by Dennis Dalman
A new book about famed Sauk Centre-born author Sinclair Lewis was published just in time for the centenary celebration of his 1920 blockbuster novel, “Main Street.”
The book, “Becoming Sinclair Lewis,” was written mostly by Sauk Centre resident David Allen Simpkins, but his sudden death two years ago put a halt to the project. At that point, friends and fellow Lewis aficionados came to the rescue, pulling together to finish the book. One of them was Sister Mara Faulkner, of St. Joseph, a member of the Order of St. Benedict.
Faulkner is a retired professor of English and literature at the College of St Benedict and St. John’s University. She is also a published poet, academic writer and author of a memoir titled “Going Blind,” which was a finalist for the 2010 Minnesota Book Award. Currently, Faulkner teaches writing workshops at the Spirituality Center’s Studium at St. Benedict’s Monastery, where she lives.
One day years ago, Faulkner received a call about whether she would be willing to do some work as a writing mentor for a Sauk Centre writer struggling with a book about Sinclair Lewis. She agreed and soon met Simpkins. Then, usually once a month over the course of several years, they would meet, sometimes up to three hours, at the Spirituality Center where they would ponder the sprawling notes and partially written manuscript of the Lewis book.
“We had great conversations,” Faulkner said. “Dave was a stickler for facts. I loved that about him. He was one of the best researchers I ever met in my life. He would travel, dig through archives, interview people.”
More than 10 years ago, Simpkins, a long-time Lewis scholar and artifact collector, had been given a photocopy of a boyhood diary written by Lewis in the early years of the 20th Century. The journal was given to him by a Lewis biographer, Richard Lingeman. That diary sparked Simpkins’ passion to write a book about how, in the words of Lingeman, a “skinny, voluble, dreamy, acne-complexioned, paprika-haired, Yale-educated country doctor’s son named Harry Lewis from Sauk Centre, Minnesota, became the world-class American author Sinclair Lewis?”
The diary entries piqued Simpkins’ interest at every turn, practically nagging at his brain, causing him to travel far and wide to do research and seek out, like a detective, every trace of Lewis’s early life. It was a race with time because Simpkins, as a long-time journalist and publisher of the “Sauk Centre Herald” newspaper, was a very busy man.
At the mentoring meetings with Faulkner, Simpkins would bring his laptop and out of it would tumble scads of Simpkins’ latest treasures – detailed results of his wide-ranging research.
But, in a way, that was the trouble. Simpkins was taken by so many details, even the most trivial, that he was trying to cram all of it – every little iota – into his ever-growing book.
It became Faulkner’s duty as a writing mentor many times to tell Simpkins’ “Whoa!” in order to keep non-essential minutiae out of the book, so readers would be able to follow the narrative trail.
“He wanted to cram all that stuff into the book, and I would tell him often that he’d have to ‘kill his little darlings,’” Faulkner said. “I helped him find a central direction for the book and for each chapter. To do that, he had to pare out big chunks that he just loved.”
At the time, Faulkner was not all that aware of Lewis’s life and works, although she’d read “Main Street” many years before. That lack of Lewis awareness actually worked to the benefit of the book because Faulkner could relate to the difficulties of following the strands of the book by “average” readers unfamiliar with every nook and cranny of the famed author’s life.
“I told Dave he would have to make his book clear to me as it would be for others,” she said. “I was a Lewis outsider, an outside reader.”
As a result, Faulkner now thinks she helped make the book clearer, more focused.
“It was hard work, but I liked it,” she said, adding that the work sessions were often so much fun because of Simpkins’ almost giddy excitement about anything to do with Lewis and small-town life.
During her work and friendship with Simpkins, Faulkner learned so much about the author Sinclair Lewis.
“As a person, I have lots of arguments about the man,” she said. “He was a bad husband and father. A man without a home. But I began to see the relevance of his books.”
Lewis’ irony, often pointed and comical, is “wonderful,” she added.
“I think my favorite part of the book is how he headed off to Yale and tried to fit in, joining all the clubs,” Faulkner said. “He was a young man from a small Minnesota town, and he just didn’t fit in at Yale. He was rejected. But he wasn’t willing to conform to the others (students of the wealthy), even though he was very lonely at Yale. He did make some lifelong friends with teachers there, but his Yale experiences caused him to turn to the people he knew best, like the farmers he would visit in Sauk Centre with his doctor dad. At Yale, he began to realize what his real (writing) subjects would become.”
