Why should anyone in this new century want to read anything by Sinclair Lewis?
“Isn’t he that moldy old author from Sauk Centre who wrote a bunch of stuff about a small Minnesota town in the 1920s?”
That’s a typical response when Lewis’s name comes up. It’s unfortunate, but it’s to be expected from people who won’t read anything older than a month and who consider even the immortal writers – Shakespeare, Austen, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Joyce, Proust, to name just six – “moldy.”
So why should anyone today read Lewis? Here’s why:
His novels still have much to tell us about America and its institutions – warts and all. Though Lewis was not a master prose stylist like his contemporaries, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, he more than made up for that in the sheer drive, vigor and commotion of his storytelling skills. Lewis’s novels are still relevant because they deal with issues with which we are still grappling: stultifying provincialism, capitalism and materialism, commercialism and boosterism, the struggle for women’s rights, religious hypocrisy, the forces of political chicanery, the danger of demagogues, medical ethics, the tug-of-war between married men and women, metro vs. small-town values, and the corrupting lures of money and greed.
Well, why should we read about those themes in Lewis? Wouldn’t it be better to read current takes on those subjects?
No, not necessarily. As most novice readers of Lewis quickly discover, he had an uncanny knack for making those themes come to life through his settings and characters. It’s interesting and lots of fun to see those topics treated in that faraway country of the 1920s and 1930s; it’s like rediscovering our current selves, with a renewed focus, in a foreign land. One of the secrets of Lewis’s greatness is he knew in his mind and soul such themes are timeless, always working themselves out, one way or another, in different times, by different people in different places, endlessly. Shakespeare, of course, understood that, too, as did all the greatest of writers, which is why their works remain classics – worth reading in any age.
Last but not least, a good reason to read Lewis is he can be laugh-out-loud hilarious. Eagle-eyed for every kind of foible and foolishness, he wrote with a caustic pen that could puncture any and all pretensions. The results are often wickedly funny.
Here are thumbnail comments about Lewis’s best books:
Main Street: A woman marries a doctor and moves to his small hometown, Gopher Prairie (a fictional Sauk Centre). Bored and discontent with the vulgarities and small-mindedness of the “village,” she starts a single-minded campaign to bring high-brow culture and enlightenment to the townspeople.
Elmer Gantry: The lead character, a preacher, is a rip-roaring, athletic, alcoholic, narcissistic, womanizing, cynical, hypocritical hellion – yet he is strangely charming, as many characters discover, to their regret.
Babbit: A gung-ho but personally unhappy businessman tries to put his life together. This novel is a masterpiece of hollow-headed, noisy, commercial-crazed boosterism, and its prose zings and hollers like a loud circus of insipid ad slogans. A great book!
Arrowsmith: A research bacteriologist wrestles with his conscience as he helps fight a plague on a Caribbean island. Ethical (and marital) dilemmas abound in this unfairly neglected, brilliant novel.
It Can’t Happen Here: A frightening novel about a senator who promises the moon and stars while crooning a mantra of patriotism and family values. Gullible voters elect him president and soon find themselves in a totalitarian-militaristic nightmare.
Kingsblood Royal: After doing genealogy research, a middle-class white man discovers to his horror he has Afro-American blood in his veins. The social calamities that follow are, at the same time, pathetic and grotesquely comical. Another unfairly neglected book, far ahead of its time.
Dodsworth: An American couple decides to take a European tour with dispiriting results. One of the best novels about a marriage unraveling. Also, a superb movie, widely considered among the top 100 of all time.
The astute critic H.L. Mencken described Lewis as “ . . . this red-haired tornado from the Minnesota wilds.” So true. Please, readers, give Lewis a try.