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Sinclair Lewis Return to the Timeline
Sinclair Lewis
Sinclair Lewis sits at a mirror backstage while man applies makeup to him, before his stab at acting role in dramatized version of his novel IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE, in Cohasset, Massachusetts, January 1938.

Eric Schaal/Pix Inc./Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Sinclair Lewis, (1885-1951), gained international fame for his novels attacking the weaknesses he saw in American society. In 1930, Lewis became the first American author to win the Nobel Prize for literature.

Harry Sinclair Lewis was born on Feb. 7, 1885, in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. At the age of 21, he lived briefly at Helicon Hall, a socialist community in New Jersey founded by writer Upton Sinclair. Lewis graduated from Yale University in 1908. In 1914, while working as a newspaperman, he published his first novel, OUR MR. WRENN. The book is a gently satiric account of a meek New York clerk traveling in Europe.

Lewis wrote four more novels and achieved only modest success. But MAIN STREET (1920) caused a sensation and brought him immediate fame. The book is a withering satire on the dullness and lack of culture that exist in a "typical" American small town, and the narrow-mindedness and self-satisfaction of its inhabitants. Written in minute detail, MAIN STREET chronicles the fruitless efforts of the heroine Carol Kennicott to awaken and improve her town. Lewis based the novel on Sauk Centre, renaming it "Gopher Prairie."

BABBITT (1922) focuses even more effectively Lewis' idea of a "typical" small city businessman, George F. Babbitt. The novel describes the futile attempt of its central character to break loose from the confining life of a "solid American citizen"—a middle-class, middle-aged realtor, civic booster, and club joiner. Possibly no two works of literature did more to make Americans aware of the limitations of their national life and culture than did MAIN STREET and BABBITT.

With a sharp, satiric eye and a superb gift for mimicry, Lewis continued to examine other aspects of what he considered national inadequacy. ARROWSMITH (1925) describes the frustrations of an idealistic young doctor in conflict with corruption, jealousy, meanness, and prejudice. The novel won the 1926 Pulitzer Prize, which Lewis declined because he felt that it was not awarded for literary merit but for the best presentation of "wholesome" American life. ELMER GANTRY (1927) satirizes religious hypocrisy and bigotry in the Midwest.

In 1928, Lewis married Dorothy Thompson (1894-1961), who was a famous foreign correspondent and newspaper columnist. They divorced in 1942.

DODSWORTH (1929) was perhaps the last of Lewis' best works. The novel contrasts American with European life while relating the marriage difficulties of a prosperous American businessman on a European tour.

Lewis' later novels were primarily shallow photographic realism. Critics now consider Lewis less a truly creative artist than an extraordinarily accomplished observer with a vivid reportorial style. Lewis died lonely and unhappy in Italy on Jan. 10, 1951.

Samuel Chase Coale, Ph.D., Professor of English, Wheaton College.

From THE WORLD BOOK ENCYCLOPEDIA © 2007 World Book, Inc. By permission of the publisher. Visit World Book Encyclopedia for more information on Sinclair Lewis and related subjects.

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The American Novel