Sinclair Lewis

Writing about Zane Grey the other week, I asked if other writers had dealt with the situation of German-Americans during the Great War. Sally Perry kindly pointed me towards the 1916 story ‘He Loved His Country’ by Sinclair Lewis. I therefore got hold of The Minnesota Stories of Sinclair Lewis (edited, as it happens, by Sally Perry) and investigated. I had previously been thoroughly ignorant about Sinclair Lewis. (The older I get and the more I read, the more I become aware of how much more there is…), I was very pleased to find that his story turns out to be excellent – much more intelligently crafted than the Zane Grey.

Lewis’s central character, Hugo Bremenshenkel, is seventy-five years old: ‘a fiery and affectionate little man, who could still plow all day and afterward whistle boyishly as he fed his cattle’. Lewis presents him as ‘a simple man’, but does not condescend to him. He is a man who ‘loved his country, his America, because he was one of the men who had made it’. On arriving in America he had fought on the Northern side in the Civil War, and afterwards had made a farm from the untamed woodland: ‘A grim home for wolves he had made into a gardenland, therefore he loved it – and loved America.’

The outbreak of war in 1914 at first means little to Hugo and his wife. It’s a long way way, and he assumes that it will soon be over. Gradually it becomes clear that Germany will not have an easy victory over the ‘impudent frog-eaters’, and tensions arise, between him and his French-Canadian and English neighbours. The American media turn against the Germans, and there are disturbing reports of atrocities in Belgium. News comes of German cousins killed in battle.

Before the war, Hugo had seen himself as simply American; now he becomes, in the eyes of others, ‘a hyphenate’, a German-American.

The crisis comes at a meeting of the G.A.R. ( a veterans’ association, the Grand Army of the Republic). Hugo joins his old comrades wearing his blue coat and his ‘black slouch hat with the gold cord’ and is moved to anger by a film show that presents the Germans as villains (The movie is called Columbia Awaken! And seems to be one that Lewis has imagined. Were there actual pro-allied films in American cinemas early in the war?) He makes a scene, protesting that the propaganda is a lie. After this, he becomes increasingly committed to the German cause, and increasingly alienated from his non-German neighbours.

His protest makes him something of a celebrity, and a German-American political group invite him to a rally. But when one of the speakers (a journalist who ‘looked like a cross between a naïve child and a malicious monkey’) pulls down and threatens to desecrate the American flag, Hugo refuses to allow it to happen. He takes charge of the flag and leaves (and the German Americans in the audience feel that he has done the right thing. They applaud him and begin to sing ‘America’. He goes home to his wife, to concentrate on the farming.

In this story, Lewis shows the man’s identity created by two wars. The Civil War that made him an American, and the European War that made him an unwilling hyphenate. The treatment of identity is far subtler than in the Zane Grey novel. In that, the old man who is the hero’s father, has loyalties that are simply and uncomplicatedly pro-German. In the melodramatic plot, he sides with the saboteurs and foreign agents, while his son is uncomplicatedly on the side of the angels.

Lewis was clearly a thoughtful writer. The first item in this collection is ‘Minnesota: the Norse State’, a 1923 essay that is very interesting on ‘the curious newness of Minnesota’ a melting-pot state discovering its identity. There are some other good stories too. One that I have enjoyed very much is ‘The Tamarack Lover’, about a woman taking very determined steps to get her man. I should have read Lewis before. I think I shall try his 1920 novel Main Street next.

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4 Comments

  1. Tom Deveson
    Posted September 15, 2019 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    I read him in bulk as a teenager, initially thanks to the two Bedford libraries and then to junk shops and jumble sales; even such unpromising books as Mantrap which for some reason turned up as an orange Penguin. I bought it for sixpence.

    Better and worse writers have won the Nobel Prize; bigger and lesser drinkers have produced fine American novels. The boozers include Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, William Faulkner, Robert Benchley, Tennessee Williams, James Thurber, Raymond Chandler, Carson McCullers, Edna St Vincent Millay, Delmore Schwartz, Theodore Roethke, Allen Tate, John O’Hara, Eugene O’Neill, Caroline Gordon, Edmund Wilson, John Cheever and more than a few others.

    I still marvel that Bedford libraries in the1960s provided me with Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Dodsworth, Cass Timberlane and Kingsblood Royal. Elmer Gantry and It Can’t Happen Here appeared as cheap paperbacks.

    Any tyro critic can point to Lewis’s faults. His virtues are easily overlooked. The ending of Main Street [1920] might still provide some salutary surprises:

