The grave-tender assured me the buried writer really was an atheist.
It was a summer day about 30 years ago when I drove to Sauk Centre’s Greenwood Cemetery to see the grave of novelist Sinclair Lewis.
Wandering in the cemetery row to row, I had no idea where to find the grave. Then, out of nowhere appeared an older man, a kind of skinflint geezer who might have been a groundskeeper. Yes, he was.
“Would you happen to know where Sinclair Lewis’ grave is?” I asked.
He bristled, his mouth pinched into a sour frown, eyes squinting.
“He was an atheist,” he said in a wheezy voice.
“No!,” I exclaimed in mock shock. “You’re kidding! An atheist? Awful. Are you sure?”
He seemed relieved by my response, as if I’d passed a graveyard test.
“Yes, you bet I’m sure,” he said. “An atheist. He was an atheist. What d’ya wanna see his grave for?
“Because he was a great writer,” I said.
“Well, OK, follow me.”
About 50 feet down a path, he stopped and pointed, saying, “There, it’s over there.”
Then he kind of skittered away like a two-legged spider, casting a nervous glance over his shoulder at me, as if lightning was about to strike from the blue summer sky and so he wanted to get out of the way – like quick.
I waved a thank you.
“Oh, my God,” I thought to myself, grinning, happy. “Perfect. He’s like a character right out of a Lewis novel.”
I looked down at the small, gray-granite burial plaque: “Sinclair Lewis, 1885-1951. Author of Main Street”
At the grave side, memories surfaced:
His ashes were buried in that plot on my third birthday, Jan. 28, 1951 after he died at age 65 in Rome and was cremated. Many years later, I read old news clippings about it. It was a viciously cold day. One of the graveside speakers was Chuck Rathe, a Lewis friend, who lived just four houses up Fifth Avenue from my south St. Cloud boyhood home. Chuck’s bright, vivacious daughter, Jane, was in some of my high-school classes.
Lewis’ brother, Dr. Claude Lewis, lived in a house across from Barden Park just one block northeast of my childhood home. (I didn’t know that until the mid-1960s).
One afternoon when I was a young teen, wonderful neighbor lady Alma Fahnhorst, who had grown up in the Melrose-Albany area, told me about a world-famous writer from Sauk Centre. I was so surprised. What?! A famous writer from this boring place? I was instantly curious.
Growing up not far from Sauk Centre, Alma had heard scuttlebutt stories about how that author had written a novel called “Main Street.” It was based on people he knew in Sauk Centre. Alma said the people in his hometown were ready to “tar and feather” him because they recognized themselves in the unlikable characters in the famous book. Lewis, she told me, was an atheist.
Days later, I checked out “Main Street” from the public library. I read it, liked it a lot. Throughout the years, I read most of his other novels – masterpieces of scalpel insights and comical social satire: Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, Dodsworth, Kingsblood Royal, and more.
What still amuses me is that people in so many small towns back in the 1920s insisted, with furious indignation, that Lewis had slandered them by presenting them as the characters in “Main Street.” It just goes to show how universal, how relevant, how close-to-the bone that novel was and is in depicting narrow-minded snooty provincialism, then and now. People identified. Lewis defied Americans to confront our smug, arrogant, blind excesses. To this day, his five-alarm challenge is more urgent than ever.
“Main Street,” that landmark novel, is now 100 years old. It still speaks to us.
Is Sinclair Lewis’ atheist soul now in Hell? Or is it languishing in Purgatory, awaiting God’s judgment? It’s nice to think some good rebel angel sneaked him past the Pearly Gates right up into highest Heaven.