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Mr. Lewis’s America

ISSUE:  Summer 1931

The Nobel Prize Edition of the Novels of Sinclair Lewis: Main Street. Babbitt. Arowsmith. Elmer Gantry. Dodsworth.
New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.50 each.

Impossible as judicious appraisal is amid the uproar over the Nobel prize, the appearance of a collected edition of these five important novels calls for some estimate, even on the part of the most casual reader, of Sinclair Lewis as artist and thinker. For here, from the time when Carol Milford stands on the hill beside the Mississippi seeking an hour’s relief from Blodgett College, to the moment when Sam Dodsworth slams a final door on his wife—here is that long panorama of American life which has caught the attention of the world. For two thousand pages the bright staccato style (so curiously like a clicking typewriter) never varies; the brilliant cinematographic scenes dissolve into each other like a news-reel, infinite in variety and yet forever the same; the catalogues of names, habits, persons, places, fraternal orders, automobiles, and business firms, real and imaginary, are sprayed at us, their targets, with the metallic precision of machine-gun fire. Here everything is noisy, rapid, and restless; the author allows us no peace —no pause in which to contemplate what he has said, but like his own Babbitt, his own Mrs. Dodsworth, is frenetically eager to exhibit some new invention of shining adjectives, some fresh and glittering oddity which he has seized upon, ticketed, and thrown away, before we can grasp its significance. We are deafened by pitiless clamor, by this writing at the top of one’s voice, this fiction at once superficial and profound. These novels race like automobiles, they exhibit only the metalled surface of a machine; and yet it is unquestionable that others have found in them something deeply significant and disturbing. And if we can not at once grasp this significance it is because such incessant speed whirls us around and around a few simple ideas, one or two central situations, until, growing giddy, we scarcely know where we are.

One entering a moving-picture theater has to readjust oneself to new arrangements of brilliance and darkness. So, as we become accustomed to Lewis’s glitter, we gradually sort out the elements of which it is composed. His world is at once oddly familiar and oddly grotesque; we recognize in these streets and names and cities—Gopher Prairie, Zenith, Dr. Pickersbaugh, Sharon Falconer, Will Kennicott — places and persons as customary as the evening paper; yet, set in the strange and fantastic lights of the author’s mind, they dilate into enormous images until we rub our eyes and ask whether this is the United States or some Arabian Nights wherein men grow into genii as, before our eyes, Elmer Gantry swells into a preposterous travesty, and Babbitt’s business day takes on the minute and interminable precision of a nightmare. This, we say, is our world, and yet it is not our world but an impossible parody of the known and familiar; for though the details are copied with a cruel and scientific precision, the proportions are those of faces seen in a close-up or on a billboard. There is in these books the nightmare quality of those engravings by Piranesi which used to haunt the opium-eater, in which endless ascending stairways led on to further stairs in an incessant and fatiguing acceleration of line.

For these fictions are enormous dilations of simple elements. Their central situations are those of short stories; time has no part in them; and when we compare them with novels like “Vanity Fair” or “War and Peace,” we find, for the most part, that they exhibit no development, no progress, no deterioration, but only an incessant repetition. At the end of seventy pages we have fathomed Elmer Gantry, we know the simple and hypocritical elements of which he is composed; but the author is not content, and for thirty-one chapters he must repeat in ever-widening circles the original formula in which this travesty of a man is first presented. Though Carol Kennicott in the last chapter of “Main Street” wears eye-glasses and is the mother of two children, she is scarcely altered from the Carol Milford of page one. So Martin Arrowsmith, like the frog in the arithmetic problem, incessantly repeats the process of going forward a step and slipping back again; and art the end of 401 pages we know precisely what we guessed from the second section of the first chapter of “Babbitt,” namely, that the central fig- j ure is the unhappy victim of a certain environment which he j will never surmount. Only Sam Dodsworth is fundamen-^ tally changed by this incessant bombardment of brilliant detail; and it is significant that of these novels “Dodsworth” alone is steeped in pity.

