- Sinclair Lewis, Charles G. Norris, and Kathleen Norris:An Early Friendship
Although Sinclair lewis' friendship with Kathleen Norris (1880-1966) and Charles G. Norris (1881-1945), which went back to the days before any of them were well known, lasted well into the years of their mutual renown, it has been virtually ignored by scholars. Details of their friendship fill significant gaps in Lewis' life.1
The Norrises first met "Red" Lewis in San Francisco in 1909 when Kathleen was still Kathleen Thompson, whose sister Teresa would later become the first wife of William Rose Benét, Lewis' Yale classmate and good friend. It was through the Benét family that the Thompson/Norris/Lewis friendship flourished in California. [End Page 503] By the time the five young writers had all moved to New York City (between 1909 and 1912), close bonds had been established among all of them. This is a partial story of the bonds uniting Lewis and the Norrises.
With Charles's help as her agent-manager (a role he was to perform brilliantly for thirty-five years), Kathleen's first big success was Mother (1911), championed by Theodore Roosevelt. She went on to publish over eighty novels (many of which were best sellers) and hundreds of short stories, articles, newspaper columns, radio scripts, film scripts, and reviews.2 Charles published eleven novels, most of them deservedly receiving more serious critical attention than Kathleen's. He, like Sinclair Lewis, tackled controversial social issues. With novels such as Salt (1918), Brass (1921), Bread (1923), Pig Iron (1925), Zelda Marsh (1927), Seed (1930), Zest (1933), Hands (1935), Bricks without Straw (1938), and Flint (1944), Charles Norris probed the weakness of American educational systems and the corruption in advertising and in big business. He delved exhaustively into issues such as business ethics, divorce, marriage, the business career woman, birth control, the creative artist's dilemma, and national and international politics.3 But it was his first novel, The Amateur (1915), a novel that offers probing insights into commercial art and the publishing world in New York City, that opened the doors to his future success. For its publication he owed thanks in good measure to the generosity of Sinclair Lewis. Charles Norris recalls the creation and acceptance of this first novel:
. . . I resigned my job [in 1914] and together, Kathleen and I went to California and there. . . . I set myself down with a block of paper, a pen and a bottle of ink and went to work. The result at the end of six months was a novel—a very indifferent one, and a year later, Mr. George H. Doran, upon the generous recommendation of my friend Sinclair Lewis—at the time [one] of the readers for the publishing house—signed a contract to publish it. . . . it was my beginning—thanks to "Red" Lewis.("My Wife") [End Page 504]
Thus Charles joined Kathleen and Sinclair Lewis in what was to be their world of best sellers.
Kathleen recalled her first meeting with Lewis in California in spring, 1909: "This wild, red-headed man came out as a visitor and we all became immensely attracted to him. He felt, I think, his own destiny. . . . [Later] he said, 'I'm going to write knockouts someday.' . . . He was a very interesting, thrilling kind of figure" ("An Interview with Kathleen Norris" 134-135).4 They probably met when he was twenty-four and she was twenty-nine, the difference in their ages no doubt feeding her strong maternal instincts:
We always loved and adored him; but he was wild. Not in a drinking sense, not in a degenerate sense at all. He was the kind who wanted you to go to the circus and then when you got there he'd say, "Let's see if we can't all ride on the elephants." Things we never would have thought of. He did lend a kind of glory to life.("Interview" 136)
Kathleen's later recollection of Lewis' break with his publisher George H. Doran in 1915 (her only recollection recorded by Mark Schorer in his detailed biography) is worth repeating:
One day he went by the house in an...