime regimentation, represented a heavy-handed attempt by the political and business establishments, in league with the forces of cultural reaction (the Ku Klux Klan, the Fundamentalists, the local censors), to impose a political and artistic orthodoxy on the country. Main Street was a literary cry against this conservative backlash, as well as a satire of Gopher Prairie, where dullness was made God and the Ford car was the acme of civilization. Through its flawed, exasperating, ultimately defeated heroine, Carol Kennicott—a woman with a working brain but no work, as Lewis once said—the novel sounded a radical call for feminine liberation from the “gray darkness” of domesticity, which stifled women's ability to lead a “more conscious life.”

Lewis's social vision was closer to the worldview of his generation of Greenwich Village rebels (ca. 1910–1914) than that of the postwar generation of disillusioned young men, who felt betrayed by the noble-sounding words and causes that had lured their generation to pointless slaughter on the battlefield. Lewis had received his ideological baptism as a Fabian (evolutionary) socialist who envisioned H. G. Wells's cooperative commonwealth gradually replacing the capitalist system. Such beliefs carried an optimism that Lewis never completely lost, though his idealism faded to cynicism.

Historically, Lewis's novel was in the literary current that The Nation's literary critic Carl van Doren dubbed in 1920 “the revolt from the village.” Writers like Willa Cather, Sherwood Anderson, Edgar Lee Masters, and Edith Wharton—in works like Winesburg, Ohio; Spoon River Anthology; Ethan Frome; and My Ántonia—had scored the provincialism and soul-deadness of the American small towns. But in Main Street Lewis did the job definitively and with greater éclat.

Beneath the fictional story of Carol Kennicott, Main Street is a comprehensive dissection of the American small town—culturally, sociologically, economically. Lewis's naive heroine, who vaguely prescribes European art and culture as the “cure” for Gopher Prairie's provincialism, comes to understand the small town's economic colonization of the countryside. Here Lewis is echoing the indictments of the Populists and Hamlin Garland's novels and stories of the Middle Border, an early influence on him. He also anticipated the thinking of Thorstein Veblen, the radical economist from Minnesota who charged that small-town Yankee bankers and merchants ran their towns as real estate speculation, curbing dissent by the German and Scandinavian farmers they exploited through onerous mortgages and high prices in the stores.

A Nation of Babbitts

Lewis followed Main Street with another critique of American values, Babbitt (1922), which attacked materialism, consumerism, commercialism and the business ethos of boosterism, corner cutting, salesmanship, and success worship. George F. (for Follansbee) Babbitt is a larger-than-life type born of the American soil. In her classic study American Humor, Constance Rourke praises Lewis as a “fabulist” in the lineage of the nineteenth-century tall-tale, vernacular humorists—particularly Mark Twain in novels like The Gilded Age.

But the novel is also distinctly and nervously twentieth century. Babbitt, Lewis said, represented many American males in their forties, successful but wanting something more than making money to buy motor cars and gadgets.

In the opening chapters Lewis describes a typical day in Babbitt's life and limns his milieu with a hyperrealism that imparts to things a suffocating, oppressive materiality and reveals the spiritual void of Babbitt's life. For Babbitt poetry is the sentimental doggerel of Chum Frink, the syndicated adman poet. His religious instincts are displaced in the gospel of salesmanship preached at his church; heroism is his drive to his office, cutting off rival cars in the race to the next light; idealism is boosting the material progress of the great city of Zenith. Mechanical devices are “symbols of truth and beauty” for Babbitt. His car “was poetry and tragedy, love and heroism.” There are echoes of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922), in which the banality of modern life clashes with the glorious traditions of Western civilization. Babbitt, Lewis suggests, is trapped in a new circle of Hell, a consumerist Inferno. (He evokes this in the séance at Babbitt's dinner party when Chum Frink tries to rouse the shade of Dante, and Vergil Gunch drolly gives the address: “1658 Brimstone Avenue, Fiery Heights, Hell.”)

The first part of the novel depicts Babbitt as a fat fish flopping in the net of his environment, and the second part depicts his rebellion against his environment. It is precipitated when his best friend, the sensitive Paul Riesling, in a fit of insanity shoots his shrill, nagging wife and is sent to prison. Deprived of the only person he loves outside his plump, docile wife, Myra, and his three bumptious children, Babbitt suddenly sees his life as meaningless. Everything he had regarded as decent and normal has become stultifying and empty. He begins to question the deadening conformity, the soul-abrading competitiveness of business, the inexorable drive for success measured in dollars. Even God is a brand name, a product to be vended by up-to-date advertising methods.

When Babbitt challenges the conformist values of the business establishment by daring to take the side of underpaid workers on strike, he feels the full wrath of the Good Citizens League, a group of Zenith patriots who believe that “American democracy did not imply any equality of wealth, but did demand a wholesome sameness of thought, dress, painting, morals and vocabulary.” Suddenly, George Babbitt is afraid. His business dries up, his backslapping lunchmates in the Boosters Club cut him, his wife frets about his late drunken nights. When she nearly dies of appendicitis, Babbitt is shattered by guilt over his neglect of her. At that point, the Clan of Good Fellows rallies around him and the prodigal sheepishly returns to the fold.

Although Babbitt is a failed rebel (like Carol Kennicott), Lewis shows he is inwardly changed and views the world with a hard-won skepticism that may be the beginning of thinking for himself, which is Lewis's prescription for his malaise. When his son, Ted, mounts a mutiny of his own by getting married, Babbitt tells the young man he will stand by him and urges him to do what he truly wants to do, something the father never could.

As the novelist John O'Hara noted, many writers had identified the idea of Babbittry, but Lewis personified it in a novel—a portrait of a man who loses his soul in conforming to a status-driven, success-oriented, consumerist culture. H. G. Wells told Lewis that Babbitt was the American businessman “got.”

