The Ten Books of Christmas: Between Christmas and New Year’s FlaglerLive customarily reduces production. It helps us, and no doubt you, exhausted reader, to take a break from outrage and lurid politics. This year I’m doing something a little different. Instead of only running the usual end-of year sum-ups and fillers, I’m launching the Byblos column and offering the Ten Books of Christmas: every day I’m publishing an original piece of mine on one of the books of the year I found most notable—books old and new, fiction and nonfiction, whether inspired by covid, confinement, covfefe or just the libidinous, inebriating pleasure of reading. No doubt only six or seven readers out there are interested in this sort of thing. That's OK. They’re ignored the rest of the year, so this is for them. I hope they find these, ahem, brief reflections (rather than reviews) at least a little provocative. The days' installments are listed below.
Condemned since well before his death to be more quotable than readable, Sinclair Lewis never imagined he’d be just another Pearl Buck, his Nobel Prize for literature as meaningless to his vanished reputation today as his boast to HL Mencken in 1920 that with Main Street he’d written the greatest American novel. Today we read Lewis, if we read him at all, not for literary value but the way Margaret Mead studied the Balinese character–for ethnographic insights. Lewis’s novels are a window into an America not nearly as dated as his reputation.
His It Can’t Happen Here got a bump in sales a few years ago for the same reason. Lewis wrote it in 1935, two years into Hitler’s Reich, imagining what would happen if a fascist took over the United States. Sen. Buzz Windrip (“the supreme actor”) defeats Franklin Roosevelt in the 1936 election on the strength of maga before maga: “My one ambition is to get all Americans to realize that they are, and must continue to be, the greatest Race on the face of this old Earth.” He specifies, “of course, all this does not apply to people who are racially different from us.”
Windrip with his “orgasm of oratory” quickly turns totalitarian, enforcing his decrees with a Proud Boys-like militia called the Minute Men. Until our own January 6 last year It Can’t Happen Here could still be read as one of Lewis’s over-the-top attempts to make a point with no subtlety and less artistry. But to the Minute Men, “the shock-troops of Freedom,” “the highest lords of the land,” every day was January 6. The book in this past year took on a less fantastic, more sinister dimension than it had until then.
Lewis’s precision here is shocking even though it takes place in a state legislature, before Winerip’s complete grab: “The militiamen considered him their general and their god, and when the state attorney general announced that he was going to have Windrip indicted for having grafted $200,000 of tax money, the militia rose to Buzz Windrip’s orders as though they were his private army and, occupying the legislative chambers and all the state offices, and covering the streets leading to the Capitol with machine guns, they herded Buzz’s enemies out of town.” I’d read the book in 2017. In the margin, I stupidly wrote “improbable.”
When the Library of America decided to immortalize Lewis’s works, it stuck, in two volumes, to the five novels he produced with Trollopian typing between 1920 and 1929–Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry and Dodsworth. Everything that came before and after, including It Can’t Happen Here, is left out of the canon, reasonably so: even Arrowsmith and Elmer Gantry are questionable inclusions but for Lewis’s ability to transcribe, in Carl Van Doren’s words, “the ground swell of American popular thinking and feeling.”
To Mencken’s delight and our unending uses, Lewis coined a small dictionary’s worth of words and expressions, Americanisms that are now part of the language. We owe him the words “realtor,” “hell’s bells,” “highbrow,” “dinglebat,” “wonderlust,” that forgotten beauty, “teetotalitarianism,” “back-slapping,” “banana-split,” “brain-child,” “cradle-robber,” “get-up,” “hell-raising,” “hick town,” “holier-than-thou,” “John Hancock” (as in signature: “Put your John Hancock on that line” first appears in Babbitt), “loan-shark,” “on the fritz,” “rest-room,” “run-in,” “SOB,” the euphemism for son-of-a-bitch, “toss-up” and “window-shopping,” to name a few. (I owe this list to C. Merton Babcock’s “Americanisms in the Novels of Sinclair Lewis,” published in the journal American Speech in May 1960. The list stretches to many pages.)
That groundswell peaked in Main Street and especially in Babbitt, which is marking its centenary this year. Even as I was preparing this piece the fact had escaped me until I read of it in this morning’s Times Book Review, where Robert Gottlieb writes of Lewis more kindly than most critics have in decades. The more reason to make Main Street and Babbitt the final installment of these Ten Books of Christmas, though I don’t think I can muster Gottlieb’s patience.
Lewis was born in 1885 in Sauk Center, a small Minnesota town, and died in 1951 almost as famous as he was rich and drunk. He was the first American to win the literature Nobel, inexplicably beating Theodore Dreiser, a writer as clunky as he was great. Lewis’s novels sold millions of copies.
Main Street and Babbitt were first immortalized in 1993 by the Library of America, which for the last 40 years has been giving a permanent place to works that contribute to the nation’s heritage. Some of Lewis’ work necessarily does. He is a social scientist with an agenda, an acidic, relentless and sometimes witty judge of those segments of society he chooses to mow down. That makes him at times engaging and often important, that back-handed compliment equivalent to complimenting an ugly person’s personality. (Lewis was famously ugly, though it didn’t seem to bother any of his mistresses or either of his wives, including Dorothy Thompson).
Main Street is subtitled “The Story of Carol Kennicott.” It is, more accurately, the story of Gopher Prairie, a small midwestern town like thousands of small, nondescript towns all over the country. Carol, a college-educated city girl, is impressed by a Dr. Will Kennicott and marries him, seduced by his entreaties: “Come on. Come to Gopher Prairie. Show us. Make the town– well–make it artistic… Make us change.” Carol thinks she’s on a mission. But those were the day’s pick-up lines.