    ‘…”Yes, it would jar you to have Bert butting in,” he said amiably. “Are you going to do much fussing over this Community stunt? Don’t you ever get tired of fretting and stewing and experimenting?”
    “I haven’t even started. Look!” She led him to the nursery door, pointed at the fuzzy brown head of her daughter. “Do you see that object on the pillow? Do you know what it is? It’s a bomb to blow up smugness. If you Tories were wise, you wouldn’t arrest anarchists; you’d arrest all these children while they’re asleep in their cribs. Think what that baby will see and meddle with before she dies in the year 2000! She may see an industrial union of the whole world, she may see aeroplanes going to Mars.”
    “Yump, probably be changes all right,” yawned Kennicott.
    She sat on the edge of his bed while he hunted through his bureau for a collar which ought to be there and persistently wasn’t.
    “I’ll go on, always. And I am happy. But this Community Day makes me see how thoroughly I’m beaten.”
    “That darn collar certainly is gone for keeps,” muttered Kennicott and, louder, “Yes, I guess you——I didn’t quite catch what you said, dear.”
    She patted his pillows, turned down his sheets, as she reflected:
    “But I have won in this: I’ve never excused my failures by sneering at my aspirations, by pretending to have gone beyond them. I do not admit that Main Street is as beautiful as it should be! I do not admit that Gopher Prairie is greater or more generous than Europe! I do not admit that dish-washing is enough to satisfy all women! I may not have fought the good fight, but I have kept the faith.”
    “Sure. You bet you have,” said Kennicott. “Well, good night. Sort of feels to me like it might snow tomorrow. Have to be thinking about putting up the storm-windows pretty soon. Say, did you notice whether the girl put that screwdriver back?”’

    And the opening of Babbitt [1922] can still catch the imagination:

    ‘The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods. They were neither citadels nor churches, but frankly and beautifully office-buildings.
    The mist took pity on the fretted structures of earlier generations: the Post Office with its shingle-tortured mansard, the red brick minarets of hulking old houses, factories with stingy and sooted windows, wooden tenements colored like mud. The city was full of such grotesqueries, but the clean towers were thrusting them from the business center, and on the farther hills were shining new houses, homes—they seemed—for laughter and tranquillity.
    Over a concrete bridge fled a limousine of long sleek hood and noiseless engine. These people in evening clothes were returning from an all-night rehearsal of a Little Theater play, an artistic adventure considerably illuminated by champagne. Below the bridge curved a railroad, a maze of green and crimson lights. The New York Flyer boomed past, and twenty lines of polished steel leaped into the glare.
    In one of the skyscrapers the wires of the Associated Press were closing down. The telegraph operators wearily raised their celluloid eye-shades after a night of talking with Paris and Peking. Through the building crawled the scrubwomen, yawning, their old shoes slapping. The dawn mist spun away. Cues of men with lunch-boxes clumped toward the immensity of new factories, sheets of glass and hollow tile, glittering shops where five thousand men worked beneath one roof, pouring out the honest wares that would be sold up the Euphrates and across the veldt. The whistles rolled out in greeting a chorus cheerful as the April dawn; the song of labor in a city built—it seemed—for giants….’

    It was Lewis’s wish to clear those mists. He didn’t always do it – far from it – but he did it oftener than he’s credited for.

    I got rid of quite a few over the years and when we moved. But I’ve kept five – Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry and It Can’t Happen Here – and sometimes I regret jettisoning things like Kingsblood Royal and even Storm in the West, that strange version of World War II retold as a cowboy screenplay.

    I didn’t keep Mark Schorer’s monumental biography.

    At nearly nine hundred pages, it didn’t invite me to believe I’d read it again.

    One of the books is news again – well, you can guess:

    http://www.salon.com/…/it_really_can_happen_here_the_novel…/

    Here’s a paragraph from his Nobel Prize speech in 1930. Delivering such a prediction is asking for trouble. But two questions arise:

    Did he get so much wrong?

    Would a similar prophecy made by X today sound any better in 2098?

    ‘…There is Ernest Hemingway, a bitter youth, educated by the most intense experience, disciplined by his own high standards, an authentic artist whose home is in the whole of life; there is Thomas Wolfe, a child of, I believe, thirty or younger, whose one and only novel, Look Homeward, Angel, is worthy to be compared with the best in our literary production, a Gargantuan creature with great gusto of life; there is Thornton Wilder, who in an age of realism dreams the old and lovely dreams of the eternal romantics; there is John Dos Passos, with his hatred of the safe and sane standards of Babbitt and his splendor of revolution; there is Stephen Benét, who to American drabness has restored the epic poem with his glorious memory of old John Brown; there are Michael Gold, who reveals the new frontier of the Jewish East Side, and William Faulkner, who has freed the South from hoopskirts; and there are a dozen other young poets and fictioneers, most of them living now in Paris, most of them a little insane in the tradition of James Joyce, who, however insane they may be, have refused to be genteel and traditional and dull….’

    Any thoughts?

    • Posted September 15, 2019 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

      Predicting the reading tastes of the future is always a tricky task. A long while ago I posted here about a 1928 Manchester Guardian competition to guess what novelists then alive would still be essential reading a century later. Galsworthy came top of the list.
      Lewis probably did as well as anyone could. Hemingway is still read, isn’t he? Faulkner is probably still taught, but is he much read today outside the academy? It’s a long while since I came across anyone excited about Faulkner. He certainly hasn’t lasted as well as Scott Fitzgerald, who Lewis doesn’t mention. As for Stephen Benét, and Michael Gold – well, clearly they got some readers in their lifetime.
      The trouble with lists like these is that their compilers tend to go for the ‘important’ novelists. ‘Important’ doesn’t last as well as entertaining. Wodehouse and Conan Doyle still sell steadily while their more respectable rivals languish in the library reserve stocks.

  2. Tom Deveson
    Posted September 15, 2019 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    I meant to say: Thank you [again!] for a very interesting piece of reading.

  3. gina in alabama
    Posted September 18, 2019 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    I must recommend Dodsworth for its portrait of an automobile industry pioneer, who is not in the least like Henry Ford. The film with Walter Huston in the title role is adequate, but the book is better.


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