Like so many people, Faulkner was deeply saddened when she heard Simpkins had collapsed suddenly and died at age 70 while paying a visit to his boyhood farm near Vining. Later, Faulkner was happy to hear long-time Simpkins’ friend Jim Umhoefer, also of Sauk Centre, was determined to find a way to finish Simpkins’ project. Umhoefer, a freelance travel/outdoor writer and photographer, contacted many Lewis enthusiasts who knew and admired Simpkins. One of them is Sally E. Parry, English professor at Illinois State University, academic author and editor of the “Sinclair Lewis Society Newsletter,” which has subscribers throughout the world.
Umhoefer wrote the missing first chapter of the book. Parry did extensive double-checking of all sources and facts in the manuscript and wrote the final missing chapter.
“Becoming Sinclair Lewis” is a vivid account of small-town Sauk Centre at the turn of the 20th Century and of a boy who lived there and then went on to become one of the most celebrated novelists of all time.
Lewis was born in 1885, the youngest of three sons of E.J. and Emma Lewis. His mother died when he was 6, and his father later married a woman named Isabel Warner, whom Sinclair came to love and admire.
As a boy, Harry “Red” Sinclair Lewis was a tall, gangly, awkward outsider, though he did have several good friends. He was extremely intelligent, a quick learner, a keen and shrewd observer, infinitely curious with boundless physical energy and a voracious reader. Simpkins’ text and his use of quotes from the boyhood journal bring the young Lewis alive on the page. When he was in his teens, Lewis was for a brief time an untrained reporter for the “Sauk Centre Herald,” many decades before Simpkins took ownership of it.
“Becoming Sinclair Lewis” describes Lewis the boy becoming Lewis the man: a string of major novels through the 1920s, honoree of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1930, two marriages, alcoholism, restless wanderlust and inability to settle down, the death of a son in World War II, and Lewis’ death in Rome in 1951, at age 65. He was cremated and buried in Sauk Centre’s Greenwood Cemetery.
The latter chapters in the book recount the man’s first book-writing efforts, the publication of a few early books and then one of the publishing sensations of the century – “Main Street.” Published in autumn 1920, the novel sold two million copies in three years. It was even a hit in countries so far from small-town Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. Readers everywhere identified with the book’s themes: stultifying provincialism, resistance to change, self-righteous piety, suspicion or fear of outside influences, hypocrisies, pressures of conformity and the suppression of women as full-value human beings.
Lewis’ first great success, “Main Street,” is a novel about Carol Milford, a highly educated librarian, who marries medical doctor Will Kennicott and moves from St. Paul to his small Minnesota town of Gopher Prairie (based on Sauk Centre).
She is struck by the town’s ramshackle shabbiness and what she believes are the drab, limited, unfulfilled lives of many of its residents. With the zeal of a crusader, Carol tries to introduce lifestyle changes, cultural influences, art, intellectual stimulations, new ways of thinking and living from the wider, modern world. But, with few exceptions, the townspeople regard her as a meddling busy-body with highfalutin’ notions, rejecting her efforts and scoffing behind her back. She would be better and happier, they think, if she would just have babies and then settle down as a good, contented wife like the others.
Some of Carol’s “notions” are, in fact, a bit silly, pretentious and/or impractical, as Lewis slyly lets the reader know. Some of her ideas for change are trendy, based on a kind of chic-bohemianism popular during that time.
Finally dejected, exhausted, feeling defeated, Carol moves to Washington, D.C. to do administrative work for a year during World War I. Eventually, she has a change of heart and moves back to her husband, daughter and life in Gopher Prairie.
Toward the end of the novel, Carol muses: “I may not have fought the good fight, but I have kept the faith.”
After “Main Street,” Lewis wrote many more novels, most of them in a vein of acidic social satire. Among the most notable: “Babbitt” (1922, pursuit of materialism, middle-class conformity, good ol’ boy boosterism); “Arrowsmith” (1925, modern medicine and pioneering doctor battling a Caribbean virus plague); “Elmer Gantry” (1927, scathing depiction of a womanizing, huckstering circuit preacher), “Dodsworth” (portrait of a marriage on the rocks), “It Can’t Happen Here” (1935, dystopian nightmare of how fascism takes root in America); and “Kingsblood Royal” (1937, the social panic and commotion when a white man discovers he has some black blood in his veins).