Dr. Arrowsmith's Progress

Lewis's next effort, Arrowsmith (1925), dramatized the struggles of an idealistic young doctor-turned-scientist against the worldly temptations of success, money, and social status. This novel was shaped initially by Lewis's reaction against critics who grumbled that he could only write negatively—that he had no vision of how Babbitt might save his soul or how Gopher Prairie might become a prairie Athens. Instead he gave us Babbitt drinking bootleg varnish with “the Bunch” and Carol frightening Gopher Prairie with socialistic ideas. In Arrowsmith, he told Harcourt, he would create a heroic character.

A salient element of Lewis's methodology was extensive preliminary research and planning. For Babbitt he roamed the Midwest, recording scraps of Babbittish lingo in his ever-present notebook like an anthropologist. He then created a detailed scenario of the novel—a procedure he would follow with future books—and a portfolio of hand-drawn maps of the mythical State of Winnemac, Zenith's business district, Babbitt's office, his neighborhood, his home, and much more. Writing Arrowsmith demanded that Lewis become conversant with scientific data for verisimilitude, so he engaged a technical adviser: Paul de Kruif, a bacteriologist with a debunking attitude toward the scientific establishment who had been fired by the Rockefeller Institute for authoring a tell-all article. Lewis had sketched his vision of the novel in late-night talks with De Kruif, whose own career provided ideas for characters and situations that Lewis's alchemy would transmute into fictional gold.

For all the authenticity of its scientific background (somewhat dated today), Lewis referred to Arrowsmith as a fable. The novel is a cautionary narrative, in the spirit of Pilgrim's Progress, of an idealistic young man's passage through a minefield of temptations presented by institutions of medicine and science run for commercial gain. Dr. Martin Arrowsmith is constantly pressured to compromise the austere standards of scientific truth inculcated in him by his mentor, Dr. Max Gottlieb, to serve the god of profits. Although he intended the book to be unsatirical, Lewis could not suppress his instinct for caricature. Indeed, the first draft was virtually two novels, one full of humorous thrusts at the medical establishment and the other, the serious story of Martin Arrowsmith's rise from plug M.D. to brilliant scientist. In the final version there is less satire and more narrative, climaxing in the Caribbean island plague scenes, which have a fearsome resonance with our own time of ebola virus and AIDS.

The Preacher Novel

For all its shafts loosed at the medical establishment, Arrowsmith did not arouse the controversy that Main Street and Babbitt had. But Lewis's next novel would outdo both of them. Having created an upright if all-too-human hero who worshiped at the white-tiled altar of Scientific Truth, Lewis for his next subject chose an antihero, a man of the cloth who ostensibly worshiped God but was in reality a hypocrite, craving sex, money, and, above all, power. The Reverend Dr. Elmer Gantry's grandiose ambition is to lead a crusade against sin, immoral books and films, the teaching of evolution, and free thought in general. Lewis turns inside out the Pilgrim's Progress narrative of Arrowsmith to present a rogue's unholy progress to churchly eminence.

Most of Lewis's fictions move from the recent past to the present time and carry references to current events. But Elmer Gantry had an even closer relevance to contemporary America and the ongoing battle in the Protestant churches between the Modernists, who opposed a literal interpretation of the Bible and recognized the truths of science, and the Fundamentalists, who believed in the literal truth of Scripture and rejected Darwin's theory of evolution. In 1925 the nation had been mesmerized by the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, a test case of a state law barring the teaching of evolution.

Lewis surely read the newspaper dispatches from the front by his friend the iconoclastic critic H. L. Mencken, who had championed his work since Main Street and now urged him to “do” religion, as he had “done” small towns, business, and medicine. Always sympathetic to satire, Mencken would judge Elmer Gantry to be Lewis's best work since Babbitt.

It was indeed a sensation when it was published in March 1927. Riding strong blasts of controversy, sales exceeded 200,000 in its first year. It was anathematized from nearly every pulpit in the land—including the Congregational church in Sauk Centre, whose minister had the previous year laid Dr. E. J. Lewis to rest. A majority of reviewers damned the central character as unclean, unreal, a travesty, a monster, a freak, an aberration. Lewis was called an atheist and an infidel. The evangelist Billy Sunday, one of several real-life divines who were models for Elmer Gantry, fervently prayed God to strike Lewis dead.

Middlebrow reviewers who had praised Lewis's earlier books to the heavens, damned this one to the nether regions. Some of the contemporary criticisms seem hysterical today. Lewis did not mean Elmer to be “typical” of all ministers; he attempted to contrast him with the humble, underpaid workhorses of the ministry who genuinely sought to do good, even though their faith might waver. And the charges of shabby sensationalism to boost sales don't hold water. Like most authors, Lewis's motives were mixed. He had a flare for promotion and valued controversy as a way of selling books; sometimes Alfred Harcourt, not averse to controversy himself, had to rein him in. But Lewis's integrity was ironclad, and he believed passionately in what he wrote. Lewis had assiduously researched Elmer Gantry, interviewing a cross-section of Protestant ministers in Kansas City over a period of weeks and absorbing tomes on theology, church history, and church administration. He was biased—he was an agnostic who doubted the divine inspiration of the Bible—but he had in him a reservoir of sympathy based on his abandoned adolescent religious faith and nostalgic memories of small-town churches as communities of belief. Finally, Elmer Gantry is a satire, and distortion and exaggeration are the essence of that medium.

Still, it is a flawed novel. The astute British critic Rebecca West, who had met Lewis through her lover H. G. Wells and had come to dislike him, was partially right when she wrote that he had no vision of a true religious faith against which to judge Gantry's hypocrisy. More damaging was a flaw pointed out by Mencken: two-thirds of the way through, Lewis's sympathy for Elmer as a bumpkinish rogue runs out, and the character becomes an unredeemed monster—a drastic shift in tone.

