Of all the great modern American novelists, including Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Steinbeck and Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis has always been my favorite. His works were required reading for my generation, and I read them eagerly – Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, and Dosworth. In 1930 Lewis was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first American writer to be so honored.
Sinclair Lewis had a writing style that was considered radical for the time. His work was largely a satire of American culture, society, and behavior. In Main Street, he questioned the myth of the wholesomeness of small-town America, and exposed the underside of life in isolated and insular communities – the small mindedness, bigotry, jealousies and petty resentments. In Babbitt, Lewis created a character so richly drawn that the word “Babbitt”, referring to a materialistic, complacent, and conformist businessman, entered the English language. His novels satirized both American life and the characters within it. Readers loved it.
Sinclair’s writing has withstood the test of time, and is still considered some of the greatest literature of the twentieth century. It can be said that great literature is a story that captures the time period in which it was written while exploring universal themes of the human condition – alienation, conformity, isolation, suffering, good and evil, humanity or the lack of, power and the danger of unchecked ambition, among others. No matter how dated the setting or characters, great literature is able to connect with every generation and audience because it speaks to these universal truths.
Sinclair Lewis had a talent for holding up a mirror to American life. He had an amazing eye for society and an incredible ability to create characters that reflect the very best and the very worst of society. His characters include con artists, feminists, liberated women, hack politicians- both political populists and fear mongering isolationists, do-gooders and doubters. He writes frankly about racism and about how politicians use fear and distrust for their own ends. He discusses religion and religious scams. His novels read as if they were written this morning rather than more than 80 years ago. Read his novels and nothing in contemporary American life will surprise you, not even the current political malaise in which we find ourselves.
In fact, it is the current political situation that has brought Sinclair Lewis to mind. One of his last great novels, It Can’t Happen Here, was published in 1935. It’s a cautionary tale about the fragility of American democracy. Americans of all political persuasions are likely to find It Can’t Happen Here, though firmly grounded in the politics of the 1930s, a fascinating if disturbing read this election season.