Sinclair Lewis Remembered
Publication Year: 2012
Published by: The University of Alabama Press
Series: American Writers Remembered
Title Page, Copyright
He was the first American to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, yet Harry Sinclair Lewis’s life was not a particularly happy one. His biography reads like a cautionary tale. Born in 1885 in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, an outback village with a population of about twenty-five hundred, Lewis remained a staunch and...
Part 1. Sauk Centre: 1885–1903
Growing up in Minnesota, the bookish Harry Sinclair Lewis was a loner. “Odd-turned” with pustulant acne, a favored butt of practical jokes, he was an unlikely candidate for fame and fortune. The youngest child of the village doctor Edwin J. Lewis (1849–1926) and Emma Kermott Lewis (1849–1891) and the...
1. Hazel Palmer Lynam
Dr. Lewis was our family physician while we lived in Sauk Centre, and one summer arranged for Harry to work as night clerk in my father’s hotel, the Palmer House. I imagine this must have been his first hotel experience and must have been about the time he finished high school or early in his college career...
2. Isabel Lewis Agrell
Sinclair used to say that the only person he really wanted to impress was his brother Claude, but he was never able to do so. Untrue. Claude was very proud of his younger brother. I’m sure that Sinclair exasperated Claude many times throughout their lives, but there was always a strong bond between them. I know...
Part 2. New Haven and New Jersey: 1903–8
After a college preparatory course at the academy of Oberlin College in Ohio, Lewis enrolled in Yale University in the fall of 1903. Some of his instructors and classmates there—Chauncey Brewster Tinker, William Lyon Phelps, Henry Seidel Canby, and Leonard Bacon—later reminisced fondly about him. Although...
3. Chauncey Brewster Tinker
Chauncey Brewster Tinker (1876–1953) was professor of English literature at Yale University (1899–1945), where he was affectionately known as “Yale’s Dr. Johnson.” He was among the first to recognize Lewis’s talent. Tinker, whose mind Lewis found “keen, appreciative, eager, humorous,” inspired him to excel...
4. William Lyon Phelps
An eminent Boswell scholar, William Lyon Phelps (1865–1943) joined the Yale faculty as an instructor the same semester Lewis matriculated, and he supported the brash midwesterner throughout his undergraduate career. Phelps rose through the faculty ranks (instructor 1903–8, associate professor 1908–13, professor...
5. Henry Seidel Canby
I have known [Lewis] well, though never intimately since our paths seldom cross, for forty years. I knew him first as a Yale undergraduate, a nonconformist, getting what he could—and he got a great deal—from that stronghold of intelligent conformity where radicals, once they are accepted as Yale men, can say or...
6. Leonard Bacon
The cadaverous, pale-freckled face and tomato-soup- colored hair of that singular Junior who was to be the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature could not be ignored then any more than now. “Harry” Lewis was as different from the correct young types around him as Sauk Centre is from Tuxedo...
7. Upton Sinclair
Upton Sinclair (1878–1968), Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist most famous for The Jungle (1906), wrote more than ninety books in the course of his long career. He was a strident political and social activist, an ardent socialist, and an advocate for reform in America, including Prohibition. Lewis lived and worked in his...
8. Emile Gauvreau
Our staff [on the Journal-Courier] was made up largely of Yale men working their way through college and there was a general exodus of editorial brains when Commencement arrived. Sloane got a new staff together, year after year. Sinclair Lewis was one of Sloane’s reporters and so was Waldo Frank, the brilliant liberal...
Part 3. Bohemia: 1908–19
After graduation from Yale, Lewis looked for a job without much success. He was fired from a series of newspapers, including the Waterloo, Iowa, Daily Courier and the San Francisco Bulletin, because he was temperamentally unsuited to daily journalism. In addition, as he admitted, he was “afflicted with...
9. William Rose Benét
In certain formative years after leaving college—for I was late in developing a mature viewpoint—“Red” Lewis was one of the strongest influences in my life, and, I may say, a thoroughly beneficial one. That is not to say that we always got along well together. Our ideas often clashed. It is from such clashes, when you...
10. Charles Hanson Towne
After we had moved to the Fifth Avenue offices, Colonel Mann began the publication of another magazine. It was called Transatlantic Tales, and consisted, as its name would imply, of stories from other lands, done into English by experts. It was a splendid idea, but somehow it never quite “caught on.” The late Edward...
11. Mary Heaton Vorse
Mary Heaton Vorse (1874–1966) was an affluent New York feminist best known as a labor and social justice activist as well as a journalist, novelist, and poet. For her lifetime of service, she was honored—along with Eleanor Roosevelt and Upton Sinclair—with the first United Auto Workers Social Justice Award. She...
12. Harrison Smith
I awoke suddenly one night a week before he died and saw Lewis looking mournfully across his breakfast table at me, and my mind went back into the past, to my first meeting with him in his narrow room on Charles Street in Greenwich Village. I had been a freshman at Yale when he was a senior and an editor of the...
