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Editor's Preface

This special issue of Modern Fiction Studies is dedicated to the celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Sinclair Lewis. Three other spans of time are presently significant, as well: it is sixty-five years since the publication of Main Street, fifty-five years since Lewis accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature (as the first American recipient of the award), and thirty-four years since his death. His five best novels (those of the Twenties: Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, and Dodsworth) are still in print and are readily available as Signet paperbacks at three to four dollars each; other novels are available in reprints at $15 to $50. One can't avoid confronting the fact, however, that the number of publications on Lewis has fallen significantly in the last decade, from about twenty a year to about six. In 1980, Robert E. Fleming, with Esther Fleming, wrote a helpful annotated bibliography of Lewis scholarship to 1978 (Sinclair Lewis: A Reference Guide [Boston: Hall, 1980]). We are pleased that Professor Fleming has carried his annotated record of scholarly activity up to date in a bibliographical article in this issue of MFS. Furthermore, admirers of Lewis, curious to know more of what is [End Page 479] thought of him now and what kinds of inquiries he stimulates, will soon see the publication of the proceedings at the Lewis Centenary Conference held last February in St. Cloud, Minnesota, and a volume of articles about him edited by Martin Bucco. It appears that there has been a welcome regeneration of interest in Lewis and his work in response to the centennial.

Harry Sinclair Lewis was born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, on 7 February 1885. His apprentice years as a writer ended when he was thirty-five, in 1920—that is, after about fifteen years during which he had spent some of his time as a student at Yale, a wanderer in England and California, a newsman in Iowa, a publicist in New York, and a husband and father there also. By then he was the author of nearly fifty short: stories, a boys' book called Hike and the Aeroplane (1912), five other novels in which he gradually and haltingly found his subject, style, form, and character types, and at last Main Street, which in 1920 suddenly earned him praise, money, and status as a best-selling writer. Even so, following that success, some critics and scholars continued to pepper Lewis with doubts and detractions, and a number of readers heckled him with their defenses of the groups and professions he satirized. Many people expressed dismay that in 1930 he was chosen to be the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. The novels he wrote thereafter were thought to be particularly disappointing. After the award ceremony in Stockholm, his career was, for many critics and readers, finished—except of course that he would write ten of his twenty-two novels, several plays, and a number of articles in the twenty-one years of life left to him.

In an editor's Introduction to Sinclair Lewis: A Collection of Critical Essays (1962), Mark Schorer wondered why Lewis had not been able to attract first-rate criticism, remarking that Lewis hadn't captured the attention of Eliot, Levin, Brooks, Warren, Trilling, Rahv, and others. Schorer quickly acknowledged, however, that the essays he had collected in his anthology did include criticism by Mencken, Rebecca West, Forster, Blackmur, Geismar, Kazin, Cowley, and Edmund Wilson—not an insignificant group of commentators. Affirming that the duty of a critic is to run the risks of evaluation, and surveying Lewis' career from its successes to its failures, Schorer went on to affirm that Lewis "unquestionably helped us into the imagination of ourselves as did no other writer of the 1920's." That statement can mean a number of things, [End Page 480] among them praise for the thoroughness with which Lewis had dug out and exhibited our weaknesses and failures, but it does imply that, though Lewis had achieved a great deal, there are aspects of fiction in which he faltered (in style, form, and characterization), especially in...