- The Americanization of H. G. Wells:Sinclair Lewis' Our Mr. Wrenn
In his important early novels—Our Mr. Wrenn, The Trail of the Hawk, and The Job —Sinclair Lewis reveals evident familiarity with and admiration for the social, political, economic, and ethical opinions of H. G. Wells. Of these early novels, Our Mr. Wrenn especially discloses an ideological and literary debt to Wells that is both unique and astonishing. Our Mr. Wrenn (1914) is, in fact, little more than an American "translation" of a combination of two popular Wells novels, Kipps (1905) and The History of Mr. Polly (1910). The cognation of the small bird names "Polly" and "Wren(n)" is obvious; somewhat less obvious, but undeniable, are the implications of the subtle analogues. Where Wells explains in the subheading to Kipps that it is "The Story of a Simple Soul," Lewis provides a linguistic and conceptual facsimile for Wrenn by calling it "The Romantic Adventures of a Gentle Man." Furthermore, Lewis employs the technique of chapter headings as harbingers of events and occurrences to follow, just as Wells does in both his novels. Such a device in itself, because it is uncharacteristic [End Page 495] of most modern writers, suggests an influence. But two particular captions demonstrate borrowings beyond question: an early chapter in Wrenn is captioned "He Enters Society," a minor variation of a caption in Kipps that reads "Kipps Enters Society." The upshot of another Lewis chapter is summarized in the heading "[Wrenn] Is An Orphan," virtually duplicating a chapter heading "Mr. Polly An Orphan" used by Wells.
Additionally, Lewis' style in Wrenn owes a good deal to its Kipps/Polly models. Overall, the writer's "voice" in Wrenn is a distinct echo of the writer's "voice" in Kipps/Polly. Moreover, the syntax in all three novels is simple, straightforward, and unembellished, commonly devoid of affectations in diction and phrasing. In all three novels, too, the speech of the characters is pseudorealistic, but where Wells attempts to capture the flavor of the upper lower-class English idiom, Lewis tries to effect an American version of a similar half-literate dialect. Striving for speech authenticity, Wells uses such an exaggerated vernacular that it takes on a caricatured appearance and sound—no less true of the dialogue in Wrenn.
There is also a curious bit of nonverbal evidence in Wrenn that suggests somewhat graphically how dependent was the early Lewis on Wells. As a supplementary feature to his novel, Lewis includes on one of his pages a cluster of simple, cartoonlike pen-and-ink sketches, replicas of the sort of marginal line drawings that decorated the pages of many Wells novels.
In addition to superficial likenesses, there are more significant parallels in setting, characters, action, and overall philosophical content between Wrenn and Kipps/Polly. For example, whereas the background for the Wells novels of manners and social criticism is, quite appropriately, first-decade twentieth-century England, most of the Lewis novel of like manners and social criticism is also set, imitatively (and curiously so, because Wrenn is an American), in early twentieth-century England. There is in Wrenn, as well, a carbon copy of the world of middle-aged, low-paid shop assistants, clerks, and menial office help found in Kipps/Polly, and, in Wrenn himself, an exact double for the poor, miseducated, socially neglected little men under sympathetic study in the Wells novels. All in all, these protagonists—two with ornithological surnames—are truly, physically and behaviorally, birds of a feather: "lean," "spare," "fragile," "soft," "timid," "weak," "gentle," [End Page 496] "simple" are the adjectives most often used to describe Kipps/Polly and their American cousin, Wrenn.
The psychologically introverted Wrenn, in exactly the same way and for precisely the same reasons given by Wells to explain Kipps/Polly, is shown to be out of harmony with his environment and vaguely but chronically dissatisfied with the skimpy material and spiritual condition of his workaday life. In a way that clearly recalls Kipps/Polly, Wrenn is said, like them, to possess dim instincts for beauty in literature and nature, however stifled by the prosaic and uninspiring job he serves as a consequence of society's...