13. Edna Ferber
Editors of various magazines offered me more money for the McChesney stories, but I sentimentally stuck to the American where they had originated. Business was unimportant to me then. Sometimes the odd young man who was publicity writer for the Stokes company used to talk to me about it, whenever he...
14. William E. Woodward
William E. Woodward (1874–1950), a historian and novelist, turned to writing after a successful career in advertising and public relations. Admired during his lifetime by historically inclined American modernists for his biographies of George Washington, Thomas Paine, and Ulysses S. Grant, Woodward is...
15. Elizabeth Jordan
I was immensely interested in my efforts to draw new writers of promise into the Harper book family. There was always a thrill in the reading of the first novel of a new writer. Possibly here was another genius! I was fishing in strange waters, and I caught a large fish often enough to keep my enthusiasm alive. I shall always be...
16. W. D. Inglis
This was an interview, all right, but somehow it had got started backward. What business had Sinclair Lewis to shoot questions at me like that? I came not to talk about myself but to ask questions about “Our Mr. Wrenn,” the mousey little clerk who kept on struggling and kicking till he got a better job and won...
17. Albert Payson Terhune
Sinclair Lewis and I used to argue hotly and at much length, years ago, as to where the big money lay in writing. From my own experience, up to then, I held that it was all in the magazine end of the game—if it were anywhere at all. Lewis believed there was more money in one successful book than in an armful...
18. Harrison Smith
We had foolish times together. Both of us treasured small adventures and the human curiosities we came across. I can bring back to mind a trip to Cape Cod to visit Lewis. I am not sure now that he was at that time on his honeymoon with Grace Hegger, the tall, slim, blonde girl he had married, but maybe I was not...
19. William Rose Benét
In my first marriage my wife and I lived hardly a stone’s throw from the Lewises at Port Washington, Long Island. “Red” and I commuted on the same train of a morning; but I regret to say that his industry in that period quite put me to shame. While I was content to loll in the smoker with a newspaper, “Red” was...
20. Alfred Harcourt
My friendship with Sinclair Lewis started at about this time when he was with the publishing house of George Doran. We fell into the habit of lunching together in the grillroom of the old Waldorf. He and Grace Hegger had just been married and were living on Long Island. He was spending all his time outside...
21. Fanny Butcher
It was as an editor that I first knew him. He was with the George H. Doran publishing house, and the author of the most intriguing and stimulating book-promotion letters any P.R. man ever wrote. I was a very lowly tyro reviewer, without enough savvy even to recognize a letter as promotion. I answered...
22. Grace Hegger Lewis
Grace Hegger Lewis (1887–1981), Lewis’s first wife (they married in 1914), worked initially as assistant household editor and later as beauty editor at Vogue. She had fading connections to high society and affected an English accent throughout her entire life. This recollection is excerpted from her novel, a fictionalized...
23. Burton Rascoe
One day sometime in 1916, a lanky, freckle-faced, sandy-haired, most amiable, most immediately friendly young man, vibrant with nervous energy, had come to the office to see Fanny Butcher, who wrote a column of book news and comment for one of the Sunday sections. Miss Butcher introduced me to him. He...
24. Grace Hegger Lewis
Sauk Centre was a prairie town of 2,500 when we approached it by train in early May 1916 for a visit of about two months. We had been married for two years but this was my introduction to Hal’s parents. (I called him “Hal” because he had been christened “Harry,” which he had dropped at Yale. “Sinclair” was too...
25. Fanny Butcher
Madly, everyone thought, Sinclair Lewis chucked his very good job at Doran’s and set out in an old Ford with his wife to wander around the South. She was to take orders for custom-made corsets, he to gather material. He had already been “discovered” by the Saturday Evening Post as a writer of popular short stories...
26. George H. Doran
George H. Doran (1869–1956), American publisher and author, founded the New York–based publishing firm George H. Doran Company in 1908, which merged with Doubleday, Page, and Company in 1927 to form Doubleday, Doran, then the largest publishing house in the English-speaking world. Lewis worked...
Part 4. Main Street: 1919–21
After years in the trenches, Lewis’s career unexpectedly blossomed with the publication of Main Street. Friends and rivals alike were shocked and surprised. Nearly three hundred thousand copies of the novel were sold during its first year in print. It was recommended for the Pulitzer Prize for 1921 by the fiction...
27. Alfred Harcourt
When I left Henry Holt and Company, I hadn’t any idea what I was going to do. Some jobs in other publishing houses were offered to me, and I had just about decided to take one of them. As I knew Sinclair Lewis would be interested, I wrote to him of all that had happened. He was in Minnesota at the time, for he...
28. James Branch Cabell
James Branch Cabell (1879–1958), author of novels, short stories, and poetry, is remembered primarily for his works—popular in the 1920s—of ironic and satirical fantasy fiction, such as Jurgen (1919). He published stories in such esteemed venues as Harper’s and the Saturday Evening Post and was named to the...