But the book's merits outweigh such blemishes. Lewis's vision, a testament to his artistic courage, was too black and cynical for its times, but in our own time, when mercenary televangelists and religious marketers are commonplace, the novel's indictments seem almost tame.

The Crack-up

The botched final third of Elmer Gantry had its origins in a concatenation of traumatic events in 1926: the death of Lewis's father, the breakup of his marriage, rejection by a woman with whom he had fallen in love, the pressure to finish the novel, the inner guilts and conflicts that the writing conjured up from the soul depths. All these conspired to drive Lewis over the edge to a breakdown, the chief symptom of which was total loss of control over alcohol; his effort to finish the novel became a race with delirium tremens and landed him in a sanatorium. He had, like many of his class and kind in Prohibition America, become a heavy drinker out of defiance of the law and the hedonism of the Jazz Age. But his consumption had already reached the point where it was threatening his career and shattering his marriage.

Distancing himself from the Elmer Gantry furor and his private demons, Lewis wandered through Europe, depressed and drinking until he reached the edge of physical and mental collapse. He pulled himself together for a therapeutic walking trip through Germany's Black Forest with the young poet and novelist Ramon Guthrie. Along the way he talked out future books. One was a previously conceived “labor novel,” which he now called “The Man Who Sought God” and which had as its hero a character based on the socialist leader Eugene Debs, whom Lewis idolized as a secular saint. The other was the story of a “non-Babbitt,” a retired auto magnate named Sam Dodsworth, who sets off with his wife on a European journey of self-discovery.

Arriving in Berlin, Lewis met the foreign correspondent Dorothy Thompson and promptly fell in love. She was herself coming off a painful divorce, and the two bruised souls were drawn to each other. They were married in London on 14 May 1928 and thereafter sailed to the United States. Soon bored with housewifery and motherhood (their only child, Michael, was born in 1930), Thompson resumed her journalistic career, with her husband's encouragement, becoming one of the most influential political columnists of her day.

In 1929, Lewis published Dodsworth, his most personal novel, drawing on his breakup with his first wife. The hero, Sam Dodsworth, founder of the Revelation Motor Company, is an engineer, a maker and a doer, in contrast to Babbitt, the eternal middleman. But Dodsworth is also seeking “something more” than autos and balance sheets. Selling his company to a huge, soulless corporation that he fears will cheapen his beloved car, he sails to Europe with his fashionable, ice-maiden wife, Fran.

As it turns out, upright Sam is the more sincere pilgrim, earnestly seeking, Baedeker in hand, the art and beauty of an older civilization. For her part, the narcissistic Fran is looking for handsome Continental men whose admiring eyes will restore her fading youth and beauty. The theme of America and Europe had preoccupied Lewis ever since he escaped Sauk Centre for Yale and the East. Expatriating himself during much of the 1920s, he would defend his native land against aspersions from Continental intellectuals, and return home to chastise Americans for not devoting more time to art and music. Sam Dodsworth embodies this split in Lewis's soul, extolling American technology as a contribution to civilization against condescending Europeans while lashing his own obsession with work, at the cost of his marriage.

Mingled with Sam's search for his soul is the story of his deteriorating marriage. The character of Fran, based on Grace Lewis, is a cruel, convincing portrait of an All-American bitch. Sam, in the end, goes home with a new wife, the understanding, cosmopolitan Edith Cortright (loosely based on a diplomat's wife Lewis had vainly loved), while Fran is dumped by the young, impoverished count she has left Sam to marry because she is too old to bear him an heir. Dodsworth is yet another story of a marriage, a recurring theme in Lewis's novels. Though Sam is not a consistent or entirely convincing character, the novel shows Lewis in an unsatirical, introspective vein, undertaking a novel of character and cultural conflict rather than probing a profession or an institution.

A Great Woman

The Jazz Age and the Wall Street bubble that sustained it were obliterated in the crash of 1929. By the early 1930s, the middle class that was Lewis's prime subject was hurting; Babbitt was on the unemployment line. Rebellious youths were seeking jobs rather than idols to topple; writers moved left to a Marxian if not a religious faith. In tune with the times Lewis tried to complete the long contemplated “labor novel,” but he found that he could not “hear” the talk of ordinary working people, and he felt a moral inhibition about satirizing labor leaders the way he had Babbitts. Finally, he was surrounded by a medley of leftist advisers telling him what to say, whom he resented.

In 1930, Lewis was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, edging out Theodore Dreiser as the first American author so honored. In his acceptance speech, The American Fear of Literature, Lewis blasted the conservatives of the Genteel Age and praised Dreiser and the young rebels like Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and Scott Fitzgerald. Editorials in U.S. papers were critical of his selection; some called him hypocritical for accepting the Nobel after refusing the Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith in 1926. (He had done so on the principled ground that the terms of the award stultified free expression.) Observations that his era had passed, intensified his fears that his talent was drying up. Before returning from Europe, he quarreled with his friend and publisher Alfred Harcourt, who had astutely steered his career through the shoals of fame and notoriety in the 1920s. Lewis was upset with him for not taking out advertisements countering the critics and for not reaping the harvest of increased sales that should have come with the prize.

His new publisher, Doubleday, Doran, paid him a large advance in hopes that his next novel would revive the firm's sagging fortunes. He had—probably with more desire to please than interest in writing it—conceived a lengthy historical saga, actually an expansion of the labor novel, relating the story of American idealism through three generations. But he grew bored with the research and turned to a subject closer to home—a “great woman” who would be a composite of Dorothy Thompson and other career women. The heroine was a social worker named Ann Vickers, and Lewis cribbed events from Thompson's career as a suffragist, as well as drawing on his own and his first wife's participation in feminist causes and the experiences of the liberated women he had known in Greenwich Village. The novel is most convincing in its portrait of the conflicts the heroine faces in her search for professional and personal fulfillment. Lewis also effectively satirizes the confused intellectual tendencies of the time, mocking the communists as ideological Babbitts and revealing his own disillusionment with the contemporary left and lack of political faith. The story's setting is thin gruel compared to the graphic backgrounds that Lewis, a novelist to whom things—possessions—defined the man (or woman) and environment was a determinant of behavior, had so heavily brush-stroked in past novels.

