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Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951)

Sinclair Lewis

Sinclair Lewis became the first American writer to receive the Nobel Prize in literature in 1930.

He was a journalist, novelist, short-story and playwright writer. He was a passionate advocate of human rights; a defender of workers rights, modern working woman and the oppressed of the world.

Harry Sinclair Lewis was born on February 7th, in Sauk Center Minnesota. His mother Emma, the daughter of a Canadian doctor, died of Tuberculosis when Lewis was six years old. His father Edwin, a country doctor, remarried a year later with Isabel Warner, a woman whom Lewis greatly appreciated and considered as his own mother.

Lewis was eager to read and learn. He read all of his father's medical books and then started to study local libraries' sources. He began to write in his young age starting with his personal diary, poems and short stories.

In 1902, he entered the Oberlin Academy and in 1903, went to Yale University. There he wrote for the Yale Literary Magazine. In Yale, Lewis met Jack London and collaborated with him in writing short stories. Meanwhile, he worked hard to make a living. In 1906, he worked as a janitor at Upton Sinclair's socialist commune Helicon Hall. In March of 1907, Helicon Hall burnt to the ground by the thugs of the capitalist ruling class.

In 1908, Lewis received his M.A., while being active in social events. Furthermore, it was in Greenwich Village, New York, which he met and befriended with John Read, Floyed Dell, and in early 1911, joined the Socialist Party of America.

In 1914, Lewis married Grace Livingston Hegger, an editor of Vogue magazine. Their son Wells was named after the British writer H.G. Wells. In 1944, Wells was killed in a WWII battle in France, a tragedy that exacerbated his drinking habit.

After his divorce with Grace, while in England in 1928, Lewis married Dorothy Thompson. Dorothy was an American woman who had been the Central European Correspondent of New York Evening Post and went on to be one of the most influential women in America. Dorothy gave birth to his second son Michael. Lewis and Dorothy divorced in 1942.

Lewis traveled vastly to North America, Latin America, and Europe including Russia, although his love for his homeland remained unconditional. He wrote: "My real traveling has been, sitting in Pullman smoking cars, in a Minnesota village, on a Vermont farm, in a hotel in Kansas City or Savannah, listening to the normal daily drone of what are to me the most fascinating and exotic people in the world- …".

In his major work, "It can't Happen Here" (1935), Lewis portrays the election of a fascist president in the United States. A Vermont journalist Doremus Jessup fights against the fascist regime of president Buzz Windrip who resembles Gerald B. Winrod, the far-right Kansas evangelist. "It serves as a warning that political movements akin to Nazism can come to power in countries such as the U.S. when people blindly support their leaders". In this novel Lewis asks- "what if some ambitious politician would use the 1936 presidential election to make himself dictator by promising quick, easy solutions to the depression-just as Hitler had done in Germany in 1933".

In his earlier novel "Babbit" (1922), the character of George F. Babbit became synonymous with bourgeois mediocrity. Babbit was filmed first with Willard Louis and then in 1934, by William Keighley.

"Arrowsmith" (1925), depicted the life of a doctor, Martin Arrowsmith, who is caught between his idealism and commercialism. The work won a Pulitzer Prize, which Lewis declined, as the award was meant for books that glorify the American way of life, even though his novels are critical of the American society. In his letter to the jury, he wrote, "Every compulsion is put upon writers to become safe, polite, obedient, and sterile. In protest, I declined election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters some years ago, and now I must decline the Pulitzer Prize." (From the author's letter, 1926). Arrowsmith was filmed by John Ford in1931.

In "Elmer Gantry" (1927), he exposed the hypocrisy of hysterical evangelicalism. Hypocritical ministers like Billy Sunday believed that progressives should be either expelled from the country or hanged. Billy Sunday was the most famous evangelist of his time, regularly pulling in crowds of twenty thousand. In 1960, Elmer Gantry was filmed by Richard Brooks, starring Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons and Arthur Kennedy. In "Dodsworth" (1929), he examines the most wealthy and prosperous Americans living essentially pointless and futile. Dodsworth was filmed by William Wyler in 1936.

In "Ann Vickers" (1933), he wrote about the corruption in social services in the United States. The novel was filmed by John Cromwell in 1933.

In 1930, Lewis lamented in his Nobel Prize speech that America is "the most contradictory, the most depressing, the most stirring of any land in the world to-day."

Sinclair Lewis became a subject of FBI investigation for inciting revolution in America. He continued his efforts for social justice and change in US and around the world. His novels were translated in many languages and published in different countries again and again. His view about the American society and its ruling class still is relevant and applicable.

Europe was where Sinclair Lewis spent his final years. He died on January 10th, in Rome, due to complications related to his heavy drinking and serious skin disease.

Other famous works are:

  • Hike and Aeroplane, 1912

  • Our Mr. Wrenn, 1914

  • The Trial of the Hawk, 1915

  • The Job, 1917

  • The Innocents, 1917

  • Free Air, 1919 (film1922 by E. H. Griffith)

  • Main Street, 1920 (film 1923 by Archie Mayo)

  • Mantrap, 1925 (film 1926 by Victor Fleming, and in 1940 by G. Archainbaud)

  • The Man who Knew Coolidge, 1928

  • Work of Art, 1934

  • The Prodigal Parents, 1938

  • Bethel Merriday, 1940

  • Gideon Planish, 1943

  • Cass Timberlane, 1945 (film1947 by George Sidney)

  • Kingbloods Royal, 1947

  • The Godseeker, 1949

  • World So Wide, 1951

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