29. Grace Hegger Lewis
In her autobiography, written more than twenty-five years after her separation and divorce from Sinclair Lewis, Grace Hegger Lewis remembered her own role in the composition of Main Street. In her account, she was her husband’s advisor, technical consultant, editor, and proofreader. She obviously did not recognize...
30. Heywood Broun
A few months later Main Street appeared and became an almost instantaneous bestseller. It is quite possible that people did not like it but at least they bought the book. That was obligatory, for editorial comment raged throughout America as to the validity of this criticism of small-town life. Every alert citizen...
31. Kathleen Norris
Kathleen Thompson Norris (1880–1966), novelist and short-story writer, was the highest paid female writer of her era, and her many popular romance novels are still highly regarded in that genre. She married the novelist Charles G. Norris (1881–1945), the brother of the novelist Frank Norris (1870–1902), in 1909. She...
32. George Jean Nathan
Barely had we taken off our hats and coats and before Smith had an opportunity even to fish out his luxe corkscrew from behind his luxe sets of the works of the more esoteric Oriental and Polack amorists, when the tall, skinny, paprika-headed stranger simultaneously coiled one long arm around Mencken’s neck...
33. Fanny Butcher
He was unpredictable, sometimes pixyish, loving to play the bad little boy just to watch the results. I had casually mentioned to him when he was going to give a lecture for the building fund of Northwestern University that there was a rivalry between it and the University of Chicago. Hal had been paid, he told me, a...
Part 5. Zenith : 1921–22
Main Street was not a fluke. Lewis’s next novel, Babbitt, which he mostly wrote in England and Italy to escape the furor prompted by the publication of its predecessor, was more critically if less commercially successful. Still, a total of nearly a quarter-million copies of it were eventually sold. Alfred Kazin asserted a...
34. Frazier Hunt
Throughout the first three years of my total five years of London residence, Sinclair Lewis was to play a strong part and exert an inordinate influence. I had been back in London less than a month from my painful search for Irish “peace,” when I received a cable from Ray Long telling me that the author of...
35. Charles Phillips Russell
This does not mean that Mr. Lewis has deserted the Main streets of Gopher Prairies for the boulevards of European metropolises. He said so himself. He has simply left Main Street, U.S.A., temporarily for Main Street, England, in order to obtain that peacefulness and seclusion meet for a novelist in the throes of...
36. Charles Breasted
I first met Sinclair Lewis in the United States, when he was capitalizing on the success of Main Street by lecturing far and wide; but our real acquaintance and eventual friendship dated from a February afternoon in 1922, when we both happened simultaneously to converge upon the American Consulate General...
37. C. R. W. Nevinson
Another sitter of mine was Sinclair Lewis, the strangest literary man I have ever known. He was restless, clownish, and intense as only Americans can be, and he prowled round my studio incapable of sitting still, while all the time he poured out the most remarkable monologue of love and hate, shrewdness and sentimentality...
38. Harold Loeb
Early in November , Sinclair Lewis, who had come to Rome to work on Babbitt, paid us a visit. He had red hair, a triangular face, long legs like a grasshopper’s, and tremendous enthusiasms. We used to meet at a small terrace café where German beer was on draft and sit and talk as the sun went down. By...
39. Lilian T. Mowrer
One night, when he was to have dined with us, the cook went on strike, so we took him to Al Vero Alfredo, a little trattoria almost next door, a place which, we had discovered, made excellent fettuccini al burro, noodles served with butter and cheese, but of a succulence that proclaimed Alfredo to be an...
40. Alfred Kreymborg
It devolved that Lewis had read about an address Krimmie had delivered at the Dutch Treat Club in New York just before his departure for Europe. The topic of his talk before this famous group of journalists had been “The Sunny Side of Main Street.” Krimmie assured the novelist the speech had been a...
41. George Jean Nathan
It was more than a year before I ran across our friend again. I had dropped in late one night at a beer conference of four or five literary compeers in a mughouse off Union Square, where we were then in the custom of gathering. We were in the midst of a quiet, if somewhat malty, conversazione when the door flew open and...
42. Alfred Harcourt
Sinclair Lewis was one of the familiar figures around the office in those days. Everyone liked him, and he was interested in everything we did. His work at Stokes’s and Doran’s had made him familiar with publishing problems, and he thought of himself as one of us. He and I had a chuckle one day when I abruptly...
Part 6. Hartford and England: 1922–25
After the success of Main Street and Babbitt, Lewis had become one of the most visible literary celebrities in the country as well as something of a pariah. After all, as Emile Gauvreau allowed, whose town would he target next? Mencken urged him to write a satirical novel about a college president. Ironically, he had...
43. Emile Gauvreau
In the fall of 1922, Lewis hoped to settle indefinitely in Hartford, Connecticut, the former home of Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Charles Dudley Warner and the home at the time of the poet Wallace Stevens. But no. Babbitt was published in September, and Lewis soon regretted the decision. As he wrote...
