Sinclair-Lewis

Sinclair Lewis quote

Sinclair Lewis was a journalist and Nobel Prize winning author. From his wiki intro:

Harry Sinclair Lewis (February 7, 1885 – January 10, 1951) was an American novelist, short-story writer, and playwright. In 1930, he became the first writer from the United States to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, which was awarded “for his vigorous and graphic art of description and his ability to create, with wit and humor, new types of characters.” His works are known for their insightful and critical views of American capitalism and materialism between the wars.[1] He is also respected for his strong characterizations of modern working women. H.L. Mencken wrote of him, “[If] there was ever a novelist among us with an authentic call to the trade … it is this red-haired tornado from the Minnesota wilds.”[2]

Although it was published five years after his Nobel Prize, Lewis’s best known book may well be It Can’t Happen Here. This from the wiki for It Can’t Happen Here:

…is a semi-satirical 1935 political novel by American author Sinclair Lewis. Published during the rise of fascism in Europe, the novel describes the rise of Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a populist United States Senator who is elected to the Presidency after promising drastic economic and social reforms while promoting a return to patriotism and traditional values. After his election, Windrip takes complete control of the government and imposes totalitarian rule with the help of a ruthless paramilitary force, in the manner of Adolf Hitler and the SS. The novel’s plot centers around journalist Doremus Jessup’s opposition to the new regime and his subsequent struggle against it. Reviewers at the time, and literary critics ever since, have emphasized the connection with Louisiana politician Huey Long, who was preparing to run for President in 1936 when the novel appeared.

Now I am not a critic by any stretch but having read It Can’t Happen Here not long after reading T.Harry Williams‘ bio of Long, I never have felt the parallels between Long and “Windrip” made any sense. Long came at the problems of the country from the left and Windrip from the right and that point (to me) immediately negates the comparison.

While It Can’t Happen Here is the best known Lewis piece from after his Nobel Prize, he has at least four pre-Nobel novels that can be considered classics. I know I studied both Babbit and Elmer Gantry in high school. Arrowsmith and Main Street are also considered classics and often studied.

Elmer Gantry especially still seems to resonate. We have all seen the stories of Jimmy Swaggert and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker as well as others of the televangalists. While Elmer Gantry was first published in 1927, it could well have been written in the last few years. From the Goodreads synopsis:

Universally recognized as a landmark in American literature, Elmer Gantry scandalized readers when it was first published, causing Sinclair Lewis to be “invited” to a jail cell in New Hampshire and to his own lynching in Virginia. His portrait of a golden-tongued evangelist who rises to power within his church–a saver of souls who lives a life of duplicity, sensuality, and ruthless self-indulgence–is also the record of a period, a reign of grotesque vulgarity, which but for Lewis would have left no trace of itself. Elmer Gantry has been called the greatest ,most vital, and most penetrating study of hypocrisy that has been written since the works of Voltaire.

Burt Lancaster won an Academy Award as Best Actor for his portrayal of Elmer Gantry in a 1960 movie and is probably the best known of films from Lewis books but IMDB shows 37 total writing credits, many of them from Lewis’ many short stories.


Picture from Ray MacLean licensed under Creative Commons