No sooner has she surveyed the furniture in her husband’s bedroom than she realizes what really awaits her: “She saw the furniture as a circle of elderly judges, condemning her to death by smothering.”’ She changes the furniture, but the town, and ultimately her husband, remain the same. “She had tripped into the meadow to teach the lambs a pretty educational dance and found that the lambs were wolves. There was no way out between their pressing gray shoulders. She was surrounded by fangs and sneering eyes.” The conformism of small-town America is deadly. Lewis was its master mortician.
Compared with his ideas, his means were poor. Style might have helped. He had none. Page after plotless page–this is a very long book that could have been cut by reams without harm–manipulates the reader as Lewis plays yoyo with Carol’s ideals, crushing her every chance he gets. Every one of Carol’s falls is predictable. How does Poor Carol never see it? Is she that dumb, or is Lewis that expediently cruel? With one or two exceptions (like Will Kennicott), her vast supporting cast, the people of Gopher Prairie, are not treated better. Characters walk in and out of this story, sometimes never to be heard from again once they’ve played their part in Carol’s little realizations, or Lewis’s speeches.
You feel the author’s presence too much, though at times you’d think you were at a Republican Club meeting in Flagler County: “We don’t need all this new-fangled science, or this terrible Higher Criticism that’s ruining our young men in colleges.” (You thought Critical Race Theory was a new thing?) “What we need is to get back to the true Word of God, and a good sound belief in hell, like we used to have it preached to us. The Republican Party, the Grand Old Party of Blaine and McKinley, is the agent of the Lord and of the Baptist Church in temporal affairs. All socialists ought to be hanged… There would be no more trouble or discontent in the world if everybody worked as hard as Pa did when he cleared our first farm.” The only thing missing is prayer in schools.
Main Street was an imitation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857). There, too, Emma Bovary is married to a country doctor with small ambitions, working in a town as oppressive and small as Gopher Prairie. Emma remains one of the most vivid creatures in literature. Lewis’s Americanisms survive. Carol Kennicott has not. (A. Scott Berg in Lindbergh, his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, suggests that Evangeline Lindbergh, the aviator’s mother, was the model for Carol. The Lindberghs’ homestead was nine miles from Sauk Center.) In Main Street, only the town is recognizable as “the continuation of Main Streets everywhere,” as the book’s prelude puts it–and now the continuation of the 2020s. Like I said: important reading.
Babbitt moves Lewis’s formula of social criticism to the cities. Zenith is the continuation of mid-size American cities everywhere as embodied in the middlebrow fanaticism of George F. Babbitt. “The ideal of American manhood and culture,’” he declaims as keynote speaker of a real estate board meeting, “isn’t a lot of cranks sitting around chewing the rag about their Rights and their Wrongs, but a God-fearing, hustling, successful, two-fisted Regular Guy, who belongs to some church with pep and piety to it, who belongs to the Boosters or the Rotarians or the Kiwanis, to the Elks or Moose or Red Men or Knights of Columbus or any one of a score of organizations of a good, jolly, kidding, laughing, sweating, upstanding, lead-a-handing Royal Good Fellows, who plays hard and works hard, and whose answer to his critics is a square-toed boot that’ll teach the grouches and smart alecks to respect the He-man and get out and root for Uncle Samuel, U.S.A.!” That about sums him up.
In Babbitt Lewis created a weak, sensual character who falls into things half unwillingly, and sticks it out not out of ambition or desire but out of fear of the alternative. Lewis was a terribly lonely man who couldn’t stand being alone or being disliked or being thought second-rate. I think he channeled some of those feelings through Babbitt, giving the character a dimension his Doodsworth would also reflect a few years later, and making you almost pity him.
What would Babbitt be left with, without job, wife, children, clubs, Sunday school. Like Carol Kennicott, he cannot escape his surroundings. Unlike Carol, he doesn’t want to. The oppression is home and hearth. He will briefly fall into libertinage, flinging with another woman, with free thought, socialism (which Lewis favored), only to incur the wrath of Zenith’s Republican junta. “He couldn’t stand the strain. Before long he admitted that he would like to flee back to the security of conformity, provided there was a decent and creditable way to return.”
In Lewis’ hands, there always is. Babbitt’s wife has a fortuitously acute appendicitis. It brings him back to the conjugal household in tears. The many characters who plopped in and out of this novel, as in the earlier one, have disappeared. Everything is back in place. What Babbitt realizes he could never achieve, he leaves to his newlywed son to do. It’s a bit of hope, a way to end a hopeless story on an upbeat note. Lewis’ essay on city life is over.
Lewis, like Zola, had discovered a writing formula he would apply to whatever subject interested him–evangelism, bacteriology, marriage. He would fill in the blanks with a new name, maybe change its weight or hair color, et voila. New novel.
He applied the same formula to It Can’t Happen Here, and to Arrowsmith, an anthem to science. His foresight, at least as far as the book’s applicability to the United States, was not as keen in Arrowsmith. He imagined a pandemic and how the country would defeat it. “A plague epidemic today, in a civilized land, is no longer an affair of people dying in the streets and of drivers shouting ‘Bring out your dead,’” he wrote. “The fight against it is conducted like modern warfare, with telephones instead of foaming chargers. The ancient horror bears a face of efficiency. There are offices, card indices, bacteriological examinations of patients and of rats. There is, or should be, a lone director with superlegal powers. There are large funds, education of the public by placard and newspaper, brigades of rat-killers, a corps of disinfectors, isolation of patients lest vermin carry the germs from them to others.” It wasn’t like Lewis to be an idealist. He had faith in his country. He just didn’t know he was describing South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, maybe New Zealand, but definitely not the American future.
A few years later, he imagined the America of Buzz Winerip and his Minute Men. Safe to say, they would not have worn masks during the plague.
Pierre Tristam is the editor of FlaglerLive. Reach him by email here.