Published in 1933, Ann Vickers was a best-seller and a welcome shoring up of Doubleday, Doran's bottom line. With movie sales and a successful dramatization of Dodsworth by Sidney Howard on Broadway, Lewis's financial fortunes rose as those of the great majority of his countrymen fell in the depths of the Great Depression.

Artistically, however, he was struggling. His next novel, Work of Art (1934), was deservedly panned, particularly by leftist critics, for its rather listless portrait of a hotelkeeper whose creation of a great inn Lewis compares to the writing of a great poem, in contrast to his poet brother who sells out to Hollywood.

Can it Happen Here?

In 1935 Lewis made a comeback with a darkly satirical attack on native fascism, It Can't Happen Here. In Babbitt he had warned against the manipulation of middle-class conformity by the corrupt businessmen and politicians who connived to run the city of Zenith. Reporting on a textile strike in North Carolina in the 1930s, he again made a connection between business-imposed conformity and suppression of labor unions. In It Can't Happen Here these tendencies are extrapolated to show how a fascist government could take over present-day America in a time of economic distress—as the Nazis had in Germany. (Dorothy Thompson's reports on Hitler's rise provided fodder for Lewis's imagination.) The novel evinces a tolerant, multicultural vision and delineates what Lewis thought was worth saving in America. His credo is enunciated by the hero, Doremus Jessup: “Everything that is worth while in the world has been accomplished by the free, inquiring, critical spirit and that the preservation of this spirit is more important than any social system whatsoever.”

It Can't Happen Here gave Doubleday another best-seller (some 94,000 hardcover copies sold), but the strain of writing it in a furious two-month burst jounced Lewis off the water wagon. His next novel would not appear for three years. In the meantime he coauthored a dramatization of It Can't Happen Here for the Federal Theater Project. The stage version opened in eighteen cities simultaneously to rapt audiences. This success encouraged Lewis, fed up with the loneliness of the novelist's life and fearing the decline of his powers, to write plays, as well as act in them, drawing on his celebrity and using his talent for parlor mimicry. Although the theater preoccupied him between 1937 and 1940, no landmarks in American drama emerged from his typewriter.

It did, however, produce a novel about the theater, Bethel Merriday, published in 1940. The central character was a young actress, and the background was drawn from Lewis's experience in summer stock and touring with a play he had written, Angela Is Twenty-two. Although he had started the novel before meeting her, he garnered details of the heroine's life from Marcella Powers, an eighteen-year-old apprentice actress who became the love of his life.

Unhappy in his marriage, Lewis had walked out on Dorothy Thompson in 1937. While his career floundered, his wife had become a nationally known pundit, and he could not bear to continue a second-fiddle marriage. His drinking, fits of rage, and neglect of their son, Michael, made life miserable for Dorothy and turned her toward other men—and women, for she was bisexual. After meeting Marcella Powers, Lewis asked for a divorce but Dorothy held out, probably fearing he would leave his estate to Marcella. Assured this would not happen, Thompson divorced Lewis in 1942.

After walking out on Dorothy, Lewis had gone on one of his most self-destructive benders ever, ending up in a sanatorium where doctors warned him that he would die if he continued drinking. Other physicians had told him this before, but this time Lewis listened, and aside from a few lapses, remained sober until the final years of his life.

Partly as therapy after leaving the sanatorium, he wrote a novel, The Prodigal Parents (1938), which was possibly his worst, vying for that distinction with such minor works as The Innocents (1917), Mantrap (1926), and The Man Who Knew Coolidge (1928), which is transcribed from one of Lewis's famous monologues with which he compulsively entertained (or bored) friends. The Prodigal Parents took a wild swing at the communists and the younger generation; its hero, an auto dealer who was Babbitt redux, was now celebrated by Lewis as a bourgeois rock in a crumbling economy and civilization.

Predictably, the left critics pilloried the book, charging that Lewis had sold out again (the Paris expatriates of the 1920s had leveled a similar charge against him). It had a sale of about 50,000 copies, his lowest figure until Bethel Merriday in 1940 (30,000 copies). Blaming his slump on his publisher's failure to promote his books, Lewis abandoned Doubleday for Random House in 1940.

Back to Minnesota

In 1942, after some gilded galley slavery in Hollywood, Lewis jumped into a new novel with renewed enthusiasm. He seemed rejuvenated by sobriety and his romance with Marcella Powers, and by the recognition that novel writing was his true and only trade. This effort marked the return of Lewis the satirist. Gideon Planish (1943) sends up do-good organizations in the debunking mode of Elmer Gantry and Arrowsmith. Lewis's uncanny sense of the zeitgeist failed him, however; his irreverence was out of step with wartime sobriety. There were hostile reviews, but some critics welcomed back the old Lewis and the book sold well enough.

In the early 1940s Lewis began paying visits to his home state, telling the press that he wished to restore contact with his roots. In 1942 he taught writing at the University of Minnesota and in 1943 moved to Duluth, where his researches among the city's upper crust produced raw material for his next effort, Cass Timberlane (1945), about a contemplative judge in the fictional city of Grand Republic (based on Duluth). A lonely widower, Cass falls in love with a much younger woman, who betrays him for his best friend (as Marcella had done to Lewis). The novel contains inner chapters with the running head “An Assemblage of Husbands and Wives.” These were sometimes caustic vignettes of mostly unhappy wedlock that added up to a bleak report on the state of marriage in America. Although critical opinion was mixed, the marital theme and sexual frankness sparked the interest of the general public, for whom Sinclair Lewis had become, as the critic Edmund Wilson wrote, a kind of permanent landmark of American literature like Old Faithful. Adding movie and book club money to royalties, Lewis earned a hefty half a million dollars from Cass Timberlane.