44. Morris Fishbein
Morris Fishbein (1889–1976), physician and managing editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, was an influential and controversial figure in the history of medicine. He is best remembered for his efforts to regulate medical devices and expose unscrupulous medical practices. After he favorably reviewed...
45. Alfred Harcourt
By all reports, Lewis’s collaboration with De Kruif on Arrowsmith went swimmingly, at least until Lewis or Harcourt or the two together decided against acknowledging De Kruif’s full role in producing it. The novel was subsequently awarded—though Lewis declined—the Pulitzer Prize. In a statement to the press...
46. Frazier Hunt
Lewis and De Kruif initially seemed to Hunt and others to be ideal collaborators. Fishbein offered to open the files of the American Medical Association to them if they would write a medical novel together. They signed a contract with Harcourt in December 1922 with three-fourths of royalties assigned to Lewis, a ten...
47. Paul De Kruif
For his contributions to Arrowsmith, another bestseller, De Kruif (1890–1971) received in addition to royalties a half-grudging acknowledgment. He had asked for the phrase “In collaboration with Paul H. De Kruif” to appear on the title page, but Lewis apparently thought the phrase would hurt sales—or his own...
48. George Jean Nathan
I began to meet our friend more frequently. He would stop in at my apartment in the late afternoon for a Florestan cocktail, sometimes so moody that he didn’t speak five words and at other times so excited and voluble that he would stand up and, apropos of nothing at all, make speeches at me for an hour on end. These...
49. Morris Fishbein
Having finished Arrowsmith, Lewis was considering doing a novel about a university president in which De Kruif was to participate with him. Lewis came to see me and at that time we visited Karl Harriman of Redbook. Harriman offered Lewis a tremendous advance for a novel. Lewis was planning a trip to...
Part 7. Paris : 1925
Never a part of the Left Bank literary coterie, Lewis was an outsider in Paris while he was working on Arrowsmith, just as he had been snubbed in the fraternal culture of Yale twenty years before. The high modernists considered him a clown, and he understandably resented them, as the comments by...
50. Harold E. Stearns
Sinclair Lewis was living down in some old town in Surrey finishing up, if I am not mistaken, Arrowsmith. He invited me down for a weekend. [. . .] Sinclair said he had been working hard. Before dinner we took a walk around the countryside— the train from London had got me down just in time for tea—and Sinclair kept...
51. Samuel Putnam
Samuel Putnam (1892–1950), translator and scholar of Romance languages, is most famous for producing the first translation of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote into contemporary English, though he was also a noted translator of François Rabelais. His palpable disdain for Lewis is representative of the opinion...
52. George Slocombe
The reaction against the nationalism of the war and the immediate postwar years had brought [British Prime Minister Ramsay] MacDonald and the British Labour Party to office in England, a Radical and Socialist coalition to power in France. In the United States the intellectual reaction had taken the form of...
53. Nina Hamnett
I met Sinclair Lewis at the Dôme. He was with Stacy Aumonier, who is now dead. We had an amusing evening, and told stories of all kinds. Sinclair Lewis tells stories very well and has the most remarkable ones about life in the Middle West. He would come from time to time to the quarter and bring Mr. Howe of...
54. Robert McAlmon
One night Djuna Barnes and I were at the Gypsy Bar when Sinclair Lewis barged in, some three sheets to the wind. He had once written a story about hobohemia and evidently feared Djuna would believe he had used her as one of the characters in it. Or perhaps he merely had an admiring eye for Djuna or a respect for...
55. Sisley Huddleston
Now an American: Sinclair Lewis. Red Lewis as we called him in his Paris days. Tall, angular, jerky in his manner, subject to fits of moody silence, and then breaking out into interminable talk, he was a lively person, and he was perpetually the center of lively incidents. Yet I remember on our first meeting, when...
Part 8. Katonah: 1925–26
Upon their return from Europe in the spring of 1925, the Lewises leased Loudon Farm near Katonah, New York, in Westchester County, as their marriage continued to deteriorate. Lewis returned to potboiling during these months, knocking out a few magazine pieces and his novel Mantrap, based in part on the diary...
56. Grace Hegger Lewis
I had thought that Katonah was too far from New York for casual acquaintances to drop in, but drop in they did without telephoning and they expected to be fed, given many drinks, and to sit about for hours talking. And Hal welcomed them, for Mantrap was not the absorbing, fact-finding job that the previous novels had...
57. Matthew Josephson
The only literary figure in Katonah, so far as I knew, proved to be the long-legged, red-haired Sinclair Lewis, who rented one of the large estates in the neighborhood during the summer of 1925. With Malcolm Cowley, who was visiting me at the time, I went over to call on Lewis one evening, and found him with his...
58. James Branch Cabell
Lewis rather too often for his own good as a writer resorted consciously to what he termed “whoring”—by which he referred to no bedroom activities, not hereabouts at least, but meant the rapid and facile writing of mediocre tales which his being famous enabled him to sell at a handsome rate to this or the other...
