Ondertexts
Sinclair Lewis
Search

Sinclair Lewis

Sinclair Lewis Sinclair Lewis[1†]

Harry Sinclair Lewis (February 7, 1885 – January 10, 1951) was an American novelist, short-story writer, and playwright[1†][2†]. In 1930, he became the first author from the United States (and the first from the Americas) to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature[1†][2†]. This prestigious award was given "for his vigorous and graphic art of description and his ability to create, with wit and humor, new types of characters"[1†].

Early Years and Education

Harry Sinclair Lewis was born on February 7, 1885, in Sauk Centre, Minnesota[3†][4†][5†]. He was the third son of Edwin J. Lewis, a small-town doctor, and Emma Kermott Lewis[3†][4†][5†]. His mother died when he was six years old[3†][6†][5†], and his father remarried Isabel Warner[3†][5†]. Lewis grew up with two siblings, his father, and his stepmother[3†][6†].

From an early age, Lewis was a sensitive and solitary child, often spending his time reading and writing[3†][4†][6†]. He began writing while in high school, and some of his articles appeared in Sauk Centre newspapers[3†]. Lewis was also known to keep journals from a young age[3†][6†].

In 1902, after graduating from high school, Lewis attended Oberlin College in Ohio for one year[3†][5†]. He then enrolled at Yale University in 1903[3†][4†][5†]. During his time at Yale, Lewis took time off to work at Helicon Home Colony in New Jersey, a socialist colony set up by the writer Upton Sinclair[3†][7†]. He also took a trip to Panama to find work at the Panama Canal, which was being built under US supervision at the time[3†][4†].

Lewis graduated from Yale University in 1908[3†][4†][6†][5†]. During his time at Yale, the Yale Literary Magazine published his first short stories and poems[3†][6†]. After graduation, Lewis spent several years doing newspaper and editorial work in various parts of the United States[3†].

Career Development and Achievements

After graduating from Yale University in 1908, Sinclair Lewis began his career as a reporter and editor for several publishers[1†][2†]. His first novel, “Our Mr. Wrenn” (1914), received favorable criticism but attracted few readers[1†][2†]. Despite this, Lewis continued to write for popular magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post and Cosmopolitan[1†][2†].

In 1920, Lewis published “Main Street”, which became a major success and established his literary reputation[1†][2†]. The novel, seen through the eyes of Carol Kennicott, a woman from the East married to a Midwestern doctor, was a critical examination of American provincialism[1†][2†]. Lewis’s careful rendering of local speech, customs, and social amenities made “Main Street” a textbook on American provincialism[1†][2†].

Following the success of “Main Street”, Lewis published “Babbitt” (1922), a study of the complacent American whose individuality has been sucked out of him by Rotary clubs, business ideals, and general conformity[1†][2†]. His other notable works include “Arrowsmith” (1925), “Elmer Gantry” (1927), “Dodsworth” (1929), and “It Can’t Happen Here” (1935)[1†][2†]. These works were critical of American capitalism and materialism during the interwar period[1†].

In 1930, Lewis became the first author from the United States to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature[1†][2†]. This prestigious award was given "for his vigorous and graphic art of description and his ability to create, with wit and humor, new types of characters"[1†].

Lewis was a born traveler and spent much of the 1920s with other great artists in the Montparnasse Quarter of Paris, France[1†][5†]. His last great work, “It Can’t Happen Here”, was published in 1935, and described the rise of fascism in the United States[1†][5†]. From 1936 to 1942, Lewis wrote several plays and even acted in a few[1†][5†].

In total, Lewis wrote 24 novels, more than 70 short stories, and several plays and poetry collections[1†][6†]. Today, he is mainly remembered for his satirical novels[1†][6†].

First Publication of His Main Works

Sinclair Lewis is renowned for his six popular novels, which were critical of American capitalism and materialism during the interwar period[1†][8†]. Here are the details of these main works:

These works punctured American complacency with their broadly drawn, widely popular satirical narratives[1†][2†][8†]. Lewis’ strong characterizations of modern working women are particularly respected[1†][8†].

Analysis and Evaluation

Sinclair Lewis’s work is often analyzed in terms of its quixotic vision[7†]. This term refers to the idealistic and unrealistic pursuit of ideals, much like the character Don Quixote in Miguel de Cervantes’s novel[7†][10†]. Lewis’s characters, still full of nostalgia for the excitement of the frontier, persuade themselves that what they have at the present represents the zenith, the summit of human potential[7†][11†].