Unlike his fictional hero, whose chastened young wife returns to him by the end of the book, Lewis lost Marcella Powers. In 1946 she married a man her own age who could give her a home and children. He never really believed she would not come back.

In 1947 Lewis published what was perhaps the most radical novel of his career, Kingsblood Royal—radical in its caustic portrait of racial discrimination. Lewis had long been critical of the treatment of black people in America and recognized the hypocrisy and irrationality of the color line, not to mention its cruelties. Since the 1920s he had been friendly with Walter White, who later became general secretary of the NAACP. White was so Caucasian-looking that he had passed as a white reporter to cover lynchings in the South. In 1925 he had published a novel, Fire in the Flint, about a black character who passes as white (something he refused to do). This influenced Lewis's plot involving an upper-class young man of Grand Republic, Neil Kingsblood, who discovers that a distant ancestor was black. He refuses to hide his ancestry and ultimately immerses himself in Grand Republic's African-American community. Although heavy-handed, the novel is a slashing satire of the cruel absurdities of racial segregation and showed Lewis regaining some of his old form as a social critic and debunker of American shibboleths.

Kingsblood Royal fomented a critical storm and became another Lewis best-seller, but it was his last blast at his country, which he once said he loved but didn't like. He would write two more novels, The God-Seeker (1949), a historical saga set in frontier Minnesota, and World So Wide (1951), the story of an architect living among American expatriates in Florence. The God-Seeker is a cannibalization of themes in Lewis's long-projected labor novel. It might also be called the third volume of his “Minnesota Trilogy.” In depicting events in frontier Minnesota, Lewis introduces characters whose descendants appear in Cass Timberlane and Kingsblood Royal, and incidents that foreshadow the later themes of racism, environmental exploitation, and debasement of democracy. But The God-Seeker is marred by Lewis's waning powers and his lack of talent for the historical genre.

Lewis's last novel, World So Wide, rose out of his own expatriation to Florence in 1950. It is a brave but pallid attempt to deal fictionally with some of the demons in his own life—his sexual failure with women, his inability to look into himself, his chronic restlessness and paradoxical yearning for a spiritual home. In his final days Lewis, alone and lonely, returned to the solace of alcohol as his health rapidly deteriorated. He had heart attacks in 1949 and 1950 (he had been a heavy smoker since college days). In early 1951, sequestered by a shadowy “secretary,” whom absent friends suspected of fleecing him, he was overcome by seizures and suffered a final, massive heart attack at a clinic in Rome. He died on 10 January 1951, aged sixty-five.

The irreverent critical spirit of Lewis's novels made him influential among younger writers in the 1920s and 1930s. Even if they did not emulate his style or deprecated him as a Babbitt who wrote for Babbitts, they credited him with shaking up their countrymen's rote observance of outworn manners and morals. In creating a gallery of satirical types, Lewis held a mirror up to America. His novels had global reach at a time when America was becoming the major economic power on the world stage. The English novelist E. M. Forster spoke for many in England and Europe when he said that Lewis had lodged “a piece of a continent in our imagination.” People the world over visited Gopher Prairie in their mind's eye. The village is a universal social unit, and Lewis had portrayed the American species so vividly that it was recognizable to Main Streeters everywhere.

Lewis made American society and his insights into it his subject. Babbitt, Main Street, and Elmer Gantry have became part of the American descriptive lexicon. Although a realist, he used the tools of caricature, irony, and parody to sharpen his criticisms of society. His first wife, Grace, said he had to have something to hate when he wrote. Not people, for he granted Babbitt his humanity and expressed the tentative hope that in Zenith lay the potential for a new civilization. The enemy, rather, was institutions that imposed empty conformity and trapped the creative spirit. He recognized that his role was to be the despised critic.

Like all the best satirists, Lewis had a code of values. If one word could sum up his basic message, it would be “liberation.” Liberation from the dead hand of custom and habit, from herd thinking, from obeisance to censorious neighbors, from glad-handing conformity and religious hypocrisy, from public relations and advertising and pseudo religions, from cutthroat competition in business and big business conservatism, from political orthodoxy and phony patriotism and mindless boosterism. He refused to prescribe political panaceas, insisting he was only a storyteller; yet he had a nebulous set of political values—a kind of old-style egalitarian populism. At heart he was a traditional liberal who valued freedom of thought and speech above ideology.

Lewis had a gift for transmuting the data of American life, which he so lovingly recorded, into stories and pointed satires. As Dorothy Thompson wrote, it is impossible to understand the America of the 1920s through the 1940s without reading the novels of Sinclair Lewis. He mapped an alternate America—Gopher Prairie, Zenith, Winnemac, Grand Republic—to comment on the real one. He depicted the social topography of the United States better than anyone of his generation—or any other generation.

See also Anderson, Sherwood, and his Winesburg, Ohio; Cather, Willa; Dreiser, Theodore; Eliot, T.S., and his The Waste Land; Fitzgerald, F. Scott; Hemingway, Ernest; Masters, Edgar Lee; O'Hara, John; Sinclair, Upton, and the Muckrakers; Wharton, Edith; and Wolfe, Thomas.