59. George Jean Nathan
With the completion of Arrowsmith, which further established him as one of the most important American novelists of his time, our friend returned to his native land and, finding himself in need of some ready money, applied himself to the writing of a deliberately commercial novel, Mantrap, that would need only...
Part 9. Kansas City to Berlin: 1926–27
In middle age, rebelling against his adolescent faith, Lewis jumped at the chance to beard the lion in its den in his novel Elmer Gantry. He spent months researching the topic, living in Kansas City for much of the time, where he attended Samuel Harkness’s church, and the effort paid off: the first printing of...
60. Samuel Harkness
He came to Kansas City to do the preliminary fashioning of a missile intended for a bulging hornets’ nest. He was perfectly frank about it. He gathered a group of preachers of all shades of theological opinion to meet in a series of weekly luncheon-conferences. He demanded that the ministers call him “Red”; he had...
61. George Seldes
Of his first wife he made a sort of fictional character; he may have been trying out the stories for a future novel about her. I always had a feeling Lewis never wasted words. He said Gracie came from a simple background, and later when he began making money and they were getting ahead, she had delusions of grandeur. He...
62. Charles Breasted
As Gary Alan Fine and Amy Campion have explained, while the citizens of Sauk Centre were initially offended by Lewis’s representations of their town in his fiction, they soon capitalized on its notoriety: “What Lewis said was secondary to the fact that he made Sauk Centre the first truly famous small town...
63. Ramon Guthrie
Although he seemed to enjoy living in an atmosphere of unpredictableness, there was a streak of almost spinsterish neatness in Sinclair Lewis’s make-up that abhorred leaving things unfinished. Once he had set his mind to a piece of work, he was almost certain to carry it through with reasonable dispatch. “Novels,” he...
64. Vincent Sheean
By that rule of contradiction which operated upon me all through this time— I could not stop talking about Moscow. I must have been a great bore to everybody I met, and sometimes they did not hesitate to tell me so. [. . .] Sinclair Lewis was in Berlin, too, and his response to my obsession was an incomparable one...
65. Claud Cockburn
Claud Cockburn (1904–1981), English journalist and novelist, was known for his communist sympathies. He was foreign correspondent for The Times (London) in America and Germany, but quit in 1933 in order to start The Week, a newsletter that was banned in London for his criticism of appeasement strategies...
Part 10. At Large: 1928–30
After The Man Who Knew Coolidge, Lewis turned from potboiling to the international novel Dodsworth, the last major work of his career. In this roman à clef, he dissected from his own perspective the failure of his marriage. Two months after Grace obtained a divorce in April 1928, Lewis married Dorothy Thompson...
66. Charles Breasted
When I returned late that evening “Hal” Lewis (as he was known to his older friends) was still sitting amongst the typescript of Look Homeward, Angel . He continued to expatiate upon it and towards two o’clock glanced at his watch and remarked that Tom should be along any minute now. “He’ll announce...
67. Vincent Sheean
The first Mrs. Lewis obtained her divorce decree on 16 April ; on April 23 Red, passing through Rome on his way to London, announced his engagement to Dorothy. [. . .] The frabjous day arrived: 14 May 1928. Dorothy had come to London promptly for the civil formalities, which were completed that morning...
68. Eileen Agar
After rejecting a dilapidated forty-room barracks of a place, Dorothy and Sinclair had settled into a little guest house in a huge park. There was a salon, and a great glass verandah looking over Naples and the sea; the kitchen was on one floor, with a not very desirable bedroom (being parkward, green and cool, instead...
69. Alfred Harcourt
Harcourt was characteristically diplomatic in recording Lewis’s departure for Random House. As he wrote Lewis on February 3, 1931, “If I’ve lost an author, you haven’t lost either a friend or a devoted reader.” As Richard Lingeman adds, however, “The impression is unavoidable that Harcourt was relieved at no longer...
70. Ramon Guthrie
Lewis planned for many years to write a “labor novel,” at different times tentatively titled “Neighbors” and “The Man Who Sought God,” that would feature a heroic labor leader modeled on Eugene Debs. He often started the novel but never finished it, the first time shortly before he received the Nobel Prize and left...
71. Morley Callaghan
Morley Callaghan (1903–1990), Canadian novelist, short-story writer, playwright, and journalist, became a friend of Ernest Hemingway while working as a reporter for the Toronto Daily Star and associated with Lewis, Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce on Paris’s Left Bank during the 1920s. He once beat...
72. Gordon Sinclair
He always looked as if he was about to wet his pants. He had this drawn-in face with bad skin and eyes that seemed to stare all the time. He’d already written Babbitt, Main Street, and Arrowsmith, all of which I’d enjoyed, but in the long dull sessions of the labor unions I could never get him to talk about them...