His novels are seen as a critique of the United States, dominated by business and petty bourgeois mentality[7†][11†]. The image of America that Lewis projected seemed to reinforce the European perception of the United States as a dollar-hunting, materialistic country, alien to cultural refinement[7†][10†].

Lewis’s first two novels, Main Street and Babbitt, are careful satirical studies of provincial communities[7†][12†]. Main Street is seen through the eyes of Carol Kennicott, an Eastern girl married to a Midwestern doctor who settles in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota[7†][10†]. The power of the book derives from Lewis’s careful rendering of local speech, customs, and social amenities[7†][10†]. Babbitt is a study of the complacent American whose individuality has been sucked out of him by Rotary clubs, business ideals, and general conformity[7†][10†].

Despite some reservations, many critics acknowledged Lewis’s strengths as a writer[7†][10†]. H. L. Mencken enthusiastically supported him[7†][10†]. English writers paid him tribute; among them were E. M. Forster, Rebecca West, Hugh Walpole, and John Galsworthy[7†][10†]. They were joined by such fellow American writers as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Vachel Lindsay[7†][10†].

Personal Life

Sinclair Lewis was married twice in his lifetime[13†]. His first marriage was to Grace Hegger, an editor at Vogue, in 1914[13†]. This union lasted until 1925[13†]. The couple had one son, Wells, who was born in 1917[13†]. Tragically, Wells was killed in combat in October 1944, during World War II[13†].

Lewis’s second marriage was to journalist Dorothy Thompson in 1928[13†]. They had one son, Michael, who was born in 1930[13†]. However, this marriage also ended in divorce in 1942[13†].

In his later years, Lewis lived much of his time abroad[13†][2†]. His reputation declined steadily after 1930[13†][2†]. His personal life was marked by excessive drinking[13†][2†].

Conclusion and Legacy

Sinclair Lewis’s legacy is one of significant influence and impact on American literature[1†][2†]. His satirical and critical views of middle-class American life in the 1920s, as well as his strong characterizations of modern working women, have left a lasting imprint[1†][14†].

Lewis’s novels, including Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, Dodsworth, and It Can’t Happen Here, continue to be widely read and studied[1†][14†]. These works offer a sharp critique of American society, particularly its capitalism and materialism during the interwar period[1†][14†].

In 1930, Lewis became the first author from the United States to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature[1†][2†]. This prestigious award was given "for his vigorous and graphic art of description and his ability to create, with wit and humor, new types of characters"[1†][2†]. This recognition cemented his place in the annals of American literature.

Despite the decline in his reputation after 1930 and the personal struggles he faced in his later years, Lewis’s work continues to resonate with readers and scholars[1†][2†]. His insightful portrayals of American life and his innovative characterizations have ensured his enduring relevance and influence[1†][2†].

Key Information

References and Citations:

  1. Wikipedia (English) - Sinclair Lewis [website] - link
  2. Britannica - Sinclair Lewis: American writer [website] - link
  3. Encyclopedia of World Biography - Sinclair Lewis Biography [website] - link
  4. The Famous People - Sinclair Lewis Biography [website] - link
  5. U-S-History.com - Sinclair Lewis [website] - link
  6. The Nobel Prize - Sinclair Lewis – Facts [website] - link
  7. Oxford Bibliographies - Sinclair Lewis - American Literature [website] - link
  8. Wikiwand - Sinclair Lewis - Wikiwand [website] - link
  9. Google Books - Main Street - Sinclair Lewis [website] - link
  10. eNotes - Sinclair Lewis Analysis [website] - link
  11. eNotes - Sinclair Lewis Long Fiction Analysis [website] - link
  12. Britannica - Is Sinclair Lewis’s Most Famous Work Any Good? [website] - link
  13. ThoughtCo - Sinclair Lewis, First American to Win Nobel Prize for Literature [website] - link
  14. Geneastar - Family tree of Sinclair Lewis [website] - link
  15. Book Series In Order - Sinclair Lewis [website] - link
Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License 4.0; additional terms may apply.
Ondertexts® is a registered trademark of Ondertexts Foundation, a non-profit organization.