Works

Novels

Our Mr. Wrenn (1914)Find this resource:

The Trail of the Hawk (1915)Find this resource:

The Innocents (1917)Find this resource:

The Job (1917)Find this resource:

Free Air (1919)Find this resource:

Main Street (1920)Find this resource:

Babbitt (1922)Find this resource:

Arrowsmith (1925)Find this resource:

Mantrap (1926)Find this resource:

Elmer Gantry (1927)Find this resource:

The Man Who Knew Coolidge (1928)Find this resource:

Dodsworth (1929)Find this resource:

Ann Vickers (1933)Find this resource:

Work of Art (1934)Find this resource:

It Can't Happen Here (1935)Find this resource:

The Prodigal Parents (1938)Find this resource:

Bethel Merriday (1940)Find this resource:

Gideon Planish (1943)Find this resource:

Cass Timberlane (1945)Find this resource:

Kingsblood Royal (1947)Find this resource:

The God-Seeker (1949)Find this resource:

World So Wide (1951)Find this resource:

Other Works

From Main Street to Stockholm: Letters of Sinclair Lewis, 1919–1930 (1952)Find this resource:

The Man from Main Street (1953)Find this resource:

If I Were Boss: The Early Business Stories of Sinclair Lewis (1997)Find this resource:

Further Reading

Bloom, Harold, ed. Sinclair Lewis: Modern Critical Interpretations. New York, 1987. Useful collection of academic studies.Find this resource:

Bucco, Martin, ed. Critical Essays on Sinclair Lewis. Boston, 1986. Several essays displaying original research on aspects of Lewis's career.Find this resource:

Fleming, Robert E., with Esther Fleming. Sinclair Lewis: A Reference Guide. Boston, 1980. Bibliography of Lewis's writings. Updated by Sally E. Parry and Robert I. McLaughlin in James M. Hutchisson, ed., Sinclair Lewis: New Essays in Criticism (see below).Find this resource:

Grebstein, Sheldon. Sinclair Lewis. New York, 1962. Critical study defending Lewis as satirist.Find this resource:

Hutchisson, James M. The Rise of Sinclair Lewis, 1920–1930. University Park, Pa., 1996. Indispensable account of how Lewis wrote his major novels from Main Street through Dodsworth.Find this resource:

Hutchisson, James M., ed. Sinclair Lewis: New Essays in Criticism. Troy, N.Y., 1997. A collection of the best recent scholarly essays.Find this resource:

Killough, George, ed. Sinclair Lewis: A Minnesota Diary. Moscow, Idaho, 2000. A diary Lewis kept in the early 1940s with impressions of his home state, revealing a lyrical, philosophical side.Find this resource:

Koblas, John J. Sinclair Lewis—Home at Last. Bloomington, Minn., 1981. Koblas visited places where Lewis lived in Minnesota during his lifetime and interviewed people who knew him.Find this resource:

Kurth, Peter. American Cassandra: The Life of Dorothy Thompson. Boston, 1990. The fullest biography of Dorothy Thompson, discussing her lesbian affairs and other aspects of her marriage to Lewis.Find this resource:

Early the following morning Lewis called up and asked me to come back up to see him at 10 o'clock. This time we talked about England, where I'd been studying, and about the American Legion, which was just then holding a convention in New York. He told me that his wife, Dorothy, had said the Legion was the first manifestation of fascism in the United States, and he had said to her, ''Come on, Dorothy, this is the first chance these fellows have had to get away from their wives in years. Let them have a little fun.'' Lewis had put me completely at ease when, once again, he suddenly sent me away, now thoroughly puzzled.

He invited me back the next morning. He began chatting about what it was like to be married to a newspaper columnist, without any bitterness that I could detect; and went on about one thing and another. His phone rang. He answered it in his bedroom. Soon he came back, and he said, ''John'' - he was now calling me by my first name - ''I have to shave and change for an appointment. There's a young man down in the lobby who's applying for a job as my secretary. Would you mind interviewing him for me?''

The young man, I was happy to be able to report, was hopeless.

It seemed, without anything having been said about it, that that chore had been my first task as his employee. After some more casual conversation Lewis gave me a month to learn shorthand - he suggested either the Gregg system or speedwriting - and to switch over from hunt-and-peck to touch-typing. He told me to report to him after 30 days at a house he had rented in Stockbridge. (I hadn't the faintest idea that he needed the security of being near the Riggs sanitarium, in case he should tumble off the wagon.) The house was a small, simple, shingled, summer-resortish cottage. Lewis had settled in a ground-floor bedroom, and the whole second floor was mine. A local woman came in to cook and clean.

I had barely had time to unpack when Lewis put in my hands the typescript of a novel he had just finished and asked me to read it and tell him what I thought of it. I had no way of knowing that he had reached a critical stage in his writing life. He was 52 years old. He had won the Nobel Prize seven years before, at the end of a remarkably fecund decade, which had seen the appearance of ''Main Street,'' ''Babbitt,'' ''Arrowsmith,'' ''Mantrap,'' ''Elmer Gantry,'' ''The Man Who Knew Coolidge'' and ''Dodsworth.'' He had coveted the Nobel and had lobbied for it with shocking brazenness, but the hanging of the medal around his neck in Stockholm had turned out to mark, as The Herald Tribune put it, ''his hour of awful nakedness.'' The tirade of his acceptance speech on the poverty of American culture had raised such a storm back home that Calvin Coolidge felt the need to say, in one of his longer and more ornate sentences, ''No necessity exists for becoming excited.'' Lillian Gish told Schorer that Lewis had said to her, ''This is the end of me. This is fatal. I cannot live up to it.'' He had published two mediocre but commercially successful novels, ''Ann Vickers'' and ''Work of Art,'' and then, in the last flare-up of his astonishing cretive energy, he had dashed off the massive, awkward, but resonant novel ''It Can't Happen Here'' in four months of work. That book had been published a year and a half before he hired me.

The typescript he handed me was entitled ''The Prodigal Parents.'' Ten years earlier, bouncing back from the revulsion of ''Elmer Gantry,'' Lewis had begun to plan a more positive novel with a labor leader like Eugene Debs for a hero, who lived by ''the God within'' him. Its theme would be: ''Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake.'' Again and again in the following years, he had sought out one knowledgeable informant after another, who could be for this work the sort of teacher and guide the bacteriologist Paul de Kruif had been for ''Arrowsmith.'' Nothing ever came of it. After the publication of ''It Can't Happen Here,'' when Lewis had been accused of being a Communist, a young radical Dartmouth student named Budd Schulberg invited him to Hanover to talk to some Marxist undergraduates. They soon found out that Lewis hadn't a political bone in his body, and they began to bait him, until he shouted, ''You young sons of bitches can all go to hell!'' and walked out on them.