73. William E. Woodward
Sinclair Lewis and Dorothy Thompson, who was then his wife, wrote us that they were coming to Los Angeles and Helen asked them to stay at our house, where we had plenty of room for guests. “Red” and Dorothy drove up one day early in April and we welcomed them. I liked both of them, “Red” from years...
Part 11. Stockholm: 1930–31
On November 5, 1930, Lewis learned he had been awarded the annual Nobel Prize in Literature. The award was controversial, to say the least. His friends George Jean Nathan, Carl Van Doren, Fanny Butcher, and Louis Adamic celebrated with him, while neither Ernest Hemingway nor Sherwood Anderson...
74. H. Allen Smith
Sinclair Lewis came in and sat at a desk. The ladies and gentlemen of the press faced him, sitting in folding chairs brought in from a nearby funeral parlor. As the first American to win the Nobel award took his seat Bowen of the I.N.S. seized one of the folding chairs, marched up to the desk, placed it alongside Lewis...
75. George Jean Nathan
When some months later the news was flashed over the wires that our friend had been awarded the Nobel Prize, the immense gratification that a number of us felt was slightly modified by qualms as to how the fellow would conduct himself in the presence of Swedish royalty. It was our firm conviction, based upon...
76. Carl Van Doren
After the dinner for Sinclair Lewis before he left for Sweden to receive the Nobel Prize late in 1930 a few of his friends took him away to a smaller party. It was like old times, we said. He and I recalled another dinner in the days of Babbitt when three or four writers had been invited along with Leopold Stokowski...
77. Dorothy Thompson
Writers, if they enjoy any success, are more accustomed [than scientists] to publicity. But what writer can really expect to receive the Nobel Prize? No matter how highly he may evaluate his own work, he can certainly think of dozens of other writers more worthy, in his own estimation, than himself. In thirty...
78. Fanny Butcher [Contains Image Plates]
The highest accolade of the literary life is the Nobel Prize for Literature, and that honor was made even more sparkling for Sinclair Lewis because he was the first American to receive it—in 1930. When the news came over the Tribune wires that the Nobel had gone to my “big brother,” I rushed a letter of congratulations...
79. Louis Adamic
Louis Adamic (1899–1951), author, critic, and journalist, immigrated to the United States from Blato, Austria (now Slovenia), when he was fourteen years old. He learned English while working in the American West, became a naturalized citizen in 1918, and entered the US Army during the First World War...
80. Harrison Smith
Then there was that fabulous and disastrous and finally well-publicized journey to Yale one Saturday morning, with Lewis carrying in his oldest overcoat an elegant box lined with satin in which was enshrouded the huge, solid-gold medal, the result of his Nobel Prize in literature. He was motoring up from Vermont...
Part 12. Grub Street: 1932–39
Lewis was largely written out by the age of forty-five. The reasons are many: his drinking, the slow collapse of his marriage to Thompson and their eventual separation in 1938, the pressure to satisfy the expectations of a new publisher, the troubling rise of fascism in Europe and the start of a world war. Although he still...
81. William L. Shirer
Dorothy and Red arrived in Vienna at the end of the summer of 1932 and rented a large apartment in the Wohlebengasse and a spacious villa on the Semmering, two hours by train south of Vienna in the mountains. At first they seemed quite happy, especially Dorothy, who was soon holding forth, as was her...
82. Dorothy Thompson
I recall that, early in the Nazi regime, Klaus Mann (son of Thomas) started publishing in exile (as I remember, from Amsterdam) an émigré monthly. He wrote Sinclair Lewis describing the paper as a vehicle for young exiled German writers, and asking S.L. to allow his name to be used on the masthead as a “contributing...
83. Fanny Butcher
During our long friendship, he never railed at me, even during the years when he was bitterest, and his drinking seemed to make him want to hurt everyone. [. . .] His drinking did not seem to interfere with his work. That was plain to me one day which I spent with him and Lloyd Lewis when they were writing a play...
84. George Seldes
In 1933, my wife and I, who had been guests of the Paul Osborns in Brattleboro, Vermont, decided to stay on that summer at a nearby boardinghouse. One day Lewis and his wife, Dorothy Thompson, driving home to Barnard, Vermont, from New York City, stopped by and urged Helen and me to buy a house in their...
85. Malcolm Cowley
Malcolm Cowley (1898–1989), novelist, poet, critic, and journalist, spent three years in Paris after the First World War. There he met Lewis one evening at the Café Dome just when the sales of Main Street passed two hundred thousand. Or as Cowley later remarked, “In the year 1921, if you visited the parlor of almost...
86. Benjamin Stolberg
Lewis takes no exercise, he plays no games, he has no hobbies. His main relaxation is his own talk. Even his silences seem like rest periods between torrential monologues. He goes on at top speed in a high, flat, midwestern voice, driven by a sort of furor satiricus. Yet his talk is curiously impersonal. It lacks all..
87. Ramon Guthrie
As soon as I could get away in June, we set out for Connecticut to gather documentation. My experience over a period of half-a-dozen years as a semi-skilled laborer in various Connecticut factories qualified me as enough of an expert for Red’s purposes. I had worked on most kinds of machine-tools and still...