We probe deeper. We note as a fundamental postulate of this staccato style its well-nigh complete externality. The | author’s concern is to give names to things, to enumerate details, to describe surfaces; and if he feels that his characters stand in need of reflection, of calm, of poetry, he is himself without subjectivism, he has nothing lyrical, nothing drawn from within, to offer us. There is no tragedy and no humor in these books, but only satire, travesty, and pathos; even the admirable Gottlieb is pathetic, not tragic, and for the death of Leora Arrowsmith we have a passing sense of sorrow, but we feel no deep emotion. It is deeply significant that we remember nothing of external nature from these books, but only cities, towns, social contacts, and gregarious-ness. The country exists only that Gopher Prairie may be isolated, that Arrowsmith and Gantry may move incessantly across the map of the United States, that Dodsworth, returning from Europe, shall sum up his impressions of both continents by leaving out the landscape. And if Dodsworth tires of externality, his author never does; not all his satire hides Lewis’s deep delight in describing the perfections of Babbitt’s bathroom, the dull architecture of Main Street, Sharon Falconer’s pulpit, and even the minor characters, who are absurd puppets seen from the outside.

As documents these books are brilliant and superb. As great novels they trouble the literary conscience. If we compare them to “Fathers and Sons” or “Crime and Punishment” or “Buddenbrooks,” they lack wisdom, beauty, and depth. It is instructive to read Lewis and then to read “The Old Wives’ Tale,” a novel that likewise overflows with happily, observed detail; we feel, however, that amidst his immense observations, Arnold Bennett himself is solid and quiet like the earth, whereas Lewis rushes incessantly from point to point and from method to method, now travestying American business English, now heaping up veracious detail about Zenith, now pitying his personages, now mocking their futility, now seeing life from their point of view, and now cruelly dissecting the very characters for whom, a moment ago, he asked sympathy. We do not know whether he is journalist or philosopher, muckraker or writer of comedy; he fatigues us with this perpetual change of role. He is, we are told, a satirist, but a great satirist like Thackeray or Swift lets us know in every moment how to take him. Lewis docs not; the quiet art of their controlled and level style is beyond him, and if at times he approaches it, it is only in the next paragraph to burst into buffoonery.

And yet there remains something unexplained, huge, and memorable at the bottom. If he does not have the control, he has the energy of genius, and like Dickens breathes into his caricatures a wild vitality. Pickersbaugh in “Arrow-smith,” for example, like Micawber, resembles no human being that ever lived, and yet he exists and shares in the traits of men. As Chesterton said of Dickens that he does not so much present characters as create a mythology, so we may say of Lewis that he has created an American mythology whose Valhalla is the Reeves Building in Zenith, whose inhabitants are Babbitt and Carol Kennicott and (bad as in almost every respect the book is which he inhabits) Elmer Gantry. Lewis himself in “Dodsworth” uses Babbitt as a generic noun and recognizes his own divinity. Remembering that Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, we see that one does not have to be a supreme artist to add to the mythology of fiction; that there is, outside the boundaries of great writing, a field in which these mythological creatures are born of the teeming imagination; and that Lewis resembles Dickens and Dumas more than he does Flaubert or Thackeray.

But there are others in these novels — thin caricatures, grotesque parodies like Sharon Turner, the staff of the McGurk Institute, and the distorted citizens of Gopher Prairie. Among them and among the mythological beings walk a few intensely human persons like Gottlieb in “Arrowsmith,” Will Kennicott, Dodsworth, and, for all the monotonous repetition of her simple formula, Mrs. Dodsworth. If “Main Street” is Carol’s story, one finds oneself imagining what her husband thought of her; and it is significant of Lewis’s bias that he has preferred to place Carol in the center of his novel. But perhaps he has not neglected Will Kennicott after all; Dodsworth is his later incarnation, who shakes himself free at last from his restless helpmate.

But while to create mythology is to be very great indeed, we regret that with all his gifts, Lewis lacks the gift of repose, of that pity and wisdom the need for which he so clearly recognizes. He writes of Main Street and Zenith, because he is himself a citizen of this world, accepts its limitations, its confused feeling that something has been left out of life, its simple faith in a thing called Ideals. We compare his books with the serene art of Ellen Glasgow, for example, and it is like hearing a concert by a brass band and then hearing a concert by a symphony, orchestra. None of Miss Glasgow’s people is likely to pass into mythology; her star is too southern for Swedish telescopes to discover; her field is not the noisy externalities of America, but the quieter life of Virginia. Or rather her concern is with the life of the soul amidst the eternal problems of existence. Lewis’s people do not have souls—he is troubled that they do not, yet he has not endowed them with souls, but only with a few vast and confused emotions. Alone of all his heroes Dods-worth approximates a central serenity, and in this fact there is hope. Unsurpassed in quick, sure, and amused drawing, Lewis has not yet developed the brooding mind of a painter; except for his latest novel, his books are those of an immense and clever adolescence, but there are indications of an increasing maturity which hint that he is far from being written out.


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