With ''The Prodigal Parents,'' Lewis turned his back once and for all on the idealistic labor novel and instead took a petulant revenge on Budd Schulberg's friends. The parents were a mawkish couple named Fred and Hazel Cornplow, and their children were silly left-wing college kids who were taken in by a cartoon-page Commie. Even I - who knew none of this background - could see that it was awful. It was destined to receive some scathing reviews. Lloyd Morris would write that Lewis ''has never been less an artist.'' Malcolm Cowley would find the book ''flat, obvious, and full of horse-play that wouldn't raise a laugh at an Elks' convention.''

But I was 23. Sinclair Lewis had won the Nobel Prize. I wanted this job. I had courage only up to a point - to the point of telling the author that he had got his students' vernacular all wrong. We went through the dialogue line by line, and I think now I must have helped Lewis to make his book a little more obvious than it already was.

Lewis's life was in a mess. But I was to have a marvelous summer, oblivious of his suffering. He never took a single drink while I worked for him; I remained in total ignorance of his history. I saw a surface that was gentle, kindly, boyish and vividly entertaining. He treated me as a young friend, insisting that I call him Red. My work was fun. Taking his rapid dictation and reading it back to type it was like doing a crossword puzzle: I caught every fourth word with a squiggle of Gregg and had to figure out what went between.

He was endlessly playful. ''He could no more stop telling stories than he could stop his hair growing,'' the historian Carl Van Doren once said. When we lunched alone, he would start a tale - either true or invented on the spur of the moment - and then, all for me, and of course for his own pleasure, he would jump up from the table and become the people in the story, switching from side to side as he conversed with himself in the telling. His improvisations were uncanny; one forgot his cadaverous face and saw John L. Lewis, F.D.R., Huey Long, Father Coughlin. He could reel off astonishing footages of Milton, Blake, Edward Lear. In company he organized games. Word and letter games were his favorites. He rattled off tongue twisters, spoonerisms, oxymorons. Once with John Marquand and others he passed around pads and pencils and made everyone see how many names of rivers beginning with ''M'' they could write down. He would assign guests outrageous names from telephone books and tell them to converse in character with the names. He would hand out a set of end rhymes and get people writing sonnets with them against the clock; Schorer records that Lewis's own best time was 3 minutes and 50 seconds. He hired a small donkey one day when two very tall people were to be at the house; for some reason he wanted to see them riding around with their feet dragging on the ground. APART from correspondence, my secretarial work consisted of copying draft pages of a play he was writing about the horrors of Communism in an imaginary Balkan kingdom, Kronland. It was my secret knowledge that it was even worse, alas, than ''The Prodigal Parents.'' Lewis had long been stage-struck. His writing gift was mimetic, his ear as high-fidelity recorder, and he loved nothing better than to stand and recite to an audience, even of one, me, what his inner tapes had caught. He had collaborated with Lloyd Lewis on ''Jayhawker,'' a play about a roistering Civil War-time Kansas senator, which had lasted less than three weeks on Broadway in 1934; and he had written a stage adaptation of ''It Can't Happen Here,'' which had opened to mixed notices in simultaneous W.P.A. productions in 18 cities in 1936. In the years after I worked for him, he would pluckily go on both writing for and acting on the stage.

A pleasure for him - and for me - was that because of this interest the house would be alive evening after evening with the chatter of the young actors and actresses of the summer theater in Stockbridge. ''The theater fascinated him,'' his friend Marc Connelly would later write, ''but I do not think he ever had any comprehension of its technical demands.'' During those evenings, in intermissions between parlor games, Lewis would endlessly ask primitive technical questions of the young summer-stockers: How do I get a character on and off stage in such and such a circumstance? Does it matter if the speaker is upstage of the listener? Looking back, I think I can visualize better than I could at the time, in those gatherings, what Schorer would speak of as his ''uncritical gregariousness and concomitant loneliness'' - the disfigured redheaded Great Man with a second wrecked marriage whispering to me that I should make a date with the ingenue of the company.

A sure sign of his loneliness was to be found in his parade of guests, for meals and for weekends. He and I almost never ate dinner alone. One of the most touching manifestations of his kindness was his concern for my future as a writer. If a weekend visitor was to be the publisher Harrison Smith or Thomas Costain, an editor of The Saturday Evening Post, he would carefully instruct me on their fancies and foibles, so that I could most effectively ingratiate myself with them, against rainy days to come.

During one of Smith's visits, I learned much of the story of Lewis's roller-coaster relationship with Yale. As an undergraduate he had written pieces for the two campus magazines, the Yale Literary Magazine and the Yale Courant - no less than 37 of them; but of course this yokel from Sauk Centre, Minn., who thought nothing of walking down Chapel Street on a warm spring evening in his pajamas, was not chosen as editor. Called upon to make a speech at his 15th reunion, after ''Main Street'' but before ''Babbitt,'' he said, ''When I was in college, you fellows didn't give a damn about me, and I'm here to say that now I don't give a damn about you.''