88. Budd Schulberg
The following weekend I decided to combine the pleasure of a day-off excursion with some editorial business by driving over to call on Sinclair Lewis and interviewing him for the school paper. Most of my English professors, along with a pride of sophomore lions, put it down as a foolhardy mission. Lewis had...
89. Fanny Butcher
One day, when he was in town [Chicago] very briefly, he asked Dick and me to stop in for a drink with Helen Hayes and her husband, Charles MacArthur. Hal had never met Helen Hayes, although she had played the heroine of Arrowsmith brilliantly in the movies. (He once told me Dr. Sondelius was his favorite...
90. Hallie Flanagan
Hallie Flanagan (1889–1969), playwright, author, director, producer, and director of the Federal Theatre Project, a division of the Works Progress Administration, worked with and knew many of the most significant figures in the theatrical world. In this excerpt from her autobiography, she reminisces about her...
91. Edward Robb Ellis
Fighting the impulse to hold my nose, I wondered whether this candy-dandy minister was the model for Elmer Gantry, the hypocritical and unscrupulous evangelist in the writer’s novel of that name. I also thought that his friends called him Red. He yanked himself out of a chair, walked over to the davenport and...
92. John Hersey
He was endlessly playful. “He could no more stop telling stories than he could stop his hair growing,” the historian Carl Van Doren once said. When we lunched alone, he would start a tale—either true or invented on the spur of the moment—and then, all for me, and of course for his own pleasure, he would...
93. Margaret Widdemer
The climax of their parting—or perhaps it was the end of a string of climaxes— was a dinner party. It was a nice, civilized, well-organized dinner for some celebrated friend or other, who was just back from Europe full of laurels. Whether it was the party, or the laureled friend, or whatever, Lewis’s breaking point snapped...
94. George Seldes
Strangely enough neither Sinclair Lewis nor Dorothy’s first husband, whom I also knew—he was a Viennese poet whom my brother had published in America— ever suspected that the failure of their marriages was due to Dorothy’s being bisexual, and at times, lasting years, wholly lesbian, as her recent biographer...
95. Fanny Butcher
Perhaps poor Hal was never designed for marriage and fatherhood. His second marriage, to Dorothy Thompson, internationally famous as a commentator on the state of the crumbling world, ended, as did his first, in divorce. Their son Michael was not beside his father when he died, in a foreign country, as lonely as...
96. Fay Wray
Sinclair Lewis, whom I had met earlier at a dinner party in Hollywood, was preparing to act in his own play, “It Can’t Happen Here.” He was unattractive in appearance—tall, gangly, and skeletal, his narrow face pockmarked, his teeth and fingers yellow from smoking. A small amount of hair justified the nickname...
97. Kitty Carlisle
Lewis, the first American writer to win a Nobel Prize, was a tremendous star at the time. He had lately turned to writing plays; he had with him the script of a work in progress, Angela Is Twenty-Two, and he asked me if I would look at it. I read it on the train, and I didn’t think it was terribly good—he had a total...
Part 13. The Slough of Despond: 1939–45
Lewis’s theatrical career—whether as playwright, actor, or producer—was critically and commercially unsuccessful. To be sure, he met the teenaged Marcella Powers (1921?–1985) on August 14, 1939, while they were working together with the Provincetown Players, and they remained friends and lovers until she...
98. Edward F. Murphy
In a letter to Kitty Carlisle dated December 9, 1939, Lewis reported that he had been invited “to play (or play at) the Cedric Hardwicke part in Shadow and Substance with the Little Theater here [New Orleans]. I keep clear of the hectic social aspects of that institution, and they have a marvelous director: Bernard...
99. James Branch Cabell
Toward the end of March 1941, Hal Lewis of a sudden appeared in St. Augustine, and when among the cluttered and gaudy eighteen-eightyish splendors of the Hotel Ponce de León, I passed a far more than saddening evening with him. He by this time was divorced from his second wife; and he could talk about...
100. Fanny Butcher
The aide-de-camp to General John E. Dahlquist (1896–1975), Captain Wells Lewis, was shot and killed by a sniper in France on October 29, 1944. His father learned the news the evening of November 13. The next morning he sent a telegram to Grace, who regarded it as “so impersonal it could have been written by...
101. Dorothy Thompson
Sinclair Lewis had received the news of his older son’s death in the fall of 1944 in a manner that seemed utterly feelingless. He was on a lecture tour en route to Chicago when the news came over the radio that Lieutenant Wells Lewis had been shot in Alsace by a sniper and killed instantly while studying a map with...
102. Harrison Smith
I have always thought that the death of his son Wells in the war, though he rarely mentioned him, was a secret wound which he concealed even from himself. Wells was a strikingly handsome young man who was turning into a brilliant journalist and had published a novel just before he was killed. A friend of mine who...
