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  • Edith Wharton's Influence on Sinclair Lewis
  • Robert L. Coard (bio)

No one is quite sure why Sinclair Lewis dedicated his best novel, Babbitt (1922), to Edith Wharton. Mark Schorer in his Lewis biography writes that it might have been to show that Lewis felt no animosity over the award of the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 to Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence instead of to Lewis' Main Street, as the selection committee, or, at least a majority of it, had decided, only to be overruled.1 "Or," Schorer asks, "was it the recognition of a real indebtedness?" (347). Schorer lacks space to [End Page 511] discuss the question at length, but his tentative conclusion, following suggestions in Van Wyck Brooks's The Confident Years, seems affirmative. The plan of this paper is to examine Schorer's question more fully and to arrive at a more definite answer.

In an article that preceded the Schorer biography, "From Society to Babbittry: Lewis' Debt to Edith Wharton," Kenneth S. Rothwell argues convincingly that Babbitt employs much of the plot and theme of Wharton's The Age of Innocence, though a middle-class Middle West takes the place of upper-class old New York. Following the pattern of Wharton's Newland Archer, Lewis' George Babbitt is ensnared by society, and his entrapment is completed, like Archer's, by a sense of duty to his wife, who contrasts with more desired love. The pregnancy of Archer's wife and the appendicitis of Babbitt's wife cut off any hope of escape from a confining society. At the end of the novels, both Archer and Babbitt have scenes with their sons, who represent new and alien ways.

While Rothwell's points seem well taken, the range of Lewis' debt to Wharton goes beyond that of his debt to The Age of Innocence as reflected in Babbitt. It extends to earlier Lewis novels such as The Trail of the Hawk as well as to later Lewis achievements such as Elmer Gantry and Dodsworth. Some of Lewis' most effective satirical subject matter and techniques resemble Wharton's.

Schorer states that Lewis first read Wharton at Yale, where Lewis was a student from 1903 to 1908, with some time consumed by a dropout. In a reminiscence, "The Earlier Lewis," originally published in The Saturday Review of Literature, the poet William Rose Benét recalled that when he and Lewis were at Carmel together in 1910, "Lewis was, at the time, writing short stories considerably under the influence of Edith Wharton whose work he intensely admired" (31). Lewis' first wife, Grace Hegger Lewis, in her book With Love from Gracie, supplies unusual evidence of the extent to which Lewis' imagination occupied itself with Mrs. Wharton: ". . . in that year [1913], before we were married, Hal wrote me of an imaginary week end spent with the Whartons at their home in Lenox, Massachusetts, a letter of gracious dining, Sunday matins in a Georgian church, and a rabbit hunt in the snow with Mr. Wharton" (221). This odd fantasizing about Mrs. Wharton, her husband, and home evidently explains a passage in the early Lewis novel The Trail of the Hawk (1915), where the [End Page 512] Whartons are seemingly the model for the aristocratic Patton Kerrs. Lewis moves his middle-class, Minnesota-born protagonist, Carl Ericson, and his wealthy sweetheart, Ruth Winslow, out to the Patton Kerrs' country estate, "set near the top of the highest hill in that range of the Berkshires" (373), where their courtship continues: "Saturday, they loafed over breakfast, the sun licking the tree-tops in the ravine outside the windows; and they motored with the Kerrs to Lenox, returning through the darkness" (375).

Beside the preceding indications of Wharton's influence on Lewis, more evidence is scattered through Lewis' letters to his publisher Alfred Harcourt. In one of these, dated 16 August 1921, Lewis says of Wharton, "I wrote to her congratulating her on the Pulitzer Prize and telling her of my long and deep enthusiasm for her books . . ." (82). In the letters Lewis asks Harcourt to be sure to send Wharton complimentary copies of his new novels and shows his gratification at her praise. By...