In July of my summer with him came the 10th anniversary of Lewis's first meeting, at a press conference and tea party in the Foreign Ministry in Berlin, with Dorothy Thompson, then the Berlin correspondent of The Philadelphia Public Ledger and The New York Evening Post. The day after the press conference was to be her 33d birthday, and she invited Lewis to a party. Later she would write him about that evening in her apartment: ''I will never forget how you looked, or how I felt, that first night. I felt a terrific indignation. I thought, 'My God, how he suffers.' '' Lewis, evidently sensing that he might be given tender loving care by this dashing, energetic and compassionate woman, proposed marriage to her that very night, and he kept repeating the proposal every time he saw her until, sometime in August, she accepted her role as his marital nurse. He told me once that ''Dodsworth'' was in part a replay of his pursuit of Thompson all over Europe. He talked to me about her a lot. He seemed to miss her, and each time we were to drive to Barnard, Vt., to spend a weekend with her, he would have me take his clothes to the cleaners beforehand, and he would have a haircut, and on the road on the way up he would be in high spirits. Within an hour of our arrival, he would be fighting with her.

Lewis flew through life, a helpless missile rocketed along by some furious inner propulsion. ''Is the wanderer like me homeless,'' he wrote during a honeymoon tour of England, ''or does he merely have more homes than most people?'' In the 10 years after he met Thompson in Berlin he alighted - several different times in a few of the places, but always hurrying on to some inviting elsewhere - in Paris, Moscow, Sicily, Rome, London, New York, the New York suburbs, Vermont, 10 towns in Florida, North Carolina, Toronto, Boston, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Reno, San Francisco, Carmel, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Baltimore, Annapolis, Austria, Bronxville, Bermuda and, briefly, the little center-cone of the twister where it had all started, Sauk Centre. Thompson was a vagabond, too, and during his peripatetic courtship of her, he had written to her promising that when they were married they would settle down on a farm in Vermont (of a sort the restless Dodsworth had yearned for), where they might at last find a pastoral inertia - a repose of spirit as well as body. Even before they were married she began shopping for linen for that imaginary haven.

On their first return to the United States they had bought Twin Farms, to which I was to drive Lewis for visits that summer, a 300-acre place near Barnard with two houses on it, one a farmhouse built in 1796, the other a larger house perhaps converted from a barn. The following year they remodeled the latter, creating a huge, light-filled living room and a bedroom-study for Lewis. It was - for me - a heavenly place to visit. I had the old farmhouse all to myself.

Repose, sad to say, was not to be given to the Lewises. As Thompson went from success to success and Lewis from bottle to bottle, he apparently began to see his nurse-wife first as a nanny and then as some kind of malevolent tyrant. He complained that he had to share his marital bed with world affairs; he threatened to divorce her and name Hitler as co-respondent; he said he felt as if he were married to a senator; and when her name was seriously put forward to run for President in 1936 he said, ''Fine. Then I can write 'My Day.' '' Once, as we drove away to return to Stockbridge, he cried out, ''If I ever hear any more talk about Conditions and Situations, John, I'll commit either suicide or murder.'' In the evenings, during our weekends at Barnard, troops of witty young men like Joseph Alsop, Alexander Woollcott and Vincent Sheean, and their friends, would sit on the floor in an entranced circle around Mrs. Lewis as she held forth after dinner, while Lewis - without the comfort of the brandy they were all sipping - would sit behind the curtain of a newspaper on the other side of the room, occasionally rattling the paper in outrage at something Thompson had said. At breakfast the next morning, he would pick up on one of these somethings, telling her she had had her facts all wrong on Yugoslavia, or John L. Lewis, or Franco. Then a few days later, in one of a series of her columns entitled ''Grouse for Breakfast,'' he would have to read her mockery of his arguments.

No matter that Lewis's Muse was spent: I was fascinated by his habits as a writer. It was exciting for a kid who wanted to write to be around a man who lived so intensely by, for and in his work. He would sometimes get up at 2 in the morning, brew up coffee, type for three hours and go back to bed. He left notebooks all around the house, and he urged me to look through them, so that we - or, rather, he, before a dumbstruck sounding board - could discuss possible undertakings. He said he needed to know everything about the characters and the setting of a story before he started writing. Maps of imaginary towns sketched in pencil, floor plans of houses, life histories, word portraits in the most painstaking detail, characterizing anecdotes, breeds of pets, dishes served at table, names of eccentric specimen shrubs that a particular character would be sure to have planted outside the house -there was an astonishing wealth of groundwork in those loose-leaf notebooks.

He doted on names; he believed people became their names. He had a stack of telephone books from all over the world, so he could find an odd but apt name for a character from New Orleans, or, if needed, a Roman, or an Alpine innkeeper. When he had to name a new character, he would make a list of a dozen possibilities and leave the list on the piano in the living room; days after day he would pick up the list and cross off a name or two, until he had made his final choice by elimination. I would sometimes hear him at his desk calling out names, as if summoning lost souls.

In the autumn his feet must have begun to itch again; he wanted to be near New York theater people, and he moved back to the city, taking an apartment at the Wyndham, at 42 West 58th Street. I moved into quarters with my brother and five other recent college graduates and would turn up for work at the Wyndham at 9 in the morning - once to find that Lewis had been up until 5 with the director Jed Harris and was still up, at his typewriter, in a fever of excitement over new ideas.

It began to be evident that he no longer really needed me. He put it to me that it was getting difficult for a young person to break into print and earn a decent living by writing; therefore, I should first make a nest egg in another line of work.

The year was 1937. War loomed, he said. When it came, he said, there would surely be a boom in the demand from small boys for lead soldiers. I should study the craft of their manufacture, make a pile, and then write my heart out. He was perfectly serious, and he even mesmerized me into going to F. A. O. Schwarz, Macy's, Gimbels and several smaller stores to look into the lead-soldier market. Try as I might to picture myself as a lead-soldier tycoon, I failed, thanked Lewis for his suggestion, and, having had a lovely summer with a vivid, brilliant, kind, driven, suffering man, I resigned, got from his friend Laura Hobson the name of the person who was then hiring writers for Time, remembered with some asperity having been turned down flat the previous spring, wrote a 24-page essay on how rotten the magazine was, handed it in and was hired the next day. Excerpted from the winter 1987 issue of The Yale Review, to be published by Yale University Press this month. Copyright 1987 by Yale University.

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