103. H. L. Mencken
In July 1938, when a strange version of It Can’t Happen Here was presented by a summer stock company in Cohasset, Massachusetts, he appeared in the leading role, and after that, for several years, he was heard of, when he was heard of at all, mainly as an actor. During the winter of 1938–39 he actually went on...
104. Herbert R. Mayes
In his devotion to himself Sinclair Lewis was single-minded; about his greatness he had no misgivings. A sometime friend of Upton Sinclair, he could foam at the mouth if confused with him. Lanky, his face pocked with acne, his awareness of his ugliness affected most of his relationships. Now and then he could...
105. Philip von Rohr Sauer
Though he advocated travel and wide experience, he emphatically pleaded with young people to keep their roots in Minnesota. He then discussed some of the Minnesota writers who have stayed, as he put it, “in their own Bemidjis, Sauk Centres, and Moorheads,” instead of rushing to New York where they are so lost...
Part 14. Thorvale Farm: 1946–49
Lewis’s last home, perhaps the only home he had known since leaving Sauk Centre for Yale in 1903, was a 750-acre farm he bought in northwestern Massachusetts in June 1946 for $45,000. For most of the time Lewis lived there, he was able to control his drinking. Still, most of his companions during this...
106. Harrison Smith
When Lewis’s second marriage ended, the problem of companionship, of having somebody close to him became increasingly difficult. He moved restlessly around the country—a cottage in Stockbridge, a hotel apartment in New York, then one in Hollywood, a huge duplex on Central Park West, a city mansion...
107. Frederick Manfred
I knocked at his door at precisely four. It was cold, and I remember that I was all bundled up in a big greatcoat and a high fur hat. The door opened and a pair of luminous gray-green eyes topped by thinning white hair looked up at me, looked up even though the head was tilted forward and down. Pale, almost...
108. Barnaby Conrad
Four-and-a-half miles in back of Williamstown on Oblong Road, the 750 acres of field and mountain and woods of Thorvale Farm began. Mr. Lewis showed me around proudly. It was the most beautiful estate I had ever seen, complete with a trout stream, a purposefully rustic swimming pool set in a birch glen, guest...
109. Betty Stevens
Betty Stevens, a Minnesotan journalist who had been formerly employed by a Southern CIO newspaper, was a friend to Lewis during the 1940s. They met while he was briefly teaching a course at the University of Minnesota in January 1942, and after she attended one of his lectures he invited her to visit him. She...
110. Ida L. Compton
My first meeting with Sinclair Lewis was quite by chance. It was in June 1947. He was living on his estate, Thorvale Farm, outside of Williamstown, Massachusetts, and had just completed his twentieth book, Kingsblood Royal. The book had received mixed reviews, some unfavorable, many lukewarm. But the...
111. Horace R. Cayton Jr.
Horace R. Cayton Jr. (1908–1970), scholar, journalist, government official, and educator, is probably most famous for his work with St. Clair Drake on their groundbreaking sociological study of Chicago, Black Metropolis (1945). He was the grandson of a Reconstruction US senator from Mississippi and the son of the...
112. Allen Austin
“I guess some people learn something,” he continued, “but I know a lot of boneheads who have Ph.D’s. I had a Ph.D. in drama up here [Max Flowers] and he didn’t even know who Matthew Arnold was. Oh, he knew vaguely. He’d heard of him—remembered reading something of Arnold’s one time. He did...
113. Bennett Cerf
Red had separated from Dorothy Thompson in 1938 after a stormy ten years of marriage, but he remained bitter about her even after he had found a new girl—an eighteen-year-old would-be actress named Marcella Powers. Red was crazy about her and remained so for the rest of his life. I suppose the great difference...
114. Michele A. Vaccariello
Thursday, 30 June 1949. We had our lesson sitting at the table on the cool screened porch off the pantry. Mrs. Katherine Powers served us coffee and cookies. (Mrs. Powers was a more or less permanent house guest, a kind and loyal friend whom he had taken to Italy the year before...
115. Perry Miller
The first night out of New York on the Nieuw Amsterdam, 7 September 1949, my wife said, “That man going out of the bar looks like Sinclair Lewis.” I caught a side glimpse—which I shall forever behold—of that long figure, its head tilted back, its narrow shoulders heightened and compressed, an elastic-jointed...
116. Alexander Manson
However, at sixty-five he was not a healthy man. He had no appetite, his pulse was irregular, and he was extremely weak. At first he refused to see a doctor, but I finally persuaded him to. The doctor was not optimistic; he said that Lewis had ruined his health by excesses and that his heart had been bad for years. We...
117. Frederick Manfred
I stood immediately behind the family. It was terribly cold out, 22 below zero. A small digging had been cut into the ground. A stack of some of Lewis’s books had been placed in the bottom of the grave. Dr. Claude Lewis, Red’s brother, snipped the red ribbon seals on the silver urn with a scissors, opened the...
List of Reminiscences
List of Additional Sources